Oliver Reed as a prototype Alex from ‘A Clockwork Orange’ in ‘These are the Damned’

At one point, Ken Russell was the favored director for a movie version of A Clockwork Orange supposedly starring the Rolling Stones. What Russell would have made of Anthony Burgess’s novel is a moot point. However, it is more than conceivable that Russell would have cast Oliver Reed as Alex, the sociopathic gang leader who together with his “droogs” unleash acts of opportunistic “ultra-violence,” rather than Mick Jagger. Reed would have been an interesting fit though a bit too old for the role of teenager Alex.

Reed had played such a brooding, nasty, thuggish type before. Two years prior to the publication of Burgess’s novel, Reed played King, a psychopathic prototype-Alex in Joseph Losey’s These are the Damned (aka The Damned). Dressed in a tweed jacket, collar, tie, silk scarf, black leather gloves, and carrying an umbrella with an eight-inch blade hidden in its handle, Reed could easily have been auditioning for the role of Alex. His gang leader King terrorises tourists at a small seaside town, using his sister Joan (Shirley Anne Field) to ensnare unwitting victims for a bit of the “old ultra-violence” or as the film’s trailer puts it:

Black leather, black leather,
Smash, smash, smash.
Black leather, black leather,
Crash, crash, crash.

Reed ready for a bit of the ‘old ultraviolence.’
Director Joe Dante has described These are the Damned as “an undeservedly obscure British science-fiction picture…unjustly neglected…[which] is really…one of the key films of the 1960s.” High praise for a low budget feature shot quickly over a few weeks in May 1961. Produced by Hammer Films, the company best known for their hugely successful series of horror films starring Peter Cushing and Christopher starting in 1956 with The Curse of Frankenstein and then Dracula (1958) and the big screen adaptations of TV’s sci-fi classic Quatermass. These are the Damned was an odd fit for the company’s roster with its strange mix of gang violence and disturbing (yet topical) science-fiction plot.

Loosely adapted from the novel The Children of Light by H. L. Lawrence, These are the Damned was directed by blacklisted director Joseph Losey, who’d been kicked out of Hollywood due to his allegiance to the Communist Party, which he’d joined in 1946. Losey considered working in Hollywood as “useless” and his association with the Communist Party made him feel “freer” and “more valuable to society.” Through politics, Losey believed he could make films of substance. What was America’s loss proved to be England’s gain, as Losey directed a string of classic films including a trio in collaboration with Harold Pinter The Servant (1963), Accident (1967), The Go-Between (1971), alongside The Assassination of Trotsky (1972), Brecht’s Galileo (1975), and the opera Don Giovanni (1979).

Losey was never quite happy with These are the Damned. Constrained by studio demands to make a commercial sci-fi flick, Losey “possessed little if any interest in science fiction as a literary mode and consequently threw out pretty much all of the novel, except for the image of the gang of teddy boys, led by King (Oliver Reed).”

He felt the rough framework of the book might act as the vehicle for a commentary upon the proliferation of atomic power and the potential debacle that could lead from its irresponsible use by high-minded technocrats. What more immediately attracted him was the setting he chose for the piece: Weymouth, an out-of-the-way part of England that is bleak, wild and ancient, and associated by the literary with the novels of Thomas Hardy and John Cowper Powys. Losey envisioned the kinds of contrasts that could be drawn between the isolated seascapes that housed the cordoned-off research laboratory overseen by Bernard (Alexander Knox) and the urban hubbub of the town crisscrossed by the motorcycles of King’s cohorts. In his mind, alien as these individuals and their surroundings seemed to be, they shared a common propensity for violence: “one was paralleling different levels of the same society which in effect were, in their own way, doing the same thing: the politicians and the hoodlums.”

What starts out as a film about gang violence and the sexual relationship between Joan and “an innocent American abroad: Simon (MacDonald Carey)” quickly develops into a dark and disturbing tale of the consequences of nuclear war. Joan and Simon discover hidden among the seaside caves groups of children who are being held captive and have been experimented upon and irradiated as a form of inoculation by a sinister secret military organisation in readiness to repopulate the planet after an imminent nuclear war.

The film was highly prescient, tapping into fears made real by the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. However, Hammer and its distributors didn’t know what to do with the film. It was passed uncut by the British Board of Censors in December 1961, but was only released in an edited form first in the UK in 1963 and then in the US as a support feature with further cuts in 1965.

However, it’s Reed who attracts the most interest and almost steals the film from Carey and Field with his turn as the psychopathic King. For a then relatively unknown and inexperienced actor, Reed showed his prowess in front of the camera and his ability to add depth and considerable menace to his role. It was the start of a series of films which have often, until more recently, been overlooked—films like Paranoiac (1963), The System (1964), and The Party’s Over (1965)—which revealed Reed’s talent as an actor which at its best placed him as the equal of Albert Finney, Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris, and Richard Burton.

Happy Birthday Oliver Reed.
Shirley Anne Field.
More production stills, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher
09:43 am
The strange allure of PAN Books: Vintage cult film, TV tie-in and fab fiction book covers

Shelflife. The books you keep tell the story of your own life.

