The film director Ken Russell died peacefully in his sleep yesterday, he was 84. Russell was one of England’s greatest, most important and influential film directors, whose work revolutionized television and cinema. Russell will be remembered for his original TV docu-dramas, Elgar, The Debussy Film, Delius: The Song of Summer, and Dance of the Seven Veils, and for his cinematic work, Women in Love, The Devils, The Boyfriend, The Music Lovers, Savage Messiah, Mahler, the rock opera Tommy, Altered States, Gothic, Crimes of Passion, Lair of the White Worm, Salome’s Last Dance and The Rainbow.
The term genius is over-used these days to describe third-rate karaoke singers on Pop Idol, but in its proper use, as a person of extraordinary intellect and talent, Ken Russell was a genius, and his films are without question some of the greatest cinematic works ever produced. As film writer and director Tim Lucas noted this morning:
I am reading that Ken Russell has died, and there is nothing else to do but damn the mediocrity that’s outlived him and be immensely grateful for all he gave us—in my case, many films that changed my way of seeing things, and a few that literally changed my life. There was no other film director like him, and we will not see his like again.
Born Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell in Southampton, England, on July 3 1927, to Ethel and Henry Russell. His father owned a shop and was described as distant and bad tempered, which led to the young Ken spending much of his childhood escaping with his mother to watch films at the local picture house. It was here that he saw Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen, which inspired Russell’s imagination towards film-making.
Educated at Pangbourne College, Russell then briefly served with the Royal Air Force, before joining the Merchant Navy during the war. His talent for theater and direction saw him interpret a song about fishermen mending their nets, as sailors sewing their nylons.
After the war, Russell began a career as a photographer, famously taking pictures of youths around London, in particular as series on “Teddy Girls”. He met and married his first wife, Shirley Ann Kingdom, with whom he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1957. Religion gave Russell the structure through which to view life, as he later explained:
“When I was young I really didn’t know where I was going, but as soon as I came into the faith, my work, my philosophy, gained direction.”
His early films Amelia and the Angel, Loudres, his BBC films for Monitor, and many of his movies were strongly influenced by his Catholic beliefs. Russell’s conversion came through a tenant he met in a rooming
house in Bayswater, who made the Bible and religion sound like epic science fiction. Russell became a “Catholic space cadet”, but by 1973, he had rejected most of his beliefs.
With a wife and a belief system, Russell started out on a film career that was to last the next 6 decades. After a few short films, he was offered work as a director by Huw Wheldon, editor of the BBC’s flagship arts series Monitor, as a replacement for John Schlesinger, who had moved on to make movies. At Monitor Russell devised much of the stylistic language of TV documentary-making that is still used today, and most significantly was the first director to create a docu-drama, with his film on the composer Elgar.
Under Wheldon’s firm editorial guidance, Russell developed his highly original talent, producing works of structured imagination, that intelligently analyzed and interpreted works of creative artists, from Delius and Debussy to Isadora Duncan and Richard Strauss. Russell also brought together a troupe of actors who would appear regularly in his films, most importantly Oliver Reed, who described Russell as “Jesus Christ” because of his talents.
In 1963, Russell briefly left Monitor to make his first film, French Dressing, a comedy set in the seaside town of Gormleigh-on-Sea, where a young deck-chair attendant plans a film festival in the hope of bringing in much needed custom. The film flopped, and Russell returned to the BBC, where he continued making his stunningly original documentaries.
In 1967, Russell directed his second feature, The Billion Dollar Brain based on Len Deighton’s novel, and starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer. Though the film almost cost Russell his film career, it revealed his scale and vision as director, and contained a few of his trademark techniques.
This was followed in 1969, by what is considered Russell’s first “signature work”, Women in Love. Based on the novel by D. H. Lawrence, adapted by Larry Kramer, the film starred Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed, Jennie Linden and Alan Bates, and was caused considerable outrage over its nude wrestling scene between Reed and Bates - a sequence Reed convinced Russell to film. Women in Love was Oscar nominated, but only collected one award for Glenda Jackson as Best Actress Award.
