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Refusing to Lie Down: Truth, Fiction, and Ken Russell’s Early Television Documentaries

Ken Russell


Ken Russell is not very likely to go down in history as a realist. He is mainly remembered for a long series of biographical films on artists, many on composers, in which he takes great liberty with the reported facts of these artists’ lives. Instead of facts Russell offers highly subjective interpretations of the life which are often based on his own experience and interpretation of the artist’s work. In the production notes to his film on Mahler (1974) Russell included a programmatic statement on his method. He explains that ‘most of my films on composers evolve through a stream of consciousness in which the man and the myth, the music and its meaning, time, place, dream and fact all flow and blend into the mainstream of the film itself’ (Russell 1974, 6). With regard to Mahler Russell specifies that ‘my film is simply about some of the things I feel when I think of Mahler’s life and listen to his music. It is by no means a definitive view, there are as many facets to the mystery of Mahler’s music as there are lovers of it’ (ibid.). However, this subjective impression of the artist as experienced through his work is not entirely disconnected from traditional biography: it is informed by historical fact. ‘As is my custom when approaching a film or a composer, I […] searched for the soul of the man in his music, while also keeping the facts of his life in mind’ (Russell 2008, 141). This is the basic Russell formula: starting from a number of salient facts about an artist’s life Russell presents his own view of the artist which is often informed by his personal interpretation of the artist’s work and the creative process that went into making it. This approach is obviously vulnerable to the charge of subjectivism. Russell does not deny this. In fact, he repeatedly stressed that his interpretation of artists and their work is only one from a broad range of possible interpretations and that ‘any one of a number of interpretations of a subject can be just as valid as another’ (Qtd Tibbetts 2005a, 84).

But behind this highly subjective approach there is nevertheless a lingering concern with that elusive and ill-defined thing we call truth. Russell has argued that his subjective interpretations do reveal a truth about the artist. In this article I want to explain how Russell came to believe that such an alternative truth was possible and worth pursuing and what kind of “truth” it might be. To do this I will look at the way the ideas expressed in the production notes to Mahler were developed over a period of more than ten years during which Russell worked as a film director for the BBC, mainly making documentaries about artists for Monitor, the BBC’s first regular arts programme, and Omnibus, a later arts strand. It is possible to trace a profound change in the way Russell made these films. Right from the start Russell tried to modify established norms about how one should properly make a television documentary. He gradually introduced innovations and personal touches. At the end of this process Russell had developed his personal method for making biopics. I want to show how these changes were triggered by the institutional context in which Russell worked. By putting Russell’s television films in the broader context of changes at the BBC in the 1960s we can understand why and how Russell came to make films the way he did. My argument will therefore proceed in three steps. First, I will briefly sketch the institutional context in which Russell worked and how his earliest films for Monitor tried to subvert the conventions that governed broadcasting at the BBC. Next, I will show that other filmmakers, both in the documentary and the drama departments of the BBC, were motivated by parallel concerns that lead to similar changes in the way they made their films. Finally, I will show how the experiments of Russell’s early documentaries matured into the full-blown Russell style as we know it from his feature films and how this style reflects and incorporates the dynamics that were operating at the BBC at this time. In doing so I want to show that Russell’s sensational style, for which he has often been criticised, is in fact the articulation of a long development in which Russell struggled with and tried to answer the challenges inherent in making biographical documentaries. Despite his reputation as a scandal-monger Russell’s intentions in his films were much closer to the truth-seeking that is expected of documentaries than he is usually given credit for.

Televangelising for Truth

Russell’s documentaries for Monitor can be seen, in retrospect, as pioneering an era in British television when, as Ian Christie once put it, ‘documentaries were refusing to lie down and be documentaries’ (Qtd Rees 2007, 150). Throughout the 1960s and 1970s broadcasters experimented widely with the documentary form, especially in arts documentaries.Useful surveys of and backgrounds to arts broadcasting in the 1960s can be found in Walker 1993, 45-55; Sexton 2007, and Wyver 2007, 10-46. But Russell was one of the first television documentary directors to systematically explore and explode the limits of the documentary form.Sutton 2009 surveys all of Russell’s BBC films. Sutton 2012 provides a full account of Russell’s first year at Monitor while Ferris 1990 offers valuable biographical background on the programme’s producer, Huw Wheldon. Looking back, his progress seems incredibly swift: one can almost see him expand the format from film to film. But Russell’s explorations were not gratuitous. They reflect changes in his conception of what a biography should be and how artists should be presented to the public. To appreciate the scope and impact of Russell’s subversions of the documentary genre it is important to sketch the context in which his early films were developed. In 1959 Russell was engaged by producer Huw Wheldon to direct short documentaries for the fortnightly arts programme Monitor, which had been launched in 1958. Monitor was structured on the “profile” format. This had been a staple of art programmes since John Read, son of the art critic Herbert Read, made a profile film on Henry Moore in 1951.See Wyver 2007, 17-23 for an assessment of Read’s often neglected importance for the development of the British arts documentary. The profile format operated around a basic set of assumptions, including ‘an explanatory commentary; a focus on already established artists; and a conception of the artist as a visionary “genius”, who is able to transcend the society that encases her or him’ (Sexton 2007, 90). Initially, every episode of Monitor would contain up to five or six items in its forty-five minute slot, each of which would be introduced by Wheldon, who also wrote and spoke the commentary. Right from the start it was clear that ‘Wheldon had a mission to inquire and explain’ and that he ‘saw himself as the representative of the curious layperson’ (Walker 1993, 47). Wheldon was acutely aware of the fact that only a small minority of the viewing audience had either a university degree or a more than passing acquaintance with the arts. His job was to strike a balance between speaking plainly to the interested layperson and doing justice to his subject. To serve the audience Wheldon was willing ‘to risk looking unclever on television’ (Ferris 1990, 141) by asking artists obvious and simplistic questions that would seem stupid to the informed art lover.

