Ken Russell: The Great Composers

In his early days as a director, Ken Russell famously brought classical music to a wider audience. These films are now celebrated by the BFI with a new DVD boxset

Before the British director Ken Russell started chronicling their lives in his films, many saw the world's great composers as divine figures channelling a mysterious energy from the heavens through their music.

This all changed after the release of Russell’s biographical documentary Elgar, broadcasted on the BBC in 1961. It was a film that explored the realities of Edward Elgar’s life as a man who experienced fears and anxieties like everybody else. Elgar was also groundbreaking due to its use of narrative and actors, something rarely seen in the documentary format.

“Nobody used an actor as a composer before Ken did,” said the citric Norman Lebrecht. “Nobody dared to do it[...] It was contrary to BBC practice[...] It was so out of line that it could only come from someone who was a complete outsider.”

The film has been included in a DVD compilation from the BFI entitled Ken Russell: The Great Composers, which is out later in March. Its release has brought to light the importance of Russell’s early works as a TV director for the BBC – a period in his career that is often overlooked.

Growing Up

Born in Southhampton, England in 1927, Henry Kenneth Arthur Russell had many emotional difficulties as a child and young man. His father Henry Russell, a shoe shop owner, often took his own troubles out on the family, while his mother Ethel Russell suffered from mental illness.

Russell’s only refuge was in local cinemas, which his mother took him to regularly. Around the age of 12, he even started hosting his own screenings in the family garage, showing German Expressionist films such as Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924).

After attending private schools in Walthamstow and Berkshire, Russell joined the Merchant Navy. During his service, he was once kept on watch for eight hours in the sun while crossing the Pacific Ocean. An order given by his mentally unwell captain who believed Japanese midget submarines might attack their ship – even though the Second World War had ended.

As a result, Russell also became mentally unwell and was invalided out the Merchant Navy in 1946. A nervous breakdown followed and it was during his recovery that he discovered his love for classical composers, one that would last a lifetime.

In his autobiography A British Picture, Russell spoke about this period in detail.

“I was recuperating from a mini-breakdown at the end of the war and leading a vegetable existence at home, recovering,” he writes. “The radio was on all the time and for several months I sat in a chair not paying much attention when suddenly some music came on that made me sit up and take notice.

"The announcer gave the title of the piece and I dashed outside, pumped up the tyres of my bicycle and cycled to the nearest record shop where I asked for Tchaikovsky’s ‘B flat minor Piano Concerto’ played by Solomon and the Hallé. When I first discovered Tchaikovsky I couldn’t help listening to his music and seeing pictures at the same time.

"As a film director many years later, I was very much taken with the power of music to enhance images. In fact, I’d discovered this at the age of 12 when I had a hand-cranked projector. I showed silent movies and was very much into Fritz Lang films like Metropolis and Siegfried. I used to give shows to the neighbours for the Spitfire Fund. Odd thing was, I could only get German films! I found that with the right music the silent film could be enhanced a thousand-fold.”

Chosen Path

After his recovery, Russell joined the Royal Air Force then spent five years pursuing his childhood ambition to be a ballet dancer. After realising this to be a futile effort, he trained in photography at Walthamstow Technical College, east London and became a freelancer.

During his years as a photographer, Russell keened his eye as a picture maker. He photographed bomb sites, and created staged pictures that mocked London’s police and other figures of authority.

In 1955, his series of documentary photographs of teddy girls were published in Picture Post magazine. He continued working as a photographer for four more years. During this time he also created amateur documentaries for the British Free Cinema movement and a short film named Amelia and the Angel (1958).

It was on the strength of these films that he secured a job at the BBC in 1959, where he became recognised by a man named Huw Wheldon, the editor of the BBC’s first arts programme Monitor.

The Great Composers

Wheldon was a man with an immense passion for the arts, who later became the managing director of BBC television. He became a close friend and mentor to Russell. Together, they created some 35 films on influential artists, the likes of which had never been produced before.

Russell’s first film for Monitor was a documentary on the poet John Betjeman (A Poet in London). Moving away from a traditional documentary structure, the film follows him around different locations in London as he recites his poems.

Next came Pop Goes the Easel (1962), a film on the daily lives of the young British artists of the pop art movement, featuring Peter Blake, Peter Phillips, Derek Boshier and Pauline Boty.

In the same year, Russell came to Wheldon with an even more radical idea for a documentary on the composer Edward Elgar – one that included actors. Wheldon, unsure at first, asked Russell to explain what it was about Elgar’s life, aside from his music, that was so special.

Russell explained that Elgar was an artist who was filled with great doubt, due to a lack of recognition throughout the majority of his career. That he, much like Russell, came from a lower middle class background and was a bit of an outsider. And, Russell added, that the musical backbone of his life was the Malvern Hills where he grew up.

“That’s the story,” said Wheldon to Russell. “The Malvern Hills are the star.”

Thus, at the beginning of the film, Russell depicts Elgar as a young boy, riding a white pony across the Hills to his ‘Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op. 47’. The scene went down in the history of British cinema.

“To be 18 years of age and watch Elgar for the first time,” recalled the British director Alan Parker, “those are images that stick in your brain forever. As a young British filmmaker, we were not inspired by what was happening in the cinema. It is pretty extraordinary that the best things were happening on TV.”

After Elgar, Russell’s next work on a composer was The Debussy Film (1965), which was also his last for Monitor. It was for this film that he discovered the actor Oliver Reed, a fantastic and brooding presence on the screen, and an actor who would feature prominently in the rest of Russell’s filmography.

Written by the English author Melvyn Bragg, The Debussy Film is a film-within-a-film and follows Reed as an actor in the 1960s starring in a biopic of the French composer Claude Debussy.

It was through this device, one typical to the great auteurs of European cinema at the time, that Russell explored the inner conflicts of Debussy, a man whose private life was as complex as his music.

Leaving the BBC

Russell’s most famous film for the BBC was Delius: Song of Summer, which was released on the BBC’s Omnibus series – the successor to Monitor – in 1968.

The film follows the composer Frederick Delius during the last years of his life, played by Max Adrian. It depicts a man who is dying from syphilis and, due to blindness, can no longer read or write – and thus transfer his compositions out of his head. So, to complete his final works, he enlists the help of Eric Fenby, played by Christopher Gable, as his amanuensis.

To ensure his characters were as accurate as possible, Russell worked with Fenby himself on the screenplay for the film. And, a little like Fenby did during his last years with Delius, Russell helped to translate the great mind of the composer onto the screen.

These films would be the last of their kind from Russell. After leaving the BBC to become a film director, his style became far more flamboyant. Hints of this could be seen in his last composer film for the BBC, Richard Strauss: The Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), which included scenes of rape and violence, as well as fictitiously showing the composer in Nazi uniform, dancing the waltz with Adolf Hitler.

In the BBC Arena documentary Ken Russell: A Bit of a Devil, released a year after Russell’s death in 2011, the presenter Alan Yentob described the importance of his composer films:

“Russell’s BBC films brought classical music to a wider audience and helped resurrect the reputations of both Elgar and Delius.”

For many of those familiar to the world of classical music, as well as those just being introduced, Russell’s BBC films will always inspire a sense of awe for the immensely human qualities of these great composers, who were able to pluck great works out their heads despite the realities of their lives.