Ken Russell, Women In Love director, dies at 84

Ken Russell Ken Russell was Oscar-nominated for his 1969 film Women In Love

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Film director Ken Russell, who was Oscar-nominated for his 1969 film Women In Love, has died at the age of 84.

His son, Alex Verney-Elliott, said he died on Sunday following a series of strokes.

During his career, he became known for his controversial films including Women In Love, which featured Oliver Reed and Alan Bates wrestling nude.

He also directed the infamous religious drama The Devils and The Who's rock opera, Tommy, in 1975.

"My father died peacefully, he died with a smile on his face," Mr Verney-Elliott said.

Russell's widow, Elize, said she was "devastated" by her husband's death, which had been "completely unexpected".

She said the director had recently agreed to direct a musical feature film of Alice In Wonderland and had been working on the script and casting.

"He also had just completed an article for The Times on a review of the re-release of his film The Devils, so he was keeping himself very busy," she added.

Expert view

Geoff Andrew, Head of Film Programme at BFI Southbank

"Ken Russell was a brave and fearless film-maker who didn't mind, and even enjoyed, raising the hackles of people.

He was fiercely devoted to making films about the arts, and made some wonderful work for television.

At a time when British television was dominated by kitchen sink realism along came Ken who was into symbolism and metaphor.

A classic film scene is the 1812 Overture sequence in The Music Lovers (1970). Richard Chamberlain, as Tchaikovsky, is festooned with ribbons while people's heads are blown off by cannonballs. It's the sort of thing that only Ken Russell would have made.

He sometimes had an eccentric take, he was never less than entertaining.

In later years, he found it difficult to get financing, but he did keep turning out films of note. In the 1960s and first half of the 70s he was very important. He brightened up British cinema no end."

Glenda Jackson, who gave an Oscar-winning performance in Women In Love and starred in a number of Russell's other films including Music Lovers, told the BBC it was "just wonderful to work with him and to work with him as often as I did".

"He created the kind of climate in which actors could do their job and I loved him dearly."

Jackson added that she believed the director had been overlooked by the British film industry, saying it was "a great shame".

"It was almost as if he never existed - I find it utterly scandalous for someone who was so innovative and a film director of international stature," she said.

'Creative force'

Joely Richardson, who starred opposite Sean Bean in Russell's 1993 BBC TV series Lady Chatterley, said: "I will forever feel privileged and honoured to have worked with the great Ken Russell.

"More than that, I was extremely fond of the man himself."

Lord Melvyn Bragg, who first worked as Russell's assistant in 1963 on BBC programme Monitor, said he was "an exceptional man".

"He was a glorious director at his best, his best films will be remembered. He was a tremendous ornament to the rather supine British film industry and he was the glory of the television arts industry," he said.

Film-maker Michael Winner hailed Russell's "duplicity of mind", adding he had made an "enormous contribution" to British cinema.

"He pushed the barriers completely and got away with it sometimes and didn't others, but he made some startling movies," said.

Martin Scorsese on 'fearless' film director Ken Russell

"He had an eye for the composition of each image on the screen - a great eye for imagery and then, of course, he had a great idea for the grotesque."

Friend and cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht said: "Among many achievements that spring to mind, he made British cinema less insular and self-referential.

"He was also a leading creative force in the history of British television. He will be widely mourned."

Russell later returned to more small budget, but no less flamboyant fare, including Crimes of Passion, Gothic, Salome's Last Dance and the cult horror-comedy The Lair of the White Worm, starring Hugh Grant.

The director also made an adaptation of DH Lawrence's The Rainbow followed by the gritty film, Whore, and even tried his hand at music videos, making Nikita for Sir Elton John.

Many of Russell's later films were dismissed as too eclectic and by the 1990s he found it almost impossible to get funding for his work.

He returned to the public eye in 2007, when he appeared on Celebrity Big Brother.

