October 3, 2011

8 Ken Russell at the BBC, Part 1: Elgar (1962) and The Debussy Film (1965)

In 2008 BBC Video released Ken Russell at the BBC, a three-disc DVD collection of six biographical documentaries Ken Russell made for the BBC between 1962 and 1968. For the next few weeks I'll be writing about these groundbreaking films.

When John Schlesinger left the BBC arts program Monitor in 1959 to pursue a career in feature films, Ken Russell was hired to replace him on the program as a director of documentaries. According to Russell, his task there was to make films that were "inviting, accessible, and entertaining." He made short documentary profiles of people as diverse as Spike Milligan, the creator and costar (along with Peter Sellers) of the BBC Radio comedy program The Goon Show, the playwright Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey), and the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. He stayed with Monitor and its successor series Omnibus for the next ten years, until he too left to make feature films. When Russell made his first documentary on a composer for Monitor, on Sergei Prokofiev in 1961, he asked the producer if he could hire an actor to re-create some scenes from Prokofiev's life. The producer was horrified at the idea of adding anything remotely fictional to a serious, high-toned documentary film but finally relented and allowed Russell one shot of an actor impersonating the composer, but only seen in reflection in a pond filled with floating leaves.

When Russell made his next film on a composer the following year, it was immediately apparent how far his and his producer's vision of what was permissible in a BBC documentary had progressed in the interval. This time the subject was the British composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934), and the complete title of the episode is Elgar: Portrait of a Composer. If this didn't convey the message that Russell's approach to his subject was going to take the definition of such a film in new directions, then the opening minutes of the film certainly did. After a brief voice-over statement that Elgar spent much of his boyhood riding in the Malvern Hills of Worcestershire, where he was born and grew up, for the next two minutes we see nothing but a young boy riding a pony across Malvern landscapes while Elgar's rhapsodic Introduction and Allegro for Strings plays on the soundtrack, a two-minute long cinematic tone poem.

Elgar contains no spoken dialogue, only voice-over narration that summarizes the composer's life and occasionally quotes from letters, diaries, and even postcards written to his daughter. But if the narration is conventional, the imagery that accompanies it most definitely is not. Russell illustrates the straightforward biographical narration with a combination of dramatized re-creations of scenes from Elgar's life—some shot with a hand-held camera to emulate the immediacy of newsreels and home movies—landscapes, still lifes, still photographs, and genuine period newsreel footage, all set to the glorious music of the composer. Using a mélange of images, inventive camera work and editing, music, sound effects, and narration, Russell overturns the traditionally impersonal tone of an established genre and replaces it with the personal vision of an inspired filmmaker. If today this approach to the biographical documentary seems less experimental than it once did, Elgar still seems remarkably fresh, and I think that's because of Russell's thorough commitment to finding creative ways to tell the story of Elgar and his music.

He also uses Elgar to explore themes he would delve into in greater detail in later films made for Monitor and Omnibus on composers and painters. Taken together, his ideas on these themes can be considered a working treatise of Russell's views on the nature of art and artists. Through Elgar's relationship with his wife Alice, Russell explores the intersection of artists' personal lives and relationships with their art. In emphasizing how many years it took Elgar to be accepted as a serious composer—in part at least because of his lower middle-class background and lack of formal musical training—Russell explores the ways that artists' battles with society can inhibit critical and popular recognition of their genius. Most significantly, he explores the sources of the artist's inspiration, here by focusing on the relationship between Elgar's music and the natural world. Elgar was a self-professed plein-air composer who always composed outdoors and claimed to draw his inspiration from nature, a source of inspiration hinted at from the very beginning of the film in that opening sequence of the young Elgar riding across the countryside.

