The death of flamboyant filmmaker Ken Russell in November 2011 prompted a flood of tributes to this singular talent. But the focus on big-screen masterpieces such as Women in Love and The Devils and on his inadvertent knack at courting controversy tends to obscure the rich body of work for television in which Russell himself took equal – if not greater – pride than the larger-scale feature films. When the charming amateur short Amelia and the Angel got him a job at the BBC in 1959, the small crews and even smaller budgets offered him the freedom he craved, and his contribution to long-running strands Monitor, Omnibus and later ITV’s South Bank Show can be said to have re-drawn the boundaries of television documentary.
Our celebration of Ken Russell brings together a rich selection of television titles spanning five decades. Alongside classics such as Elgar (1962) and Song of Summer (1968), his biopic of the blind composer Delius, you can enjoy many lesser-known works, from portraits of French painter Henri Rousseau, English composer Gordon Jacob and ill-fated dancer Isadora Duncan, to more esoteric concerns: the bohemian inhabitants of a Bayswater lodging house destined for the wrecking ball; the ‘lost world’ of London’s great exhibitions, eulogised by the great John Betjeman.
Ten to try
From Spain to Streatham (1959)
The guitar craze hits Britain.
Portrait of a Goon (1959)
The Monitor crew follows a day in the life of Spike Milligan.
Scottish Painters (1959)
Russell films artists Robert MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun at work.
A House in Bayswater (1960)
Meet the bohemian residents of Russell’s former home in West London.
Shelagh Delaney’s Salford (1960)
The late author of A Taste of Honey visits her hometown.
Mr Chesher’s Traction Engines (1962)
Profile of artist A.W. Chesher, who specialises in painting traction engines.
Dramatised documentary on the eccentric life and bizarre death of the dancer Isadora Duncan.
Vaughan Williams: A Symphonic Portrait (1984)
A study of the great composer’s nine symphonies.
Ken Russell’s ABC of British Music (1988)
Wild and (sometimes) wonderful trip through Britain’s musical heritage.
Elgar: Fantasy on a Composer on a Bicycle (2002)
Russell revisits the life of Sir Edward Elgar for the South Bank Show.