Wheldon’s attitude was not merely a personal inclination: it reflected a wider public service ethos that was at the heart of the BBC’s mission. Since 1926 the BBC functioned under a Royal Charter that gave it a duty to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ (Cooke 2003, 10). As such, it was given broadcasting monopoly and it was free to function outside the influence of politics and without commercial considerations. The BBC would function solely for the benefit of the national interest. Broadcasting was acknowledged as a public service rather than a marketable good. The Corporation’s first Managing Director was John Reith. Most historians agree that Reith’s control over the Company ‘in its early days was massive, totalitarian, and idiosyncratic, and for many decades the traditions of the BBC seemed to flow directly from his personality. The British Broadcasting Company was set up as a business. Reith turned it into a crusade’ (Seaton 2003a, 110). He saw broadcasting as a means to ‘set a high moral tone for the whole of the nation’ (Cooke 2003, 10). Until his resignation in 1938 Reith put his stamp on the way the BBC would continue to understand its service to the national interest. His ideology has since been termed “Reithianism” and it ‘dictated that the BBC use the “brute force” of its monopoly to give the public “everything that was best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement.” To give them what they ought to want since “few knew what they wanted and fewer knew what they needed.” This dogmatic paternalism was to govern all BBC operations’ (Jones 2003, 307). This view obviously presupposed the existence of ‘an intellectual and artistic élite, a nobility of culture rather than of birth’ (Bakewell and Garnham 1970, 2). And the duty of this élite was to educate the masses through broadcasting (an idea that was still very much indebted to Matthew Arnold’s nineteenth-century ideas on education). It is this institutional requirement to educate the public that lies behind Wheldon’s vulgarising approach to arts programming.See Scannell 2000 and Seaton 2003b for a discussion of the origins and context of the public service ethos in British broadcasting and the role Reith played in shaping it.

One key element of the BBC’s neutrality was its need to be objective. If the public were to trust the BBC as a source of information and enlightenment, it would have to be able to trust that the BBC always gave objective, neutral, and reliable accounts of the facts. Such concerns with truthfulness were especially relevant to documentary programmes such as Monitor. And it is here that, right from the start, tensions arose between Russell and Wheldon. Already on Russell’s first assignment, a short film on John Betjeman (John Betjeman: a Poet in London, 1959), there was an argument when Russell wanted to recreate a brief scene from Betjeman’s childhood with (non-speaking) actors in period dress. Wheldon removed the recreated scenes because he considered them ‘false – I didn’t believe them’ (Qtd Baxter 1973, 123). This would be a recurring problem: Wheldon believed that any recreation of past events was a form of cheating the audience. But Russell often believed that he needed such recreated scenes in order to visualise the story he wanted to tell. One of the best-known incidents over such recreations concerned Prokofiev’s hands and reflection in Portrait of a Soviet Composer (1961), Russell’s first biographical film on a composer (Gordon Jacob, made for Monitor in 1959, was a profile of a living composer rather than a biographical film). According to Russell, it took Wheldon ‘great soul-searching’ (Qtd Gomez 1976, 31) to allow him to use a staged shot of hands (supposedly Prokofiev’s) playing the piano or, more daringly, to include a brief shot of an actor (representing Prokofiev) reflected in a murky pond. Even more revealing about the extent to which Russell wanted to fictionalise his documentaries was Russell’s intention to integrate his newly filmed material with the archive footage used in the rest of the film ‘by degrading the material I shoot myself so that it looks as grainy and as contrasty as the real thing’ (Russell 2008, 22). This was something that Wheldon took issue with. He later recalled that ‘my main objection was not so much to an actor playing Prokofiev as to Ken faking film to look like newsreel footage’ because ‘when you start mixing reality and reconstruction you’re in very tricky circumstances’ (Qtd Baxter 1973, 123).

The issue of truthfulness and reconstruction in a documentary was taken to another level on Elgar (1962), a film that Russell made for the hundredth edition of Monitor and which was to fill the programme’s entire one-hour slot. At this point Humphrey Burton had taken over as Monitor’s producer, but Wheldon, who had been promoted to Head of Documentaries, continued to present the programme and exert his influence over its content. He wrote and recorded the commentary for Elgar. Wheldon agreed to let Russell use different actors to play Elgar at different ages in the film on condition that he would ‘treat them as figures in a landscape – no dialogue and, above all, no acting. The hills are your stars here, the hills and Elgar’s music’ (Russell 2008, 24). But although Russell appreciated that the use of actors ‘was a real breakthrough’ (Baxter 1973, 114) the problem of truthfulness and objectivity still remained. Both Russell and Wheldon had worries in this department, but they seem to have gone in interestingly different directions: Wheldon was mainly concerned with the reliability of the facts, whereas Russell had increasing concerns about the tone and spirit of the film. To characterise Elgar, Russell had selected a number of anecdotes from the composer’s life. One such anecdote was about Elgar flying kites, another saw Elgar sliding down a hill-side on a tea-tray. Wheldon objected to these scenes because ‘I wasn’t certain (a) that these events had taken place at all, and (b) even if they had, whether they weren’t giving a false and romanticised picture of Elgar. Well, of course, I shouldn’t have queried them, because they had happened, and Ken put me right’ (Qtd o.c. 121). A more fundamental conflict arose, however, over a sequence where Russell used Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory over archive footage of wounded soldiers in the trenches of the first World War. The result was highly ironic and suggested that Elgar was a pacifist who had resented the patriotic appropriation of his music. It was, however, not clear whether this accurately reflected Elgar’s actual attitudes. According to Wheldon this sequence triggered a violent clash of wills over the question whether Russell was imposing his own views on Elgar. As Wheldon later explained, ‘the result of that argument was a compromise: the war sequence, including Land of Hope and Glory, was cut exactly in half’ (Qtd o.c. 122).

