‘The Debussy Film’: The making of Ken Russell’s TV masterpiece starring Oliver Reed

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Ken Russell had thought about making a film on Debussy for some time. He was ‘hovering on the feature film fringe,’ having just made his first movie French Dressing, in 1964. But it had sadly flopped and he had returned to work as a producer and director for the BBC’s arts series Monitor.

Making a feature film had encouraged Russell’s ambitions, and he now had a revolutionary idea for a new kind of documentary arts film, but he wasn’t quite sure how best to achieve it. This was when Russell met Melvyn Bragg, a young Northern writer, who was also working in the Monitor office.

At twenty, Bragg had decided to become a writer, but thought ‘quite rightly as it turned out,’ that he wouldn’t be able to make a living from it. So, he got a job, to support his literary ambitions.

‘I got a BBC traineeship when I was twenty-one,’ Bragg told me in 1984. ‘Went into radio, which I liked an awful lot. Worked in Newcastle. Worked in the World Service, Bush House. Then I worked in Broadcasting House, in the Features Department. I was going to stay there—I didn’t like television, except for Monitor—and I said I’d only go into television if I could get an attachment onto Monitor. Eventually, one came up, and I got it.’

Russell wanted to share his idea with Bragg. He met him in a cafe, and told Bragg about Debussy and his plan for a new kind of arts documentary—a film-within-a-film. Together they wrote a script, and Bragg turned it into a screenplay.

‘When I did Debussy, Ken’s first talkie on television, nobody had done that before I did that as a screenplay as a way to make it work. The real problem you’ve got with biopics about people is that there is no structured drama in anybody’s life. You’ve got to make it.

‘What you’ve got are pits, which are very good, all over the fucking shop, and you’ve got to have that bit because [they’re] terrific, and you’ve got to have that bit because there’s hardly any relationship between them. Where, if you write a play, or write a book, there is a relationship because you’ve written it like that. But in people’s lives, something happens there, and 7 years later, something else happens. This enables us to dip in-and-out.’

It was a lunchtime in May, and I was interviewing Bragg in his office, at London Weekend Television, where he worked as editor and presenter of the (now legendary) arts series, The South Bank Show. Bragg sat behind his desk, dressed as usual in a suit (‘Another way to get people to forget about me and concentrate on the person that I am talking to’), eating an apple for his lunch.

Bragg said he thought Russell ‘a very brilliant, eccentric and erratic talent, he can be marvelous.’

The Debussy Film was the first of several highly successful collaborations between Russell and Bragg—as director and writer. A partnership that lasted until The Music Lovers (‘I had a big row with [Ken] on that which is fairly public. I hated it.’) The pair later worked together again on several documentaries for The South Bank Show .

It was also Russell’s first collaboration with actor Oliver Reed, who later described the director as:

Jesus is not Christ, only Russell.

Reed was a rare talent, who had been slightly over-looked by film producers because of a scar on his face, which he had received on a drunken night out. But Reed was more than just a feared Hell-raiser, he was a brilliant actor who brought an incredibly complex and emotional depth to the role of Debussy.

‘Debussy was an ambiguous character,’ Russell told one of his biographers, John Baxter in 1973.

...and I always let the character of the person or his work dictate the way a film goes. Also, one was a bit critical of artists like Debussy and I thought the time had come to ask questions, and the natural way for me to ask questions was to have a film director [Vladek Sheybal] talking to an actor [Oliver Reed], because an actor always asks questions about the character he’s playing and the director usually had to answer them, or try to, often to keep him happy. And when I found Debussy was friendly with an intellectual named Pierre Louys from whom he derived a lot, it seemed an analogous relationship to that of a film director and an actor. There are some points in the film, I think, where it doesn’t matter if it’s the director talking to the actor or Louys talking to Debussy—passages of intentional ambiguity.

Born in his music and his life, Debussy was a great sensualist. There’s a line of his in the film: “Music should express things that can’t be said,” which simply means to me that music is something which, the moment you talk about it, disintegrates and becomes meaningless. That’s what I mean by sensuality—something that’s felt rather than reasoned.

 
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Ken Russell directing ‘The Debussy Film’ (1965)
 
While The Debussy Film may at first appear a film that is “felt rather than reasoned,” it has to be understood that every element of it is based on fact, taken from letters and personal details of the main characters. Also, by presenting inter-linking narratives, Russell was able to question, examine and comment on Debussy’s creative life, and the damage it caused him to those he loved.

