Ken Russell - Southern visions
Iconic film-maker Ken Russell goes back to his roots in Dorset and Hampshire and the places which have inspired his film making over the years.
Ken Russell, the enfant terrible of British cinema, is renowned for his extravagant and opulent movies and his sensationalist style.
He is an iconic figure and his work has been heavily influenced by his native southern England.
It was Ken Russell's early life in Southampton that had perhaps the biggest influence on his fertile imagination.
He remembers his childhood as somewhat lonely, with few children in the street where he lived.
Ken longed to escape his dull, middle class lifestyle, and movies were a way of getting away from the tedium.
As a young boy he would frequent the city's many picture palaces, including the nearby Broadway Cinema (now a bingo hall), sitting through two or three movie programmes every day.
"I have memories, many memories of my childhood. It's always with me … I adored the movies," recalls Russell.
"They were on at the Broadway in Portswood which was only 10 minutes away from where I lived.
"I must have seen hundreds of films here."
Ken particularly remembers one movie called The Secret Of The Loch about the Loch Ness Monster which he calls "the most horrific film I ever saw".
As a boy Ken remembers being so scared by the film's monster scenes that he jumped out of his seat and ran out of the cinema. He ran home as fast as he could, falling on the ground totally exhausted.
At the age of 10, Russell was given a Pathescope ‘Imp’ film projector, which stimulated his interest in making movies.
He recalls giving film shows in his father’s garage in aid of the war effort, and building himself a projection room out of cardboard.
Seeds of imagination
As a result of his upbringing and lack of close childhood friends, Ken started inventing imaginary characters from a very early age.
Russell's parents lived on Southampton's Belmont Road where he has vivid memories of climbing a giant 'conker' tree in the garden.
This was his first experience of imagining film scenes and pretending to be a director.
"I really think the inspiration for me making movies started with that tree," says Ken nostalgically.
"Every time I came home from a movie, say it was Bluebeard The Pirate, then the tree would be my ship with billowing sails and men yellowing 'ahoy there' … it was my inspiration - it could make my mind work. I saw cinema images."
Another favourite spot was St Denys Station where Ken went daily, watching the steam trains and their plumes of smoke from the top of the footbridge.
"I could see the steam billowing, billowing, getting closer and closer," Ken recalls.
"The adrenaline was building up and then … whoosh … I was totally enveloped in a world of smoke, steam and imagination, which I’ve never left since."
Russell's family ran a chain of shoe shops and it was assumed that the teenager would follow in his father's footsteps when he finished school.
But Russell's career was to take a different direction. When he was 15, Russell was sent to Pangbourne Nautical College near Reading, but found the experience and the discipline difficult.
Once again Russell used movies as an escape, sneaking out at weekends to the local cinema to watch Betty Grable, Dorothy Lamour and Errol Flynn movies in Southampton and Salisbury.
Although his family couldn’t understand his film fixation, Ken used his movie experiences to good effect, experimenting with his first amateur feature, a ‘lavish’ musical, made in the grounds of the college.
Russell was now clearly bitten by the film bug and there was no looking back, despite a brief sojourn with the Merchant Navy.
Although Ken’s naval career didn't take off, he still retains a great love of the sea, and one of his favourite places is the Isle of Wight and its stunning coastline.
Lady Chatterley was shot on the Island
Russell calls it "one of the most beautiful places I know", and he still goes there for inspiration.
"The sea has a sort of magnetic effect on me - it draws me to it, but I'm also a little scared of it," he says.
"I think I developed a love of the sea from here - my association with The Solent … The Isle of Wight was one of my favourite places to visit as a kid."
A life in film
After the Second World War, Russell was depressed by the atmosphere in Southampton, which had been heavily bombed and had lost many of its theatres and cinemas.
Russell left for London to study at art college and became interested by dance and photography.
In his spare time Russell started to make black and white silent movies including a film called Amelia which landed him a job with the BBC.
His television films were often inspired by his southern upbringing and many use landscapes from his youth.
But it was movies to which Russell turned next, becoming one of Britain’s most revered film makers, renowned for his visual style and use of locations.
Once again many of Ken Russell's movies make use of south coast locations, including the Isle of Wight, Southsea and Portsmouth.
Ken remembers a family expedition as a child which was to stay in his imagination – it was to a "magical" park miles off the beaten track on the Dorset/Wiltshire border.
He recalls a giant statue of a Chinese horse in black bronze, a Chinese pagoda, an open air theatre and exotic, Indian-looking houses.
Russell remembers his family eating their egg and cucumber sandwiches amidst the rain, and recalls running around the extraordinary park and its strangely exotic buildings.
The Larmer Tree Gardens
Many years later Russell would try to find that same magical place, and eventually found that it was the Larmer Tree Gardens near Tollard Royal.
"I used to come when I was a child in the Austin 7 and we used to picnic here," he remembers.
The gardens made a huge impression on Russell and he used it as a location in both The Debussy Film and The Music Lovers, doubling up as a park in St Petersburg in the latter.
A touch of controversy
Ken Russell has long been a fan of southern locations, sometimes returning to a favourite spot to shoot another film.
He's particularly fond of the Isle of Wight, which he once again used as a backdrop for The Good Ship Venus.
"I think if a location is good enough to use once, it's good enough to use again. American directors kept using the Mojave Desert for their westerns so why not use the Isle of Wight over and over."
Southsea and Portsmouth also feature in several Russell films including Tommy, the director's big screen adaptation of The Who's rock opera.
Russell used Portsmouth's historic fort to double as 'Tommy's holiday camp', an unconventional choice of location, as the director boldly explains.
"I'm a bit controversial so I choose the unobvious."
Another southern landmark which appears in the film is Southsea Pier. Its ballroom features in a dance sequence with stars Oliver Reed and Ann-Margret.
During filming the set accidentally caught on fire, but Russell didn't shout 'cut' - he captured the dramatic scenes for the movie as the ballroom burned.
"I rushed outside with the film crew and got the whole pier burning down. Why waste a special effect when it comes free," recalls Ken.
There is little doubt that Ken Russell is one of the leading international film directors of the last 50 years.
Today Ken Russell continues to draw his inspiration from the south of England, living and working in the New Forest.
One thing is certain - despite his mature years, the enfant terrible of British cinema has lost none of his extravagant visual style.
He continues to court controversy, something which he regards as part of his role as a film maker.
"That's the role of the artist in society. It's just stirring things up to make people look at things in a different way - to enlighten them, to give them a bit of magic."
In the biography An Appalling Talent, Ken acknowledged the importance of the past in shaping his work.
"I'm a very nostalgic person in some ways," he said, "but I prefer to derive ideas and strength from the past rather than wallow in it."
It's clear that Ken Russell continues to break with convention on his latest film projects.
The Good Ship Venus features a call girl, the Loch Ness Monster, a giant haggis and a trail of buttons.
Even in his later career Russell continues to be a maverick who refuses to conform - long may he make movies!
last updated: 03/04/2008 at 14:21