The completed Elgar was a highly romanticised portrait of the artist. It was hugely successful with the audience and ten years later it was still cited in polls as one of the most popular programmes of the decade (o.c. 18). But Russell soon began to dislike the film. He later claimed to have been surprised by the film’s overwhelming success and popularity, ‘but then in retrospect I can see why. I think it contains actually some of the worst aspects of popularisation. I mean it’s too corny now; it’s too romantic. It’s schmaltzy and it just shows that the public likes that’ (Qtd Bakewell and Garnham 1970, 136). Almost ten years after that comment he again argued that ‘basically it was a sentimental, romantic film, showing Elgar galloping across the Malvern Hills on horseback in the early morning and so on. The film was all too lovely, like a TV commercial for the Malvern Hills!’ (Qtd Phillips 1979, 39) Russell’s dissatisfaction with Elgar was a turning point. After that film ‘I decided to dispel the preconceived idea of what a documentary had to be by presenting the life of a great artist in a way that showed how he transcended his own personal problems and weaknesses in creating great art. Showing the personal struggles out of which an artist’s work grew is more of a tribute to him than making believe that he was some sort of saint sitting quietly in his studio creating masterpieces’ (Qtd o.c. 43). Russell’s subsequent films for the BBC reflect this new attitude. This was not always appreciated. As John Baxter perceptively observed, ‘there is an element of shock in the response to Russell’s subsequent Monitor films, which reject Elgar’s romanticism for a new sparseness. Seduced by the picture of artistic creation it presents, and in love (as he is) with this image of the likeable composer, audiences cannot accept that Elgar is, for all its assurance, a PR job, skirting the unglamorous and, by careful selection, manipulating even the viewers’ response to Elgar’s music. When, in later biographies, Russell “plays fair”, offering an unvarnished portrait of a great artist, the public, comparing this unflattering image with the apparent accuracy of Elgar, criticise Russell for falsification, and the implication of betrayal figures increasingly in all comment on his work’ (Baxter 1973, 19).

Against Naturalism

In a discussion of Elgar John Tibbetts quotes an internal memo from Humphrey Burton, the film’s producer, stating that the BBC would be willing to consider abandoning ‘the straightforward documentary approach for something like a feature film’ (Qtd Tibbetts 2005b, 162). This is remarkable because it suggests that Russell’s relatively swift progression from documentary shorts to full-length dramatised films like Elgar was not entirely a struggle uphill. Things were changing at the BBC, and not only in the documentary department. This was for a large part due to the influence of Hugh Carleton Greene, the BBC’s new Director General who would remain in function until 1969 and who was an outspoken advocate of innovative television.See Briggs 1995, 309-454 for an assessment of Greene’s reign at the BBC. This was especially obvious in the Drama department, for while Russell was pushing his documentaries towards “dramatised documentaries” in the shape of what we would now call feature films a new generation of playwrights and directors in the BBC’s drama department were also abandoning the traditional visual language of television drama, which was heavily indebted to theatrical conventions, and pushing towards what was called the “documentary drama”, a form of fiction that is grounded in research and documentary evidence. This trend came to a head with Ken Loach’s Up the Junction (1965) and Cathy Come Home (1966), two television films that tackled social issues on the basis of actual documentary evidence. The previous year Peter Watkins had already made Culloden (1964), which staged a historical battle in cinéma vérité style. All three of these films, and many others besides, used vérité techniques from the French New Wave and American direct cinema to increase the realism of the narrative. So new BBC drama evolved towards the condition of documentary while Russell took the opposite direction: his documentaries evolved towards the condition of drama. It is therefore instructive to look at the changes occurring in the drama department to see how they can shed new light on Russell’s documentary work.Cooke 2003 is an excellent general history of British television drama while Caughie 2000 explores the aesthetics and cultural backgrounds involved. See subsequent footnotes for references on specific developments, programmes, and directors.

The movement towards documentary drama in television was given a creative boost through the influence of a new movement in British theatre, triggered by the premiere of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in May 1956. Because of its concern with everyday situations that were often taken from working class life this new drama was called “kitchen sink” drama. It galvanised British theatre and quickly made its impact on the cinema. Television followed suit. The twice-weekly serial Emergency Ward 10 (ATV, 1957-1967) was perceived as a “documentary drama”, as was Granada’s infinitely successful soap series Coronation Street (first broadcast in 1960), which was initially considered an example of “kitchen sink” drama due to its working-class setting. It is also interesting that a police series such as Z Cars (1962-1978) was originally developed within the BBC Documentary Drama Group, which used to be the Dramatised Documentary Group, highlighting the overlap between the two genres (Corner 1996, 38). Director John McGrath later said that ‘the series was going to be a kind of documentary about people’s lives’ and that the police stories ‘were the means of finding out about people’s lives’ (Qtd Cooke 2003, 57). But the programme most directly associated with “kitchen sink” drama at this stage was ABC’s Armchair Theatre. This was due to the influence of Sydney Newman, a Canadian producer who championed the work of playwrights such as Alun Owen, Clive Exton, and Harold Pinter.See Cooke 2003, 37-48 for a good discussion of Armchair Theatre and its innovations. Wheatley 2007 discusses its relation to “kitchen sink” drama while Shubik 2000, 3-40 offers an often candid look behind the scenes at her work with Newman (she was story editor on the show). Eventually Newman was lured to the BBC, where he was made Head of Drama in 1963. It was during this period that “kitchen sink” drama made its most lasting impression on television through the plays staged on The Wednesday Play, which was broadcast from October 1964 until October 1970 (when it was changed to Play for Today). Several plays featured in the series would prove highly controversial because they tackled topics that were at the front of the news at the time.See MacMurraugh-Kavanagh 1997a for a very good analysis of the tenuous position of The Wednesday Play at the BBC and the internal opposition to its selection of topical and politically sensitive themes. But not just the choice of topics was controversial, the way they were dramatised was equally unorthodox. It should be remembered that in the early 1960s most drama was still either broadcast live from the studio or pre-recorded in the studio. This was due to the technical limitations imposed by the electronic studio and the use of videotape, which was very difficult to edit. Videotape was very expensive and until electronic editing became possible the tapes had to be physically cut to edit, which was very difficult to do with precision. As Ken Loach later said, ‘cutting tape in 1965 was like building Stonehenge’ (Qtd Cooke 2003, 73). And because the electronic studios represented a huge financial investment producers and directors were discouraged from abandoning them in favour of location work on film. The usual procedure for drama would be that several video-cameras filmed the performance in the studio from different angles and that the vision mixer, controlling all these images, would switch from camera to camera during broadcast. This required a tightly rehearsed choreography of actors and cameras. It was possible, however, to mix in pre-recorded sequences that had been shot on location and on film. Such pre-recorded sections would often allow the actors in the studio some time to change costume or move to another set during the live broadcast.Jacobs 2000 is definitive on the methods and aesthetics of early British television drama, reconstructing lost material from written documents and archival material. See also Cooke 2003, 6-55 for a discussion of early drama within a general history. Caughie 2000, 37-56 provides some fascinating backgrounds and highlights the centrality of the actor/performer in live television drama (as opposed to the director’s centrality in pre-recorded drama).