With Debussy I felt it was important to say something about his music and attitudes to it as well as relevant facts of his life. A good example of this is his relationship with his mistress Gaby, and her inability to understand either him or his art. There’s a scene where the actor playing Debussy goes to a party with his girlfriend (playing Gaby) and puts on a record of Danse Sacre et Danse Profane. He wants to listen to it, to be immersed completely; he sees in it images of art nouveau. But everyone else in the room, instead of carrying on talking, or dancing to it, or giving it half an ear, all become silent and listen to the music with a mixture of duty and piety, which is all too often the case. His girlfriend, who just sees him as being perverse, does a strip-tease to it and ridicules both the man and his music. People are very wary of the heightening of experience, and want to knock it down. It’s fear as much as anything that makes her do the strip dance, fear of something she doesn’t understand and so can only get level with by ridiculing. A lot of people still do that, not just with art but with life.

I wasn’t totally on Debussy’s side; in a sense he had no right to disrupt the party. But artists are dogmatic and pig-headed, and they over-ride people. Most of the people I’ve dealt with in films have quite dispassionately sacrificed someone in their way who understood them. It’s not nice but that’s how it works. The end of the film, the music from his unfinished opera The Fall of the House of Usher, with Debussy alone in the castle and his ghostly mistress—whom he drove to attempted suicide—rising up, was an analogy of the lost romantic ideal he had destroyed by his disregard for people. You can be an egomaniac up to a point but in the end it can destroy you, or your work, or both.

The Debussy Film is Russell developing the style and technique that would make him internationally recognized as one of the greatest directors of the twentieth century. His approach was revolutionary and brilliant, and The Debussy Film changed television and cinematic biography for good. It also revealed another side to Oliver Reed (who is quite brilliant) and Vladek Sheybal, who was usually typecast as KGB agents. The film also contains cameos form artists Duggie Fields and Pauline Boty.
 

 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Merry Christmas….!!!: From Duggie Fields

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Always ahead of the curve, the lovely Duggie Fields has sent us our first Christmas card - a “spoken-word/animation/experimental/beat” wishing everyone a MERRY CHRISTMAS…......!!

Thanks Duggie, and a Merry Christmas to you!

Follow Duggie Fields  on Vimeo, Twitter and his blog.
 

 
Bonus version of ‘MERRY CHRISTMAS….!!’, after the jump…
 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Conquer Divisive Ideology: Duggie Fields’ The Big Riddle from 1993

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More than an artist, Duggie Fields has been an Art Movement over the past 5 decades. His paintings, films, animation, photography, music, and design, have been at the pioneering edge of British Art and Culture. And he has collaborated with the likes of Ken Russell, Stanley Kubrick, Derek Jarman, and Andrew Logan.

In the 1990s, Mr Fields devised a new Philosophy of Art - MAXIMALism, which he described as “minimalism with a plus, plus, plus” and “the individual use to create chaos out of order and vice versa”. As Mr Fields developed his MAXIMAList Art Works, he produced a series of short art films and music videos. This is one of those many gems, THE BIG RIDDLE from 1993, written by Fields, with music co-written with Howard Bernstein, and directed by Mark Le Bon.
 

 
Previously on Dangerous Minds

Duggie Fields: Beautiful photographs from Just Around the Corner


Tea With Duggie Fields


 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Glitterbug: Derek Jarman’s final film

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Glitterbug was Derek Jarman’s final film, compiled from the many hours of Super 8 footage he had shot throughout his life. Originally made in 1994 for the BBC’s Arena. arts strand, Glitterbug is a visual journal that ties together aspects of Jarman’s life from the 1970s to 1990s.

The film opens with the artist awakened by the memory of dreams, of lovers, of friends, of place - Jarman’s lofts on Bankside, Upper Ground, the Thames River; of self, shaving, washing, breakfasting - those small rituals that prepare the day, the structuring of artifice and order. The world outside, My Tea Shop, the day-time existence, Jarman’s curiosity for the world around him. Then at night another world, we see preparation for Andrew Logan’s Alternative Miss World, returning to day, a garden party, is this Andrew Logan singing as Little Nell Campbell dances? Duggie Fields watches, Jarman films.

