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Sex, Politics and Religion: The making of Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’

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The great film director Ken Russell once remarked that if he had been born in Italy and called, say, “Russellini” then critics would have thrown bouquets at his feet. He was correct as Russell’s worst critics were generally slow-witted, myopic beasts, lacking in imagination and untrustworthy in their judgement.

Take for example the critic Alexander Walker who once dismissed Russell’s masterpiece The Devils as:

...the masturbatory fantasies of a Roman Catholic boyhood.

Walker was being petty and spiteful. He was also badly misinformed. Russell was not born a Catholic, he became one in his twenties and was lapsed by the time he made The Devils. More damningly, if Walker had taken a moment to make himself cognisant with Russell’s source material—a successful West End play by John Whiting commissioned by Sir Peter Hall for the Royal Shakespeare Company or its precursor the non-fiction book The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley—then he would have realised Russell’s film was based on historical fact and his so-called excesses were very tame compared to the recorded events. However, Walker’s waspish comments became his claim to fame—especially after he was royally slapped by Russell with a rolled-up copy of his review on a TV chat show in 1971—Russell later said he wished it had been an iron bar rather than a newspaper.
 
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Oliver Reed as Grandier and Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne rehearse under the watchful eye of Ken Russell.
 
The Devils is the story of a priest named Urbain Grandier and his battle against the ambitions of Church and State to eradicate the independence of the French town of Loudon. In a bid to have this troublesome priest silenced, Grandier was tried for sorcery after a confession was brutally extracted from a nun, Sister Jeanne, who claimed he was an emissary of the Devil. Grandier was acquitted of all charges but a second show trial found him guilty and he was tortured and burnt at the stake. Russell described Grandier’s case as “the first well-documented political trial in history.”

There were others, of course, going back to Christ, but this had a particularly modern ring to it which appealed to me. He was also like many of my heroic characters…great despite himself. Most of the people in my films are taken by surprise, like [the dancer] Isadora Duncan and [the composer] Delius. They’re out of step with their times and their society, but nevertheless manage to produce rather extraordinary changes in attitude and events. This was exactly Grandier’s situation. He was a minor priest who was used as a fall guy in a political conflict, who lost his life and his battle but won the war.

After that they [the Church and State] couldn’t go on doing what they were doing in quite the same way, and around that time [1634] the Church did begin to lose its power. Twenty years later no one could have been burned as a witch in France. The people of Loudon realised too late that this man they knew so well simply couldn’t have been guilty of the things he was charged with, and if they hadn’t been so bemused by the naked nun sideshow that was going on and the business and prosperity it brought to the town, they’d have realised it sooner. So the fall guy achieved as much in the end as if he had been a saint. And to me that’s just what he is.

Though Russell was on a high after his international success with the Oscar-winning Women in Love (1969) starring Glenda Jackson, Alan Bates, Oliver Reed and Jennie Linden, and The Music Lovers (1970) a flamboyant biopic on the life of Tchaikovsky with Richard Chamberlain and Glenda Jackson, he had found it difficult to find a backer for The Devils. Original producers United Artists pulled out, leaving Russell “out on a limb: having written a script and commissioned set designs from Derek Jarman and costume designs from Shirley Russell.

It would have been a disaster to scrap all that work. Bob Solo, the producer, who had spent years getting the rights to Huxley’s book and Whiting’s play started looking around for another backer, but it took four months of offering the package before Warner Brothers agreed to have a go.

Russell’s script was considered too long and cuts were made. He had originally made Sister Jeanne the focus of his story, following the nun through her involvement in Grandier’s execution to her career as a star:

I suppose it’s the film that turned out most like I wanted it to, though I would have liked to carry the story further to show what happened to [Cardinal] Richelieu and Sister Jeanne. At the end de Laubardemont says “You’re stuck in this convent for life”, but as soon as he’d gone Jeanne set about getting out because her brief moment of notoriety had whetted her appetite for more. So she gouged a couple of holes in her hands and pretended she had the stigmata, saw ‘visions’ and, with the help of Sister Agnes, gulled some old priest into thinking she was the greatest lady since the Virgin Mary.

So she and Agnes went on a jaunt all over France and were hailed with as much fervour as show biz personalities and pop stars are received today. In Paris 30,000 people assembled outside of her hotel just in the chance of getting a glimpse of her. She became very friendly with Richelieu, the King and Queen wined and dined her, she had a grand old time. When she died—I particularly wanted to include this scene—they cut off her head and put it in a glass casket and stuck it on the altar in her own convent. People came on their knees from miles around to pay her homage.

 
More from Ken Russell and ‘The Devils’ including special documentary, photospread and Oliver Reed interview, after the jump…
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Glenda Jackson denounces ‘heinous’ Thatcherism in House of Commons tirade

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For a moment, I thought I was watching a film—perhaps a re-make of Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class? You know the scene where a demented Jack Gurney, 14th Earl of Gurney (Peter O’Toole) gives an insane speech in favor of the death penalty to a parliamentary chamber that is received with the most rapturous applause from his decrepit audience, the literal-living dead—the rotten, skeletal, cobweb-covered corpses of the House of Lords?

