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Book Review: Becoming Ken Russell: The Authorised Biography of Ken Russell, Volume One

Becoming Ken Russell: The Authorised Biography of Ken Russell, Volume One
Paul Sutton
Bear Claw Books, Cambridge, UK
$20

My own interest in director Ken Russell was partially instigated by the spotty record of publications about him. Between 1984 and 2008, the only books written about Ken were written by the man himself. With Joseph Lanza’s career assessment Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films and my own book Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England’s Last Mannerist (2009), the tables seemed to be turning. My book was an attempt at organizing more academic interest in Russell, while Lanza’s was a narrative of Russell’s life, as told by his films. Taken together, my book and Lanza’s book have some flaws. His treatment of Russell’s films is largely limited to speculation on secondary sources (though amusing, entertaining, and sometimes profoundly funny speculation it turns out to be), while my collection of essays has all the strengths and limitations that go along with the word “academic.” Depending on who utters it and how, “academic” can be a profoundly positive word, or, at the other end of the spectrum, a slyly pejorative insult. When people call my work academic, I hope they’re being nice to me. I think that the essays in the book remain insightful and useful!

The most recent book solely focused on Ken Russell is scholarly without being hermetically “academic,” and speculative while still staying grounded in (sometimes astonishing) evidence. Paul Sutton’s Becoming Ken Russell is accomplished because it has so many relevant things to say about a period in the filmmaker’s life that has heretofore been shrouded by an historical smog, part of it lost to memory (our previous accounts of this time come almost totally from Russell, who loved to play with his autobiographical self-image, and in later years might have lost a part of his past to the natural process of aging) and the other part undiscovered because scholars, myself included, didn’t necessarily learn the right lessons from the right people.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Paul Sutton for more than eight years. He contributed a fantastic survey of Russell’s Monitor films to my book, and in turn I’ve passed along leads, research material, and any scraps of info as I’ve come across them. Sutton has been working on a comprehensive biography of Ken Russell for the better part of a decade. Its structure, reach, central theses, and framing devices have changed over the years. But the first volume in this projected five book set has finally been published. Although a multi-volume undertaking, this is not biography in the grandiose, minute-to-the-point-of-absurdity mode (the fusty set of tendencies that prompted Lytton Strachey’s exemplary Eminent Victorians [1918]). Sutton has gone elliptical where the material warrants it, and has a knack for balancing his large-scale readings of Russell’s artistic output against the circumstances that lead to their possibility. If anything, it seems to share a sensibility with another celebrated work of biography, namely Robert A. Caro’s series of biographies of Lyndon Johnson (the most recent of which was published within the last year). Specifically, Sutton and Caro aim to demonstrate how a person, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, “became” the creator that they are known to be. In Caro’s case, it is a measured, and steadily paced story about the situations, on-the-fly decisions, careful planning, and self-reflexive ability of a man who became president during a turbulent period in American history. For Sutton, it is an expansion of a familiar story about a gifted film director, but one that accounts for the myth, and for the first time provides an archival and anecdotal context for the important achievements that eventually yielded the fame. Ken Russell was not a young man when he became Britain’s most artistically adventuresome television director. He had survived childhood trauma, school, National Service, careers in sales, ballet, and photography, the first few years of marriage and fatherhood, and constant rejection before he had a steady job as a director. He was a middle-aged and still painfully shy dreamer.

Roughly half of the book is about the factors that lead to Russell’s amateur films, including his tentative association with the Catholic Film Institute (one of his first institutional validations, the other being the nation’s Amateur Film Society, who voted his movie Peep Show [1956] their best movie of the year) and his early collaborators. While the early biographical insights will interest many, it is Sutton’s description of Russell’s growing fame as a photographer and then a kind of bohemian artist that most interest me. One area of vanished cultural history that thrived in 1950s Britain were a popular series of illustrated periodicals. The Sketch, Illustrated Magazine, and Picture Post (all long dead) were the proving ground for Russell’s visual sensibility, his knack for framing, his whimsicality, and his sense of humor. Sutton has done a great service by digging up various illustrated narratives, photo spreads, and commissions, most of which have long been lost. Thankfully, TopFoto and various galleries began exhibiting the rediscovered photographs of Ken Russell a few years ago, and Sutton’s book provides the crucial narrative linkages to show how these gigs (they were a living, albeit a precarious one) fed into the films.

