Ken Russell is often cited as one of the fathers of the music video, with Tommy (1975) widely recognized as one of the pivotal works in the development of the form. However, as this far more obscure Monitor item from 1961 proves, he was experimenting with non-narrative illustrations of pre-recorded music fourteen years earlier. This was originally shown in three separate parts, interleaved with the other items in that edition of the arts programme.
Edward Elgar’s ‘Cockaigne’ overture (1901) is a jaunty, upbeat orchestral work, which Russell accompanies with a montage based on the popular touristy image of London. Accordingly, steam trains and coaches arrive in the capital, a band plays on the steps of St Paul’s, cannons are fired in Hyde Park, and the Queen’s Guards march (as do street sweepers and sandwich board men, intercut to make them appear part of the same procession). The Duke of Wellington appears to raise his hat to a billboard glamour model, while images of the Queen rub shoulders with Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard.
‘London Moods’ by Russell’s contemporary Christopher Whelen follows, a much jazzier, up-tempo number. Hamburgers and cooked breakfasts are prepared en masse, while those in a real hurry use food and drink dispensers. And for those who worry about over-indulgence, massage parlours offer various automated ways of toning their bodies. Hapless Tube commuters are compared with clothes being tossed in a laundry, or passengers in a fairground rotor, pinned to the sides by centrifugal forces. (The cutting is particularly witty in this sequence).
The final sequence, scored by Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘London’ Symphony (1914-18), is the most sombre. Here, Russell returns to the landscape of postwar London previously captured in his first BBC film, A Poet in London (tx. 1/3/1959), as anonymous office blocks overlook bomb craters that are fast becoming overgrown. A First World War memorial pays tribute to an unknown soldier. After this elegiac interlude, we return to more recognisable images of London, but Big Ben and St Paul’s are silhouetted against the dusk, dissolving into the murky waters of the Thames.
Russell would revisit Elgar and Vaughan Williams several times over the next few decades, most notably in the seminal Elgar (BBC, tx. 11/11/1962) and his South Bank Show documentary on Vaughan Williams (ITV, tx. 8/4/1984). The latter offers a similar treatment of the same passage of the ‘London’ symphony, but this time in colour. —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