Media Matter Nick Thomas
IN THIS WEEK'S SOWN BANK SliOW Melvyn Bragg interviewed Ken Russell, who apparently is in some need of a publicity boost from an old friend. Seventy-three and no longer bankable, Russell is engaged in the making of an eight-part home movie of The Fall of The House of Usher, financed with his last
£20,000, and intended to make vast profits through the
interne. Fans of the whackier elements of Russell's work will have been suitably enthused by the scenes we saw being shot, dominated as they were by cavorting nuns in various states of undress, for the nun motif litters the Russell oeuvre, along with the crucifix. Never has the disturbed Catholic consciousness surfaced so consistently, and so crudely in an artistic imagination. Sometimes the manifestation has been appropriate and well judged, as it was in The Devils, a truly horrible piece; sometimes it has been just silly and offensive, as in the ludicrous Tinny. But the obsession with the perversion of Christian imagery is always to be found somewhere.
This has been enough to put many people off Russell altogether, which is a shame, because there's a lot more to him than that. He first achieved recognition in 1962, with his beautifully sensitive film about Edward Elgar for the BBC's Monitor, and it is interesting that even then he was making waves, for the ethic of the time forbade the use of actors to represent real people in documentary. The basest form of that technique is commonplace these days, employed lest the baby audience tires of information without pretty pictures to look at, but Elgar was different. The narration was documentary, but the film was a work of art, and it assured Russell his place as one of the innovators of television's golden age.
Melvyn Bragg also worked on Monitor and collaborated with Russell variously thereafter, and Sunday's film frequently took a reminiscent turn. Forty years ago there was much discussion of the nature of documentary, how it should be defined, how it should evolve, and it seems that that debate continues, at least in the The South Bank Show office, as well it might. Was this programme a documentary? Can a cosy chat between friends really be called an interview? It wouldn't matter really, except that the end result didn't serve its subject particularly well. Bragg is too fond of Russell, admires him too much to probe properly and expose his workings to an audience that might be more sceptical of the man's worth. So he came across as an eccentric, an historical curiosity once associated with the pushing of boundaries that have been overrun long since, now pointing a cheap video camera at a lot of tarted-upgirls in his garden shed.
This isn't fair. Serious Russell fans, though they can only shrug helplessly at some of his films, have good reasons to admire this strange old Englishman with the childish innocence in his face, indeed in much of his world view. Even the self-indulgent use of pretty girls in his work seems innocent somehow, a prepubescent naughtiness. But the other side of that infantile nature is a directness and clarity of vision, an understanding of the power of image and word combined. There is also a sagacity there that comes out in bursts, and reveals a uniquely literate filmmaker.
There are those of us who think The Devils and Women in Love are masterpieces of cinema, that The Lovers isn't half-bad, that The Lair of the White Worm is a gorgeously paced send-up, that Gothic is highly intelligent (though poorly cast), and that Crimes of Passion is a deeply moral examination of sexuality. All these films are well worth reassessing and arguing about. The man who made them shouldn't be blowing his savings on a gamble. He should be given a proper film to make — but with no nuns.