Ken Russell: A true British original
- 28 November 2011
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
Ken Russell was a larger than life character who was one of the most controversial directors in British cinema.
He specialised in the interpretation of the great classical composers, extravaganzas which matched powerful images with a dramatic score.
They were not for the faint-hearted. Audiences would be regaled with the sight of women cavorting naked in railway carriages, nude actors wresting in front of roaring fires and nuns indulging in orgies.
His critics dismissed the sensationalism as over indulgent silliness, but Russell believed they stimulated interest in his subjects.
Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell was born on 3 July 1927 in Southampton. His father was a prosperous shoe retailer who was given to outbursts of rage. The young Ken would often take refuge with his mother in local cinemas.
He harboured a childhood ambition to be a ballet dancer but instead joined the Merchant Navy as a teenager.
On one occasion he was made to stand watch in the blazing sun for hours on end while crossing the Pacific. His lunatic captain feared an attack by Japanese midget submarines despite the war having ended.
A nervous breakdown ensued and it was during his recovery that he first heard Tchaikovsky on the radio, inspiring a lifelong obsession with the classical composers.
After a spell in the Royal Air Force he became a photographer and first made amateur films while working for the magazine Picture Post.
Music became his passion. Delius, Debussy, Elgar, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Mahler and Liszt were among the composers given the Russell treatment.
As a result, he secured a job in the BBC arts department under Sir Huw Wheldon, who became a major influence on his career.
At the BBC, he developed an increasingly eccentric style, what the film critic David Thomson described as "an unbridled sense of pictorial madness and decay".
His documentary Song of Summer, about the composer Frederick Delius, and a study of Elgar were widely acclaimed, as was another documentary, on the dancer Isadora Duncan.
Elgar set new standards in documentary becoming one of the first to use actors to portray the composer rather than relying on documents and stills.
He was already causing outrage. Dance of the Seven Veils depicted Richard Strauss as a Nazi, causing fury among the composer's family and led to the withdrawal of the rights to use the music, effectively banning future screenings.
In all, Ken Russell made three feature films and 33 drama-documentaries at the BBC.
His first successful film for the big screen was an adaptation of DH Lawrence's Women in Love in which he added the famous naked fireside wrestling match between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates.
"I managed to get them to do it by bribing them and encouraging them to enjoy themselves," he said later. "Judging by the smiles of satisfaction on their faces, they had the time of their lives."
The film won him an Oscar nomination for Best Director, for the first and only time in his career.
United Artists were pleased with the result, though balked at his next proposal, which was to make a film about Tchaikovsky. Russell won them round with the pitch that it was about a nymphomaniac who falls in love with a homosexual.
The graphic nude sequences caused outrage, and it was widely panned by the critics. But it did well at the box office and Russell once described it as the film of which he was most proud.
"It was a masterpiece," he told the Daily Telegraph in 2010. "And I wouldn't change it in any way."
However, the critics' outrage was as nothing compared to the reaction to his next work, The Devils, which featured the perverted goings-on among monks and nuns in medieval France.
Starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, it was a tale of demonic possession which unfolded against a background of explicit sex and and religious iconography
Even the kindest critics felt the visual grotesqueness had overpowered the film's narrative. The distributors, Warner Brothers, have always refused to release the full, uncut version.
However, it was recently announced that the film is to be made available for home consumption for the first time.
Russell's next step was from the ridiculous to the sublime; a film of the musical, The Boy Friend, starring the model Twiggy, who won two Golden Globes for her performance.
Excess returned with the 1974 film Mahler, a biopic of the composer featuring nightmare flashbacks and surreal dream sequences.
Tommy, Pete Townshend's rock opera, was meat and drink to Ken Russell for the outrageous potential it offered him.
A star-studded cast, including Eric Clapton, Oliver Reed and Jack Nicholson, played out their parts against a surreal background of child abuse, Marilyn Monroe worshippers and Tina Turner's dramatic Acid Queen.
The Who's Roger Daltrey played the title role and also featured in Russell's follow-up film, Lisztomania, which portrayed the composer as a modern rock icon.
Russell's increasingly eccentric behaviour on set meant that, by the mid-1980s, the cinematic establishment had marginalised him.
He found it easier to work on opera and television for which he directed two more DH Lawrence works, The Rainbow and the series of Lady Chatterley's Lover.
Two of his films from this period, Gothic and The Lair of the White Worm - starring a young Hugh Grant - were dismissed at the time but became cult viewing among fans of Gothic horror.
In his 70s, he was reduced to shooting cheap movies in his garage for internet release; still as passionate, still as rebellious.
But by now he had become something of a celebrity and, in 1995, the American Cinematheque put on a retrospective of his work and invited Russell to come and discuss his films with audiences and critics.
In 2007 he famously appeared in the Big Brother house on Channel 4 but left after an altercation with Jade Goody.
Ken Russell was married three times and had eight children and had a spell living alone in a New Forest cottage.
He made the tabloid press when he advertised on the internet for the love of his life.
American Elize Tribble, who claimed that Russell's films had changed her life, answered his plea and came to live with Russell, remaining with him to the end of this life.
Critics often accused him of self-indulgence but behind all the flamboyant imagery was a film-maker of great talent; some have said, genius.
Russell himself refused to compromise. "Reality is a dirty word for me, I know it isn't for most people, but I am not interested. There's too much of it about."