Clearing out boxes of books and personal belongings of lives once lived, I unpacked a whole bookshelf’s worth of Pan paperbacks neatly stored by their author and genre. I could recall the where and when of each book’s purchase and first reading, and of the best could well remember their stories back to front. There were a few of the books I read before age thirteen or so when I had a passion for picking up movie tie-in books and novels that had made thrilling and sometimes controversial films. These were bought new, most secondhand. Some were chosen solely because a favorite actor had starred in the film and was featured on the cover (the usual suspects of Oliver Reed, Peter Cushing, Sean Connery, and Michael Caine), or because they were dark tales of nightmarish horror or strange speculative science-fiction. No matter the reason, these books were keys to new worlds and passions.

Everyone knows Penguin. They publish classic lit and high-end middle-class novels about those things people discuss over lattes. Pan books were thrillers, pulp novels, movie and TV tie-ins, romances, some classics (Bronte, Trollope, Dickens), and best of all the dare to read alone horrors. Everyone read Pan. Because Pan books were always a guaranteed great read.

After Enid Blyton, Capt. W. E. Johns and Geoffrey Willans, the author I probably read most, until I got hip to Ian Fleming, Ted Lewis, and Algernon Blackwood, was probably John Burke. He was the guy who wrote all the big movie tie-ins like A Hard Day’s Night, The System, and the fine set of stories that started me off seeking out his books The Hammer Horror Omnibus with its tales of The Gorgon, The Revenge of Frankenstein and The Curse from the Mummy’s Tomb.

Pan Books was started by a former World War One flying ace, Alan Bott in 1944. Bott believed in enjoyable reads available for all. He focussed on paperback books the public would enjoy which might bring them back to the brand for more. Pan had an impressive roster of authors. It ranged from Agatha Christie to Leslie Charteris, Edgar Wallace to Jack Kerouac, Anthony Burgess to Nell Dunn, and so on. If it was a good and entertaining read then any author could end up inside of a Pan cover—which is not a bad quality control.

There are too many classic Pan covers to share, so I stuck with the ones from the box I had opened, which will probably tell you enough about me…
More Pan covers for Kerouac, Burgess, Fleming and more, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher
11:30 am
‘I died in a bar of a heart attack’: Oliver Reed predicts his own death in a TV interview from 1994
09:27 am

Though we never know the exact moment when we will shove off this mortal coil, it was very small odds to wager Oliver Reed would pop his clogs in a bar after one too many jugs of ale. It was how the great actor said he wanted to go and he predicted as much in an TV interview for The Obituary Show in 1994:

I died in a bar of a heart attack full of laughter. We were having a cabbage competition. I was very confident that for once I was going to win this vegetable competition. And somebody made a bet with me that was so lewd that I took it on and he shook my hand. And I laughed so much I was sick and died.

Reed died in a bar in Valletta, Malta during the filming of Ridley Scott’s movie Gladiator on May 2nd, 1999. Though he died in a bar drinking is true, the myths of that fateful day have clouded one small fact about Reed during his final screen role. As one of his co-stars Omid Djalili surprisingly recounted earlier this year, Reed “hadn’t had a drink for months before filming started.”
Above him the sky…

Everyone said he went the way he wanted, but that’s not true. It was very tragic. He was in an Irish bar and was pressured into a drinking competition. He should have just left, but he didn’t.

The stories as to what and how much Reed consumed that day vary enormously. All that can be said is that Reed’s untimely demise was a great loss to acting, cinema and most of our lives in general. For if Reed did anything—he entertained us for forty years.

Gladiator would have been his comeback movie. His career had sadly withered during the 1990s to a handful of movies and too many inebriated appearances on TV. Reed never regretted his chat show escapades claiming he was an entertainer and the audience always expected him to be bad.

Reed’s role models for life and drink were the fighter pilots he met as a child during the Second World War. Many of these pilots had been his mother’s lovers. Reed’s job was to mix their drinks at the cocktail his mother organized. At each successive party, the number of pilots in attendance diminished as they were killed in active duty. Reed never forgot the carefree way they laughed, drank and enjoyed life fully without worrying about their ever-approaching death or injury.
Reed wanted to live “bravely.” He felt acting was a fraud compared to those who fought battles, won wars, or worked hard every single day of their lives to eke out a basic living to support their families. Acting was pretending. Real life was out there—somewhere—usually in a bar.

The Obituary Show was a novel—albeit somewhat morbid—take on the traditional chat show. It presented various celebrities in heavenly surroundings discussing their lives as if they were looking down from the other side. The guests weighed up their lives answering questions on regrets, failings and success.

Though “frightened of not dying bravely,” Reed ‘fessed up very few (serious) regrets:

I regret having not made love to every woman on Earth.I regret having not kissed the nose of every dog on Earth. I regret having not been into every bar on Earth. But that doesn’t make me a hellraiser. If somebody punches me on the nose, I’ll punch them back. If somebody buys me a drink I’ll buy them one back.

The punctuation mark I leave on this helter-skelter of life: On my gravestone is written “He made the air move.”

