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Ken Russell: interview

Ken Russell: interview

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Ken Russell looks back over a radical career in British filmmaking.

He may be considered a national institution, but director Ken Russell tells us why he has yet to break into the British film industry.

From the start of his career, working for BBC arts series Monitor in the 50s and 60s, Ken Russell set himself apart from the crowd with an avant-garde sensibility. It was best exemplified in Elgar (1962), a groundbreaking docu-drama about the life and works of the classical composer Sir Edward Elgar. That led to his first feature, French Dressing (1963), a cheeky seaside farce starring Roy Kinnear and James Booth. Sadly, it didn't make much of a splash at the box office so Russell returned to television before being tempted into more 'commercial' territory with Billion Dollar Brain (1967).The second sequel to the Harry Palmer series, starring Michael Caine, was thought to be a sure-fire hit. But someone forgot to tell the paying public. Fans of the franchise weren't sure what to make of Russell's offbeat style.

A young Ken Russell prepares for an interview.

A young Ken Russell prepares for an interview.

A couple of years later, Russell found another unlikely vehicle for his quirky talent; Women in Love (1969) is a raucous adaptation of DH Lawrence's novel which offended some litterateurs with a sensational naked wrestling match between Oliver Reed (his frequent partner-in-crime) and Alan Bates. The scene is still cited as one of the most controversial in film history, but surprisingly, Academy voters weren't put off. Russell earned his first and only Oscar nomination for Best Director in 1971. His next film, the long-gestating The Music Lovers (1970), was an even more racy portrait of the composer Tchaikovsky. But many critics thought Russell went too far with The Devils (1971), a story of sex-crazed nuns...

Russell continued to walk to the beat of his own drum in the mid 70s. By then it was a rock 'n' roll sound that he matched with trippy visuals in Tommy (1975), a far-out tale based on an album by The Who. Hollywood then came calling again with the similarly psychedelic Altered States (1980) and the sexually explicit Crimes of Passion (1984) starring Kathleen Turner. At this point, Russell had become synonymous with everything that was shocking and exploitative in cinema, perhaps to the detriment of his technical achievements. Even at 81-years-old, he is still considered a rebel, working outside of the British film industry and continuing to push the boundaries into places that other directors fear to tread.

BBC Film Network caught up with this unique filmmaker to chat about his autobiography A British Picture, a naturally colourful record of his personal and professional exploits. "It's a montage" he tells his readers. "It's an event, but it's not conventional".

A British Picture: An Autobiography by Ken Russell is now on general release.

Text: Stella Papamichael / Video: Stephen Bailey | Updated 12th September 08


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2 comments posted.

  • Nov 28, 2011


    The man sounds perfectly fine to me. Reminds me of a friend in fact. Loved 'Tommy' when I saw it. My condolences. No doubt, Ken Russell's spirit lives on. Life and laughter, love and liberty.

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  • May 27, 2010

    Film Network Editors


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