Stewart Williams

University of East Anglia

Project title: Ken Russell: British Critical Reception and the Construction of Authorial Reputation

British cinema has been discursively understood as a dyad between realism and fantasy. This has been constructed through a critical consensus that has historically privileged and legitimised realism in a hierarchy of aesthetic and moral value; legitimate restraint over illegitimate excess. Furthermore, films and filmmakers which did not conform to the realist criteria was either heavily criticised or rejected from the canon of British cinema. Revisionism in British film studies has challenged these presumptions. For example, in the late-1970s the marginalised filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were re-evaluated and then rehabilitated into the canon through the very excesses they were once criticised for. 

In respect, one filmmaker who deserves our attention is Ken Russell (1927-2011). A central figure in British film and television culture of the 1960s and 1970s, Russell’s excesses – evident in such films such as 'Women in Love' (1969), 'The Devils' (1971) and 'Tommy' (1975) – meant he was heavily criticised and gained the reputation of the 'enfant terrible' of British cinema. Despite this, Russell posthumously lacks critical stock because of a faded reputation, shaped through negative critical reception that amounted throughout his career; his reputation shifting as his role within the industry diminished – from enfant terrible to eccentric 'Celebrity Big Brother' (2007) contestant. 

Despite recent academic interest in 1970s British cinema and the beginnings of a posthumous re-evaluation, Russell is still an under-researched figure that has not been effectively excavated. Therefore, this research – the first in-depth critical reception study of Russell – will build upon prior revisionism and explore authorship discursively: the construction of authorial status and the fluctuating nature of authorial reputation – taking into account persona and image progression – in relation to British cultural intermediaries and the taste cultures and hierarchies they utilise in critical reception.

Therefore as a historically and contextually informed receptions study, this research will combine an analysis of discursive elements – particularly contemporary reviews but also ephemera – with informed textual analysis of Russell’s work. And archival research will conducted at the British Film Institute, BBC Written Archives and the Ken Russell Collection at Southampton Solent University. Moreover, by focusing on pivotal moments within Russell’s career, this interdisciplinary approach will allow me to develop and question our understanding of both Russell, the period in which he operated and the interrelationship between authorship, critical reception and industrial practices within British cinema.

Supervised by Dr Melanie Williams and Dr Tim Snelson

About me
I studied a Film and Television Studies BA (2014) and Film MA (2016) at the University of East Anglia. 

Research interests
My research interests include British cinema and popular culture, film theory (particularly debates surrounding authorship) and the discursive function of film criticism.