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Ken Russell omnibus classics

When the Monitor series stopped Russell continued mainly with the BBC´s Omnibus series. Without the supervision of Huw Weldon the films became more experimental and less acceptable to the general public. But they are a foretaste of the classic films he would shortly make.

Ken Russell The Debussy Film   Ken Russell The Debussy Film

"There is a touch of arrogance, as well as of assurance, about this brilliant creation"

T.C. Worsley, Television: The Ephemeral Art, 1970

The Debussy Film- Impressions of the French Composer from 1965.  A film of a film with the director instructing the actor on the role of the composer Debussy. A film within a film is a common Russell motif, but here both plots (Debussy, the film) are equally important. Oliver Reed stars, and so plays both Debussy and the actor playing Debussy. "Debussy was an ambiguous character and I always let the character of the person or his work dictate the way the film goes" (Russell quoted in Goodwin's Evil Spirits).

Vladek Sheybal plays the directs and also acts the role of Pierre Louys. "As Sheybal [playing the director] struggles to fix the elusive musician on film, the affairs and encounters of other members of the cast parallel and illuminate the simplified story of Debussy's life usually retailed by music dictionaries.  Story and reality interpenetrate" (from John Baxter, An Appalling Talent,  1973, ch 2).

Russell saw Reed on Juke Box Jury, a British television programme and found the physical similarity between Reed and Debussy stunning.

Vladek Sheybal in Ken Russell The Debussy Film

Vladek Sheybal, playing the director, instructs the boy actor to run to Debussy's hearse, read the inscription, and run back and say "It seems he was a composer".  Effective, but not really what a small boy would say.

Ken Russell The Debussy Film

The fire brigade provide the rain.

Ken Russell The Debussy Film

"Debussy died on 25 March 1918 at his home in Paris. In this final year of World War I, Paris was under constant German bombardment, meaning that large public funerals were not permitted. Instead, Debussy's funeral procession snaked through Paris's deserted streets to a temporary grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery" (BBC Classical Music, 21 Feb 21, click here)

Reed, confronted by the naked actress emerging from the swimming pool, is superb.  Other actors include Vladek Sheybal playing the director and Annette Robertson.

It is also the first collaboration with Melvyn Bragg who would write other television and film scripts for Russell, and would later become a novelist and arts presenter. Melvyn and Ken intended the script to be for the cinema but when no backer could be found after Russell's commercial failure, French Dressing, it was done as a TV film.

Russell's imagery was controversial. One of Russell's best scenes is the girl in the t-shirt in the water attached to a cross and being shot with arrows (a reference to The Martyrdom of St Sebastian- Derek Jarman also covered the same topic).  Russell was criticised because St Sebastian was played by a woman- he pointed out in Debussy's piece the role is sung by a woman.

Ken Russell The Debussy Film

Oliver Reed in Ken Russell The Debussy Film

Ken Russell The Debussy Film

The films starts and ends with a funeral procession ... and is a film about a film, which allowed Russell more flexibility in the roles, avoiding the BBC strictures on using actors to portray real people in documentaries, as he was not portraying Debussy, but the actor in the film.  As usual there is stylish framing of shots.

"And the particular triumph of the thing was that in spite of every "alienation effect," individual scenes- when Mr. Russell wanted them to- took on the passionate intensity of the real" (T.C. Worsley, Television: The Ephemeral Art, 1970).

Annette Robertson in Ken Russell The Debussy Film

Ken Russell The Debussy Film

Russell's daughter Victoria.

Ken Russell The Debussy Film Oliver Reed

Debussy is dying and Reed as the actor contemplates how to play the role.

Ken Russell The Debussy Film

Debussy shuts the blinds one by one, and the growing darkness symbolises his death.

Ken Russell The Debussy Film

The film ends with the opening funeral cortege and the meagre number of mourners.

Vladek Sheybal in Ken Russell The Debussy Film

Vladek Sheybal repeats "it seems he was a composer".

Ken Russell The Debussy Film

One of Russell's favourite shots is of a figure silhouetted in a doorway, this is a spectacular version.

Oliver Reed and Vladek Sheybal are particularly good.  Cinematography is by John McGlashan and Ken Westbury and editing was by Russell regular Alan (sometimes Allan) Tyler.

The music includes excerpts from:

  • Syrinx

  • La mer - De l'aube à midi sur la mer, Jeux de vagues, Dialogue du vent et de la mer

  • Estampes- Jardins sous la pluie

  • La damoisselle élue

  • Nocturnes - fȇtes

  • Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune

  • Images pour orchestre

  • Dans profane

  • Preludes - La fille aux cheveux de lin

  • Esquisses

  • La boîte à joujoux

  • Berceuse héroïque


  • Wagner, Die Walküre

  • The Kinks, You Really Got Me (during a present day party sequence)

Ken Russell The Debussy Film

Russell's brief cameo on the left.

Ken Russell The Debussy Film 

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