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‘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.
 

 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
‘Pop Goes the Easel’: Ken Russell’s film on 4 British Pop Artists from 1962

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Pop Goes the Easel was Ken Russell’s first full-length documentary for the BBC’s arts series Monitor. It focused on 4 British Pop Artists - Peter Blake, Peter Philips, Pauline Boty and Derek Boshier.

Russell was revolutionary in his approach to making this film, he developed a whole range of new techniques to capture and reflect the excitement and energy of these young artists, which was cutting edge back in 1962, but are now part of the very heart of documentary-making (you’ll may also note clues to some of Russell’s later works). It’s a beautiful wee film that captures these artists, their work and the start of the swinging sixties perfectly - though I only wish it was in color.
 

 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Ken Russell: Shelagh Delaney’s Salford, from 1960

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The playwright Shelagh Delaney returned to her home town for this early film by Ken Russell, made in 1960 for the BBC’s Monitor strand. Delaney is now best known for her play A Taste of Honey of Honey (1958) (made into the film by Tony Richardson, starring Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin), and of course, as the major influence on the lyrics of one, Steven Patrick Morrissey.

Russell’s film mainly focuses on an interview with Delaney, and has some well considered images of people, places, and Delaney wandering through Salford’s streets and market. After A Taste of Honey, Delaney wrote screenplays for The White Bus (1967) directed by Lindsay Anderson, Chalie Bubbles (1967) directed by and starring Albert Finney, and Dance With a Stranger, about the killer Ruth Ellis for director Mike Newell in 1985.
 

 
Previously on Dangerous Minds

Hit the North: Lindsay Anderson’s ‘The White Bus’


Ken Russell: ‘A House in Bayswater’


 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Ken Russell’s early documentary: ‘A House in Bayswater’

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Between 1959 and 1969, Ken Russell flourished as a brilliant director of television documentaries for the BBC, where he single-handedly advanced the documentary genre by creating a hybrid of the drama-documentary. Firstly with his splendid film on Elgar in 1962, developing the form with Oliver Reed in The Debussy Film in 1965, then making the classic drama on Delius, Song of Summer in 1968, before finally and most controversially making his masterpiece Dance of the Seven Veils A Comic Strip in Seven Episodes on the life of Richard Strauss 1864-1949, which infamously depicted the German composer of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” as a Nazi, and lead to questions being raised in the British Parliament, before it was eventually banned.

Russell’s brilliant style of film-making was a long way from how things worked when he first arrived at the BBC. Then ‘biography’, as Joseph Lanza explained in Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films, was:

...more like strict documentary. There was no place for metaphors or speculative drama. The network’s purists felt such tactics were synonymous with the kinds of exaggeration [the Futurist artist] Henri Gaudier championed and that Russell longed to create. So Russell kept a humble exterior while secretly plotting to subvert the BBC’s codes of propriety.

“Ken was different in every way from what he is now,” Russell’s BBC boss Huw Wheldon reflected in the early 1970s on working with Russell in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. “To start with, he was virtually wordless. He was shy and quiet. Quiet in every way: his clothes, his haircut, his countenance. A little watchful, but silent and completely modest. I couldn’t make head nor tail of him, partly because he wouldn’t help me. He didn’t say anything. He just looked at me.”

Russell’s first short film for the BBC’s Monitor series was Poet’s London - an effective evocation of John Betjeman’s poetry; quickly followed by Guitar Crazy on the rise of guitar music; Portrait of a Goon, a look acclaimed comic and scriptwriter, Spike Milligan; and a profile of dance legend, Marie Rambert and her ballet company. Then in 1960, during a summer break from the series, Russell wrote, directed and produced his first full-length documentary film, A House in Bayswater.

In An Appalling Talent - Ken Russell, film writer and critic, John Baxter described Russell’s film as ‘...ostensibly a protest at the razing of tall old buildings to make way for office blocks…’

‘Beginning as a systematic representation of Bayswater as a hive of creative activity - his chosen terrace houses a painter, a photographer, a ballet dancer and ex-pupil of Pavlova, a retired lady’s maid who pines for the affluent USA of the Twenties, and an odd but lively landlady - the film changes tone as both artists reveal themselves as tedious poseurs, and Russell’s sympathy swings towards the old people, sustained and enriched by the past. The dancer, leading her willing, wispy pupil through a two-woman show hazed in memoriesof better days (“My next solo is one I did on Broadway in 1929 and I am wearing the same costume”) is faded but not absurd, the maid’s images of New York have the insouciant fever of Scott Fitzgerald, and the concierge who sells her junk to the photographer for props, offers bumpers of sherry as rent receipts and cultivates toadstools and deadly nightshade in the garden with a philosophical “They might come in useful” celebrates the indestructible eccentric. The last Cocteauesque image, of the dancer and her little pupil battling in slow motion against a windy torrent of streamers and balloons (to be recalled in the 1812 episode of The Music Lovers) holds the promise of immortality for all those who survive and, above all, keep faith.’

A House in Bayswater is a beautiful piece of documentary-making, which slowly develops towards a memorable finish. What isn’t revealed is that the fact this was this house in Bayswater was Ken Russell’s home during the 1950s.

I have lived most of my life in rooming houses, and shared apartments, and run-down hotels, where there is great comfort in anonymity and company amongst strangers, and understand Russell’s nostalgia for a life that is being slowly removed, as cities are carelessly gentrified. Watching it in the month when New York’s Chelsea Hotel announced its demise, only reinforced how much of our shared environment is now monetized for the benefit of a few. This is apparent in Russell’s film, as the film details the lives and hopes of the tenants, connected by a house that was soon to be lost to demolition and replaced “by a soulless office block.”
 

 
Previously on Dangerous Minds

The Book, The Sculptor, His Life & Ken Russell


Ken Russell’s banned film: ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’


Ken Russell on Antonio Gaudi


 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Monitor and I
05.26.2010
09:21 am

Topics:
Heroes
Music
Punk

Tags:
Monitor
World Imitation

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It’s hard to overstate the effect upon our psyches of things we’re exposed to when we are young and impressionable. For better or worse, these things stay with us forever and if we’re lucky these things are also of enduring quality and mystery. Such is the case with myself and the little known band Monitor, whose sole 7” single I chanced upon at Slipped Disc record store in Sepulveda, CA around 1980. I was already at this time quite the ardent Devo fan and I could tell they too had vaguely similar aesthetics, especially in Steve Thompsen’s virtuoso synth manglings. So enchanted was I with this lil’ slab o’ vinyl that I tracked them down and started hanging around with them and sneaking into all of their shows. That I soon found out they attended the same high school as I, 10 years earlier, only deepened my affection for them. As it happened they were just preparing to release their one and only self-titled LP which while retaining its electronic foundations revealed a darker, more psychedelic sound. And then, rather suddenly it was over. Drummer Keith Mitchell went on to fame with Mazzy Star, guitarist Michael Uhlenkott formed The Romans, Steve Thompsen eventually joined LAFMS improv trio Solid Eye and bassist (and major early crush object for yours truly) Laurie O’Connell disappeared into Northern Californian suburban family life. There are periodic rumors of re-issues and even a book documenting their fleeting existence, but for now all that remains are the handful of recordings and this one live clip from New Wave Theatre, which as far as I can tell was their very last performance together.
 

 
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Posted by Brad Laner | Leave a comment