All of this changed in the 1960s. The main catalyst was the publication of an article by Troy Kennedy Martin, the writer who had developed Z Cars, in the March 1964 issue of the theatre magazine Encore. In ‘Nats Go Home: First Statement of a New Drama for Television’ Kennedy Martin attacked what he called the dominant naturalism in television (hence ‘Nats’ in the title).See Hill 2007 and Caughie 2000, 92-102 for full discussions of Kennedy Martin’s seminal article. In retrospect this may seem bizarre because the innovations in television drama of the 1960s are usually described as a movement towards increased naturalism. But in 1964 the term “naturalism” had a very specific meaning in the context of television and it had nothing to do with the naturalist movement in the arts and literature of the nineteenth century. In television naturalism referred to studio-bound drama that operated according to conventions that were modelled on the stage. These included a reliance on dialogue, resulting in drama filmed as a succession of talking heads, and a drama that unfolded in natural time and where, according to Kennedy Martin, ‘studio-time equals drama-time equals Greenwich Mean Time’ (Qtd Hill 2007, 52). Kennedy Martin urged television drama to free itself from these restrictions. It should instead be filmed on film and on location; it should abandon the reliance on the close-up for filming dialogue; and it should pursue subjective identification with the characters. In terms of plotting this meant that the unity of time and place should be abandoned ‘in favour of “non-Aristotelian” forms of episodic narration similar to the eighteenth-century picaresque novel’ (o.c. 53). Kennedy Martin especially recommended the use of a narrator as a means of both eliminating dialogue and increasing the fluidity of action. Such methods of film-making would take television into the realm of cinéma vérité and direct cinema. In cinéma vérité the presence of the camera and the intervention of the camera crew and director are acknowledged, which means that the presence of the film crew becomes part of the ‘evidence’ or vérité that the film reveals. Because the presence of the camera and film crew necessarily influences the “reality” that is being shown such an acknowledgement of their presence in the film itself contributes to its truthfulness. Direct cinema, on the other hand, ‘tries to render the film-making itself invisible and to give viewers the sense of unmediated access to the contingencies of an actuality uncompromised by the camera’ (Corner 1996, 44). Direct cinema approaches were especially typified in the work of American directors such as Frederick Wiseman and Don Pennebaker. It is the so-called “fly on the wall” approach. While it is often difficult to distinguish clearly between cinéma vérité and direct cinema in practice most critics agree that the less self-reflexive direct cinema method was ‘the primary model’ (o.c. 45) for British television approaches to vérité.See Corner 1996, 34-43 for the differences and overlaps between vérité and direct cinema, and Sexton 2003 on the impact of vérité on British television drama.

It was this new kind of drama that The Wednesday Play would come to represent. And its most important director would be Kenneth (only much later abbreviated to Ken) Loach, whose directing credits for the programme included three of its most controversial pieces: James O’Connor’s Three Clear Sundays (7 April 1965), Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction (3 November 1965), and Jeremy Sandford’s Cathy Come Home (16 November 1966).Hill 2011 is an excellent survey of Loach’s career and includes a broadly contextualising analysis of the director’s work for The Wednesday Play. See also Hill 2007 for a detailed discussion of the six-part Diary of a Young Man (1964), which introduced some of the plays’ innovations in an earlier programme. Caughie 2000, 115-120 and Cooke 2003, 64-75 offer discussions that focus especially on Up the Junction. The first was a piece against capital punishment and was widely perceived as partisan in its attitude, supporting new legislation to abolish capital punishment which was then being discussed in Parliament. More controversially, Up the Junction contained a harrowing representation of a backstreet abortion and was again widely perceived as a play designed to gain public support for liberal changes to abortion legislation that were being debated at the time (Cooke 2003, 74). Finally, Cathy Come Home would become the most famous of all the Wednesday Plays. It was a play about homelessness and the dramatic failure of the social services to address the problem adequately and humanely. The play was ‘instrumental in developing public awareness of the problem of homelessness’ (Corner 1996, 90).The intentions behind these socially engaged plays sometimes backfired as viewers tended to interpret the events within their own established moral framework. The distressing abortion scene in Up the Junction was interpreted by many conservative viewers as just rewards of the girl’s sexually immoral lifestyle. Similarly, John Hopkins’s play Fable (27 January 1965, directed by Christopher Morahan) was an indictment of apartheid and racial intolerance which used the ingenious strategy of showing a hypothetical Britain in which black oppresses white. Incredible as it may seem, some viewers interpreted the play as a warning about the dangers of immigration. MacMurraugh-Kavanagh 1997b is a very perceptive analysis of the way The Wednesday Play tried to intervene in public debates and how these strategies sometimes produced unexpected (and counterproductive) results. But it was precisely the plays’ social engagement that made them a source of concern within the BBC. The Wednesday Play was regularly accused of interfering with politics and public policy, and this was obviously in conflict with the BBC’s commitment to neutrality. Loach later explained that ‘we were very anxious for our plays not to be considered dramas but as continuations of the news’ (Qtd Cooke 2003, 73). The fact that The Wednesday Play was broadcast immediately after the news and before the current-affairs programme Twenty-Four Hours ‘offered the opportunity to exploit the “flow” of television to set up a kind of internal dialogue between purportedly “factual” and “fictional” programming’ (Hill 2011, 67). The Wednesday Play was in fact a concerted attempt to convert ‘“drama” into “news”’ (MacMurraugh-Kavanagh 1997b, 247). This was also the reason why the directors preferred to work on 16mm film stock: 35 mm was used for fiction, 16mm was used for news (because 16mm equipment was much easier to handle on location).Sexton 2003 is excellent on the introduction of 16mm equipment in broadcasting. Working on 16mm would allow Loach, but also other directors, to achieve a visual immediacy that was ‘an important part of the strategy of convincing viewers that what they were seeing was authentic’ (Cooke 2003, 73). But it was not the only strategy. Not content to simply shoot on location, Loach would mix his actors with real people. These could either be non-actors hired to more or less play themselves, but just as often it meant that the actors would perform in a public place amid unsuspecting passers-by. During conversations filmed in the street, traffic and pedestrians would pass by in front of the actors, obscuring our view. The result was ‘an unpolished style of camerawork that gives the impression that events might actually be “happening” rather than being specifically “staged” for the camera’ (Hill 2011, 39), with the camera ‘struggling, as in observational documentary, to capture what is happening’ (o.c. 57).

