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 © Ken Russell/TopFoto A Question of HonourJanuary 1955 From a series: "The last of the Teddy Girls" 16 year old Eileen from Bethnal Green, with two teddy boys "duelling" over her on an East End bombsite. © Ken Russell/TopFoto A Question of Honour January 1955 From a series: "The last of the Teddy Girls" 16 year old Eileen from Bethnal Green, with two teddy boys "duelling" over her on an East End bombsite.

© Ken Russell/TopFoto. “A Question of Honour,” from the series “The Last of the Teddy Girls,” January 1955. 16-year-old Eileen from Bethnal Green, with two teddy boys “duelling” over her on an East End bombsite.

Ken Russell’s Girls Will Be Boys, Boys Will Be Girls

Ken Russell was a notorious film-maker, for the big and the small screen. He always delivered surprises. He is mainly remembered for his exuberant, extravagant, excessive films. But that was later. And that sometimes tends to obscure the talent, technique and originality of his work. HOT’s Lauris Morgan-Griffiths went to see some of his early work, his exploration of teddy girls photographed in the east end of London: Girls Will Be Boys, Boys Will Be Girls. The exhibition also features work by the less well-known Alan Vines.

What is not generally known is that Russell served in the merchant navy and RAF, and even tried his hand as a ballet dancer. He studied photography at Walthamstow art school, and his early ambition was to be a fashion photographer.

© Ken Russell/TopFotos, 'Freewheelin' January 1955 "The Last of the Teddy Girls" Elsie Hendon (15) and Jean Rayner (14) outside the Seven Feathers Club, where they did the popular Ted dance, The Creep.

© Ken Russell/TopFotos. “Freewheelin,” from “The Last of the Teddy Girls,” January 1955. Elsie Hendon (15) and Jean Rayner (14) outside the Seven Feathers Club, where they did the popular ted dance, The Creep.

Russell was very much an individual. Never a shrinking violet, he wore exotic clothes and was an enthusiastic drinker. Starting his photography career as a fashion photographer was not so extreme as one might have thought.

Whether he fell out with fashion editors or simply got bored, who knows? However, as one can imagine, working to commission with models was never really going to give him the creative outlet he desired. His creativity was writ large in films – first, in his BBC biographies of composers and later in the full-blown extravaganzas of The Music Lovers, The Devils, The Boy Friend and Tommy.

However, as with many creatives there is a softer side. These images of teddy girls show early signs of his film direction. He evidently admired the girls for their personality and chutzpah. He gave them a very strong presence – as to who they were, standing in their own space, looking directly at the camera. They are their own person. And I like that confidence.

Innocents

Russell evidently did too. “I never thought of those kids as anything but innocents,” he said at the time he photographed the teddy boys and girls. “Even the teddy girls, all dressed up, were quite edgy and that interested me. They were more relevant and rebellious –  but good as gold. They thought it fun getting into their clobber and I thought so too.”

I interviewed Ken Russell once. It was not a very edifying affair. I can’t remember what film it would have been for, but he had been doing a series of press interviews that day. By the time I got to him, he had had lunch, and evidently several bottles of wine. It wasn’t a very coherent conversation.

© Ken Russell/TopFotos From a series: "The Last of the Teddy Girls" In Your Dreams January 1955 14 year old Jean Rayner in the exploratory stage of Teddyism.

© Ken Russell/TopFotos. “In Your Dreams,” from “The Last of the Teddy Girls.” January 1955. 14-year-old Jean Rayner in the exploratory stage of teddyism.

Later, in the 60s, he turned his attention to the west London area. That was a very different time to now. Gentrification was not a word in the general vocabulary. Russell made a rather tender film, A House in Bayswater, of the way of life at that time. Then, it was somewhat feral; characters living a life, getting by, doing the best they could. Houses were split into separate room, inhabited by odd characters. The film is restrained but shows Russell’s early promise and interests as a film-maker, celebrating odd characters and their lives.

The photographs of the teddy girls taken then were not necessarily remarkable – like so many documentary images of that time – but on rediscovery they have a certain historical frisson. These images, as were Alan Vines’, were found by chance in the archive of the photography agency TopFotos. Identified as Russell’s negatives, he acknowledged they were his. Fortuitously, he didn’t keep them because a little later his house burned down, destroying much of his work.

© Alan Vines/Top Fotos May 1954 Boys will be Girls, The oldest established all male revue ’This Was The Army’, running for nine years, ever since WWII.

© Alan Vines/Top Fotos, May 1954. “Boys will be Girls”: from the oldest established all-male revue, ’This Was The Army’, which ran for nine years until well after WWII.

Alan Vines

Showing alongside Russell’s pictures are Alan Vines’. They were taken at the same time, although the two never met. Vines had been in the army where he staged an all-male review, This Was The Army. Founded during World War II when Vines was in the Army, the review ran for nine years, continuing well after the war as a popular drag show.

He depicts different scenarios, but with similarities in that people were expressing themselves as individuals, the way peoples in subcultures do, celebrating their lives.

Russell hadn’t always been a fully formed extrovert;  he enjoyed people for themselves. These images show spontaneous, unforced pictures, pre media-isation, with none of the self-regard of the social media environment of today.

Ken Russell was a true original, although Alan Vines was not without his spark. Russell went on to notoriety, Alan Vines faded into obscurity. But both left an interesting legacy of that time.

 

Girls Will Be Boys, Boys Will Be Girls: until 9 November at the Lucy Bell Gallery, 46 Norman Road, St Leonards-on-Sea TN38 0EJ.

Posted 17:54 Wednesday, Sep 25, 2019 In: Photography

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