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Ken Russell monitor classics


1963 Watch the Birdie

Ken Russell Watch the Birdie

About David Hurn the Magnum photographer. Hurn was a friend of Russell from the days that Ken was also a photographer.  Hurn´s girlfriend Alita Naughton would appear in French Dressing.  The films includes an early photo story by Ken Russell.  The photo of Russell directing Watch the Birdie is from "An Appalling Talent".

1962 The Lonely Shore

Described as a fantasy, with a script by the archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes who died in 1996.  "No-one is left alive in England.  All that remains are fragments of our civilisation" (Radio Times, 11 Jan 1962). 

The film is made up of images strewn across a shore.  There are no people in the film, only a surrealist voice-over.

"So we had to go.  It was a long and difficult journey, and so we approached the desolate island.  One of the loneliest spots on Earth... We ourselves were determined not to set foot on the shore"- from the voiceover, reminiscent of TS Eliot's The Journey of the Magi.

Russell wanted to create an atmosphere of desolation and used dummies on a shore (the Thames in London).  Dummies appear in many of Russell's work from the amateur Peepshow to his first film French Dressing to Aria and Gothic.

Ken Russell The Lonely Shore.

One of the most conceptually original of all the films that Ken Russell made for Monitor, this imagines an expedition of alien archaeologists (represented only by the soundtrack commentary) examining various artifacts strewn along a stretch of Britain's coastline and musing on their possible significance.

Ken Russell The Lonely Shore

Ken Russell The Lonely Shore

The script was by Jacquetta Hawkes (1910-1996), an archaeologist with a particular fascination with what ancient artifacts revealed about how people lived their lives. She was also a novelist and poet, and The Lonely Shore neatly combines all these interests.

Ken Russell The Lonely Shore

Michael Brook says "His treatment recalls the work of the Surrealists, in particular Giorgio De Chirico (for the use of incongruous props and a disconcerting sense of space and perspective) and Yves Tanguy (for the many images of inexplicable objects strewn on an otherwise barren landscape), while the soundtrack blends electronic experimentation with a single solo female voice, seemingly yearning for a future that these Britons would never attain" (from BFI notes to the film here).

The film editor was Russell regular Allan Tyrer, associate producers were Nancy Thomas and Humphrey Burton and the editor was Huw Wheldon who also introduced.  It was broadcast on BBC 1 on Sunday 14 Jan 1962.  The music is from Vaughn Williams Seventh Symphony.



1964 Bartok


A film of the Hungarian composer who ended his days in America.

"Bartok begins with the composer (Ranevsky) as an old man, according to Wheldon’s commentary, in poor health and fighting his demons. But overall “Bartok struggled all his life to maintain his privacy, he was an alien in an alien world”. This condition found its way into his music, a theme Russell graphically conveys into images: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is underlined by Bartok’s near paranoid loneliness. Showing his isolation, claustrophobia, later repeated on a crowded escalator: a permanent descent into the nadir" (from Russell and the Music Makers by Meredith Taylor, 22 Apr 2020 of Filmuforia here).

Russell was allowed to use an actor to show Bartok, but the actor was not allowed to speak.


Roles are played by Boris Ranovsky, Pauline Boty (from Pop Goes the Easel), Sandor Elos, Morrio Bush and Peter Lannigan.

Ken Russell Bartok 

"I remember Ken telling me that he wanted to make Bartok but he said I'm in dead trouble Alan because I cannot film anywhere any documentary of Hungary where Bartok lived. He said do you know of any. I said there's one film I can think of but I don't know quite where it is. It's called Hortobagy by a Hungarian director I've now forgotten. See if you can get a copy of this. Do you know he had terrific luck. He found out that the man who directed it was running the Academy Theatre in Oxford Street which was the place where foreign films used to be shown and I can't remember the chaps name but he went to see him and the bloke said I'll show you a copy and you can use it if you like. So we took that home, I sent it to the labs and had the whole bloody thing dubbed... You could do things like that. Nobody seemed to bother. We treated it as rushes... and we just cut it into the film and I still think to this day it was one of the best Ken did" (from interview of Monitor editor Allan Tryer by Stephen Peat, 14 March 1989, from the British Entertainment History Project- click here).