Perhaps the most radical use of vérité and direct cinema techniques on television could be found in the documentary work of Peter Watkins.See Gomez 1979 for a survey of Watkins’s early career and television films. Like Russell, Watkins was brought in at the BBC by Wheldon on the strength of his early shorts. But where The Wednesday Play focused on contemporary issues, Watkins’s two signature films for the BBC approached the present through the past and the future. In Culloden (1964) he used both cinéma vérité and direct cinema techniques to reconstruct the 1746 battle at Culloden as if a camera had actually been present. One of the film’s most startling devices is to let the participants in the battle address the camera and an (unseen) interviewer directly as if a film crew were actually on the scene in 1746. Combined with shaky hand-held camerawork that takes us into the middle of the action the effect of this “documentary” approach is staggeringly persuasive. In The War Game (1965) Watkins looked at the future and presented a hypothesis about the possible impact of nuclear warfare on Britain’s population. Of course, both films were meant as comments on the present: they were hard-hitting pacifist tracts. This was especially obvious in the case of The War Game. Based on broad research into the effects of nuclear warfare this hypothetical documentary shows what could and probably would happen if enemy forces struck at Great Britain with nuclear arms. It shows the effects of impact and of radiation, the long-term devastation of the country, the physical degeneration of people exposed to radiation, and the complete social disintegration that ultimately follows. To achieve this Watkins again took his 16mm camera into the action, creating shaky hand-held images. As in Culloden he uses amateur performers to great effect, especially in their direct address of the camera in staged interviews. These are juxtaposed with authentic street interviews showing that the British public of 1965 was indeed completely ignorant of the dangers of nuclear radiation. This was Watkins’s initial reason for making the film: he wanted to shock the public into awareness and believed the public would support a ban on nuclear weapons if it were properly informed about the nuclear threat. This partisan agenda, combined with the callous way in which government officials and representatives of the Church are represented in the film, made The War Game highly controversial within the Corporation and the film was banned, which in itself also caused considerable controversy.Many conspiracy theories have circulated about the War Game ban. Since the 1990s written BBC archives have become available and researchers have shown that, although the BBC conferred extensively with both Government and Whitehall, the ultimate decision to ban the film was the Corporation’s. Briggs 1995, 531-536 incorporated some of this material in his official history of the BBC, but Chapman 2006 now provides a balanced and persuasive argument against an organised coup on the film while at the same time presenting a wealth of unsettling evidence on the negotiations and machinations that lead to the ban. Wayne 2007 offered a strong rebuke and revived the conspiracy theory by putting the ban on the film in a longer history of BBC censorship. But Chapman 2008 provides a thoughtful rejoinder that undermines several of Wayne’s arguments. Shaw 2006 covers some of the same ground (leaning towards conspiracy), including the film’s pre- and post-production troubles, but adds an extensive discussion of its subsequent role as an iconic document and cause célèbre in the movement for nuclear disarmament.

Shaping Reality: Russell’s Early Monitor Films

If we now look at Russell’s work in relation to the experiments of Loach (in drama) and Watkins (in documentary) an interesting dynamic emerges. What connects both movements (of documentary towards drama and the reverse) is the rejection of established visual codes that were seen to be the standard for appropriate and persuasive representations of the world. In Russell’s case the established norm is the truthfulness of verifiable facts as an expression of the BBC’s adherence to objectivity. Russell opposed this factual approach to truth with a form of experiential truthfulness that found its fullest formulation in his notes on Mahler, where he argues that the only way to know the artist is through one’s personal response to his work. In the case of drama, however, the naturalistic convention was not about the presentation of facts but about an established visual code based on the conventions of the theatre. According to its defenders the direct cinema approach, including elliptical editing and fragmented narratives, was much more true to the actual felt experience of life. Hence, this approach was more “real” (because more in tune with the subjective experience of reality) than the established “naturalistic” convention. It would seem, then, that the opposite movements of drama towards documentary and of documentary towards drama are different ways of asking similar questions about the truthful representation of reality. Rather than an outright attack on naturalism, as the title of Kennedy Martin’s article suggests, the real stake would seem to be a conflict about what “naturalism” or “realism” or “truth” or “objectivity” (can) actually mean and how such possible meanings can (and should) be translated into a (tele)visual language. By subverting accepted standards Russell, Loach, and Watkins actively question what “realism” or “truth” (can) mean. In this sense their work offers excellent case studies to see how style in (tele)visual media is connected to content: the visual language that is used is the conscious expression of new beliefs about representation. This holds especially for Russell’s early shorts.