How the press reported it.
Reed gave a rare and thoughtful interview in this edition of The Obituary Show with his most moving admission made when discussing events after his death:

The only thing I regret about my own funeral was that I couldn’t go to my own wake because it was a wonderful party. And every time I kept on tapping somebody on the shoulder—I’m going to cry now. They didn’t know I was there.

Keep reading after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher
09:27 am
Sex, Politics and Religion: The making of Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’

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.
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
11:02 am
That time when Shelley Winters dumped whisky on Oliver Reed’s head for being a sexist ass, 1975
11:29 am

When two of the best and most unpredictable talk show guests in all of television history—boisterous Oscar-winning actress Shelley Winters and alcoholic Brit leading man, Oliver Reed—ended up as consecutive bookings on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on September 25, 1975, it seemed like an occasion where sparks might fly. And they did. At least something flew. It was a clash of the talkshow titans.

Winters was there because, well, because she was always on 70s talk shows (and gave good value as a guest, you can see how she makes Johnny’s job easy during her segment) while Reed, his first time on the program, was there to promote his role in Ken Russell’s Tommy. Winters comes out first and makes some cougar-ish observations about younger men. She’s her normal charming self. Then Reed is introduced, who declares that he’s “Quite extraordinary”—and I think it’s also fairly safe to assume completely drunk out of his fucking gourd—before going off on an offensive tangent against women’s liberation and feminism causing an incensed Winters to dump her drink squarely on his head.

While she’s still on the couch, Winters gets in a LOL adlib at Reed’s expense that demonstrates why she was such a popular fixture on talk shows. Watch for it.

via reddit

Posted by Tara McGinley
11:29 am
Mad Villainy: Oliver Reed on how to play a bad guy
10:13 am

Since I couldn’t have a dog when I was a child, it became my ambition to turn into a werewolf. Vampires were dull and superstitious. Frankentstein’s monster was clumsy and no good with kids. The Invisible Man appealed, though he wasn’t too good at small talk, and being invisible could get awfully cold. My short list, therefore, was pared down to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the werewolf. Both had interesting dichotomies, but where Jekyll’s was about repressed guilt and sexuality, the lycanthrope was driven by a powerful animal nature, which I saw as my untamed spirit.

That summer, when I was six, I became a werewolf for a week or so, and howled at the moon.

I learned my lupine behavior from Henry Hull in The Werewolf of London, who was then my favorite lycanthrope, putting a beefy Lon Chaney Jr.‘s Wolfman into second place. This was, of course, until I saw Oliver Reed possessed by a silvered moon in The Curse of the Werewolf.

Reed had the werewolf routine down pat. He knew all the moves, and did a fine line in shirt-shredding and wet-eyed remorse. I quickly realized that being a werewolf wasn’t as much fun as being an actor, and I began to follow Reed’s on-screen career.

I caught-up with his early swash-buckling double-bills at the Astoria cinema, where I also saw Reed as the definitive Bill Sikes in Oliver!, then as a comic and unlikely brother to Michael Crawford in The Jokers, and finally as animal-loving POW taking an elephant to safety across the Alps in Hannibal Brooks.

Reed had a joy for living that radiated form the screen, and unlike all the other fodder on offer, Ollie’s films were different, quirky, and, most importantly, fun.

It was through Reed that I arrived at Ken Russell, the man who made me aware of just how brilliant and original cinema could be.

Looking back, Reed’s films were all peculiarly British. Moreover, during the 1970s, as every other Brit actor fled the country’s eye-watering rate of taxation (75%), it seemed like Reed was only actor keeping British cinema alive.

Ultimately, it proved a losing battle, as the American summer blockbuster brought an end to individuality, intelligence and the art of the cinematic auteur.

Of course, things could have been much different, if Reed had gone for the Hollywood lifestyle: those big budget movies, the box office success, and a life by the swimming pool sipping Evian water.

It wasn’t so far fetched, as at the height of his fame, in the 1970s, Reed was offered two major Hollywood movies that would have changed his career for good.

The first was The Sting, where he was to be the villain, Doyle Lonnegan; the second was Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, in which he was to play the wise, old fisherman, Quint.

Reed turned them down, and both of these roles went to Robert Shaw.

Going to Hollywood, Reed later admitted, “might have made all the difference,” but it wasn’t in his nature, as he explained to the actress, Georgina Hale:

”You know, Georgie, I could have gone to Hollywood but I chose life instead.”

Interesting how he made a difference between “Tinsel Town” and “life.”

But “life” had to be paid for, and over the next two decades, Reed made a small library of bad B-movies that hardly used his talent and did little for his reputation.

When his brothers, David and Simon asked Oliver to go to Hollywood, Reed would always shake his head and reply:

”I don’t think I can do it. I don’t really want to do it.”

Reed’s lack of confidence stemmed from his dyslexia, which saw him damned as dunce throughout his school years, and led him to doubt his own intellectual potential. He covered-up this lack of confidence with drink. Lon Chaney once advised his son to find a movie role he could make his own. Junior soon hit on The Wolfman and became a star. By the 1980s, Reed was making the role of a drunk his own. It was a performance that shortchanged his talents.