Above all, Russell tells the story of Elgar's life through his music, using the music to comment on events in the composer's life. This marriage of Elgar's music with Russell's images reaches its peak in the last few minutes of the film. As a passage from the elegiac Second Symphony plays on the soundtrack, we see newsreel footage of the funeral procession of King Edward VII in 1910, which then segues into newsreel footage of World War I, while the soundtrack slowly segues into Elgar's most familiar work, the Pomp and Circumstance march. We are told how the sentimental and patriotic associations with that work were exploited to manipulate public feelings about the war and how this jingoistic appropriation of his music appalled Elgar, leading to his dismay with the modern world as a place with "no soul, no romance, and no imagination" and finally to his last great work, the hauntingly beautiful and mournful Cello Concerto, one of my own favorite pieces of classical music. (You may recall Jacqueline du Pré's exquisite version from the movie Hilary and Jackie of a few years ago.) After the sudden death of his wife Alice, Elgar gave up composing and returned to Worcestershire, and we see him making the journey across the Malvern landscapes in his automobile in a mirror image of the opening sequence, as the concluding section of Introduction and Allegro for Strings, the same piece used in that opening sequence, plays. The closing montage of the elderly Elgar confined to his bed as he drifts through his memories while the Enigma Variations plays on the soundtrack is almost unbearably sad.

If Elgar seems far removed from the standard highbrow BBC documentary of the time on a great artist, the next work in the set seems to come from another universe altogether. To call The Debussy Film innovative would be a tremendous understatement, so extreme a departure is it from anything one might have expected from the BBC circa 1965 or even from the imaginative director of Elgar. Revolutionary would be more like it, for the film constitutes an all-out assault on the traditional documentary film biography, finding startling new ways to tell the story of the life of a famous person on film and to match storytelling technique to the particulars of the subject's life.

As in Elgar, Russell announces his intentions in the opening minutes of the film. The first thing we see is a group of modern cars arriving at what appears to be a French château, where props and actors in period costume are already waiting. Then we see a film director, played by the Polish actor Vladek Sheybal, explaining to a small boy in costume that the scene about to be filmed is the funeral cortège of the French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918), played in the film by Oliver Reed. (This was the first of nine times he would work with Russell, who says he cast Reed because he thought the actor looked like Debussy.) After this we watch the actual scene being shot while the director shouts directions to the actors from offscreen.

What we are watching is not a straightforward biography at all, but a film about the making of a film about Debussy. For nearly an hour and a half Russell slides between episodes from Debussy's life re-created for the film biography, dramatized scenes of that film being made, scenes of the fictional director and actors discussing the documentary both outside filming and during filming, and scenes of the performers in the documentary acting out events in their own lives that mirror the relationships of the people they are portraying in that film. At one point, right in the middle of a scene in the documentary, the director steps into the frame, yells "Cut!" and begins discussing the scene with the actors. At another point the director, now in period costume himself and playing the part of Debussy's controlling patron Pierre Louÿs ("What he really liked was to manipulate people . . . a kind of Svengali," the director has explained to Reed without even a hint of irony), suddenly breaks out of character and yells "Cut!" directly at the camera. Later in the film, Russell takes the concept of the play within the play even further, as the director and cast watch other actors in period costume theatrically overacting a scene from a real play, The Naked Lady, which was based on a sex scandal from Debussy's life that they plan to cover in the documentary. To characterize The Debussy Film as multi-layered would barely begin to describe its intricacy.

In The Debussy Film Russell emphasizes his subject's personal life even more than he did in Elgar. The entire narrative of the film is organized around Debussy's love life and his succession of lovers and mistresses, especially Gaby Dupont (Annette Robertson), suggesting erotic underpinnings to Debussy's sensual music. Naturally, the actors playing these people are having a tempestuous offscreen love affair. Russell also explores how Debussy's scandalous sex life—he was part of the French avant-garde movement of the late 19th century that consciously set out to live up to its motto, épater le bourgeois (shake up the middle class)—set back his musical career.

