A Tale of Two Kens: Drama, documentary and the subversion of the status quo

By John Hill

My interest in writing about the work of the film and television director Ken Russell partly derived from writing about another Ken in my book, Ken Loach: the Politics of Film and Television (2014). The two Kens are, of course, usually considered to be operating at opposite ends of the aesthetic scale with Loach traditionally associated with documentary-realist sobriety and Russell identified with neo-romantic excess. However, during the 1960s, when both men were working for the BBC, their work converged in the ways in which they sought to challenge the boundaries between drama and documentary and, in so doing, subvert the conventions of both. They were, however, doing so from different starting-points. Loach was working for the BBC’s Drama Department and productions such as Up the Junction (1965) and Cathy Come Home (1966) aroused criticism due to their introduction into drama of elements associated with documentary. Russell, however, was working for the Talks Department, and later the Documentary and Music Department, and his films for the arts programmes Monitor and Omnibus such as Prokofiev (1961), Elgar (1962), Bartok (1964) and The Debussy Film (1965) – generated unease as a result of their use of dramatisation within the framework of documentary.

Still: The Debussy Film (Ken Russell, 1965)
Still: The Debussy Film (Ken Russell, 1965)

As I argue in my article in the Special Issue of the Journal of British Cinema and Television, which I co-edited with Christophe Van Eecke and Karel Vanhaesebrouck, this anxiety reached its peak when Russell made his notorious ‘documentary’ dealing with the life of the composer Richard Strauss, Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), which led to questions in the House of Commons and effectively brought Russell’s career at the BBC to an end. Employing the elements of pastiche, visual excess and grotesquerie that were to become the hallmark of many of Russell’s later feature films (such as The Devils, Mahler and Tommy), the production fuelled arguments not just about the legitimacy of mixing ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ but also the permissibility of certain kinds of material being broadcast on national television. In this way, it might be said that both Russell and Loach – through their mixing of drama and documentary – were involved not just in extending the boundaries of television genres but of public discourse as well. In Loach’s case, his commitment to revolutionary politics in work such as Days of Hope (1975) subjected the BBC’s liberalism to considerable strain; in Russell’s case his relish for, what at the time were considered to be, extreme representations of sex and violence stretched the BBC’s tolerance to the very limit.

Although his BBC career is usually discussed in terms of ‘documentary’, however, it might also be possible to re-position some of Russell’s work as ‘television drama’ (in the same way that some writers have opted to discuss Loach’s television play Cathy Come Home as ‘documentary’). I am currently involved in an AHRC-funded research project on ‘forgotten television drama’ and one of the arguments that might be made in relation to Russell’s work for the BBC is that it has not figured in the history of television drama because it has not been perceived or identified as such. One of the many interesting things about Russell’s The Debussy Film, however, is that it is, to all intents and purposes, a scripted drama, shot on film with actors. It was transmitted, moreover, on 18 May 1965 which was before both Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home. These are, rightly, considered to be ground-breaking works that took television drama out of the studio and successfully challenged what Troy Kennedy Martin famously referred to as televisual ‘naturalism’. If, however, we were to think of the highly self-reflexive The Debussy Film as an anti-naturalist drama rather than as a documentary then our understanding of the history of television drama might also have to change.

Read ‘Blurring the lines between fact and fiction’: Ken Russell, the BBC and ‘Television Biography’ in the Journal of British Cinema and Television, 12.4

John Hill is Professor of Media at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956–63 (1986), British Cinema in the 1980s (1999), Cinema and Northern Ireland (2006) and Ken Loach: the Politics of Film and Television (2011). He is also the editor of a Special Issue of the Journal of British Cinema and Television on ‘Radical Television Drama’ (2013) and the co-editor – with Christophe Van Eecke and Karel Vanhaesebrouck – of the Special Issue on the director Ken Russell. He is also the PI of the AHRC-funded research project, ‘The History of Forgotten Television Drama in the UK’ https://www.royalholloway.ac.uk/mediaarts/research/thehistoryofforgottentelevisiondrama/historyofforgottentvdrama.aspx.


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