"There was no better director to learn from": Ken Russell’s Collaboration with Derek Jarman

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Looking back at his nearly six years at the BBC’s flagship arts programme Monitor, Ken Russell argued that it was ‘the only experimental film school that Britain ever produced’. This may at first seem hyperbolic, but on closer inspection, one can see his point. The National Film School would not be founded until 1971, a year after Russell left the BBC; and the only official film school in Britain at the time, the London School of Film Technique (now the London Film School), was perhaps not all that experimental. Several of Britain’s most idiosyncratic film-makers, however, received their film education working for Monitor, or were mentored by its managing editor, Huw Wheldon. Indeed, under Wheldon’s guidance young directors at the BBC including Russell, John Boorman and Tony Palmer (Russell’s one-time assistant) were given a rare amount of freedom to innovate and experiment.

It is worth remembering, however, that in 1959, when Monitor was less than a year old and Russell was just about to replace John Schlesinger in its ranks, William Coldstream, who was then Principal of the Slade School of Fine Art, was on the brink of winning his three-year battle to hire its first lecturer in Film Studies. The job was given to Thorold Dickinson, who had previously directed two extremely atmospheric British films, the original Gaslight (Anglo-American, 1940) and Queen of Spades (Associated British Pictures, 1949). Dickinson gave his inaugural lecture in January 1961 and went on to make a lasting (if unheralded) impression on British film culture. As Henry K. Miller argues, ‘Dickinson’s programmes, which were open to students from all over London, would set out the historical background for what was everywhere felt to be an exceptionally exciting moment in European cinema – one in which his students eventually played a part.’ Among these students were budding film scholars Raymond Durgnat and Charles Barr; aspiring film-makers Marco Bellocchio, the director of Fists in the Pocket (Doria, 1965); and Don Levy and Peter Whitehead, two British film-makers whose work merits the label ‘experimental’.

One other student who attended Dickinson’s courses was Derek Jarman, Russell’s future friend and set designer, who studied fine art at the Slade between 1963 and 1967. According to Tony Peake, the young art student did not miss ‘a single screening on the film course’.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationReFocus
Subtitle of host publicationThe Films of Ken Russell
EditorsMatthew Melia
Place of PublicationEdinburgh
PublisherEdinburgh University Press
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9781474477680 , 9781474477673
ISBN (Print)9781474477659, 9781474477666
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2022

Publication series

NameRefocus: The International Director's Series


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