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Ken Russell monitor classics

.Working for the BBC´s Monitor arts programme Ken was allowed to develop from 15 minute shorts to longer films, and he produced some of his best work in this period. He had a professional organisation backing him up, but also had to cope with limited acting resources. His inventiveness is remarkable and he combined highly artistic films with wide commercial success: he became the most sought after documentary director. Says Russell we made films on living artists and when there were no more of them left we turned to making films about dead artists.

1961 Portrait of a Soviet composer

Portrait of a Soviet Composer

Russell's first full length television film about the composer Prokofiev.  The producer Huw Wheldon initially did not want actors in the documentaries. Russell gradually worked around this, initially for the Prokofiev film showing only the hands and back of the actor, and once the actor reflected in water.  Interestingly this only applies to the actor playing Prokofiev.  The actor playing the critic is shown in full and even talks in one scene.

Portrait of a Soviet Composer

The famous mirror scene converts two actors into a crowd.  At one point an actor is arguing with his own image in the mirror.   Russell uses the same trick in other films.

Portrait of a Soviet Composer

The film includes Prokofiev´s music for Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, which Russell parodied in Billion Dollar Brain. Similarly the historical footage of the Russian revolution, is also Eisenstein's film Oktober. Eisenstein used actors to recreate history- Russell was not yet allowed to do so.  The Music Lovers shows heavy influence of Portrait.

1962 Pop goes the Easel

Ken Russell Pop Goes the Easel

A biography of four pop artists (art not music). The title is a pun on the expression pop goes the weasel.  This was the first documentary to treat pop-art as a serious movement rather than as a joke. Unfortunately the four artists Derek Boshier, Pauline Boty, Peter Blake and Peter Phillips and  have not stood the test of time with only Blake retaining minor acclaim.  The four artists, who seem to live in a sort of commune, play with cowboy guns (edited with a cowboy firing back) or try and fail to look natural in front of the camera as they discuss their work.

The programme is introduced by Huw Wheldon and after this formal beginning it moves into mixtures of art and music (Buddy Holly etc), the film itself very much in pop art style.

"No one spoke much in [the film], which was unusual for Monitor.  When Huw saw the film, he said 'Brilliant, old boy. brilliant, but you don't show the artists at work... Won't do old chap, got to show a bit of paint on the canvas, a bit of pigment on the palette.'  So I [Russell] went back and shot them painting and he was delighted" (Paul Ferris, Sir Huge: The Life of Sir Huw Wheldon, Michael Joseph, 1990 ch 7).

  Ken Russell Pop Goes the Easel Ken Russell Pop Goes the Easel

"The cinematic language... references the early films of the French nouvelle vague, including François Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) and Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960)."  (John Wyver, The Filmic Fugue of Ken Russell’s Pop Goes the Easel, Journal of British cinema and television, 2015, Vol.12 (4), p.438-451).

Ken Russell Pop Goes the Easel Pauline Boty in Ken Russell Pop Goes the Easel
Pauline Boty Ken Russell Pop Goes the Easel
Ken Russell Pop Goes the Easel Pauline Boty

The best scene is a dream sequence where Pauline Boty is chased round corridors by a woman in a wheelchair. The dark glasses and hands pulling the wheels forward (compare Tommy) are genuinely menacing.   The woman running down the long curved corridor comes back in Ken Russell's Trapped Ashes 46 years later.

"Innovative in style and content, it places Boty at the centre of emergent British pop.  Her much admired wall collage sets the tome for the whole piece and we get to see her collages and some paintings.  However the film also exposes the deep problems for women engaged in the genre.  Unlike the other three artists she does not get an opportunity to speak seriously or directly about her work.  Instead she acts out a deranged mock-horror, fantasy sequence [Iain: !!!!].  Russell does not present her as the artist acting on popular culture, but as an actress subsumed by those sources" (Pauline Boty, The Only Blonde in the World, Sue Watling and David Alan Mellor, 1998).

Restricted by black-and-white Russell handles the colour artworks well, but compared with for example Savage Messiah the subjects are can't carry the film and end up looking very pretentious. Tony Hancock's The Rebel from 1961 covers the same material satirically (with Oliver Reed as one of the artists)The party sequence is copied later in Song of Summer and there is a scene playing pinballs (Tommy). 

Ken Russell Pop Goes the Easel  Ken Russell Pop Goes the Easel

Glimpses of the future: Pauline Boty looks out the window like Glenda Jackson at the end of The Music Lovers, and sings I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles as if she was in The Boyfriend.  All four go to a wrestling match which presages Women in Love.  The photography throughout is beautiful, black and white atmospheric imagery reflecting Russell's background as a photographer.

Pauline Boty Pauline Boty in Ken Russell Pop Goes the Easel
Peter Blake in Ken Russell Pop Goes the Easel Pauline Boty

  "Throughout Pop Goes the Easel, not only does Russell overturn the dominance of word over image in the arts on television through to 1962, but he also skillfully weaves his filmic fugue from the various pairings of concerns, alternating and counterpointing... in this film especially, but also in other films that he went on to create for Monitor, Russell’s achievement deserves celebration" (John Wyver, The Filmic Fugue of Ken Russell’s Pop Goes the Easel, Journal of British cinema and television, 2015, Vol.12 (4), p.438-451).

"The attention paid to the pop artist Pauline Boty, who is currently enjoying one of her periodic rediscoveries, has been attributed by the Scottish novelist Ali Smith to four people: alongside the two curators/art historians who tracked down and rescued her paintings were her dairy farming sister-in-law, who kept them in a barn for years after Boty’s untimely death from cancer aged 28, and Ken Russell, who included her in his enduringly influential 1962 film Pop Goes the Easel" (The Guardian, 22 Dec 2023, click here).

Camera is by Ken Higgins (Elgar, French Dressing), editor is Alan Tyrer (Elgar).  Derek Boshier would later appear in Dante's Inferno playing Millais, and Pauline Boty would appear in Bartok, more painters turned Russell actors.  In a revival of the film twenty years on, the three male artists discuss the film- Pauline tragically died a few years after the making of Pop Goes the Easel.

Site visitor Adam Smith adds (thanks Adam):

The Cars Heartbeat City 

You mention the 1991 revival which was orchestrated to coincide with a big Pop retrospective exhibition. One result of all this was a modest Pauline Boty revival, granting her long-overdue recognition. Not a star yet perhaps, but certainly recognised in the Pop world. Peter Blake has always enjoyed a wider currency, and is certainly no has-been. Peter Phillip's work is better-known than you might think (the cover of The Cars' Heartbeat City album is typical of his highly distinctive and collectable work). Derek Boshier was refreshed thanks to a big 60s exhibition at the Barbican in 1993, but appears in all the textbooks. So I think you can afford to rate them all a little higher in your episode summary now.

Derek Boshier in Ken Russell Pop Goes the Easel Pauline Boty in Ken Russell Pop Goes the Easel
Peter Blake in Ken Russell Pop Goes the Easel Peter Philips in Ken Russell Pop Goes the Easel

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