Monday, 16 January 2012

Ken Russell

I don't know how long this will stay on iPlayer, but it is worth a watch.  And here is Humphrey Burton's eulogy, delivered at Russell's funeral in December:

Ken Russell – an appreciation for his Funeral

I met Ken in 1959. He joined the Monitor team during its second season. His first film was with John Betjeman, then unknown to the big public; it was  a visualization of poems he’d written about  London and the home counties: I remember I had to find a suitably leggy young lady to en-act  Miss J Hunter Dunn playing tennis, “furnished and burnished by Aldershot sun”.

Ken was thirty-two when Huw Wheldon signed him up, on the strength of a short amateur film of great charm called Amelia and the Angel. He wrote, directed and filmed it  himself on a borrowed 16 mil Paillard Bolex. He was born in Southampton and fell in love with the movies when still only a small child thanks to weekly cinema visits with his mother. For his tenth birthday he was given a hand-cranked home projector on which he ran rented movies over and over again. His first film goddess was Shirley Temple. He soon graduated to Dorothy Lamour and Betty Grable. Later, his creative mentors were Fritz Lang and Charlie Chaplin. Dragons and slapstick!

At thirteen, during the worst days of the Blitz, Ken was sent to Pangbourne College,  graduating after  a stormy adolescence to a sea-going posting as a very junior  fourth officer on a merchant ship. Under the blazing Pacific sun his eccentric captain ordered him to scan the horizon hour after hour  for  Japanese midget submarines – this despite the war having ended some weeks earlier.  He soon realized that the sailor’s life was not for him and at 19 he presented himself at the gates of Ealing Film Studios asking for a tea-boy’s  job in order to learn about directing. The commissionaire turned him away. It was thirteen years before he returned.

 Instead he studied ballet dancing for four years on  a   scholarship but the world of  classical ballet eventually  decided Ken was physically the wrong shape to be a dancer and  after a brief season touring as a “hoofer”  with a touring company in    Annie get your Gun -  he gave  up show dancing, too, though his experience was useful  for his Monitor films about Isadora Duncan and Marie Rambert and the feature films of  The Boy Friend and Valentino.

Ken  also had  a brief spell in the RAF,  spent very unglamourously -   charging batteries for Spitfire engines. He even tried straight acting but to no avail:  it was forty years before he got a speaking role. However a real career opened in his late twenties when he started making  a name for himself  as a stills photographer working for the fashion world and Illustrated.

 I dwell on these early days because it’s surprising, looking back,  how long Ken took to  find his m├ętier. Film had  remained his passion, however, and at last, when he joined Monitor,  he was able to get going as a film-maker. He was a lovely person to work with, very demanding, of course, and famous for his tantrums, but full of respect for his colleagues – cameramen such as Ken Westbury and Ken Higgins; the legendary  film editors Allan Tyrer and Mike Bradsell; his devoted  PAs among them  Anne James, whose production stills of Elgar are so valuable. And once he broke into the feature world (in which BBC “documentaries” such as  the Delius film, A Song of Summer, must be included he built solid and artistically fruitful friendships with actors as Oliver Reed, Wladek Sheybal, Murray Melvin, Vivan Pickles, Glenda Jackson and Christopher Gable. 

Ken didn’t treat television work  as merely a stepping stone to the feature world. In eleven years he made thirty-five films for the BBC. Some were quite short, such as the Guitar Craze  and Mechanical Instruments,   some, like his composer  portrait,  Prokofiev, Soviet Artist,  were half an hour long;  after the success of the  Elgar  film, in which  actors were first admitted,  there was a steady flow of hour-long  “specials” such as  Pop Goes the Easel and Douanier Rousseau. A new recruit to the Monitor team,  Melvyn Bragg, stimulated Ken’s imagination with a brilliant script for The Debussy Film, the first of their many collaborations –  the two of them flourished again  from the late seventies onwards when Melvyn planted the Monitor flag on ITV’s South Bank and nourished Ken with film commissions year after year.

Ken’s energy, his industry, the fecundity of his ideas and the richness of his imagination combined to make a potent magician’s brew. The long list of his feature films, made over a period of thirty years,    defy categorization: science fiction and gothic horror jostle for pride of place  with  adaptations of  D.H.Lawrence (Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow and Lady Chatterly’s Lover)  and vivid biographies (“frenzied carnivals” was his own description)  of Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Mahler, not to mention the fictional  Tommy. He filmed a Puccini aria for Don Boyd’s Diva and  even strayed into opera direction once in a while.

In his television days he said he was hopeless with words, preferring to leave  commentary-writing  for others to deal with, the film’s story for him being primarily in the images. Yet in his 60s and 70s Ken wrote two hilarious books about his time as an independent spirit  in the British cinema, as well as half a dozen novels and a regular column for The Times. He was never at rest. Lisi tells me that on the day he died he was planning to work on his next project, Alice in Wonderland: The Musical. He was at home, by the way, not in hospital as was widely reported: he died peacefully in his sleep – an afternoon nap.

I realize now that Ken was my first true genius. I’d met  composers and poets in my radio days but nobody to compare with this man’s imagination and creative drive. It really struck home when I saw what he had done with Elgar and the Malvern Hills.  The boy on the white pony, the young man on the bicycle, the old man in the car -  all following the same hillside track   to the same glorious music. Or think  how he used  Land of Hope and Glory, cutting it to shocking images of gassed and maimed soldiers on the Western Front. For his climax Ken filmed row upon row of white crosses in the military cemeteries of Picardy, panning over them in dizzying camera sweeps, faster and faster, to match the rushing finale of Elgar’s pre-war  march, now so hideously mis-used as propaganda.

But arguably  the most powerful image of all  was of the three  wooden crosses which Ken arranged to have constructed and erected  before dawn at the summit  of the Worcestershire Beacon -  they were to be  the Catholic Elgar’s ecstatic vision of the crucifixion, the climax of The Dream of Gerontius. (The crosses were hastily dismantled before an irate park warden could remonstrate; the crew then went down to Malvern for breakfast.) 

For the last ten years of his life, Ken and I  did an occasional double act on the lecture circuit, talking about  Monitor and our music films to cinema clubs and arts festivals. We took loads of film clips to illustrate our points but one day we were told the talk would have to be cancelled because the cinema staff had gone on strike. “Don’t be daft!”, cried Ken, “the show must go on :  we’ll do the illustrations ourselves.’ And we did. He had an astonishing musical memory: we described the pony charging over the hills and scattering the sheep  to the vaulting melody of the Introduction and Allegro (sing). We evoked  the courtship scenes  which were cut to Salut d’Amour (sing). Then there was the cello concerto (which Ken could sing and I won’t); we used that melancholy music  for the poignant moment when the camera pans down from a double row of poplars and steadies at ground level on an empty road where earlier in the film we’ve seen Elgar and his future bride disappearing into small dots as at the end of a Chaplin film. Another example of Ken’s unique gift of getting to the heart of the  music.

Today it’s as if that camera has once again  panned down through the line of waving poplars to an empty avenue and found… a gaping hole  in our minds and memories where Ken Russell used to be.  Our hearts  go out  to his dear wife  Lisi    and to  his family in their loss - as we say farewell to a “life-force”; I can’t find a better word to describe him.

Ken Russell was a great Englishman. Fearless, independent, original, visionary. He achieved an unmatched body of work as a film-maker which we must  now ensure is accessible to film-lovers the world over to admire and enjoy. Thank-you, Ken. Good-bye.    

Humphrey Burton    Bournemouth Crematorium,     December 12th, 2011

See also Making 'Elgar' in Pages

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