Upon reaching new creative heights with his previous Monitor entry The Debussy Film, director Ken Russell decided to end his career there on a quieter note with Always on Sunday, which aired one month later in June of 1965. For those interested, The Debussy Film’s original airdate was 05/18/65, while Always on Sunday’s was 06/29/65. Even so, Always on Sunday remains significant for reportedly being Russell’s first television documentary/docudrama to come off as a pure dramatization of a famous artist’s life (read here). Following broadcaster Huw Wheldon’s departure from the aforementioned programme in 1964, Russell was now free (at least for the most part) to expand upon his creativity as a filmmaker – The Debussy Film’s film-within-a-film format stands out in particular. As with Elgar, Russell tells his story in a similarly straightforward fashion, but unlike that earlier effort, Always on Sunday finds him taking a more laid-back approach to it at the same time.
Whereas Elgar and (in some ways) The Debussy Film centered on the lives of famed composers, Always on Sunday centers on the life of late 19th-century to early 20th-century French post-impressionist painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910). Oliver Reed serves as the film’s narrator (seriously, what a mesmerizing voice), while James Lloyd handles lead acting duties as Rousseau. Annette Robertson (Gaby from The Debussy Film) also lends welcome support as (yes) pint-sized French symbolist writer Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), whose voice is dubbed here by an uncredited male actor. The scenario was concocted by Melvyn Bragg, who previously collaborated with director Ken Russell on The Debussy Film.
If I can name one thing that director Ken Russell does really well in Always on Sunday, it would lie in the sincere simplicity of his storytelling. Prior to his flamboyant later films, Russell had continuously proven himself to be a master of subtlety with his early television work at the BBC (1959-1970). This one, Elgar and Song of Summer (my personal favorite) notably demonstrates this aspect. Always on Sunday’s slow but steady pacing debatably resembles Russell’s way of appreciating the finer things in life. One memorable running gag involves Rousseau hauling around one of his paintings around the countryside back and forth in a wagon of sorts. Another involves Rousseau placing one of his paintings in a museum it the hopes of rivaling the work of some of his contemporaries. The action then cuts to some examples via their individual artwork: Camille Pissarro, Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
As is occasionally typical of his work, Always on Sunday sometimes feels like a semi-autobiographical account of it’s director Ken Russell. An early sequence depicting French elitists ridiculing Rousseau’s paintings foreshadowed the hostile relationship between Russell and his critics. At the same time, he sees a little bit of himself in Alfred Jarry (a reported supporter of Rousseau). One such scene comes in the form of Jarry’s irreverent play Ubu Roi – a scathing satire on the bourgeoisie. Another example occurs when one of Rousseau’s neighbors complains to Jarry that his pistol firing (he carries two of them) is endangering her children. Jarry’s response is delightfully insulting – If that should be the case madam, we’d hope you get some new ones, the bedroom’s over there. For some odd reason, I can’t help but feel that Russell would applaud his response.
Capturing all of Elgar’s simplicity and none of The Debussy Film’s originality, Always on Sunday is like a warmup to director Ken Russell’s subsequent television films. The following year in 1966, he directed an entry for Sunday Night (Don’t Shoot the Composer) and a stand alone (Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World). The others were episodes of Omnibus – Dante’s Inferno in 1967, Song of Summer in 1968 and Dance of the Seven Veils in 1970. Those last four titles (I have not seen Don’t Shoot the Composer) arguably rank as major works on Russell’s resume. Always on Sunday may seem minor compared to them, but as with all of Russell’s films, it is a great one regardless of ranking.
* * * * (Out of * * * *)
Here is a link to Part 1 of the film
Here is a link to Part 2 of the film
Here is a link to Part 3 of the film