Russell again returned to the BBC, where he made Dance of the Seven Veils, possibly the most controversial docu-drama ever aired, which led to questions raised in the British parliament, and is still banned today for its depiction of the composer Richard Strauss as a Nazi. It was most likely this program and the controversy over Women in Love that started the pursed-lips of Middle England’s suburban-minded critics to look askance at Russell’s artistic film work. Their failure to understand or appreciate the quality of Russell’s talents was a damning inditement of the snobbishness and stupidity of English newspaper film critics, who appeared more concerned with proclaiming their own parochial taste than responding to Russell’s structured vision.
Dance of the Seven Veils was Russell’s farewell to TV docu-drama, as he shipped off to a glittering career as a film director. Next came The Music Lovers (1970), starring Richard Chamberlain and Glenda Jackson, a film hated by critics, loved by audiences. To this day it still has some of the most startling and disturbing imagery in cinema.
This was followed in 1971 by The Devils, based on Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudon and John Whiting’s play, the film dealt with the true story of alleged possession of nuns in the French city of Loudon. The film starred Oliver Reed, in his finest performance, and Vanessa Redgrave.
Though heavily censored over a sequence were nuns rape a giant crucified Christ, and was banned for its alleged blasphemy, The Devils is Russell’s greatest film.
Again, damned by mealy-mouthed critics, it led to a famous incident where Russell walloped insipid film critic, Alexander Walker, about the head with a rolled up copy of his film review. In an interview earlier this year, Russell said, “I wish it had been an iron bar”.
What most critics have failed failed to understand about Russell was his Englishness as a director. Here was a combination of earthy working class humor and high art. The end of the pier humor can be seen in the The Boyfriend while the high art is in Russell’s film of H S Ede’s book Savage Messiah, and there’s a mix of the two in Mahler in 1974.
At one point during the early 1970s, Russell had 3 movies on show on London’s West End, the first time this had happened since Alfred Hitchcock.
In 1975, Russell made his most successful film Tommy, based on The Who’s rock opera, starring Roger Daltery, Ann Margaret, Oliver Reed, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Keith Moon and Jack Nicholson. It divided critics, but inspired a generation of promo directors. Next came Lisztomania, and in 1977, Russell’s first major Hollywood movie Valentino, starring Rudolph Nureyev and Michelle Phillips, which received such an unfair mauling, because of the off-screen antics of the stars, that damaged Russell, and led him to believe he was “all washed-up”.
It was not until 1981, that Russell was offered another chance to direct a movie, it seemed the so called L’enfant terrible‘s career was over, but his next project, Altered States proved to be one of Russell’s biggest box office hits, and brought a new generation to his work. The film is rightly acclaimed for its stunning visuals, which managed to escape the burden of Paddy Chayevsky’s turgid screenplay.
Through the 1980s, Russell made films that stuck with a strong and challenging vision, his 1984 film Crimes of Passion, with Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins, ran counter to the fictional wholesomeness offered up by Hollywood and its diet of vacuous films such as, Top Gun, Cocktail, Foot Loose, and Rambo.
Russell made films that were fixed in an English cultural tradition - Stephen Volk’s Gothic, Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm, and an interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s Salome’s Last Dance. These are seminal Russellian films which deal with belief, sex and identity.
The nineties were not as good to Russell, who found himself fighting to raise money for film projects that failed to be produced. His last major film was Whore (1991), though he did make Prisoner of Honor the same year, with Oliver Reed and Richard Dreyfuss, and the workman-like Dog Boys in 1994, which he shot in 3 weeks. Russell returned to making “home movies” as he had once made as a child, this time filming in his own home, which critic Mark Kermoide described as “very strange experimental films like Lion’s Mouth and Revenge of the Elephant Man, and they are as edgy and out there as the work he made in the 1970s.”
Russell was married 4 times, to Shirley Russell (1957-78), Vivian Jolly (1983-1991), Hetty Baynes (1992-99) and to his last wife, Lisi Tribble (2001-11).
Ken Russell was one of my favorite directors, his work influenced and inspired me. I met him on two occasions and will treasure my memories of our meetings, for he was without doubt, one of the finest directors England has ever produced.