Back in the dark days of the late 50s and early 60s television, when there were only two channels at our fingertips (no remotes then) and the Reithian legacy was still very much in evidence at the BBC, there was a rather special arts programme called Monitor edited by the legendary Huw Wheldon. He had an uncanny knack of discovering emerging creative talent. Among these were John Schlesinger, Jonathan Miller and Ken Russell. Under Wheldon’s wing they were inventing a new form called drama documentary. Of the trio, Russell’s sensibilities seem to suit the genre most.
The young Ken Russell
In 1962 he directed Elgar for Monitor… It is still regarded by the BFI as one of the best television documentaries. In 1966 Russell made Isadora Duncan and a year later Song of Summer - a beautifully crafted piece on the closing years of British composer, Fredrick Delius.
This for me was the culmination of Russell’s trail blazing work in this ‘dramadoc’ genre. Russell collaborated with the wonderful cinematographer Dick Bush who went on to make three more films with him. Bush also worked with Jonathan Miller on two wonderful BBC films, Alice in Wonderland 1966 and Whistle and I'll Come to You 1968.
In 1969 I was working at the publishers William Heinemann who handled the rights of D.H.Lawrence’s estate. I was invited to a private screening of a new film directed by Ken Russell based on Lawrence’s Women in Love (below). Also attending that evening was a young dashing writer called Melvyn Bragg (now Lord Bragg). He would later be responsible for the screen adaptation of Russell's The Music Lovers.
The homoerotic wrestling scene from Women in Love 1969
It was this film that was to be the beginning of Russell’s long and checkered career that soared the heights only to later plummet to the depths. His increasing preoccupation with sex, nudity, Nazism and the church saw him upset just about everyone on the planet.
Above two stills from Russell's notorious The Devils 1971
There was one wonderful moment when Russell appeared on a chat show alongside the late film critic Alexander Walker – earlier in the week Walker had viciously laid into Russell latest film The Devils (1971) calling it "monstrously indecent". Russell's responded by hitting Walker repeatedly over the head with a rolled-up copy of the offending newspaper.
But before becoming Britain's most notorious film director, Russell was a talented photographer, which was revealed last year in an exhibition of his documentary photographs of street life in the UK. Here are some examples of those photographs. And interesting to note that this is a style that he transfered to his early films.
For more information on Ken Russell's photographic work visit the Proud Gallery