While most of Ken Russell’s documentaries for the BBC’s Monitor arts strand focused on a single creative figure, he would also occasionally make more wide-ranging surveys of the state of a particular art. Guitar Craze (BBC, tx. 7/6/1959) was the first of these, and the following year he followed up his documentaries on Marie Rambert and John Cranko (both tx. 17/1/1960) with a similar survey of the British dance scene.
The Light Fantastic (BBC, tx. 18/12/1960) was written and presented by Ron Hitchins, a Cockney barrow boy who has long been interested in a great many dance forms, and who has recently taken up Spanish dancing. He would clearly continue this interest for some time, as his other television credit is as ‘male Spanish dancer’ in an episode of From A Bird’s Eye View entitled ‘Witness for the Persecution’ (ATV, tx. 1/1/1971).
Hitchins participates in some of the dance sequences, but his main contribution is an enthusiastic commentary that helps personalise what could have been simply a disparate collection of dance footage. He’s not shy about expressing likes and dislikes, being none too keen on ballroom dancing (too choreographed), rock’n’roll (too monotonous) and Morris dancing (just doesn’t like it), though anything genuinely spontaneous gets a thumbs up, even if it’s a room full of people dressed in black swaying to the sound of a gong.
Though Hitchins does most of the talking, the programme occasionally features other views, such as the unidentified head teacher who asserts that the introduction of compulsory ballroom dancing lessons to his school has brought demonstrable benefits in terms of his pupils’ discipline and maturity. Meanwhile, 74-year-old Jim Fowell talks about the horn dance (whose participants sport real antlers), describing both its traditions and offering practical tips for avoiding blisters.
Russell’s direction is appropriately unobtrusive, for the most part preferring to pick the best angle for the purposes of emphasising movements and visual patterns, and then letting the dancers express themselves. If The Light Fantastic ultimately adds up to little more than a series of brief snapshots, they’re rarely less than engaging, and the film as a whole is a good example of how Monitor head Huw Wheldon actively encouraged his directors to explore their own personal interests, provided they could turn them into a usable piece of work at the end. —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