Robert Sellars in his authorized biography on Reed What Fresh Lunacy Is This? notes an exchange in an early Reed movie, which parallels the actors own fears.

There’s a scene in The System where Jane Merrow’s character asks Oliver’s Lothario of a seaside photographer why he stays in a small town, thinking him to be the type who would have moved on to a bustling city long ago.

Asked if he likes living in the town, he replies, ‘No, not particularly.’

‘Then why stay?’

‘Perhaps I’m a little nervous of going anywhere bigger.’

Reed was a star, it’s just the movies that got small. But in his work/life balance, Oliver probably got it right. He achieved a memorable body of work, with at least a dozen important films; and he lived a life of excess that became the envy of beer-bellied frat boys and suburban barflies.
On British TV back in the 1980s, there was a show called In at the Deep End, where user-friendly presenters Paul Heiney and Chris Serle were given the challenge of mastering a different profession every week. These jobs ranged from working as a chef, becoming a female impersonator, making a pop promo (for Banarama), and acting in a movie.

In 1985, Heiney was given a bit part in the Dick Clement / Ian La Frenais movie Water, a flop that starred Michael Caine, Valerie Perrine and Billy Connolly. With no acting experience, Heiney sought out the advice of Oliver Reed, who gave impromptu acting lesson of how to be a bad guy.

As Heiney later told Robert Sellers:

’[Reed] was wearing a heavy army overcoat,’ says Heiney. ‘Like the ones the Russian army wear, and he said there was nothing underneath. I had no reason to disbelieve him. He was wearing a pair of wore-rimmed spectacles; one of the lenses was cracked. He had a sort of look of death about him, although I’m sure that was put on, and he had in his fist a pint mug with this clear, colourless liquid in it which he said was vodka and tonic, and I’ve got no reason to doubt that, either. Clearly he’d decided from the outset that he was going to play the bad man every inch of the way. Come in, sit down, shut up, don’t sit there, all that kind of stuff, and he was clearly enjoying it. And I wasn’t enjoying it.’

The advice Ollie gives in the interview is like a master class in how to play a villain on film. His big thing was not to blink: bad men do not blink. ‘You don’t see a cobra blink, do you?’ he says.

The next thing was the voice. Villains don’t shout, they don’t need to. Dangerous men have a great silence and stillness about them.

The one thing that’s missing from this clip is Reed’s finally, knowing wink to camera. But it’s all priceless, and shows a flash of Reed’s talents.


Posted by Paul Gallagher
10:13 am
‘The Debussy Film’: The making of Ken Russell’s TV masterpiece starring Oliver Reed

Ken Russell had thought about making a film on Debussy for some time. He was ‘hovering on the feature film fringe,’ having just made his first movie French Dressing, in 1964. But it had sadly flopped and he had returned to work as a producer and director for the BBC’s arts series Monitor.

Making a feature film had encouraged Russell’s ambitions, and he now had a revolutionary idea for a new kind of documentary arts film, but he wasn’t quite sure how best to achieve it. This was when Russell met Melvyn Bragg, a young Northern writer, who was also working in the Monitor office.

At twenty, Bragg had decided to become a writer, but thought ‘quite rightly as it turned out,’ that he wouldn’t be able to make a living from it. So, he got a job, to support his literary ambitions.

‘I got a BBC traineeship when I was twenty-one,’ Bragg told me in 1984. ‘Went into radio, which I liked an awful lot. Worked in Newcastle. Worked in the World Service, Bush House. Then I worked in Broadcasting House, in the Features Department. I was going to stay there—I didn’t like television, except for Monitor—and I said I’d only go into television if I could get an attachment onto Monitor. Eventually, one came up, and I got it.’

Russell wanted to share his idea with Bragg. He met him in a cafe, and told Bragg about Debussy and his plan for a new kind of arts documentary—a film-within-a-film. Together they wrote a script, and Bragg turned it into a screenplay.

‘When I did Debussy, Ken’s first talkie on television, nobody had done that before I did that as a screenplay as a way to make it work. The real problem you’ve got with biopics about people is that there is no structured drama in anybody’s life. You’ve got to make it.

‘What you’ve got are pits, which are very good, all over the fucking shop, and you’ve got to have that bit because [they’re] terrific, and you’ve got to have that bit because there’s hardly any relationship between them. Where, if you write a play, or write a book, there is a relationship because you’ve written it like that. But in people’s lives, something happens there, and 7 years later, something else happens. This enables us to dip in-and-out.’

It was a lunchtime in May, and I was interviewing Bragg in his office, at London Weekend Television, where he worked as editor and presenter of the (now legendary) arts series, The South Bank Show. Bragg sat behind his desk, dressed as usual in a suit (‘Another way to get people to forget about me and concentrate on the person that I am talking to’), eating an apple for his lunch.

Bragg said he thought Russell ‘a very brilliant, eccentric and erratic talent, he can be marvelous.’

The Debussy Film was the first of several highly successful collaborations between Russell and Bragg—as director and writer. A partnership that lasted until The Music Lovers (‘I had a big row with [Ken] on that which is fairly public. I hated it.’) The pair later worked together again on several documentaries for The South Bank Show .

