‘Blurring the lines between fact and fiction’: Ken Russell, the BBC and ‘Television Biography’

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Working for the BBC arts programmes Monitor and Omnibus during the 1960s, the director Ken Russell was responsible for a series of biographical films based on the lives of painters and composers. Tracing the development of Russell’s work from Prokofiev (1961) and Elgar (1962) through to Bartok (1964) and The Debussy Film (1965), the article examines how Russell’s incorporation of elements of drama into the arts documentary generated arguments, both within the BBC and beyond, about the legitimacy of mixing ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ in such works. These debates focused, in particular, on the use of ‘dramatic reconstruction’ and subjective ‘interpretation’ and the ‘fairness’ of the films’ treatment of the artists and composers with which they dealt. As a result of its unusually explicit representations of sex and violence, Russell’s film about the composer Richard Strauss, Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), took these arguments to a new level. Through an examination of the responses that the film generated, the article concludes that, due to the degree to which the programme departed from BBC norms of documentary practice, and the related values of ‘impartiality’ and ‘good taste’, it became a work that tested the very limits of what the BBC then considered it possible to transmit.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)452-478
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of British Cinema and Television
Issue number4
Early online dateSept 2015
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - Sept 2015


  • BBC; Ken Russell; Ken Loach; Huw Wheldon; David Attenborough; Monitor; Omnibus; documentary; drama documentary; television biography; Elgar; The Debussy Film; Dance of the Seven Veils; Richard Strauss.

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