John Charet’s Take On: Ken Russell at the BBC (1959-1970) – An Introduction

Originally, I was going to post a review on another film, but I am currently suffering from a case of writer’s block on that right now. In the meantime and in an attempt to get my mojo back (so I can finish that review), I am going to post reviews on something a little more simpler, but no less complex. In this case, a series of TV bios on famous composers (among other types of giants).  


When anybody hears the name Ken Russell (1927-2011), the first words that come to mind are either flamboyant or controversial. A majority of the time, one could say that both terms can apply to him all at once. According to wikipedia’s entry on legendary British filmmaker Ken Russell (read here), these are at least two proper descriptions that can be applied to him. Nevertheless, let us rewind the clocks back to 1959 – 10 years prior to his 1969 breakthrough film Women in Love – a critically acclaimed adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s equally controversial 1920 novel of the same name. From 1959 to 1970, Russell made documentaries/docudramas on celebrated composers (among other figures) for the British Broadcasting Corporation (a.k.a. the BBC – read here). He directed at least 22 of them for Monitor (1959-1965) and 3 of them for it’s official/unofficial successor Omnibus (1967-1970). In between his last for Monitor (Always on Sunday) and his first for Omnibus (Dante’s Inferno), Russell contributed one for BBC’s Sunday Night (Don’t Shoot the Composer) and another as a stand-alone TV film (Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World) in 1966. The following year, he would helm his second feature film (his first was the 1964 comedy French Dressing) entitled Billion Dollar Brain – a British Spy thriller for the American-based studio United Artists. Two days after Billion Dollar Brain’s American premiere (December 20, 1967 – read here), Dante’s Inferno (Russell’s first for Omnibus) premiered for UK television viewers on December 22 of that same year. Based on my calculations alone (read here), Russell directed at least 27 television bios for the BBC. Out of the 27, only 6 of them (at least to my knowledge) are available for home viewing in North America. They are in a 2008 DVD collection entitled Ken Russell at the BBC (read here). The available titles are: Elgar (1962), The Debussy Film (1965), Always on Sunday (1965), Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World (1966), Dante’s Inferno (1967) and Song of Summer (1968). The first three were for Monitor and the last two were for Omnibus. As I mentioned earlier, Isadora Duncan was a stand-alone TV film for the BBC. Russell’s last work for Omnibus during this period entitled Dance of the Seven Veils is not included in the box set. That last title incited a huge ton of controversy due to it’s portrayal of famed German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) as either a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer (read here). This angered the Strauss family so much that they withdrew the music rights for it. Apparently, the ban expires sometime this year in 2019 (read here).  Currently, the only way one can watch it is on a faded print posted on youtube.

Famed U.S. film critic Pauline Kael (1919-2001) once said of late master filmmaker Robert Altman, that he could make film fireworks out of next to nothing (read here). This sentiment can also be applied to that of director Ken Russell. Compared to Russell’s more outrageous later work (The Music Lovers, The Devils and Lisztomania to name just a few), the style of his early television films may initially come off as subdued on the surface. Deep down though, each of the available six films prove to be every bit as radical (albeit different) to those previously mentioned titles. Even with their low-budgets, Russell amazingly managed to break the rules on what was widely accepted within the documentary format. Instead of traditionally relying on still photographs and old film footage alone to tell his story, Russell would not only dramatize it through a re-enactment, but he would also (in the case of Elgar) use different actors to portray the lead character as he/she ages (read here and here). And this only marks just one of Russell’s many talents at successfully making the most out of very little.

My full review of Elgar – the first of director Ken Russell’s six films in the aforementioned 2008 DVD collection  – should be up sometime by tomorrow.


28 thoughts on “John Charet’s Take On: Ken Russell at the BBC (1959-1970) – An Introduction

  1. Welcome back John.I am a complete novice when it comes to the work of Ken Russell so I’m prepared to be enlightened. I’ll look forward to your review of Elgar.

  2. Hello John, I calculate directed 35 films for the BBC between 1959 and 1968. I look forward to your review ‘Elgar’ by the Master!