It was also Russell’s first collaboration with actor Oliver Reed, who later described the director as:

Jesus is not Christ, only Russell.

Reed was a rare talent, who had been slightly over-looked by film producers because of a scar on his face, which he had received on a drunken night out. But Reed was more than just a feared Hell-raiser, he was a brilliant actor who brought an incredibly complex and emotional depth to the role of Debussy.

‘Debussy was an ambiguous character,’ Russell told one of his biographers, John Baxter in 1973.

...and I always let the character of the person or his work dictate the way a film goes. Also, one was a bit critical of artists like Debussy and I thought the time had come to ask questions, and the natural way for me to ask questions was to have a film director [Vladek Sheybal] talking to an actor [Oliver Reed], because an actor always asks questions about the character he’s playing and the director usually had to answer them, or try to, often to keep him happy. And when I found Debussy was friendly with an intellectual named Pierre Louys from whom he derived a lot, it seemed an analogous relationship to that of a film director and an actor. There are some points in the film, I think, where it doesn’t matter if it’s the director talking to the actor or Louys talking to Debussy—passages of intentional ambiguity.

Born in his music and his life, Debussy was a great sensualist. There’s a line of his in the film: “Music should express things that can’t be said,” which simply means to me that music is something which, the moment you talk about it, disintegrates and becomes meaningless. That’s what I mean by sensuality—something that’s felt rather than reasoned.

Ken Russell directing ‘The Debussy Film’ (1965)
While The Debussy Film may at first appear a film that is “felt rather than reasoned,” it has to be understood that every element of it is based on fact, taken from letters and personal details of the main characters. Also, by presenting inter-linking narratives, Russell was able to question, examine and comment on Debussy’s creative life, and the damage it caused him to those he loved.

With Debussy I felt it was important to say something about his music and attitudes to it as well as relevant facts of his life. A good example of this is his relationship with his mistress Gaby, and her inability to understand either him or his art. There’s a scene where the actor playing Debussy goes to a party with his girlfriend (playing Gaby) and puts on a record of Danse Sacre et Danse Profane. He wants to listen to it, to be immersed completely; he sees in it images of art nouveau. But everyone else in the room, instead of carrying on talking, or dancing to it, or giving it half an ear, all become silent and listen to the music with a mixture of duty and piety, which is all too often the case. His girlfriend, who just sees him as being perverse, does a strip-tease to it and ridicules both the man and his music. People are very wary of the heightening of experience, and want to knock it down. It’s fear as much as anything that makes her do the strip dance, fear of something she doesn’t understand and so can only get level with by ridiculing. A lot of people still do that, not just with art but with life.

I wasn’t totally on Debussy’s side; in a sense he had no right to disrupt the party. But artists are dogmatic and pig-headed, and they over-ride people. Most of the people I’ve dealt with in films have quite dispassionately sacrificed someone in their way who understood them. It’s not nice but that’s how it works. The end of the film, the music from his unfinished opera The Fall of the House of Usher, with Debussy alone in the castle and his ghostly mistress—whom he drove to attempted suicide—rising up, was an analogy of the lost romantic ideal he had destroyed by his disregard for people. You can be an egomaniac up to a point but in the end it can destroy you, or your work, or both.

The Debussy Film is Russell developing the style and technique that would make him internationally recognized as one of the greatest directors of the twentieth century. His approach was revolutionary and brilliant, and The Debussy Film changed television and cinematic biography for good. It also revealed another side to Oliver Reed (who is quite brilliant) and Vladek Sheybal, who was usually typecast as KGB agents. The film also contains cameos form artists Duggie Fields and Pauline Boty.


Posted by Paul Gallagher
05:47 pm
Happy Birthday Oliver Reed

Oliver Reed would have been 75-years-young today. Probably still making movies, entertaining audiences and no doubt fulfilling the needs of unimaginative TV commissioners by appearing, or pretending to be drunk on their tacky chat shows.

I think boredom inspired much of Reed’s bad behavior—it usually took less than 10 minutes of dumb questioning before Reed was playing-up as the resident drunk. It is still refreshing to find an olde interview with the great Hell Raiser, when he was having a night-off and talking (mainly) sense to his interrogator—here Michael Parkinson.

In interviews, Reed could still play the idiot savant (here making daft and knowingly offensive comments about intelligent women—who probably terrified him—Reed was dsylexic, and his own education had been piecemeal), if he had lost interest in the subject matter. Then reveal himself as someone who thought about what he was doing—notably here he discussed making The Devils with Ken Russell, which he tied directly into the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, where Religion had once again divided a country and set its people murderously against each other.

‘I’m still getting paid for that film. Neither Ken Russell or I got any money for that film [The Devils]. We got our expenses—but we made that film because we thought it was the proper time, and in light, maybe, of the Troubles in Ulster now, it was the proper time for that film to be made. We weren’t trying to afford anybody proper niceties, any proper little entertainments, little asides before tea, we were showing them the bigotry that goes on, or that humanity is capable of, and that was all we were doing….