Russell also examines the way artistic movements of the time influenced Debussy's music. It's interesting that although Debussy is usually described as an Impressionist composer, the Impressionist painters are never mentioned. Instead Russell dwells on the influence on Debussy's music of the Art Nouveau style and the English Pre-Raphaelite painters (a movement Russell and Reed would examine in detail in Dante's Inferno, their 1967 film on Dante Gabriel Rosetti). In one scene, the director explains to Reed Debussy's fascination with the Pre-Raphaelites as he guides Reed through the Pre-Raphaelite collection at the Tate Gallery. It's a good example of the imaginative ways Russell repeatedly disguises biographical and background information about Debussy as part of a narrative rather than simply having someone read the information in voice-over as was traditionally done in biographical documentaries, including Elgar.

Debussy was also inspired by the French Symbolist poets Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Stéphane Mallarmé, whose poems he transposed into symphonic compositions. Mallarmé's "Afternoon of a Faun" inspired one of Debussy's best known works, which in Russell's hands becomes one of several passages in The Debussy Film that are forerunners of the music video. As well as the music of Debussy, Russell manages to mix in, thanks to the modern, non-biographical sections, music as disparate as The Ride of the Valkyries, Rodgers and Hammerstein's "It Might As Well Be Spring," and even the Kinks' "You Really Got Me." Talk about musical diversity! But the most impressive musical passage in The Debussy Film is La Mer, and rightly so, for as Russell has his director character explain to Reed, this was the culmination of Debussy's musical innovation and the work that made his career.

The final minutes of The Debussy Film are a knockout. In a long, dreamlike passage Russell relates Debussy's obsession during the last days of his life with Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." He came to identify strongly with Roderick Usher, the main character of Poe's story, and to identify his former mistress Gaby Dupont with Usher's dead sister. Visually, these are some of the simplest but most arresting parts of the entire film, the compositions reminiscent of those of Citizen Kane or Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible movies in their austere, formal beauty. And this section of the film points ahead to Russell's increasing preoccupation with bohemian eccentricities that border on, and sometimes cross over to, madness. As in Elgar, Russell brings The Debussy Film full circle at the end, by showing us straight, without any manipulation of the film's point of view, the scene of the funeral cortège that was being prepared and shot in the opening sequence. It's a marvelously unembellished, stately coda to what has been a thrilling rush of nonstop invention that transforms a staid format into something exciting, passionate, and visionary.


  1. I watched this box set for the first time just recently myself. It's quite amazing stuff. I'd never explored Ken Russell's stuff before (apart from The Devils and Altered States), but now I must remedy that.

  2. "In The Debussy Film Russell emphasizes his subject's personal life even more than he did in Elgar. The entire narrative of the film is organized around Debussy's love life and his succession of lovers and mistresses, especially Gaby Dupont (Annette Robertson), suggesting erotic underpinnings to Debussy's sensual music. Naturally, the actors playing these people are having a tempestuous offscreen love affair. Russell also explores how Debussy's scandalous sex life—he was part of the French avant-garde movement of the late 19th century that consciously set out to live up to its motto, épater le bourgeois (shake up the middle class)—set back his musical career."

    Three years of MOVIE PROJECTOR cognizance could never have prepared me for this masterpiece of writing and brilliant choice of subject. My own long time love of classical music did not sad to say spill over into an investigation of this vital collection, which some Russell fans say is their man's finest hour. After reading this masterful essay I contacted my site colleague Allan Fish by mail in the U.K. to inquire about the availability of this. He sent me the link to the Region 2 set, which of course doesn't include the Strauss segment "Dance of the Seven Veils," the one I have seen on a loan from Allan two years ago. In any case we well know Russell's passion for classical, based on his works on Mahler and Tchaikovsky, the latter of course THE MUSIC LOVERS. Music was the most integral focus of his career if not overtly than as the most vital underpinning.

    You do an absolutely brilliant job discussing two titans, Elgar and Debussy, both of whom are on my own list of favorites. Most know Elgar of course for "Pomp and Circumstance," but your own analysis of this segment points to some other essential compositions. Yes, "Afternoon of a Faun" and "La Mer" are crucial works from this impressionist composer, and recommended for those who may only know him for his ever-popular and ravishing "Clair de Lune," the third movement of his Suite Bergmanesque. Your fascinating discussion of the final part of this section, when the composer becomes obsessed with Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" alone should motivate anyone who hasn't seen this to secure a copy.