In view of the previous discussion it is interesting that elements of the new direct cinema approach to the documentary can already be found in Russell’s early Monitordocumentaries, pre-dating Kennedy Martin’s intervention by several years. A good example is Pop Goes the Easel (1962), a forty-five minute Monitor profile film on Peter Blake, Derek Boshier, Pauline Boty, and Peter Phillips, four young British Pop artists who were only just emerging on the scene, and which has since assumed historical importance as a crucial early visual document of the Pop movement in Britain.See Brauer 2001, 65-67. Flanagan 2009 is the fullest discussion of Pop Goes the Easel, and it puts the film back in the educational context of televisions Reithian mission. As a treat, there is a party scene in the film in which a very young and not yet world-famous David Hockney can be spotted dancing. In this film Russell moves back and forth between dramatised documentary sequences, direct cinema sequences, and sequences that hover poetically in-between. For example, a section of the film follows the artists around as they visit a fairground. As Russell’s camera follows them around there is an unmistakable direct cinema feel in the way the camera tries to keep track of the artists, dodge other visitors, and captures the glare of available light. But this is intercut with highly stylised shots of a ferris wheel and other attractions that sometimes move towards abstract composition. There is also a direct cinema sequence of the four artists in a shooting gallery. Later Russell contrives a similar vérité-looking set-up with the four of them sitting in a row at slot machines. He then makes the viewer aware of the camera’s presence by having each of the artists pull back as the camera makes its way forward between them and the slot machines. It is a nice impromptu invention that looks spontaneous and playful, but at the same time it acknowledges the influence of, for example, Busby Berkeley-like choreography where the camera pushes forward between rows of legs that fan out to let it through. The film’s most memorable sequence visualises one of Boty’s nightmares in an embedded mini-drama in which the artist is chased down a hallway by an evil-looking woman in a wheelchair. This again stands in counterpoint to other sequences where the artists are observed talking casually amongst themselves. But by combining contrived scenes with direct cinema elements Russell makes us aware that everything in a documentary, including the direct cinema observations, is contrived and staged.

Two other early Russell shorts are of especial interest in this respect. One is Shelagh Delaney’s Salford (1960), the second is A House in Bayswater (1960). Both have complex ties to all the issues raised in the previous discussion of changing attitudes in broadcasting in the 1960s. Let us look first at the profile of Shelagh Delaney, a young playwright who had made a splash with her play A Taste of Honey (1958), which was made into a key film in the new “kitchen sink” drama in 1961, directed by Tony Richardson. In Russell’s short film, Delaney is both seen on screen talking and heard talking over a montage of images shot at Salford, where she lived.There is a transcript of the film in Wheldon 1962, 126-130, but it is edited from the film version. The film opens with Delaney walking her dog, coming home, and asking whether there is anything to eat. She is then seen talking about her work at the kitchen table. This sequence is obviously staged for the camera, but the kitchen setting clearly connects it to the new realism in which Delaney herself is an important figure. Delaney’s commentary and Russell’s imagery combine a focus on the social problems of poverty and housing in Salford with a romantic affection for its specific working-class milieu, which is now threatened with obliteration through the development of housing estates and tower flats. On the one hand there is dirt, poverty, and a severely polluted river in which children have even drowned because it is not properly fenced off. But at the same time Delaney tells us that the city has ‘a terrific life force’ and ‘it’s like a terrible drug’, ‘it’s virile, it lives and it breathes’ (Qtd Wheldon 1962, 126-217). Delaney talks about the way parts of Salford are being torn down and their inhabitants forced to move and becoming uprooted. ‘They’re taken from one spot and put into another spot, into these new housing estates; and these places – they don’t look nice to me. I don’t think they look at all pleasant. But they’re put there. And they’re sterile places. Nobody knows anybody’ (Qtd o.c. 128). This indictment of new architecture destroying the soul of a community is underscored by Russell’s visuals: magnificently composed shots of rooftops, candid street scenes, river banks, but also the new highrises. Visually the film takes social realist themes but presents them in a stylised and aesthetic manner, as a series of images infused with nostalgia for a disappearing world.

In comparison A House in Bayswater has both interesting similarities and differences. The film opens and closes with a shot of a building site. A new tower-block is being constructed. It then cuts to an Edwardian boarding house in the London area of Bayswater. Russell himself used to live in that boarding house, and one of the tenants profiled in the film is the photographer David Hurn, a personal friend who would later become the subject of a separate Russell short, Watch the Birdie (1963). The film focuses on several tenants: apart from Hurn there is also a painter, a working class husband and wife, a retired dancer who still performs the dances of her youth (lovingly rendered with a mild comic touch), and a retired maid. Russell moves back and forth between these tenants’ flats and stories and uses the narration of the retired woman who runs the boarding house as a framing device. The most interesting part of the film for our present concerns is the last section, when Russell takes us into a fantasy sequence, filmed entirely in slow motion, in which the tenants’ fantasies and dreams are presented in a flow of images that ultimately melt back into shots of a similar old boarding house that is being demolished to make way for a tower-block that is to be built there. Many of Russell’s early documentaries have such touches of fantasy, which sometimes take the form of slapstick. In Don’t Shoot the Composer (1966), a profile of Georges Delerue, there is an extended slapstick sequence, filmed in fast motion, of Delerue being pursued by Russell’s film crew and escaping in a rowing boat. Pauline Boty’s nightmare scene in Pop Goes the Easel is another example, as is the scene in Always on Sunday (1965) when several art critics visit the studio of le douanierRousseau and the artist spills a pot of stew on one of the critics’ shoes.This tendency to introduce fantasy into documentary contexts goes back to Russell’s photo-essays of the mid-1950s, several of which were constructed around friends dressing up and acting out for Russell’s camera. But despite his penchant for fantasy, Russell’s most impressive photo-essays already tended to have a social realist and documentary theme. His most famous photo-essay, for example, was devoted to the Teddy Girls, the female equivalent of the Teddy Boys. ‘As far as I know,’ Russell later commented, ‘I was the only photographer who chronicled the Teddy Girl phenomenon’ (Qtd Sutton 2012, 59). It is especially this series of photographs that later earned Russell recognition as ‘a transitional figure whose work anticipated elements of the new photojournalism, although his most original photographs involved elaborate, theatrical scenarios’ (Harrison 1998, 115). The fullest account of Russell’s years as a professional photographer is Sutton 2012, 50-70, 78-97, and 111-118. Russell’s photography was “re-discovered” in 2005 and the subject of several exhibitions. See Aylot 2005 and Arnold 2006, both with handsome reproductions of a selection of photographs.