....How many times have armies fought under the banner of Christianity, and how many lives have been destroyed? Let’s not have it again, please.’

The interview is from the Parkinson chat show in 1973, and amongst the guests are novelist Mickey Spillane and TV personality (famed for being on What’s My Line? in the 1950s, who sadly committed suicide after a shop-lifting charge in the 1980s). Throughout, Reed’s self-deprecating humor is evident and he did couple of funny impressions of Michael Winner and James Stewart. However, it’s still sad to think that such a naturally talented actor is no longer with us.

Happy Birthday Oliver Reed!

Bonus: the full interview with Oliver Reed, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher
08:40 pm
The Other Side of a Hell Raiser: At Home With Oliver Reed

Oliver Reed wanted a field for his horse, Dougal, and ended up with Broome Hall, a 56-bedroom mansion, with 50 acres of land. Reed fell in love with Broome Hall and with help of 2 or 3 drinking friends set about renovating the dilapidated property. It was a such a passion for the international star that he refused to become a tax exile, instead giving the bulk of his earnings over the government, to ensure he could live in this beautiful former monastery.

This is a delightful short film from 1977, first shown on Nationwide, which reveals a a funny, charming and sensitive-side to the well-known Hell-raiser. Valerie Singleton asks the questions

Previously on Dangerous Minds

The Incredible Friendship of Oliver Reed and Keith Moon

Oliver Reed: Early interview on the set of ‘The Trap’ from 1966

With thanks to NellyM

Posted by Paul Gallagher
05:58 pm
Oliver Reed: Early interview on the set of ‘The Trap’ from 1966

To perfect a French-Canadian accent for his role in the 1966 film The Trap, Oliver Reed spent several days around the docks and bars of Montreal. One would suspect the great Hell-raiser spent most of that time in the bars, rather than around. However, the film company were smart enough to ensure Ollie didn’t spend too much time in the bars, and assigned a local to read him newspapers and teach him the lingo.

That was the thing about Reed - he was a great actor, but his life and work was over-shadowed by his off-screen excesses - even this interview from the set of The Trap ends up on his brawling. Of course, it made him a lovable rogue and, yes, at times a terrible bore, but the main affect was to lower the appreciation his performances deserved. Let’s be clear, he never had the critical acclaim his fellow mavericks Burton, O’Toole, Harris or Hurt achieved, even when Reed regularly proved himself to be a far better film actor, or at the very least their equal.  From early fodder like Curse of the Werewolf through Paranoiac to his collaborations with Ken Russell (The Debussy Film, Women in Love, The Devils) and Michael Winner (Hannibal Brooks, The Jokers, I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘is Name) Reed was an exceptional actor.

Even take for example, his performance in The Trap - a movie with primarily two actors - Reed as a trapper who unwillingly takes a mute girl, Rita Tushingham, as his wife in, to live together in the remotest wilds of Canada, and what happens when he falls into a bear trap - and watch how he delivered a complete range of emotions that carried the film beyond its very slim storyline. Tushingham is equally as good, and their pairing works well.

Reed died too soon, and too young. But fuck it, he left behind a major body of work, which still needs to be properly assessed. And let’s not forget, he died pissed and arm-wrestling in his favored place - the bar.

Previously on DM

When Oliver Reed Met Keith Moon


Posted by Paul Gallagher
06:57 pm
Rising Star: An interview with Glenn McQuaid director of ‘I Sell the Dead’ and ‘V/H/S’

Sometimes there comes along a director, whose talent is so apparent that you wonder why they’re not more famous. Glenn McQuaid is such a director, and his first feature, I Sell the Dead, in 2008, offered everything I want from a horror film.

It was my brother who tapped me in to Mr. McQuaid’s work. My brother and I had grown-up under the spell of the horror films produced by Universal in the 1930s and 1940s (with Karloff and Lugosi, and Lon Chaney jnr.), and Hammer films (with Cushing and Lee) from the fifties and sixties. Of course there were also the Vincent Price and Roger Corman collaborations, as well as the Milton Subotsky and Max J Rosenberg anthology films of the 1960s and ‘70s.

We also had a love of stories by Dennis Wheatley (in particular his series of classic horror novels published under his Library of the Occult - Stoker, Shelley, ”Carnaki, the Ghost Finder”, and Guy Endore), and the tales of terror penned by Poe, Blackwood and Bloch.

My brother raved about I Sell the Dead, and when I saw it I had to agree. Written and directed by McQuaid, it stars Larry Fessenden, Dominic Monaghan, Ron Perlman and Angus (Phantasm) Scrimm, and is near perfect - a witty, clever and engaging story, presented in the style of the best, classic horror film. I was smitten, the same way I was when Boris Karloff as the Monster first walked backwards into the laboratory; or by Oliver Reed when he turned into a werewolf. McQuaid knows his genre and its cinematic traditions.

For his next film, McQuaid is one of the directors (alongside David Bruckner, Radio Silence, Joe Swanberg, Ti West, and Adam Wingard ) of the soon to be released anthology film, V/H/S, for which he wrote an directed the “unconventional killer-in-the-woods chiller Tuesday The 17th”. When V/H/S previewed at the Sundance Film Festival, it received the kind of exposure of which publicists dream.