The dreamer sleeps, travels to the country, Van Gogh fields, standing stones, the memory of place, absence of others, a white-washed cottage room, the creation of art, the structuring of order.

The dreamer awake, and we are now watching Jarman at work, Sebastiane, the sea flecked gold, the actors at play, legs entwined. An office, an apartment, ‘phone calls, then filming the artist Duggie Fields, his designs, his face, a prelude to Jubilee, a young flame-haired Toyah Willcox, The Sex Pistols, Jordan and a dress rehearsal for what will become The Last of England, as she pirouettes around a burning Union Jack, Adam Ant, hair-cutting, the Silver Jubilee.

Jarman is showing us the sketches for preparation, the themes he returned to throughout his life. Rome, ritual, the research for Caravaggio, punk, the art of mirrors, The Slits, William Burroughs, Gensis P. Orridge, Throbbing Gristle, Jarman’s fascinations and obsessions, his idols and co-conspirators. The ritual of sharing tea, sharing cigarettes, a shared communion, youthful faces, sun flecked, smiling in the sun, a future ahead, too often cut short by the frost, this the last summer they danced on the rooftop,  ‘Here I am, here are my secrets,’ he is saying, as we plunder through his film diaries, Super 8 scrapbook, glittering trinket chest, memory is what makes us, what sometimes betrays us, what gives us the love we have to share, returning to the Thames, the friends, the lovers, those living, those dead.

Glitterbug Derek Jarman’s Super 8 films, with Andrew Logan, Duggie Fields, Tilda Swinton, Michael Clark, Adam Ant, Toyah Willcox, William Burroughs and Genesis P. Orridge. Music by Brian Eno, specially commissioned for this film.
 

 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Crazy Diamond: The Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story

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In his essential book of collected rock music essays and profiles, The Dark Stuff, writer Nick Kent recounts how famed psychiatrist, R. D. Laing watched an interview tape of Pink Floyd’s genius and drug-addled leader, Syd Barrett and claimed the singer was incurable. Not long after, Kent saw the evidence for himself:

Less than five years earlier, I’d stood transfixed, watching [Syd] in all his retina scorching, dandified splendor as he’d performed with his group the Pink Floyd, silently praying that one day I might be just like him. Now, as he stood before me with his haunted eyes and fractured countenance, I was having second thoughts. I asked him about his current musical project (a short-lived trio called Stars…) as his eyes burned a hole through one of the four walls surrounding us with a stare so ominous it could strip the paint off the bonnet of a brand new car. ‘I had eggs and bacon for breakfast,’ he then intoned solemnly, as if reciting a distantly remembered mantra. I repeated my original question. ‘I’m sorry! I don’t speak French,’ he finally replied.

Perhaps Barrett just wanted to avoid the dandified Kent. Then again, when Kent “rubbed up against the likes of Syd Barrett” he astutley realized:

...these were people who’d gotten what they actually wanted, only to find out it was the last thing on earth they actually needed…

This isn’t to dismiss Barrett’s immense talent or achievements - for one, he took an average band and turned them into something quite incredible. And his importance was such that when he left, his bandmates went on to make music inspired by his absence.

The Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story was originally screened in 2001, as part of the BBC’s Omnibus strand as Syd Barrett - Crazy Diamond. The documentary gives a fascinating portrait of Barrett’s brilliant rise and tragic fall through a drug-induced breakdown. Contributions come from Roger Waters, Nick Mason, David Gilmour, artist Duggie Fields (who describes sharing an apartment with the Crazy Diamond), Robyn Hitchcock, and, of course, archive of Syd Barrett - who, incidentally, watched the doc, when it was first broadcast and enjoyed seeing the archive, though found the music “too loud”.
 

 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Duggie Fields: Beautiful photographs from ‘Just Around the Corner’

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Duggie Fields is one Britain’s best and most influential artists, whose work hangs in galleries across the world and has influenced art, design, fashion, music, film, and now photography. Over the past few years, Mr Fields has been using his mobile phone to photograph and document the well-traveled streets and over-looked locations around his home in Earls Court. Now, he has collected these beautiful poetic moments together in a book called Just Around the Corner. Dangerous Minds contacted Mr Fields to ask him how the project started?