  3. Thank you for correcting me Barry. I think I was just calculating the ones made between 1959 and 1970 simply because 1959 marked the first year he worked for the BBC’s Monitor program. You are probably right that it was 35 altogether counting everything before that. The real tragedy is that out of all of those works, only six of his films of that period is available for home viewing (or at least based on my knowledge). Let us hope that Ken Russell’s work becomes not only more widely available, but re-assesed as the masterpieces that they are (and plenty of them have come to that point). Anyway, thanks for dropping by 🙂

  4. I am old enough to have seen many of his BBC films, at least from from 1966 on. Some of the older ones were repeated later, in various career retrospectives. He was certainly regarded as the ‘enfant terrible’ of British film-making at one time, but his determination to push the previously accepted boundaries gave us an impressive body of work indeed. To this day, I have never forgotten the impact of seeing ‘The Devils’ at the cinema.
    Nice appraisal, John.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  5. The Devils is quite an experience to behold. I am still hoping that one of these days, the version shown recently at certain film festivals will be available for home viewing in the future. For more info about it, here is a video link below to British film critic Mark Kermode talking about it’s continued suppression (or at least the complete uncut version). Anyway, thanks for dropping by 🙂

  6. The Devils has been my favourite film since I saw it underage in 1971. It is now classed as a masterpiece. I told them that in 1971! I do have a copy of the film with the excised scenes slotted back in and the scenes which were shown once on Channel 4 in a documentary callked ‘Hell on Earth’ But when this was transferred to the BFI release they weren’t allowed by Warners Bros to include them. I have seen the ‘full’ version a couple of times in the cinema in the presence of the great man himself who I ahve met on several occasions.

  7. John – I have about 16 of those early films from Monitor and Omnibus and also some from The South Bank Show. I also have 3 of his amateur films. You can see ‘A House in Bayswater’ on youtube I think which where he was living at the time. It is wonderful! Maybe the film that helped launced his career is there too. ‘Amelia and the Angel’ – amateur film which he submiited to Hugh Weldon at ‘Monitor’..just found this too which I don’t have:

  8. I just finished watching A Poet in London on youtube and I loved it 🙂 While it can easily be described as atypical Russell on the surface, when you hear the guy talk, it reminds one of how articulate Russell is in certain interviews. This is not to say that the guy talking in the film is totally like Russell, I am just pointing that he is every bit as articulate. The link below is a perfect example. In it, Russell talks about Tchaikofsky, Sex and God among other stuff 🙂 Great to have you on board Barry 🙂 I shall visit your site tonight as well 🙂 Also, keep on dropping by 🙂

  9. I recently watched The Devils again online months back and I loved it every bit as I did when I first watched it 18 years ago. Nevertheless, when I watched it 18 years ago, it may have been the American VHS cut. The one I watched months back said it was uncut, but I think it may still be missing those key scenes that Mark Kermode is talking about. Nevertheless, I will have to try and find it again to see If I am right or wrong. Phenomenal film though. Although you probably know this already, the late Derek Jarman (another great British filmmaker) designed the sets, which come off as a blend between the past and future. I also did see that Hell on Earth documentary about The Devils on youtube a few years back. Fascinating info concerning the film’s controversial history. I think it is pretty neat that you were able to meet Ken Russell a few times 🙂 Unlike the way the media has portrayed him (including that Big Brother incident), Russell seems very humble in person. Anyway, thanks for dropping by 🙂

  10. I did know that about Mark Kermode. In fact, you probably know this as well, but The Devils is listed somewhere in his top 10 favorite films. In fact, he inspired me to try and seek out the film again since I do not own a VCR anymore – I have since upgraded to DVD and then Blu-ray like everyone else 🙂 Interesting that the excised scenes were found in a basement in California. I had a feeling that Kermode’s wife (Linda Ruth Williams) was a good friend of Russell’s 🙂 Speaking of which, I hear that she is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Exeter 🙂 Considering that I am American, I myself am even amazed that I have all this knowledge of British culture (or at least part of it) 🙂 Anyway, thanks for dropping by 🙂

    P.S. I recently posted my review of Elgar yesterday 🙂 Feel free to read it 🙂

  11. I am glad you appreciate a magnificent part of our culture! Yes, I met Linda at a recent weekend event on Ken at Kingston University. I met Mark at Ken’s 81st and we were talking about ‘A Kitten Fur Hitler’ and she toild Ken had asked him if his son would star. And Mark said ‘No!’ I laughed ‘Why?’ He said ‘Have you seen the film??? It is baaad film but it’s Ken and it was a bet laid down by Melvyn Bragg to make a fim that would upset everyone….and he went along and did it.