Sutton’s discussion of his collaborations with art school students and the regular crowd of the Troubadour Cafe in Old Brompton Road, then an attic hangout for musicians, painters, and the aspirant bohemian set, likewise give us a sense of how Ken Russell found his creative voice. The Troubadour was a location, a source of inspiration, a social scene, and one of Russell’s first directorial signatures. [Coincidentally, this prompts an idea for another good book that somebody should write: a study of the scenes that formed around hangouts in 1950s and 1960s London, from The Troubadour to Better Books to Biba]. Another one of Russell’s early architectural inspirations makes an appearance, his shared lodgings with Elisabeth Collings, Helen May, and Tom Laden at a Victorian mansion called Linden Gardens, later the subject of his Monitor film A House in Bayswater (1961). Full coverage of that film is in the next volume, but the idea of using that house as the framing device for a story about a changing London and a set of remarkable/eccentric people feeds into the wider themes of Becoming Ken Russell.

Another service that the book does both for specialists and the merely curious is explain, at length and in illustrated detail, how Russell went from an amateur with a gut for cinema to an accomplished filmmaker of great technical invention. Sutton’s access to what he somewhat triumphantly calls “The Seven Ken Russell Films of 1959,” and his ability to explain Russell’s compositions and inspirations, certainly helps us follow the action, even when some of the films he discusses are not readily available, especially to American readers. The pay-off of Becoming Ken Russell is the second half of the book, which analyzes the films that Ken made after his appointment to Monitor (by champion tests forge). The book has some familiar faces by this point (Huw Wheldon and Humphrey Burton loom large, as does Russell’s longtime editor Michael Bradsell), but especially benefits from the memories of Anne James. For my money, Anne James, along with women like Mercedes Quadros and Helen Messenger, are invaluable for the degree of detail and context that they give to Russell’s early career. James was a Production Secretary on Monitor, as well as a collaborator (she appears in Guitar Craze [1959]), and, as someone who was young and worked for the BBC in an organizational capacity, sheds light on the background details of each of Russell’s projects. These extensive interviews and Sutton’s extensive use of the BBC archives uncovers what was previously obscured. I’ll leave the specifics to Sutton’s book, but needless to say, we’re given a window into everything from production budgets and salaries to unforeseen circumstances (Scottish painters Robet MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun needed an advance because they were moving house) and the reception memos of BBC top brass (over the course of 1959, they show a occasionally burgeoning respect for Russell, with some disapproval over his culturally catholic tastes).

That said, this isn’t necessarily the book I would write, nor is it necessarily positioned as you’d expect. Sutton opens the book by exposing the supposedly creatively bankrupt and culturally philistine nature of the British film industry (he would probably be more comfortable with the term “scheme” than “industry”), and maintains throughout that Russell’s potential was wasted because the money/green-light was never sufficiently forthcoming. A similar story could be told of other genuine film artists: their achievement was never sufficiently recognized in their lifetime, their unfilmed projects could have been transcendent, and their public was never quite on their wavelength (though Russell, in 1959, was very much in tune with his public). I’m curious to see Sutton develop this claim, since I feel that the various funding bodies and fly-by-night production companies that constitute the “British Film Industry” have managed to do alright by some directors, even during intermittent periods of crisis and so-called decline. I’m also hoping that Sutton tests some of the older writing about Ken Russell against his new reading of the director’s career. While to do so would have derailed this specific book (no one, besides him and a few pages of John Baxter’s 1973 book, has treated the pre-Monitor days at such length), Sutton will have plenty of interpretive, critical, academic, and commonsensical opinions to contend with once Russell moves into feature films.

The next volume of Sutton’s biography is due in 2013. I can scarcely wait to learn more about this singular and very much missed filmmaker, especially given that this next entry will chronicle the remainder of Russell’s early television work and his first features, the under-appreciated prelude to his decade of stardom and controversy in the 1970s. The world is a much more boring place now that he’s gone, but he is kept alive in the pages of this book.

Kevin M. Flanagan