‘The photographs started a few years back once I got my first mobile phone that had a good camera and didn’t have to self-consciously think about taking a camera out…The phone was just always with me…So the frequency of taking photographs almost daily became a natural occurrence with no plan or scheme as to what…Like a diary of images, starting just around the corner in the area I live in and have lived in for over 40 years, and in which I constantly find things I haven’t noticed before, and still can find beautiful.’

Where did the title Just Around The Corner come from?

‘The title came because it was the description of where the first “Facebooked” were….I started putting them on Facebook as it is easy to do and easier to put there than my website. Soon they started getting followers ‘Liking’ them from all over, which encouraged me to put them together eventually for the book whose title was obvious.’

What inspires you and are there certain themes you find yourself returning to?

‘Themes started with the local architecture combined with the gardens, trees, plants of my immediate neighborhood but then spread to corners across London. Really just everywhere I happened to be going, from parks, to street-markets to car-boot sales. Varying also with the seasons from spring to summer to the snow. They have influenced my painting and are in turn influenced by them. Now from just around the corner they echo organically further in the digital world.’

To order a copy of Duggie Fields fabulous book Just Around The Corner check here.
 

 
Previously on Dangerous Minds

Tea with Duggie Fields


When Duggie Fields, Divine and J.R. had Christmas together


 
 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Andrew Logan: First look at ‘The British Guide To Showing Off’

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First look at the new documentary film, The British Guide to Showing Off, which celebrates Andrew Logan, artist, living legend and creator of the outrageous, anarchic and always spectacular Alternative Miss World Show.

The Alternative Miss World Show, is a pageant and fancy dress party for grown ups, launched back in 1972, it has involved the participation from the likes of Derek Jarman, Divine, Duggie Fields, Leigh Bowery, David Hockney, Richard O’Brien Zandra Rhodes, Molly Parkin, Angie Bowie and Grayson Perry over the years

“In The British Guide to Showing Off, director Jes Benstock takes us under Logan’s glittering wing to take a joyous look at this most quirky and exotic subculture event.

“Raucous, liberating and sexually charged, The British Guide to Showing Off speaks to the outsider in all of us. For anyone who has ever wanted to break out.”

The film goes on general release in the U.K. on November 11th, with special ‘Dress Up and Show Off’. Previews starting 6th November! See BritishGuideToShowingOff on Facebook for details or at the website here.
 

 
Previously on Dangerous Minds

O, You Pretty Thing: The Wonderful World of Andrew Logan


 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
O, You Pretty Thing: The Wonderful World of Andrew Logan

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I once met the artist, sculptor and jewelry-maker, Andrew Logan at a Divine concert in Edinburgh, circa 1984. He was charming and delightful and showed me a selection of his jewelry designs, including a ring with a tiny book attached. He told me there was nothing written in it yet, and full of youthful enthusiasm, I offered to write him something. I did, but never sent it. A pity, for opportunity only ever comes once.

Andrew’s work mixes Pop Art with Neo-Romanticism, and a pinch of English eccentricity. He is the only living artist with a museum in Europe, of which music maestro Brian Eno said:

‘Andrew’s work doesn’t offer that much to the would-be catalogue mystifier: if you start saying anything too pretentious about it, it sort of laughs in your face. It’s hard to place, because it doesn’t really quite belong anywhere, guilelessly straddling a number of heavily contested boundaries - such as those between art and craft, between art and decoration, between pop and fine, between the profane and sacred. But I don’t think this straddling is some sort of ideological position that Andrew has contrived - it’s just where he happens to find himself when he makes the work he wants to see.’

While the art critic and writer John Russell Taylor said:

‘Logan has achieved something beyond the reach of any other 20th Century British Sculptor, even Henry Moore: he has managed to open his own museum, dedicated entirely to his own work and carried it off with showbiz flair.’

Born in Oxfordshire in 1945, Andrew studied to become an architect at the Oxford School of Architecture, graduating in 1970, he then gave that all up to start a career as an artist, believing:

“Art can be discovered anywhere.”

He mixed with Duggie Fields, and Derek Jarman, and became an influence on Jarman’s early Super 8 films, which documented the social scene around Logan and Jarman’s studios at Butler’s Wharf.