Introducing Metaphors

After these early experiments mixing observation and invention Russell gradually pushed his documentaries into full-fledged dramatised documentaries that play like feature films. After Elgar, which was his first film with extensive re-enactments, Russell progressed to Always on Sunday and especially The Debussy Film (1965). In the latter Russell evaded the troublesome issue of the truthfulness of recreations by making it a film about a film crew who are making a film about Debussy. This film-within-the-film device allows him to ask questions (via the character of the film director in the film) about the problems one encounters when trying to make a “truthful” biopic about an artist. But the film-within-the-film approach also introduces a self-reflexive element that lends itself to a vérité approach. In an especially vivid scene Russell follows the film crew as they film a nightly religious procession with torches. In direct cinema style his own “documentary” camera follows the film crew in a violent and disorienting swirl through the procession, getting as close to the action as possible. But perhaps the most interesting of Russell’s dramatised documentaries for our present discussion is Isadora Duncan: The Biggest Dancer in the World (1966), Russell’s next film after The Debussy Film. While making this biopic Russell was faced with the ultimate nemesis of the facts-oriented approach to documentary: the facts were unavailable to him. Parallel to Russell’s film on Duncan the Hakim brothers were producing Karel Reisz’s feature film on the dancer, starring Vanessa Redgrave. The Hakims had bought the rights to virtually every book ever written about Duncan, which meant that Russell could not use anecdotes or events that were mentioned in them. This meant that for several of the events in Duncan’s life Russell had to invent fictional alternatives. For example, when Duncan became the lover of sewing machine magnate Paris Singer he brought an entire orchestra on his yacht to accompany Duncan’s dancing on deck. Unable to use this story Russell devised the alternative that upon arriving at Singer’s mansion Duncan found an enormous golden box which, upon opening, contained six harpists to accompany her dancing. Russell considered this a good example ‘of finding a parallel incident which, although it cannot be as good as the truth, has some sort of flavour of the original’ (Qtd Gomez 1976, 46).

Although clearly a nuisance, the need to devise alternatives turned out to be a watershed in Russell’s work. It  forced Russell to create a truthful account of the artist as a person without access to all or most of the elements that make up factual truth. It is here, partly out of necessity, that Russell’s signature style of metaphorical hyperbole was born. Unable to show the facts Russell had to rely on scenes that evoked the facts metaphorically. The solution Russell devised to deal with the challenges of making Isadora Duncan is therefore instrumental to understand the further development of his biographical films. Isadora Duncan is only a biopic in a broad sense because it sketches the dancer’s life in bold strokes, focusing on a number key episodes and emblematic scenes, while devoting much of its running time to an expression of Duncan’s artistic ideas through dramatised re-enactments of her dance performances. Like Duncan the film communicates primarily through dance, which takes up a considerable part of its running time. Narrative exposition is therefore sketchy and broad, leaping from key event to key event, using the commentary track to maintain unity and facilitate temporal and spatial leaps. The main goal of the film is therefore not to give us an accurate factual account of Duncan’s life and career: it is to make us understand who she was, what she stood for, and to make us enthusiastic for her (ideas on) art. Rather than a biography the film is a celebration of Duncan and her principles. And the celebration is achieved by assimilating some of her ideas into the way the film itself is created. Russell has commented extensively on his intentions in making Isadora Duncan. He later explained that Duncan ‘had genuine talent, some mystical insight, but she was a bit bogus as well. She had a touch of vulgarity which I think art and people connected with it could well profit by. […] She was just a great person and that was her art’ (Baxter 1973, 129-130).

This element of vulgarity is brought out tremendously well by Vivian Pickles’ exuberantly engaging performance as Isadora. Speaking with a heavy American accent and dwelling in her own self-created legend as a dancing Greek goddess Pickles’s Duncan constantly hovers on the edge of ridiculousness. But the sincerity of her convictions carries her through and turns the potentially risible into the sublime. In this sense the vulgarity of Duncan is connected to her passion. It is the vulgarity of the artist who transcends her technical limitations through sheer enthusiasm and belief in the importance of what she is doing. But because Duncan’s dance died with the artist the success of Russell’s film relies entirely on Vivian Pickles’s success in replicating something of the thrill of watching Duncan dance. We cannot judge whether Pickles’s dancing resembles the way Duncan actually danced. But that is not important: the main thing is that Pickles succeeds in conveying the sensation of seeing Duncan dance. At that point Pickles’s artistic creation, which is her work as an actress in this film, becomes a vehicle for Duncan’s ideas. So Pickles is not simply required to play the part of Isadora Duncan: her main brief in the film is to capture her spirit by re-creating the experience of Isadora Duncan. It will not do to have Pickles acting in period dress as if Duncan were a character in a costume drama. To really capture Duncan’s spirit she must dance. But since her dance cannot imitate Duncan’s dance (we don’t know what it looked like) the only option is for her to dance Duncan’s ideas again as if she were Duncan dancing them. Pickles literally has to function as the medium for Duncan’s ideas through dance. But that is only one side of the story, because this communication of Duncan’s ideas through re-created dance next has to reach its audience: the viewers of the film. And here film language plays its part. Entirely in the mode of direct cinema Russell takes his camera right in there with the action. Like Watkins charging into the re-created battle of Culloden with his 16mm Arriflex Russell’s hand-held camera “follows” the dancing Duncan up-close as she swirls over the stage during several performances. But the purpose of direct cinema is to try and get unmediated access to one’s subject. And this is what Russell is also doing. As Pickles “channels” Duncan’s ideas through dance he takes his camera right in there to try and capture, in as unmediated a way as possible, the spirit of her dance.