At its screening two audience members fled in terror – one fainted, one puked. The last time I recall such a response was for The Exorcist in 1973, where there were reports of fainting, vomiting, and even an alleged possession.

When was shown at SXSW, V/H/S was described as ”an incredibly entertaining film that succeeds in being humorous, sexy, gross and scary as fuck.” While Dead Central gave it 5/5.

Though all the directors have been praised for the quality of their films, the reviews have singled out McQuaid for the excellence and originality of his contribution.

Before all this kicked off, I contacted Glenn McQuaid to organize an interview. Over the following weeks emails went back-and-forth, until the following arrived. The interview covers Mr McQuaid’s background, his influences, early work, The Resurrection Apprentice, working with Larry Fessenden, Ron Perlman and Dominic Monaghan on I Sell the Dead, to V/H/S.

The full interview with Glenn McQuaid, after the jump….

Posted by Paul Gallagher
06:24 pm
Legendary Film Director Ken Russell has died

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, 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 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 distant and bad tempered, which led to the young Ken spending much of his childhood with his mother watching films in the local picture house. It was here that he saw Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen, which inspired Russell towards film-making.

Ken Russell’s full obituary, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher
09:33 am
Oliver Reed interviews Oliver Reed
07:01 pm

Since I couldn’t have a dog when I was a child, it became my ambition to become a werewolf. Vampires were dull and foolishly superstitious. Frankentstein’s monster whiney and self-pitying. Though the Invisible Man appealed, he was too cracked and not much company. So, it was the werewolf that clicked, for here was a creature driven by things that could not be so easily explained.

This fascination led me to Oliver Reed and The Curse of the Werewolf. I’d already seen Henry Hull in The Werewolf of London, which was running as favorite, putting Lon Chaney jnr’s The Wolfman into second, that was, of course, until I saw Reed possessed by the cast of a silver moon.

It was a metaphor I liked - life usurped by genetic code, oddly confirming Philip Larkin’s belief we are but dilutions of dilution. In its way it was an easy metaphor for Reed, that instinctual, soft-eyed actor possessed by a brilliant talent and a greater thirst for life.

There was great sense of joy about Reed, no matter how drunk or sober he always exhibited a relentless joy for living. It may have damaged his career, and limited his talents, but it was part of who he was - like Leon Corledo or Larry Talbot and lycanthropy. It made him always worth watching, even in his shittiest of films, for Reed was a life force, the like of which we have rarely seen since.

Here, Reed interviews himself on French TV, in a bizarre publicity package for The Return of the Musketeers in 1989. In it Reed asks himself questions other interviewers would never dared ask - that his career owed everything to Ken Russell, like Eliza Doolitlle to Henry Higgins in the play Pygmalion; and why did he drink? His answers range from the unfocussed to the honest, but underneath, there is the growl of a beast waiting to get out.

Previously on Dangerous Minds

The Incredible Friendship of Oliver Reed and Keith Moon

In Praise of Oliver Reed


Posted by Paul Gallagher
07:01 pm
Ken Russell’s early documentary: ‘A House in Bayswater’

During the 1960s Ken Russell flourished as a director of television documentaries for the BBC. Single-handedly he advanced the genre, creating a hybrid form of drama-documentary—the biopic. This was first seen in his remarkable film on Elgar in 1962—which was later voted the best single documentary of the decade. In collaboration with a young Melvyn Bragg—who acted as screenwriter—he produced The Debussy Film starring Oliver Reed in 1965—which is arguably the single most influential drama-doc of the past 50 years as it reinvented the drama doc as a film within a film—a template later copied,developed and stolen from by innumerable filmmakers. Then came the the understated film on Delius Song of Summer in 1968, before finally and most controversially making his farewell film for the BBC Dance of the Seven Veils A Comic Strip in Seven Episodes on the life of Richard Strauss 1864-1949. Russell’s film infamously depicted the German composer of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” as a Nazi, which outraged critics, lead to questions being raised in the British Parliament, and was eventually banned.

A young Ken Russell on the balcony of his apartment in Bayswater, late 1959s.

Russell’s visually brilliant and intuitive style of film-making was a long way from the kind of straight documentaries made by his contemporaries—including John Schlesinger, whom he had replaced at the BBC. Then ‘biography’, as Joseph Lanza explained in Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films, was:

...more like strict documentary. There was no place for metaphors or speculative drama. The network’s purists felt such tactics were synonymous with the kinds of exaggeration [the Futurist artist] Henri Gaudier championed and that Russell longed to create. So Russell kept a humble exterior while secretly plotting to subvert the BBC’s codes of propriety.

“Ken was different in every way from what he is now,” Russell’s BBC boss Huw Wheldon reflected in the early 1970s on working with Russell in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. “To start with, he was virtually wordless. He was shy and quiet. Quiet in every way: his clothes, his haircut, his countenance. A little watchful, but silent and completely modest. I couldn’t make head nor tail of him, partly because he wouldn’t help me. He didn’t say anything. He just looked at me.”