    Of course Russell being Russell, it's no wonder that he brings a diverse blend of Wagner, Rogers & Hammerstein and the Kinks into the mix. Debussy's great opera "Pelias et Melisande" would also be a prime work for partial use in any discussion of the composer's work.

    Superlative post here in every sense!

  3. James, thanks for your comment. I've not seen many films by Russell. I know "Women in Love" and admire it greatly. I've seen a few of his later films and although all were in some ways interesting, not to mention idiosyncratic, none really seemed to measure up to that early masterpiece. I've found all the films in this collection to be most worthwhile, though, especially for someone like me with a special interest in their subjects. Here Russell's eccentricity still seems fresh.

    Sam, I can't tell you how much I treasure your appreciation of this piece. This post was something quite different for me. I can't claim to have comprehensive knowledge of the subjects treated in these films, but I have just enough to feel comfortable discussing them. I have to tell you that as the post took shape, and knowing your passion for both music and cinema, I found myself thinking of you and wondering what your reaction would be. Later I'll be covering Russell's film on Frederick Delius, the only one of these I'd previously seen. It made a hugely favorable impression on my when I saw it years ago and is what piqued my interest when I ran across this box set. Also my curiosity to see his biography of Isadora Duncan, which I'd heard such good things about. But I've found all six of the films in this set to be fascinating. Thanks again for your positive comments and encouragement.

  4. I was unaware that Ken Russell had directed biographical documentaries for the BBC (and didn't know of this boxed set). It seems his works for TV on Prokofiev, Elgar and Debussy laid the groundwork for his later films on Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Liszt. From your description of the Debussy bio, it also seems he was well on his way to developing a creative/experimental/personal style all his own before he ever went into film.

    In his heyday Ken Russell seemed to me quite the enfant terrible - and that's saying something considering those times. The two of his films that stand out in my memory are "Women in Love" and "The Devils." "Altered States," which I remember as a wild sci-fi ride, is the last of his films I recall seeing and I'm not too sure what happened to his career after.

    This is a dazzling piece, R.D., fascinating and well-crafted. I'm looking forward to your future posts on Russell's BBC documentaries.

  5. I agree with The Lady Eve, R.D. in that I eagerly await your follow-up pieces! I am thrilled to hear you'll be doing the one on Frederick Delius, who is another supreme favorite of mine. Delius wrote the ravishingly beautiful "A Village Romeo and Juliet" with one of music's most sublime orchestral passages, "A Walk to the Paradise Garden."

    Thanks for the very kind words directed my way. Much appreciated!

  6. Eve, thanks for the complimentary words. I think you're right when you say these films show that very early in his career Russell was already moving out of mainstream filmmaking and forging a style all his own. One of the amazing things about this set is that even though each of these films expresses a personal artistic vision, you can follow a certain stylistic progression from one to the next. This will, I hope, be apparent after I've covered all six films in the set. Originally I had planned to cover only a couple but eventually decided I really needed to cover all six and that they are distinct enough from one another to withstand such scrutiny.

    Sam, I know some of Delius's better known works, but this is one I'm not familiar with. I'm very fond of Delius and will have to seek it out. I haven't yet rewatched Russell's film on Delius but my recollection of it is that he portrays Delius's personality as nothing like his lovely, gentle music.

  7. R.D., great stuff, as ever. I haven't seen many of Russell's films, and will admit I know too little about classical music, but I do like Elgar, so that film in particular sounds like something I would be interested to see.

    PS, I've just left a comment on your 'Mr Blandings' posting, after managing to see that film, which landed in your "pending" folder!

  8. I love the Debussy film and have watched it many times. But no one has mentioned the major influence on Russell and Bragg of Fellini's 8 1/2 - using the film within a film format!
    (I first saw 'Debussy' as a schoolboy of 15 and was eagerly awaiting for the 'real' film to be released!)