After that, it is a relatively small step to building a film around the subjective experience of a composer’s music. In Isadora Duncan Russell was motivated by circumstance to look at the artist mainly through the work. This is the approach he would continue to follow, especially in his feature films about composers like Mahler. When Russell says about Mahler that ‘my film is simply about some of the things I feel when I think of Mahler’s life and listen to his music’ (Russell 1974, 6) he is making explicit, in a programmatic way, a method he has been using at least since Isadora Duncan. But to see this it is important to connect, as I have tried to do in this article, the development in Russell’s documentary work to developments in BBC drama and to highlight the importance of vérité and direct cinema grammars for Russell’s style. This means that Russell’s work occupies a key position to discuss the intersections and ultimately the blurring of the borders between documentary and drama. His work (but certainly also that of the grossly neglected Peter Watkins) should therefore be at the heart of discussions both of documentary and of drama at the BBC. This is rarely done. Histories and discussions of BBC drama (Caughie 2000, Cooke 2003, but also Hill 2011 on Loach) either do not mention Russell at all or only in passing, while histories and discussions of the arts documentary (Walker 1993, Wyver 2007) tend to discuss Russell without reference to developments in drama. I believe that keeping the lines of connection open enriches our view of Russell and suggests that the distinction between documentary and drama may be up for grabs because, ultimately, everything in television is dramatised to some extent. It is interesting to see, however, that this territorial (or disciplinary) approach to documentary and drama, treating them as two essentially different things, reflects an attitude that was also typical of the BBC itself. When Russell entered the BBC in 1959 the Corporation was divided into so-called “baronies”. This meant, in the words of director Tony Palmer, that ‘different departments actually assume that different subject matter is their property. You find this consideration dominant inside the BBC’ (Qtd Bakewell and Garnham 1970, 139). Drama was drama and not documentary or current affairs, and vice versa. John Hill (2011, 66) points out, for example, that one of the reasons Cathy Come Home was criticised was because the film was made by the drama department rather than as a documentary. In a quaint (but perhaps revealing) way scholarship on British television history seems to mirror such baronial considerations. Russell’s work, balanced on the edge between documentary and drama, suggests that we should cross the dividing line, and perhaps even give it up.


I have argued that the direct cinema elements in Russell’s film language can be traced to the immediate institutional and artistic context in which Russell was working. As a director of documentaries Russell put a highly inventive spin on ‘the claim, made in different ways throughout the history of documentary work, that a special relationship to the real is being achieved (indexical, evidential, revelatory) and, on the basis of this relationship, that “truths” are being communicated’ (Corner 1996, 10). Throughout his years at the BBC, and almost programmatically after the watershed of Elgar, Russell substituted an increasingly subjective and even anti-factual approach for the more staid conventions of factual reporting. He was not alone in undermining documentary conventions at the BBC, as witnessed in the work of Peter Watkins. Furthermore, similar concerns with subjective representations of reality (or representations of subjective experiences of reality) changed the visual codes used in BBC drama. I have suggested that both trends converge in an interesting way and that suspension of objective truth seems to be the common denominator connecting the diverse experiments of Russell, Loach, and Watkins. For these directors realism, to feel real, required a subjective slant, whether it was Loach’s socially conscious drama, Watkins’s subversive faux-direct cinema tracts on warfare, or Russell’s subjectively felt experiences of the artist’s life in the work. What is at stake in each is the status of realism and truth, and especially the (tele)visual language that will allow the filmmaker to achieve the experience or perception of “his” reality by the spectator. Although these three highly individual approaches to truthfulness may be mutually incompatible they do share a resistance to established visual codes and narrative practices. All three would argue that there is no single “objective” truth because any purportedly “objective” account only offers one facet of a complicated whole. That is why “official” truth always needs a subjective corrective. This corrective can be as seemingly innocuous and frivolous as Russell “feeling” his way through and artist’s biography or as militantly agitational as a tract on nuclear warfare, homelessness, or abortion.

This argument is of tantamount importance if we want to make sense of Russell’s later, more famous and much more controversial, theatrical features on composers such as The Music Lovers (1970), Mahler (1974), and Lisztomania (1975). It is now clear that Russell’s seemingly unrestrained fabulations should not be understood as cheap provocations or ‘outsized and eye-catching graffiti that pass for an auteur’s signature among less discerning critics’ (Dawson 1972, 111). Russell’s mature work is motivated by the conviction that alternative truths to fact-based truth are available to the historian, the biographer, and the documentary filmmaker and that a subjective interpretation of the life via the work is one such truth. But as the discussion of Isadora Duncan made clear, the origin of this method was also connected to the emergence of direct cinema and vérité techniques in British broadcasting of the 1960s. Out of this context Russell developed a hybrid form of documentary in which he presents us not so much with “truth” as with “his truth”. Russell’s films are not meant to be read as objective accounts (how could they ever be?). Rather, I would suggest that they are, with a swiftean wink, modest proposals that offer alternative readings of established history. Looking (subjectively) at artists through their art Russell aims at capturing the spirit rather than the facts of the artist’s life. But the (tele)visual style he develops for this purpose is paradoxically indebted to direct cinema and vérité grammars. His films seek an intimate knowledge of the artist by getting up close to the artist’s work. In this sense, Isadora Duncan’s visual language is interestingly mirrored in Russell at Work(Ian Keill, 1965), a half-hour BBC documentary on the making of Isadora Duncan that contains behind-the-scenes footage of Russell directing. Throughout much of these scenes the camera gets as close to Russell as Russell gets to Pickles in his film’s dancing scenes. In Russell at Work Russell is “followed” by the camera in the same way that he “followed” the four artists in Pop Goes the Easel or direct cinema film-makers followed their respective subjects. Russell at Work is a direct cinema documentary about the making of a film in which direct cinema methods are used as part of the visual grammar of a documentary drama. We may assume that behind Russell at Work there is the same belief that by getting “up close” to Russell the camera will deliver some kind of truth or reality about Russell that simply could not be obtained by keeping a polite distance. It was Russell himself, however, who did most to introduce the idea that such close-ups of the creative process could highlight legitimate and unexpected truths about what it means to be an artist.This article is part of my doctoral research on Ken Russell’s artist biographies as performance of self at the University of Maastricht (promotor: Maaike Meijer). I thank Maaike Meijer, Jack Post, and Karel Vanhaesebrouck for their comments on an earlier version of this material in the shape of a (much more extensive) chapter in the dissertation.


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