This was the only way I could make sense of what I was watching, as the British House of Commons gathered at a specially convened session to eulogize the evil dead—Margaret Thatcher.

By turn, all three leaders (Cameron, Clegg, Miliband) of the main electoral parties (Conservative, Liberal, Labour) praised the politician whose policies callously attacked the poorest, the weakest and least able, destroyed families, communities and industries, divided a country, and created mass unemployment for generations of Brits.

The vile stench of greed, hypocrisy and fear was almost palpable, as each bland politician paid homage to evils of Thatcher and Thatcherism.

I suffered through more than 3 years of unemployment during the Thatcher era—and know first hand, the evil Thatcherism inflicted on the UK. And yet today the faceless, forgettable MPs came to sing her highest praises.

Thank goodness then, to Glenda Jackson, the former actress-turned-politician (MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, London), who did not follow the sheep, but stood up and told the British Parliament the truth about Margaret Thatcher and her evil policies.

“There was a heinous social, economic and spiritual damage wreaked upon this country, upon my constituency and my constituents.”

“I tremble to think what the death rate for pensioners would have been this week if that version of Thatcherism had been fully up and running this year.”

“By far the most dramatic and heinous demonstration of Thatcherism was not only in London but across the whole country in metropolitan areas, where every single shop doorway, every single night, became the bedroom, the living room, the bathroom for the homeless.”

Ms. Jackson went on to explain how Thatcherism promoted the vices of greed and selfishness as virtues.

“That everything I had been taught was a as vice, and I still regard them as vices, under Thatcherism was a virtue.”

“Greed, selfishness, no care for the weaker. Sharp elbows and sharp knees, this was the way forward.”

“People saw the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

“What concerns me is that I am beginning to see possibly the re-emergence of that total traducing of what I regard as the basic spiritual nature of this country—where we do care about society, where we do believe in communities, where we do not leave people to walk by on the other side.”

If only more Members of Parliament, these so-called elected representatives of the people, were as honest and as courageous as Glenda Jackson was today, then there would be genuine hope for a better tomorrow.
 

 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Ken Russell: A documentary tribute to his life and work

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There was an interesting letter in that scurrilous rag, the Daily Mail yesterday, printed under the headline, “Let Ken’s movies inspire a new audience”. It was written by Paul Sutton, of Trumpington, Cambridgeshire, who gave a passionate plea for the BBC to stop using edited clips of Ken Russell’s early TV work to liven-up crap shows made by today’s lesser talented directors:

These Ken Russell films aren’t entertainment fit only for ‘found footage’. They’re films, works of very real cinema in which every frame,pictorial composition, cut and music cue has been thought through with a craftsman’s hand and an artist’s mind and eye. They constitute a body of work which stands with the best of any director working anywhere in the world between 1959 and 1970.

Mr. Sutton went on to explains how both Lindsay Anderson, in If…, and Stanley Kubrick, in A Clockwork Orange, lifted from Russell’s TV work, and concludes:

Every one of Ken Russell’s 35 BBC films displays the master’s art. We should be boasting about them and using them to inspire the next Lindsay Anderson, the next Stanley Kubrick and the next Ken Russell.

I for one, certainly do hope the BBC listen up and release all of Ken Russell’s TV films for all of us to enjoy, very soon.

Most recently, the Beeb made this fine documentary Ken Russell: A Bit of a Devil , and while it doesn’t cover all of the great, genius director’s work (no Savage Messiah, no Crimes of Passion, no Salome’s Last Dance) it does manage to show why Ken Russell was England’s greatest film director of the last 50 years, and one of the world’s most important film directors of the twentieth century.

Presneted by Alan Yentob, this documentary tribute includes interviews with Glenda Jackson, Terry Gilliam, Twiggy, Melvyn Bragg, Amanda Donohoe, Robert Powell and Roger Daltrey.

Read Paul Sutton’s blog on Ken Russell, Lindsay Anderson and Stanley Kubrick here.
 

 
With thanks to Unkle Ken Russell
 
More on L’enfant terrible Msr. Russell, after the jump…
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Oliver Reed: Wild Thing!
05.20.2010
03:11 pm

Topics:
Heroes

Tags:
Oliver Reed
The Troggs
Glenda Jackson
Wild Thing

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How the below clip escaped inclusion in my previous post on the stupendously great British actor (and even greater talk show guest) Oliver Reed is UTTERLY beyond me!  So, with Ned’s Atomic Dustbin (?!) as his backing band, here’s a relatively coherent Reed taking The Troggs standby, Wild Thing, out for a spin.  Oh, and please watch to the end.  The Reedster makes a hysterically inappropriate comment regarding his Women In Love costar Glenda Jackson.

Posted by Bradley Novicoff | Leave a comment