Over the last few months, I’ve been steadily working my way through some of director Ken Russell’s early work, particularly the episodes he made for the BBC series Monitor, a British arts program that ran from 1958 to 1965 and boasts some of Russell’s most interesting (and influential) formative films. Some of his classic works — like The Music Lovers (1970) and Mahler (1974) — had their roots in his musical biographical episodes, both in terms of short films and those closer to feature length, which I’ve already covered: Elgar (1962), Bela Bartok (1964), The Debussy Film (1965), and Always on Sunday (1965). I also took a look at some of his shorter music-themed episodes, and these, to me, make up his most exciting work with Monitor, but they are far from his only work with the series and it’s a shame that more of these shorts haven’t been given legitimate DVD or Blu-ray releases.
While some, like Cranks at Work (1960) — which features one of my favorite poets, W.H. Auden and which I dearly wish I could track down — and The Dotty World of James Lloyd (1964) remain lost or, at least, very difficult to track down, the remaining episodes can loosely be grouped into two themes: visual art and places, namely landscapes and architecture, the latter of which I will discuss in a follow up essay. Russell’s fascination with art, and the lives of other artists, is obviously voracious and these episodes show the same kind of enthusiasm and love as the musical episodes. The sheer breadth of these short films are evidence of the full range of Russell’s passion for the arts, and for life in general.
One of the earliest of these is Variations on a Mechanical Theme (1959), which belongs somewhere between his visual art short films and his musical biographies. A 13-minute documentary on the evolution of mechanical musical instruments, Russell jumps from the basic music box to more industrial, automated inventions, detailing their historical importance and how they allowed for the development of more sophisticated machinery. This lovely, almost experimental work is just as concerned with the stylistic appeal of these mechanical devices as he is with the music they produced. He devotes particular attention to the player piano; a narrator asserts that “four machines worked day and night to satisfy the demand” for player pianos during their earliest craze, though they soon gave way to the gramophone. Russell throws in his customary historical themes by explaining that during the onset of WWII, Mussolini’s declaration that “all Italian organ grinders must leave Britain at once,” resulting in a new public need for musical entertainment — which allows the episode to move speedily ahead to a very brief look at the emergence of electronic music. It’s a shame that this wasn’t a full length documentary, as Russell’s mesmerizing sense of style — already well-defined though he was still in his early years — far outstrips the admittedly fascinating historical information. His love of these instruments seems very real and is infectious.
He followed this up with a more traditionally fine art-themed episode, Scottish Painters (1959). Another brief glimpse into the art world, this 11-minute film examines the work of, you guessed it, Scottish painters Robert MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun. Every bit as pastoral as Elgar or Bartok, Russell seems to be as interested exploring the artists’ relationship to the countryside as he does to biographical themes or their work itself. The film opens with a horse-drawn cart, which carries the two painters, lumbering through an open field, into a village, and onward to their shared studio. The documentary takes on a curiously melancholic tone through its music and cinematography, which is furthered symbolized by Colquhon’s strange, almost expressionistic portraits. The two artists’ fascination with certain shapes and forms is a major focus of the film, particularly how they draw inspiration from the natural world (focusing especially on MacBryde’s still life with cantaloupes and Colquhon’s memories of the human form). Russell presents them as sort of romantic explorers, stopping in one area just long enough for inspiration, caring only about painting.
Old Battersea House (1961) is one that I really have a soft spot for out of all his Monitor episodes and could belong either in a discussion of his art-themed films or his various episodes devoted to unusual, beautiful locations. Set in the titular house — the narrator describes how “at first glance, [it] seems a ghostly, spooky place” and shares a legend that is haunted — a location in South London that is more art museum than it is house. There is a delightful interview with Mrs. Sterling, who owned and lived in the house at the time of filming (though she passed away in 1965), though Old Battersea House comes the closest Russell would get to the idea of a “talking head” documentary. For the British Film Institute, Michael Brooke wrote, “Russell’s direction is uncharacteristically restrained, presumably because the house’s collections are quite exotic enough to get by without any additional visual or conceptual flourishes.”
But the colorful Sterling has a close relationship with her carefully curated Pre-Raphaelite collection that includes paintings and sculptures, thanks to the fact that much of it came from, or belonged to, her sister, the painter Evelyn De Morgan. There is the sense that the memories of the people Sterling loved lingers in her memories and, even more so, in the exquisitely detailed works of art, and Russell excels at bringing life to these ghosts and describing the sense of nostalgia and melancholy that lingers about the house, as stranger troop through to look at the art. It is no wonder that Russell would return again to the subject of the Pre-Raphaelites with Dante’s Inferno (1967), though I admittedly wish he had explored this group of artists more throughout his career.
One of his greatest Monitor episodes is undoubtedly Pop Goes the Easel (1962), which follows “four young artists, who turn, for their subject matter, to the world of pop art,” in the worlds of narrator Huw Wheldon. The artists in question are twenty-somethings Peter Blake, Peter Philips, Pauline Boty, and Derek Boshier. Among Russell’s earliest lengthier works (at more than 40 minutes), this film offers a look at how pop culture can be transformed into fine art. It’s fun, youthful, and a touch avant-garde, and spends much of its run time imagining the source of the artist’s imagination (while also interviewing them each in turn) and exploring their works. While I’m not the world’s greatest devotee of ‘60s pop art (in fact I hate a lot of it), there is something so vibrant about Russell’s film that it manages to be wholly absorbing without being shot in color. Russell shows how each of these young artists — through their lives and their work — captured the mood of the time: which he himself depicts through a collage of dancing, pop and jazz music, pinball games, the carnival, cruising in the car, movies, music, television, and toys, and a marked emphasis on the American influence on British pop art (and British culture in general).
Sort of a companion piece is the nearly 30-minute long Watch the Birdie (1963), which focuses on documentary photographer David Hurn — who captured the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and went on to shoot several influential pop culture-related campaigns (he’s responsible for some iconic James Bond poster art) — and starts off following him on a fog-drenched wedding shoot in the woods while he narrates the events of his young life. It maintains Russell’s fascination with the countryside, as well as historical themes through the stock footage of a war-ravaged Hungary. Watch the Birdie also has a few of the kind of fictionalized sequences — such as one where Hurn, trying to take pictures in the woods, is chased through the trees by a police dog — that would become so influential.
Overall, this segment looks at the youthful, casual atmosphere of his fashion shoots (though it also includes photography of nuns and strippers in a typically Russellian sense of sexual contrast), which are held in a studio in his own home and featuring model Alita Naughton, who would reappear in Russell’s French Dressing (1964) and Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World (1966). Hurn explains the typical ins and outs of a photography set while also making something of a case for fashion (and marketing) as art and whether or not this holds weight, Hurn makes a case for his own prowess as an artist. For the British Film Institute, Michael Brooke wrote, “Despite Hurn’s frequently-expressed dissatisfaction with his own work (at the end of the film, he laments that of the thousands of pictures he takes every year, he’s only truly pleased with a handful), it’s clear that his clients value it rather more, not least thanks to his sheer versatility.”
It’s a fascinating portrait of an artist in the early years of his career and I can’t help but wonder if the inclusion of songs like Frank Sinatra’s “My Kind of Girl” — and the incumbent rights issues — are holding this back from being released. It’s a shame that these haven’t been restored (as you can tell from the blurry quality of the some of the stills) and released together, as they would make an outstanding series of special features with any number of Russell’s early films or musical biographies, particularly the aforementioned Dante’s Inferno (though that’s already included in a set like Ken Russell at the BBC, with several of his other feature length films from the period).