Saturday 22 December 2012

Ken Russell A House in Bayswater

Ken Russell's A House in Baywater is currently viewable on BBCTV2 iPlayer in a very high quality print. For me it's seminal, a film that encapsulates so much of who Ken was, what he did and what he'd achieved in film thereafter. It also shows how sensitively Ken observed British society around him. A House in Baywater (1960) is a window on a Britain that was fast disappearing. Soon after the cameras stopped filming this house was pulled down  to make way for an anonymous office block.

A House in Baywater isn't true documentary although it's fact-based. in that Ken lived in the house himself and knew. Already, we see the germ of Ken Russell's style where he finds greater truths through art. A House in Bayswater is a precursor to the scene in the Elgar film where Elgar rides a horse through the countryside, true to the spirit of the man even if it's not documented. Thus in A House in Bayswater, we see an eccenrtic housekeeper describe the tenants she watches over from the basement of the huge Victorian house. She climbs 100 steps a day, delivering milk bottles. "And sometimes they want more, and I have to do it again". She doesn't complain, but you realize how self absorbed the tenants are, though the old lady doesn't complain. We see her shopping at the market.  Already, London is changing . There's a Sikh in a turban. The old lady likes looking at antiques in a flea market. "You can find anything here. Maybe I'll even find a husband". Maybe she's an antique herself, a throwback to another era.
She's a tough old soul, but her tenants are even stranger. There's a painter who talks about the joy of solitude. Very posh accent. They all seem to have ultra upper class accents in this film which sets them apart from the rest of society. Maybe that's why they can afford to live bohemian lifestyles beyond the ken of the working class (deliberate pun). For all his pretensions, the painter can't paint, as the camera quietly shows us. Another tenant is a photographer who takes arty nude shots on the roof to make enough money to finance a month of doing other things. It's only 1960, but Ken has picked up the Swinging Sixties vibe, and does so with critical insight. Although much of his later work is Swinging Sixties to a fault, he was not only a man of his time but saw it in ironic context.

Another tenant is a lady who used to be a lady's maid in America. Class-hopping, another Ken Russell theme. Although she's not an artist like the other tenants, she's an artist too, in the sense that she created a life that took her out of the dull and commonplace. There's a former dancer, who used to know famous people. Now she teaches a young girl. in her seedy, overcrowded room.  A scene is shot where the old dancer does her routine once more for the camera. Faded glory, delusion but brave optimism and passionate committment : hallmarks of the Ken Russell style.

Tucked away elsewhere in the house lives a "normal" man and his wife. He's some kind of working class salaryman who works in a "wine cellar". There's no hot water in the morning, he observes, as he shaves before heading off into the world. That's him in the photo above. He's laughing, despite his thankless existence. But look at his unreconstructed teeth! Perhaps this man's descendants live in Essex, long priced out of London. Shabby bedsits in grand old houses: Baywater is still full of them, even now, occupied by people with no money and grim prospects.  Ken Russell had a social conscience and was far more down to earth than he's given credit for. 

Ken Russell was an eccentric outsider, but that's precisely why he was a genius. He wasn't afraid to make mistakes or shock people. He could make painfully sensitive films like the Delius movie and horrors like the Strauss movie so controversial that even now, it's hard to get a handle on.  That's quintessential Ken,  a true artist who could madden, but never bore. Many people still don't understand.  Please look at other things I've written about Ken in the past, some photos not available anywhere else =- do NOT copy, please because I got them from source.


sittinpretty said...

Although the house is described as being demolished, in fact it is still there at 30-32 Linden Gardens, London. Check out the scene outside at the beginning where the caretaker is collecting the milk and this address on Google Streetview, it is exactly the same place! I think the filmmakers were telling a few porkies to make the story more interesting.

sittinpretty said...

I should mention that putting 32 Linden Gardens into Streetview takes you around the corner to the wrong location, manually move around the corner until you get to the end terrace house with 32 on the door, that is the house in the programme as well as the one next to it.