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Ken Russell early work


Amateur Days

Russell was a struggling photographer and started to make picture stories- series of photo's that told a story. Often his wife Shirley starred and did the costumes. It wasn't long before he tried films with second hand equipment and produced amateur shorts. He submitted Amelia and the Angel to the BBC which led to his Monitor work.

In this period he also converted to Catholicism which is evident in these works, and remains a theme in all his films even after he renounced Catholicism.


Picture stories

The photographer Russell made picture stories, photo sequences that together told a story. It was his substitute for film making until he could afford a movie camera. They appeared in Picture Post and other magazines.  The most famous image is of his wife Shirley playing the role of Charlotte Bronte. This was made during their honeymoon.

Shirley Russell as Charlotte Bronte


Another director, Chris Marker, turned his picture stories into an art form on their own, his La Jetee being the basis for Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys.


Ken Russell photos, 1955

In 2005 there was a rare opportunity to see work from Ken's career as a photographer, before he went into films.   The photos featured in the Picture Post, 4 June 1955.

Ken Russell Teddy Girls click for link

The were exhibited at The Spitz, London.  The exhibition was on from 18- 26 June 2005.  30 photos.  The photos were superb.


19?? Spike Milligan short

"Spike Milligan at the time was in a weekly ( I think ) British ATV programme titled A Show Called Fred. Some of the programmes had short filmed comedy situations. With this in mind Ken Russell filmed a short on Horse Guards Parade, London. The hope was that Spike would be impressed and commission others."

Thanks to Michael for the information.  Does anyone else have information on this?  Russell later made Portrait of a Goon about Spike Milligan.


1956 Peepshow


A short silent film made for £100. During the making of this film Russell converted to Catholicism.


The Bogus Beggar's Academy trains beggars (dark glasses to appear to be blind, practising limping with crutches etc). But their earnings fall when a peepshow is set up.  Through the hole in the wall is a professor and a mechanical life-size doll, played by Shirley Russell (then Shirley Kingdon).

Shirley Kingdon in Peepshow

The films is influenced by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and is also similar to the amateur films Roman Polanski was making round the same time (Two Men and a Wardrobe) but is well below the level of Polanski or of Russell's later Amelia and the Angel. The best parts are the photography from above of the crowd around the hole in the wall (compare with Hitchcock).

Ken Russell Peepshow

Peepshow Ken Russell

A nice touch is that the story (the film is silent so it is told in writing) is chalked to the pavement or painted on walls. And the opening credits with credits painted on umbrellas filmed from above, which are then removed to reveal the rest of the credits on the pavement, is imaginative.

The doll sequence would later be used in Gothic.


1957 Knights on Bikes

Russell and other friends dressed as knights and riding bikes. Very disappointing and poorly filmed, for example the credit sequence goes in and out of focus. Only of historical interest.

Ken Russell Knights on Bikes Ken Russell Knights on Bikes

 Ken Russell in Knights on Bikes

It starts with a cross and a knight in armour (played by Russell) who eventually rides a bike to rescue a damsel in distress. She is abducted by a man in a wheelchair (a recurring image with Russell) and a person who under his robes turns out to be a wolf. And suddenly the film ends. It is probably unfinished, but who cares.


1958 Amelia and the angel

Amelia and the Angel

Another short film, this one costing £300. The British Film Institute also loaned £150. It is a classic.

Ken Russell Amelia and the Angel

A girl is in a school play acting the role of an angel. She takes her wings home but they get broken. She has to find new angel's wings.

The second-hand market doesn't help. She finds a magician's dog with wings but they are too small. This scene include dog-vision photography including the technically challenging jumping into the owner's arms.  A girl (who acts really well) is drawing in chalk on the pavement. It is of an angel with wings and she says the angel is in the park. It is, but it turns out to be a statue.  Amelia almost gives up hope, then sees a woman with precisely the wings she needs. She follows her into a house to see her posing in front of an artist. The artist, in a Jesus-like toga with sandals and a thick rope round his waist climbs stairs then comes down with just the wings she needs.

Ken Russell Amelia and the Angel

This is a really good beginner's film. The photography by Russell is perfect: the cat close up, the headless body waltzing down the stairs, which turns out to be a tailors dummy, the girl as her emotions change, the artist's model strangely silent and passive.  Some of the scenes are similar to what Russell later did in Isadora Duncan. The women trying on the hat with her eyes hidden recalls the neighbour in Song of Summer.

Russell went to the Catholic Film Institute looking for a subsidy, only to discover they did not make films but distributed them to schools. The head, Tony Evans, offered to help Russell make the film. So Ken, wife Shirley and Evans made the film in London.

The Times of 16 April 1958 writes of the International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium, and the 12 British entries, one of which is Amelia.

Ken Russell Amelia and the Angel

The girl, Mercedes Quadros, was the daughter of the Ambassador of Uruguay who Evans knew. During the film she broke her arm, and the later shots hide the plaster cast.  Russell has a cameo role- the girl bumps into him and drops her money.



1958 Lourdes


Ken Russell Lourdes  Ken Russell Lourdes

A short documentary about modern day pilgrims to Lourdes.  Russell brings out the commercialism of Lourdes.

Ken Russell Lourdes

Russell managed to get the rights to use Benjamin's Brittan's ballet music for £25. Russell says in An Appalling Talent "[the music] broke down into little sections like most ballets do... I thought that would be a useful form. Even then I liked to find something - music, poems - that imposed not only a form and a style but a definite cutting sequence". Russell also got a cheap flight to Lourdes by agreeing to include an Aer Lingus plane in the film.

Ken Russell Lourdes

The scenes of rows of people in wheelchairs would come back in Tommy.  The influence of Fritz Lang can be seen- Lang's shot from Metropolis below would fit easily into Lourdes.

Ken Russell Lourdes

More television

Click title for film Picture Stories (Charlotte Bronte) * Peepshow * Knights on Bikes * Amelia and the Angel, Lourdes * Poet's London * Gordon Jacob * Guitar Crazy * Variations on a mechanical theme, Two Painters * portrait of a Goon * Marie Rambert remembers * Architecture and entertainment * Cranks at Work * The miner's picnic * Shelagh Delaney's Salford * A house in Bayswater * The light fantastic * London Moods * Antonio Gaudi * Lotte Lenya sings Kurt Weill * Old Battersea House * Portrait of a Soviet Composer * Pop goes the easel * Preservation man * Mr Chesher´s traction engines * Elgar * Watch the birdie * The lonely shore * Bartok * The dotty world of James Lloyd * Diary of a nobody * The Debussy Film * Always on a Sunday * Don't shoot the composer * Isadora * Dante's Inferno * Song of Summer * Dance of the Seven Veils * William and Dorothy * The Rime of the Ancient Mariner * ABC of British Music * A British Picture * The Planets * Vaughan Williams * The Strange Affliction of Anton Bruckner * The Secret Life of Sir Arnold Bax * The Mystery of Doctor Martinu * Classic Widows * In Search of the English Folk Song * Stories of Seduction * Prisoners of Honor * Lady Chatterley * Alice in Russialand * Ken Russell's Treasure Island * Tales of Erotica * Dogboys, Brighton Belles * Elgar A Portrait of the Composer on a Bicycle * Lion's Mouth * The Fall of the Louse of Usher * Revenge of the Elephant Man (Hot Pants 1) * the Mystery of Mata Hari (Hot Pants 2) * The Goodship Venus (Hot Pants 3) * Advertisements * Trial of the Century * She's So Beautiful * Phantom of the Opera * Nikita, Cry for Heaven * Diana * Its all coming back to me now * Teenager in Love * The Death of Scriabin


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