Ken Russell’s first BBC film not made for Monitor was shot and broadcast during the arts strand’s summer break. As with some of his earlier work, notably Scottish Painters (BBC, tx. 25/10/1959), Russell used the film as an excuse to revisit old haunts, in this case a converted Edwardian house in Bayswater that he himself had inhabited in the 1950s (though there’s no acknowledgement of this in the film itself) and of the tenants who lived there just prior to its demolition and replacement by a soulless office block.
They’re an eclectic mixture, the only linking factor being that three of them work in the creative arts (photography, painting, dance) and appreciate the house’s bohemian atmosphere, as indeed did Russell. Each has constructed a private world for themselves, whether it be Helen May’s dance studio (bringing back memories of Russell’s amateur film Amelia and the Angel, 1958), David Hurn’s use of the balcony for outdoor shots, James Burley’s accentuation of what he perceives as the house’s “decaying grandeur” by the addition of statues and assorted bric-a-brac, Miss Croft’s ‘America’ inside her filmstrip viewer, or even Tom and Lou’s family flat, distinguished from the others by its very normality.
Holding this all together is the long-suffering housekeeper Mrs Collings, who gets on well with everyone but who isn’t above making hints as to a possible use for the deadly nightshade she’s found growing in her small garden. She also has a startling repertoire of anecdotes about fatal and near-fatal incidents involving previous tenants. She’s comfortably as bohemian as the rest, with her waist-length blonde hair, and a basement filled with junk purchased from the nearby Portobello Road market.
Much of the film is straight reportage, with each tenant describing their lives and ambitions over a montage of their daily routine. Towards the end, as if sensing that the end of the house is fast approaching, Russell creates a montage of its inhabitants and their defining characteristics, seamlessly dissolving into one another as if to cram as many of their memories into a short space of time before they’re irretrievably lost in the rubble. Although the tenants talk about their dreams and future plans, the film’s overriding emotion is one of nostalgia, doubtless shared by its director.
Three years later, photographer David Hurn would be the subject of Watch the Birdie (BBC, tx. 9/6/1963), one of Russell’s Monitor documentaries. —Michael Brooke
British director Ken Russell started out training for a naval career, but after wartime RAF and merchant navy service he switched goals and went into ballet. Supplementing his dancing income as an actor and still photographer, Russell put together a handful of amateur films in the 50s before being hired as a staff director by the BBC. Russell made a name for himself (albeit a name not always spoken in reverence) during the first half of the ‘60s by directing a series of iconoclastic TV dramatizations of the lives of famous composers and dancers. And if he felt that the facts were getting in the way of his story, he’d make up his own — frequently bordering on the libelous. If he had any respect for the famous persons whose lives he probed, it was secondary to his fascination with revealing all warts and open wounds.
A film director since 1963, Russell burst into the international consciousness with 1969’s Women in Love, a hothouse version of the D.H. Lawrence novel. No director… read more