  12. I don’t know if you have amulti-regional DVD/ Blu-Ray player (They are very inexpensive here in the UK)? the BFI release of The Devils is the best version. If you want a ‘complete’ version a company called Angel made it illegaly. I can make you a copy if you wish along with ‘Hell on Earth’ if it’s no longer on youtube – this includes ‘The Rape of Christ’ etc….
    Trivia: Did you know that the well-known English comedian Spike Milligan was cast in ‘The Devils’ but was edited out – thank goodness. I liked Spike but not in my film!
    Trivia: In the scene where the Duke de Conde aka the King enters the church/ convent you can see Twiggy and her then manager/ boyfriend Justin de Villneuve in the near background…she hated it and had just been cast in ‘The Boyfriend’

  13. Yes,I just watched A Poet in London – Sir John Betjeman is classed as one of our greatest modern poets. I think it’s typical of his films around that time 1959. Blimey! I was only 4 and 10 years later I was discover Ken Russell proper!

  14. Great to see that you are writing again! I missed your posts. I remember back in the late 60s/early 70 when I was growing up in Brooklyn, that the local PBS station, WNET Channel 13, showed a lot of these Ken Russell bios. I loved them. I was particularly impressed with Isadora, The Biggest Dancer in the World. Maybe it was because the star was named Vivian Pickles? The show about Dante Gabriel Rossetti fascinated me too. I remember the show about Delius and trying to figure out what syphilis was. I was young! 🙂

    I was blown away by Women In Love when it first came out, too. I got tired of the Rococo nuttiness of the later biopics, but I did like the Mahler a lot, despite the silly scene with him and Cosima Wagner cavorting in Nazi uniforms.

    Glad to have you back. Looking forward to more thought-provoking stuff from you.

  15. I knew that multi-region player DVD’s are available here in the States, though for some odd reason, I did not think about that when I upgraded to Blu-ray back in 2011. The next time I upgrade though, I will buy a multi region player. The documentary Hell on Earth is still on youtube thankfully 🙂 As for that Angel copy of The Devils, let me wait on that.

    I did read about Spike Milligan’s role being cut from the film and yeah and I agree with you that it was probably for the best.

    I also am aware of Twiggy being in the background in that one scene. And yes, she would be in The Boyfriend months later. Although, based on what she says in that documentary about Ken Russell (Ken Russell A Bit of a Devil), she seems to have fond memories of him 🙂 Anyway, I am loving this discussing that we are having 🙂

  16. That is a great story 🙂 Totally understandable given what the final result of the short film was 🙂 I watched it on youtube actually 🙂 Tasteless? Yes, but delightfully so 🙂

  17. Are you talking about the scene where Mahler converts to Catholicism? I love that scene 🙂 It is so amazing how Ken stages it. Imaginative, darkly funny, stylish and (I mean this as a compliment) a compete disregard for taste. Either way, Ken Russell has always been amazing. Anyway, thanks for dropping by 🙂

  18. I’m afraid it’s too silly for me. Like the eyes in the Mahler’s ashes after is ‘fantasy’ cremation. But, inventive and it plainly told us what was going on I suppose.

  19. Personally, I see those two scenes as just two of many examples of what made Ken Russell such an imaginative director. Anyway, thanks for dropping by 🙂

    P.S. I finally found the full movie of The Devils (not the 117-minute directors cut of course), but the 108 minute cut of the film. This is the length of the video at least. I watched it yesterday and loved it as always. The notorious “Rape of Christ” sequence is in this cut, but I could not find the scene near the end where Sister Jeanne does something – well let’s just say – obscene with a charred femur. I got this part of the plot from wikipedia’s entry on the film. Nevertheless, wikipedia claims that some of the details of the plot they describe comes from the uncut version. I am not sure which version this is. One thing I do know is that it is not the 103 minute R-rated version. According to’s description of the 2012 UK cut, that one runs 107 minutes. Here is the info on that below:

    Anyway, keep dropping by as always 🙂 I love these wonderful discussions 🙂

  20. John, I have 111 minutes in my head for the original UK release…but just checked the BFI DVD and its states 107 minutes…the Warner Home VHS 105 minutes…this was my Holy Grail in the 80’s and I will keep it forever.
    When living in the States it was shown on ABC TV at about 2am and even though I had to work the next day and we didn’t have a VCR I waited up to watch it. What a mess. It made no sense whatsoever! They same channel did the same thing to my favourite Bond film ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ – I have a copy of that just to prove it to myself what they did!

  21. Interesting 🙂 Don’t you hate it when that happens 🙂 Speaking of films, do you remember a BBC program (or was it channel 4) back during the 80’s and 90’s called Moviedrome? The show specialized in cult cinema and each films were introduced by director Alex Cox (1988-1994) and when the show was rebooted in 1997, Mark Cousins (1997-2000). If not, I will reply back with a link. I discovered them through youtube of course 🙂 Anyway, keep the conversation coming 🙂

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