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Ken Russell Early Ideas

Ken Russell


In 1958 Ken Russell wrote an article which was published in the January-February 1959 issue of Film.

The introduction reads

Ken Russell, now in his early thirties, is married with two children. His wife, Shirley, plays the lead in Peep Show. A freelance still photographer, he worked for Illustrated and before this was a midshipman, a ballet dancer, airman, actor, teacher and film extra. His first film was Knights on Bikes (1955), a ten-minute fantasy that remains uncompleted. Then came Peep Show (1956), Amelia and the Angel (1957) and Lourdes (1958). He has broadcast several times and Amelia and the Angel, which is probably the most popular film society short, has been shown complete on television in Holland, France, Belgium and Eire. He is passionately fond of music, ballet, books (especially children's books) and films.


Every Spring I start a new amateur film and during the winter, while recovering from the experience, I indulge in the pleasant relaxation of dreaming up ideas for the next one. And once I get started these ideas come from everywhere, from symphonies to newspaper clippings. For some time an item once glimpsed in a “provincial daily” has been going round in my head. It concerned an old established Punch and Judy show which a local council had decided must vacate its pitch in the High Street owing to an increase in pedestrian traffic. I removed my showman from his provincial surroundings to London and saw him as a lazy, almost loutish man who had inherited the show from his father. The film would show how his world collapses when the pitch and the easy living that went with it is taken away from him. Here are a few scenes from it.

He learns of his fate: the show is in progress. A police constable approaches and calls to the showman through the proscenium opening to come along with him. Punch bounces up and down with rage and then answers him back.

Punch and Judy click for source

The policeman repeats his order in a sterner voice. Punch is withdrawn and a puppet police sergeant pops up to order the constable away. The crowd laugh and the policeman gets very annoyed, ordering the operator to show himself. Slowly the bewildered face of the showman rises from the depths of the booth to stare in mute disbelief at the policeman. After a brief conversation the showman withdraws his head, folds up the show and struggles along with it in the footsteps of the policeman.... Egged on by his nagging wife Judy he goes along to the Ministry of works for permission to perform in the parks.

Punch and Judy- click for source

He is told there is no vacancy for another Punch and Judy show until 1960 but is given a lot of forms to fill up. Taking them across the road he sits down on the steps of the embankment to fill them up. As usual they are obscure and in triplicate. Gradually he becomes exasperated until, standing up in rage, he hurls the lot at the Houses of Parliament across the river. Caught by the wind they blow back in his face then flutter down in the Thames.... After a good deal of procrastination and shirking of responsibility to his wife and child, he decides to try his luck at the seaside and if successful send for them to join him. Barely has he set up his booth, however, than he is chased along the beach by the owner and dog of an old established show whose pitch he had unwittingly usurped....

With his belongings and his dog Toby he gets in the train that will take him back to London and the sneers of his wife. The train chugs off and eventually stops at something that is little better than a wayside halt. Gloomily he stares out of the window then, acting on an impulse, hastily collects his gear and jumps out of the train just as it is moving off. There is one cafe, a couple of dowdy guest houses, and some bathing huts. There are few people about and those that are have sheltered themselves from the wind by huddling in the grassy sand dunes. Surveying the scene with some apprehension the showman at last sets off down the dunes to the vast, hard, deserted beach. In the middle of this great emptiness he slowly sets up his booth and starts the show watched only by the mournful dog and some screeching gulls.

Now we come to the last shot in the film. A very long shot, taken from the top of the dunes, of the pathetic performance. It is getting on for evening. Slowly, from the bottom of the frame there wanders in the figure of a little girl with her bucket and spade. When she reaches the booth she stops and stares up at the show....

Ken Russell Lourdes Ken Russell Lourdes Ken Russell Lourdes Ken Russell Lourdes

In a film like this the biggest problem, for an amateur like myself, is that of casting. Fortunately I have the central figure and anyone who has seen Amelia or Peep Show will guess who it is. The others – his wife, his acquaintances, his enemies – would be a problem. The friends at my disposal would be painfully self-conscious in portraying ordinary, everyday characters and when I tell you that they are never more at ease than when promenading dressed as Victorian prime ministers and Edwardian beauties you will see what I mean. It would be a shame to pass such talent by and in any case they are all I’ve got. While thinking about the people the showman might meet on his wanderings I hit upon a character whom I saw as the hero in a film of a more fantastic kind in which all my friends would feel far more at home.

After the main titles, which are drawn on paving stones, the hero – a pavement artist – emerges from a crowd of people hurrying to work. He stops at his pitch and starts getting out his chalks. Blowing his mittened hands against the cold he glances across the road through a cafe window at people eating in warmth and comfort. People pass him by eating sandwiches and even the birds seem to have plenty to peck up. He starts drawing a kipper on a plate and we dissolve to a dream-like sequence in which the artist searches unsuccessfully for a square meal. This section ends up in the Natural History Museum with the artist about to set upon and devour the skeleton of a giant dinosaur. He is snapped out of this reverie by the clink of a shilling in his hat. After a quick bite in the cafe, he resumes his work in brighter spirits chalking away at a figure of a diplomat of some sort.

We dissolve to this fabulous and overdressed person advancing with a large decoration which he pins on the immaculately dressed and groomed figure of the artist. This sequence shows his rise to fame and how collectors the world over travel to his pitch to bid for his paving stones. Into his top hat they throw handfuls of pound notes while a periwigged flunkey stands by with a pick-axe to prise them out. Royalty even patronise him and one day a Rolls Royce pulls up and out steps a beautiful princess whose portrait he commences to sketch. It is terrible, grotesque – and the artist knows back in the world of reality. He looks at the few coppers in his hat, then at his shabby clothes, and starts a drawing of a masked thief from which we dissolve to a sequence of his life as a desperate criminal ending up with his robbing the Bank of England. From enormous coffers he throws up in the air great armfuls of gold which seem to float down on him until he wakes up in the street to find it raining and his work trickling away in chalky rivulets into the gutter. Pulling up his coat collar he collects his chalk and few coppers and shambles off into the crowd....

Ken Russell Lourdes Ken Russell Lourdes Ken Russell Lourdes


Should this film ever get made, I doubt very much that I would derive more pleasure out of any stage in its production than this (necessarily brief here) original conception. The images in my mind are all perfectly exposed, there are no scratches, nothing is out of focus, the actors are superb and do everything without being told and the weather conditions are all one could ask for. But, because we are not all telepathic the film has got to be made.

Ken Russell Lourdes

Many amateur films one sees appear to have been built on an illogical idea or one that is half-formed or undeveloped or fifth-rate or second-hand. And if it is second-hand, it usually manages to be fifth- rate as well, which is curious when one stops to consider all the fabulous wealth of material sitting around in literature just begging to be used by the amateur film maker. Another time I will talk about a couple of second-hand plots which, because they are sound and would stand adaptation, I am thinking of using myself.

by Ken Russell, 1959

photos from the magazine are from Lourdes, except the cover which is Peep Show.
Punch and Judy pictures from respective sites (click on images). Thanks for permission to reproduce.



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