Russell’s first short film for the BBC’s Monitor series was Poet’s London - an effective evocation of John Betjeman’s poetry. This was quickly followed by Guitar Crazy on the rise of guitar music; Portrait of a Goon, a look acclaimed comic and scriptwriter, Spike Milligan; and a profile of dance legend, Marie Rambert and her ballet company. Then in 1960, during a summer break from the series, Russell wrote, directed and produced his first full-length documentary film, A House in Bayswater.

A scene from ‘A House in Bayswater.’

In An Appalling Talent - Ken Russell, film writer and critic, John Baxter described Russell’s film as ‘...ostensibly a protest at the razing of tall old buildings to make way for office blocks…’

‘Beginning as a systematic representation of Bayswater as a hive of creative activity - his chosen terrace houses a painter, a photographer, a ballet dancer and ex-pupil of Pavlova, a retired lady’s maid who pines for the affluent USA of the Twenties, and an odd but lively landlady - the film changes tone as both artists reveal themselves as tedious poseurs, and Russell’s sympathy swings towards the old people, sustained and enriched by the past. The dancer, leading her willing, wispy pupil through a two-woman show hazed in memoriesof better days (“My next solo is one I did on Broadway in 1929 and I am wearing the same costume”) is faded but not absurd, the maid’s images of New York have the insouciant fever of Scott Fitzgerald, and the concierge who sells her junk to the photographer for props, offers bumpers of sherry as rent receipts and cultivates toadstools and deadly nightshade in the garden with a philosophical “They might come in useful” celebrates the indestructible eccentric. The last Cocteauesque image, of the dancer and her little pupil battling in slow motion against a windy torrent of streamers and balloons (to be recalled in the 1812 episode of The Music Lovers) holds the promise of immortality for all those who survive and, above all, keep faith.’

Russell at the Steenbeck with legendary BBC producer Huw Wheldon looking over his shoulder.

A House in Bayswater is a beautiful piece of documentary-making, which slowly develops towards a memorable finish. What isn’t revealed is that the fact this was this house in Bayswater was Ken Russell’s home during the 1950s.

I have lived most of my life in rooming houses, and shared apartments, and run-down hotels, where there is great comfort in anonymity and company amongst strangers, and understand Russell’s nostalgia for a life that is being slowly removed, as cities are carelessly gentrified. Watching it in the month when New York’s Chelsea Hotel announced its demise, only reinforced how much of our shared environment is now monetized for the benefit of a few. This is apparent in Russell’s film, as the film details the lives and hopes of the tenants, connected by a house that was planned for demolition—to be replaced “by a soulless office block. Thankfully, this never happened and the house stands to this day.”

Previously on Dangerous Minds

The Book, The Sculptor, His Life & Ken Russell

Ken Russell’s banned film: ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’

Ken Russell on Antonio Gaudi


Posted by Paul Gallagher
05:24 pm
Gillian Hills: Keeping time with the Beat Girl

You will have seen the beautiful Gillian Hills before - in A Clockwork Orange with Barbara Scott, sucking on an ice lolly, getting chatted-up by Malcom McDowall’s Alex in the Melodia Diskbootik; or perhaps in Blow-Up posing, wrestling and getting intimate with Jane Birkin and David Hemmings; or maybe looking like a teenage Brigitte Bardot doing the hippy-hippy-shake with Oliver Reed in Beat Girl.

Born in Egypt, raised in France, daughter of a writer and adventurer, grand-daughter of a poet, Gillian Hills was discovered by Roger Vadim, who thought he’d found his next Bardot, he gave her a small part in his film version of Les liaisons dangereuses, (1959) with Jeanne Moreau. It wa senough to attract interest and led to the teenage Hills starring, alongside Christopher Lee and Oliver Reed in Beat Girl (1960).

An auspicious start, which should have brought bigger and better, but Hills switched direction and signed a recording deal with Barclay Records, who released her first EP “Allo coupez pas!”. Over the next 5 years Hills concentrated on her singing career, which saw her headlining at the Olympia Theater with the legendary, Johnny Hallyday, and working with the brilliant Serge Gainsbourg.

Even with such A-list names, Hills jolly toe-tapping tunes had mixed success and she was eventually dropped by Barclay in 1965. Hills then signed for AZ Records and released a cover of The Zombies hit “Leave Me Be”, she also returned to films with appearances in Antonioni’s Blow-Up, the film of John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence, Three and the Kubrick classic A Clockwork Orange. Her acting career never took off, and after a final leading role in the Hammer horror Demons of the Mind, Hill retired and moved to New York, where she started her career as an artist and illustrator.

Now Gillian Hills lives in England (with apparently the manager of AC/DC), but thanks to the wonders of YouTube, we do have some of her hit Euro-songs and career highlights to look back on. Bliss.


Gillian Hills - “Zou Bisou bisou”

Gillian Hills - “Les jolis coeur”

Gillian Hills - “Mon coeur est prêt”
Bonus clips of Gillian Hills with Oliver Reed and Serge Gainsbourg, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher
07:20 pm
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