In 1972, he started the now legendary the Alternative Miss World, a creative, free-reign competition, which was more about transformation than beauty. The event was filmed and made Logan rather famous.

But his work as an artist continued, and he was acclaimed for his beautiful and fun jewelry, used by such fashion designers as Zandra Rhodes; while his fabulous sculptures celebrated classic form with whimsy. 

Logan has generally found himself near the front of cultural developments. In 1976 his studios were the setting for Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s Valentine Ball, at which the Sex Pistols made their debut.

Since then, Logan has exhibited his sculptures and designs across the world - from London to St Petersburg, California to Baltimore.  His lifesize horse sculptures, Pegasus I and Pegasus II were displayed at Heathrow Airport, and his Icarus sculpture hangs in Guy’s Hospital. His jewelry was presented by Emmanuel Ungaro in Paris, and more recently it inspired designs for Commes Des Garcons.

This short documentary from Channel 4’s 1980s series Alter Image gives a delightful introduction to the wonderful world of Andrew Logan. Enjoy.
 

 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
When Duggie Fields, Divine and ‘J.R.’ Spent Christmas Together

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The brilliant artist Duggie Fields supplied Dangerous Minds with this fabulous Holiday snap of a Christmas party with Divine and Larry ‘J.R.’ Hagman in the 1980s. As Duggie explains:

The photo was Christmas day at Zandra Rhodes’ in London Maybe a year or two after ‘J.R.’ was shot in Dallas - Andrew Logan was also there, Joan and Jack Quinn and Janet Street-Porter too….Lunch and afternoon rather than evening…..Larry is giving out his Christmas gifts to everyone of mini portable fans with his photo on - his Patented Anti-Smoking Device...!

 
Previously on Dangerous Minds

Tea With Duggie Fields


 
Bonus snaps and clip, after the jump…
 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Tea With Duggie Fields

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Tea With Duggie Fields is a beautiful and fascinating short film by Federico Fianchini, in which the Genius of Earls Court talks about his life, his art and his influences.

Fields has painted from the age of 11, when his earliest work, an abstract painting, was entered into a local exhibition amid incredulity that a child could paint so brilliantly. With an interest in structure and design, Fields briefly studied architecture, before he attended the Chelsea School of Art, between 1964 and 1968.

In the late sixties, as he established himself as an artist of note, Fields shared a flat with Pink Floyd’s crazy diamond, Syd Barrett. During the 1970s, he developed his brilliant day-glo style that inspired Marc Bolan, Stanley Kubrick, Derek Jarman and David Bowie, who was snapped with William Burroughs wearing Fields’ portrait of Malcolm McDowall.

Fields’ paintings have been variously described as Pop Art, Post Modernist and Minimalist, but in essence, Fields is very much his own art movement, one he termed MAXIMALism - “Minimalism with a plus plus plus.”

Iconic, unique and startlingly original, his work ranges from portraits of Michael Jackson, The Rolling Stones, Marilyn Monroe, Zandra Rhodes, the artist Andrew Logan, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, to potent images of sexual intercourse, landscapes and his own distinct interpretations of his favored artistic influences (Jackson Pollock, Piet Mondrian).

Today, the Genius of Earl’s Court continues with his brilliance as painter, digital artist, musician, writer and photographer.
 

 
Bonus clips including Duggie Fields on Syd Barrett plus ‘I Wonder Why’ after the jump…
 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Derek Jarman films Duggie Fields: Rare Footage

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Derek Jarman films artist Duggie Fields at home, in this rare Super-8 footage from 1975.

Jarman was an artist before he started his film career as a production designer on Ken Russell’s masterpiece The Devils. Jarman designed the now legendary, pristine white-tiled city of Loudon for the film. The design was inspired by Aldous Huxley’s description of the interrogation of the possessed nuns, taken from his novel The Devils of Loudon, as like “a rape in a public toilet.”

Working on The Devils proved a turning point for Jarman, as he discovered the medium through which to best express his artistic vision. From 1970 onwards, he experimented with a Super-8 camera, filming his friends in short home-made movies, which later provided him with a visual lexicon for his films.

At Home with artist Duggie Fields (1975) is more in the style of Kenneth Anger, than Russell, for as Jarman once told me:

I learnt how not to make films from Ken Russell; and how to make them from Kenneth Anger

 

 

 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion