The Biggest Film Biographer in the World: The Films of Ken Russell for the BBC

By Porcari, George | CineAction, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

The Biggest Film Biographer in the World: The Films of Ken Russell for the BBC


Porcari, George, CineAction


I am amazed with matter.

--William Shakespeare Cymbeline (IV. iii, 28)

The new DVD release in late 2008 of five of the ten film biographies that Ken Russell made for the BBC is a cause for celebration as that series constitutes one of the major bodies of cinematic work in the 20th Century. The series began in 1959 with a documentary of the little known British composer Gordon Jacob and ended in 1970 with a film on Richard Strauss. The films currently available in pristine prints from BBC Warner were made between 1962 and 1968 first for Monitor and then for Omnibus, two series that broadcast documentary films of a didactic, instructional and patriotic nature. The one-hour programs shot on 35mm black and white film that Russell made were to be conventionally instructional documentaries but dynamic--that is "modern" biographies of major European artists and composers, concentrating on British lives but not limited to them. There was to be a voice-over narration that was explicitly an authorial voice, as was typical of documentaries then and now, and there was to be use of extensive archival material made available through the BBC. The idea was to draw a larger and younger audience to the already established tradition of documentary/biographical/educational films by making them more challenging and exciting.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Elgar (1962) is a biography of the early 20th Century British composer best known now for his melancholic cello concerto and The Enigma Variations. According to the composer, the latter was meant to be a kind of aural portrait of his friends and family. The Enigma Variations would, in more ways than one, be a kind of guiding light for Russell's work from that moment on through the whole series of works for the BBC as it remains a masterwork of aural ambiguity and uncertain narrative clues. As the title implies the identities--such as they are--remain unresolved and openended. They are a kind of line on which to hang various ideas about people and their musical spirit without ever resolving the issue of explicit meaning or correspondence between sounds and identities. Russell's previous work consisted of various cultural films made for the Monitor television series ranging in subject from documentaries of Scottish painters to the life of Kurt Weil. His more personal short films such as Amelia and the Angel (1957) showed a brilliant and precocious talent idiosyncratically able to channel the "past" in prosaic images such as landscapes, abbeys, parks, alleys, and hum-drum middle class interiors rendering them alive with possibility. What are those biographical films about and what are they doing aside from fulfilling their didactic purpose, and why are we still watching them half a century later?

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The films have a voice-over narration but treat their biographical lives obliquely rather than directly. We see inference rather than anecdote. Song of Summer (1968) concerns the relationship of the British composer Frederick Delius to the master's apprentice, the young Eric Fenby, who provides the voice-over narration. The paintings and drawings of Edward Munch populate the film and act as a sounding board to that relationship in a way that is never made explicit. Munch's winter aesthetic seems to permeate the summer landscape of Fenby's memoirs in a way that he himself would not have been conscious of until much later. In Isadora, the Biggest Dancer in the World (1966), the American dancer Isadora Duncan passes through various landscapes and urban views that correspond to the voice-over narration, but the staged scenes are shot in a documentary style and the documentary shots have highly theatrical music cues to highlight their presence. The various stylistic devices are self-consciously deployed and often one device is made to play off another as in musical counterpoint. For example, the romantic romp on the beach in The Debussy Film (1965) mimics a similar one in From Here to Eternity (1953) but the counter shot--of the director looking cynically on the scene with bemusement--throws into doubt the authorial intention of the romantic shot. …

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