Nice and Quiet? Ken Russell's 'The Boy Friend' (1971)
This month – March 2017 – the National Film Theatre is showcasing Ken Russell’s 1971 production of The Boy Friend, focusing in particular on the production design and costume design that gave it its particular 1920s/1960s crossover look.
The Boy Friend sits right in the middle of Russell’s purple patch, stretching from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, when he produced much of his most enduring work. In the early 1960s he was in television, producing idiosyncratic documentaries, including several on composers – Bartok, Debussy, Prokoviev - for the BBC ‘Monitor’ series. From 1967 he moved into film with Billion Dollar Brain, followed in 1969 by Women In Love which won him an Oscar nomination, and Glenda Jackson an Oscar.
His feet didn’t touch the ground over the next few years. 1970 saw him back with the composers: Dance of the Seven Veils was a highly controversial TV biopic of Richard Strauss, and The Music Lovers was a lurid reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s music and sexuality. These were followed in 1971 by The Devils (blasphemy, erotic fantasy, orgy, torture); in 1972 by Savage Messiah (extremes of artistic angst); in 1974 by Mahler (including Nazi references, although Mahler himself died before the First World War) – and so on. His films were greeted by some as works of genius and by others as offensive exhibitionism.
But like him or loathe him, you couldn’t ignore him, and he is referred to in British Entertainment History Project interviews with Terry Ackland-Snow (http://historyproject.org.uk/interview/terry-ackland-snow), David Puttnam (http://historyproject.org.uk/interview/david-puttnam), and Gordon McCallum (http://historyproject.org.uk/content/0058).
In 1971, right in the middle of this run of sensational and controversial work, Russell made The Boy Friend, a very different sort of film, an unashamedly romantic musical. But many of those who worked on The Boy Friend were regular collaborators from his other, more lurid efforts. These included his wife Shirley Russell, costume designer; George Ball, props master; Michael Bradsell, editor; and Neville C. Thompson, production manager. All of these worked on all or most of Russell’s films from Women in Love through to Savage Messiah and Tommy.
Then there were others, not Russell regulars but experienced technicians who contributed to one or two of his projects. Two of those who worked on The Boy Friend have given interviews to the History Project. The first is the cinematographer David Watkin (http://historyproject.org.uk/content/0320) who by 1971 was a major figure in the industry, having shot The Charge of the Light Brigade and Catch 22, both of which attracted BAFTA nominations for Best Cinematography. He shot The Devils and The Boy Friend with Russell, and later in his career he won an Oscar for Out of Africa. David is also mentioned in interviews with Lindsay Anderson (http://historyproject.org.uk/content/lindsay-anderson) and Oswald ‘Ossie’ Morris (http://historyproject.org.uk/content/oswald-ossie-morris).
Secondly there was the sound recordist Maurice Askew (http://historyproject.org.uk/content/0294) who before doing The Boy Friend had worked on Women in Love and The Music Lovers. He was an industry veteran who by the early 1970s had over 20 years of film and TV productions under his belt, from the children’s TV series Stingray and numerous B-movies, through to big-budget Bond films Thunderball and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Maurice was awarded a CBE in 1981.
The Boy Friend has a very different feel to the Russell films which bracketed it: no nude wrestling, no orgies, no torture, blasphemy or Nazis. But for some, this was still the same old Ken Russell up to the same old tricks. Jan Dawson’s review of The Boy Friend in the Spring 1972 issue of Sight and Sound, for instance, was a masterpiece of sniffy vitriol:
“ … Ken Russell consistently approaches his source material as a tattered poster upon which to scrawl those outsized and eye-catching graffiti that pass for an auteur’s signature among less discerning critics of the Common Market countries … He mistakes his distorting mirror for a window on the world … a comic-strip frieze in which petty-minded puppets roll their bulging eyeballs to cavort in clashing costumes through gaudy decors … his source material is first trivialised, then – in its newly impoverished form – inflated to epic proportions … “
It was Russell’s cavalier treatment of his source material – in this case, Sandy Wilson’s much-loved 1953 stage musical – which clearly infuriated Dawson. She accused him of:
“ … eclipsing the fragile dignity of Sandy Wilson’s characters … “.
For Dawson the one redeeming element in the whole catastrophe was Twiggy, in her first screen role, for which she won a Golden Globe:
“ … her natural beauty … has no need of the surrounding ugliness to set it off … She has a sweet, clear voice that restores the songs to some of their original innocence, and serves as a wistful reminder just how much nicer – and quieter– the stage version was”.
I suspect that Russell regarded Dawson’s review as a back-handed compliment: “nice and quiet" was never, after all, his top priority.