Ken Russell and Dennis Potter, Together? The Visions of Change Documentary Collection

Here's a terrific, recent documentary set from the BFI: Visions of Change Volume 1: 1951 - 1967, featuring never before released films by Ken Russell and Dennis Potter.  Wait a minute, you might be saying, Dennis Potter is the brilliant English dramatist responsible for such modern classics as The Singing Detective and Pennies From Heaven; he doesn't do documentaries.  Well, he did one.  Early on, before he became famous; and it's in this set.  It's actually rather good, and you can even get a bit of a feel of the themes from his fictional work in it.  And there's nine more docs, too, which are mostly all pretty great!
So, what these are is eleven, previously unreleased made-for-BBC television documentaries spread across two discs.  That's possible because they're all pretty short, mostly around thirty minutes.  A couple are closer to forty-five, and one is only three.  It's sort of an unofficial follow-up to the BFI's previous four-disc sets of BBC documentaries Land of Promise and Shadows of Progress, and purports to "chronicle and re-evaluate Britain's contributions to the documentary form," as it says in the booklet.  If you're anything like me, though, that sounds awfully dry, and you're just interested in the Russell and Potter flicks.  But like I said at the top of this piece, it turns out there's a lot of compelling work in this set, so come for the big names but stay for the whole roster.
The set starts out with Henry Moore, a film about a sculptor, um, whose name escapes me now (come for the reviews, stay for the hack jokes!).  It's not bad, but not the best introduction to this collection, as it's fairly dry and feels more like a TV special than a proper film.  Interestingly, even though they have Moore on hand and interview him in the film, he only gets to say a couple of sentences, and most of the artwork is described by an off-screen narrator, making the proceedings feel a bit like something you'd be forced to watch in a classroom.  It is filled with a lot of nice shots of Moore's work, but unless you're a Moore enthusiast, it's asking a lot of it to carry a whole film, even a short one like this.
But things get more interesting as the films get more human.  Denis Mitchell created two films included in this set, Eye To Eye: Night In the City and Morning In the Streets, both of which document the decidedly un-glamorous poverty-stricken side of London in the 50s, from street life to the working class and their civil servants.  They're very naturalistic, "real" documentaries, despite a number of supposedly candid scenes clearly having been staged for the camera.  That three-minute doc is essentially more of the same kind of footage, but silent and set to a single song - apparently it was made to be a segment of a news magazine show.  1964's The Colony is a little stiffer, but along the same lines except that it focuses particularly on immigrants struggling to make their way in the UK.
Most compelling of all this particular variety of entries is Joe the Chainsmith, which focuses on a single "every man."  Following him from work, to the pub, to his home and even his back-lot dog races, this film fleshes out a poor Brit's entire life and the reasons he finds to go on living it.  The only other director to hit so close to home in this set is Dennis Potter, who returns to his childhood village in Between Two Rivers to take a completely un-romanticized look at life he was able to escape as a successful writer.  It's not a grim, one-note expression; but you get the sense that a lot of the bleaker material in Potter's work must've been him writing about what he learned here.
Least effective in this set is Eye On Research: Test Flight.  Apparently, Eye On Research was a regular running series in the 1950s and 60s, and this is just one episode.  A mostly, if not entirely, live broadcast documenting a test flight that might've been a little more exciting back when the science was current.  It's interesting as a chance to see a real precursor to modern news programming where they inter-cut between several speakers and locations with on-location footage and crudely animated graphics.  But I wouldn't recommend it to anybody who didn't consider themselves a serious student of documentary news filmmaking.  But I would heartily recommend a two-parter Dispute: Round 1 and Round 2, which looks at union disputes in British factories from both sides.  It's amazing how much some of these people allowed them to get on camera, feeling somewhat like the work of Frederick Wiseman during a heightened stage of anxiety.
Finally, of course, there's Russell's film.  We all know how much he loves to make documentaries about classic composers and artists, but this is a 60's film looking at four, very modern pop artists.  And he does it in a highly energetic style where the film is meant to work as a piece of pop art, too.  It's very stylistic and entertaining, though it rises and falls a bit depending on how strong each artist is that he's focusing on in any particular scene.  One of them in particular seems to have incorporated the film Russell was making into a display of her own art, which gets pretty dramatic.  Often, people are surprised that the gaudy, over-the-top director of such films as Tommy and Altered States also created some fairly stoic documentaries about Elgar and Delius.  But Pop Goes the Easel feels like the sort of BBC documentary the maverick director of Lair Of the White Worm would come up with.
All of the films are presented in fullscreen 1.33:1, which is entirely correct for vintage television programs of this era.  The quality rises and falls depending on the quality of the original film elements (Test Flight looking easily the worst), but the BFI restored these from the best available film elements, giving each film fresh 2k scans; and they certainly made them look the best they could with natural contrast levels and no interlacing.  You might be disappointed there's no blu-ray of this set, but I think we're lucky to see these films get released at all, and only the two or three 35mm entries in this series make you feel like you're missing much of an HD experience.  Test Flight, for example, is a 16mm copy of a recorded telecast, so there's not much to bring up.

There aren't any extras.  And I wouldn't expect much for a bunch of old TV docs, but the previous sets managed to cough up a few interviews and a documentary, so it's a little disappointing.  We do at least get a nice 32-page booklet, which gives some much needed backstory to every single film and a series of additional essays.  The double-wide set also comes in a slipcover.
This set came out in December 2015/ January 2016 to about as little fanfare as I've seen any release get.  So I wanted to cover it to make sure people found out about this.  I mean, unreleased Ken Russell and Dennis Potter in this dying age of physical media is still a big deal, right?  And again, several of the lesser known works in this set are at least as good as theirs.  And there's no release date yet, but the BFI do have pre-orders up on AmazonUK for Visions of Change Volume 2, which is going to focus on ITV documentaries this time.  No big names like Russell or Potter, apparently, but it looks like we'll be getting some more from Denis Mitchell, who I now know to look forward to.  It's great to see, even as the market's drying up, this kind of work can still find its way out the door.

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