He lasted just four days before quitting the show after a disagreement with fellow contestant, the late Jade Goody.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Rave on Ken,Rave on!

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    #83 too challenging..... or maybe they were a bit rubbish.... hmmm

  • Comment number 84.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    55 Minutes ago
    @47. krokodil
    "Hardly Spielberg was he lol"
    Spielberg mainly makes kids' movies these days, doesn't he. After "Duel", it all went downhill. I guess Ken's movies were a bit too challenging for today's attention spans.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Toby, my condolences to both you and your family.

    Regards and respect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    How we need someone like KR today, Russell, Dennis Potter and to some extent Michael Winner all gave us honesty in films and cocked a snoop to the stuffiness of the stiffling censorship that pervades the UK, today we are seeing a drift back to supression, the hysteria surrounding child pornography on the web has fuelled censorship in other areas not at all related that had won hard fought freedom.

  • Comment number 80.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    I was lucky enough to be the Director of Photography on two of Ken's films, Gothic & Prisoner of Honour.
    He was an enervating and inspirational director who didn't suffer fools gladly. Gothic was the the 2nd movie of my career and after it was finished he was unstintingly generous in recommending me to other directors. I saw the Devils again last year. It was film decades ahead of its time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    If he was such a legend, why did he not get funding for his masterpieces and go on "celebrity" big brother?

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    I enjoyed some of Ken Russell's films, but I do suspect that once people started calling him visionary the work suffered. He was overrated in some respects: try to remember the plot of Women in Love and you'll probably only think of the nude wrestling scene. Some of his films were classy but unerotic sex movies: he should have made a straightforward heist movie now and then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    @ 70.studioalex
    ¬why do people feel the need to comment in a negative manner ///
    Some people are compelled to vent their petty pet hates under the guise of freedom of speech and democracy. It’s always the same people, and they’re on every topic. They are the opposite of Ken Russel: boring, unimaginative, inert and totally irrelevant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    Damn shame. I remember seeing something about him a few years ago, and he was pretty much filming in his back garden. Given his screen credits, it was culturally criminal that he couldn't get funding.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Love his films (as I did) or loathe them, no one could accuse them of being mediocre. He was like they were, larger than life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    I wish he had been able to do the Alice film- his take on it would be a big improvement of the latest Hollywod version and even Disney's. I loved the surrealist style he brought to most of hs films. He was just 10 years my senior and that is still very young.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    47. krokodil
    "Hardly Spielberg was he lol"

    Thank heavens!

    There are enough directors around who see film as purely entertainment. Granted Spielberg has had some inspired moments.

    Some of us want cerebral stimulation too and see that as the most important function of film. To that extent Spielberg is a novice; Russell a master.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    I remember watching 'The Devils' late at night on TV when I was 14 and loved it, so clever and rich with hysteria. Of course the ending scene with Oliver Reed could match 'The Whicker Man' for horror, though rarely makes any lists. I also loved 'Tommy' and watched it many times on VHS. He pushed boundaries, was truly visionary, eccentric and British.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    why do people feel the need to comment in a negative manner on someone that has never personally harmed them or even affected them in any way! to make an effort to log in to the bbc and then make a comment just to say something bad about someone at such a tragic time!
    If you don't like him or his films do not bother to comment and leave it for those who love and respect his unquestionable talent

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Ken Russell didn't beat around the bush. He said what needed to be said about society, human nature and sexuality. He did not titillate, or indulge in shallow drama of the sort we see so much of on TV today.

    His films stimulated the brain, unsettled our assumptions and made you ask questions. Small wonder that our vacuous media and current bunch of lovelies have sidelined him.

  • Comment number 68.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    As he said, "too much reality about". His was a distinct vision, and perspective, of course challenging the conventional sensibilities and received wisdom. But I salute him, and am grateful for the work he has done. The individual mind is greater than the sum of the cultural training of any nation as deposited in lesser individuals.


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