1964 The Dotty World of James Lloyd

Ken Russell James LLoyd

James Lloyd the painter, subject of the film, would later reappear as an actor in Ken's film Always on a SundayThis was the last of the Monitor films under Huw Weldon.

"I was very fond of primitive art in those days and because of this I used to frequent the Portal Gallery which specialised in primitives.  It was there I first saw the paintings of the Yorkshire artist James Lloyd.  I'd just been looking at some Goya oils in the Royal Academy and I thought; he's much better than Goya. I went to see him and found he was just a natural.  He talked in the most marvelous way, liked his pint, and every night he dotted out an endless stream of primitive pointilliste paintings, totally unconcerned by the screaming kids and blaring telly" (Ken Russell quoted in John Baxter's An Appalling Talent).

When Russell went on to make Always on Sunday about Henri Rousseau he gave the lead role to Lloyd.

1964 Diary of a Nobody: the Domestic Jottings of a City Clerk

Ken Russell's first professional work of fiction and his only drama for the BBC.   Taking time out from documentaries he filmed this version of the comic novel by brothers George and Weedon Grossmith. It is the story of Charles Pooter and his friends Cummings and Gowing ("coming" and "going").  It was the first film in the BBC2 series Six New Films and was broadcast on Saturday 12 Dec 1964.

Russell adapts the novel as a silent film with a voiceover- the actors beautifully overacting, silent film style.  He wanted it to look Victorian "I used no artificial light at all.  The whole film was shot in a back garden in Eeling [London] using whatever daylight was available (from Russell at Work, directed by Ian Keill, 1966).

Ken Russell Diary of a Nobody

A favourite device of Ken is to photograph people in mirrors.

Ken Russell Diary of a Nobody

The set piece of the novel and the film is when Pooter decides to paint the house, including red paint on the bath.

Ken Russell Diary of a Nobody

On his first use of the bath he thinks he is covered in blood, but it is the paint.

Ken Russell Diary of a Nobody

Russell manages to include three scenes into one shot.

Ken Russell Diary of a Nobody

And Pooter is caught and humiliated.

Bryan Pringle and Anne Jameson in Ken Russell Diary of a Nobody  Ann Strunk and Jonathan Cecil in Ken Russell Diary of a Nobody

Left Bryan Pringle starring as Charles Pooter with Anne Jameson, right Ann Strunk and Jonathan Cecil as Cummings.

Diary of a Nobody by Ken Russell   Vivian Pickles and Brian Murphy in Diary of a Nobody

Right Vivian Pickles and Brian Murphy as Mr. Gowing.

Russell adapted the novel together with John McGrath- they would work together again a few years later on Billion Dollar Brain.  McGrath is also executive producer.  Ken Westbury was cinematographer (he would later do The Singing Detective) and the editor was Michael Bradsell.  The costumes were by Russell's wife Shirley Russell.

Ken Russell Diary of a Nobody b Avril Elgar in Diary of a Nobody

Regular Russell actors include Murray Melvin, left, as Pooter´s son.  He would later appear in Isadora Duncan, The Devils, The Boyfriend, Lisztomania, Clouds of Glory and Prisoners of Honor. Bryan Pringle would go on to French Dressing and The Boyfriend, Vivian Pickles would next star in Isadora, Brian Murphy has a role in The Devils, Anne Jameson in The Boyfriend and Norman Dewhurst in Dante´s Inferno.

Ken Russell Diary of a Nobody  Ken Russell Diary of a Nobody

On the right the filming, the interior scene filmed outside.

Russell adapted the novel together with John McGrath- they would work together again a few years later on Billion Dollar Brain.  McGrath is also executive producer.  The adaptation is quite faithful though it only covers the first two thirds of the novel.  Ken Russell said the estate of the authors were unhappy at the film, regarding it as a travesty (Ken Russell at the BFI, 29 Jul 2007)- in reality the film captures the novel perfectly.  Ken Westbury was cinematographer- he would later do The Singing Detective- and the editor was Michael Johns.  The superb costumes were by Russell's wife Shirley Russell- the check of Lupin contrast beautifully with the stripes of Mrs. James.  Ivor Cutler provides the music.

Images from the film and on-set photos.

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