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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The late, occasionally great, Ken Russell



The 1960s ‘Harry Palmer’ spy films starring Michael Caine were intended as the antithesis of James Bond. They were downbeat, gritty, and realistic. The first in the series, ‘The Ipcress File’ (1965), opened with Palmer fumbling for his horn rimmed specs and sleepily making coffee. Then Ken Russell, who died yesterday aged 84, was hired to direct the third instalment, ‘Billion Dollar Brain’ (1967).

Perhaps the producers were attracted by Russell’s intellectual cache and documentary film background. He made his name with a string of films he produced in the 1960s for ‘Monitor’, the BBC’s arts show. In themes he would return to in his films Russell’s finest television work focused on artists. His documentary on Edward Elgar (1962) was more than a simple biography with some musical clips. By setting up shots and scenes and using Elgar’s symphonies almost as incidental music Russell placed the composer squarely in his time and setting. It was as much an evocation of the high noon of Imperial Britain as a documentary about Elgar.

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