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Post  eddie Wed Nov 30, 2011 8:09 am

Ken Russell obituary

Formidable film director with an impish sense of humour and a talent to entertain and provoke

Derek Malcolm, Monday 28 November 2011 14.37 GMT

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'Wake 'em up' was Ken Russell's watchword. Photograph: David Montgomery/Getty Images

Ken Russell, who has died aged 84, was so often called rude names – the wild man of British cinema, the apostle of excess, the oldest angry young man in the business – that he gave up denying it all quite early in his career. Indeed, he often seemed to court the very publicity that emphasised only the crudest assessment of his work. He gave the impression that he cared not a damn. Those who knew him better, however, knew that he did. Underneath all the showbiz bluster, he was an old softie. Or, perhaps as accurately, a talented boy who never quite grew up.

It has, of course, to be said that he was capable of almost any enormity in the careless rapture he brought to making his films. He could be dreadfully cruel to his undoubted talent, almost as if he was defying himself, let alone those who supported him. The truth was that, when he deliberately reined himself in, as he did in 1989 with an adaptation of DH Lawrence's The Rainbow (as a sop to financiers who thought he was too much of a risk), he could be rather dull.

That he regarded as an almost mortal sin. "Wake 'em up" was generally his watchword, and it was certainly true that you could seldom go to sleep in a Russell film. If you did, you had nightmares. Sex loomed large in many of them since he felt it was the mainspring of most things, and generally covered or tidied up by latterday English hypocrisy. Though he was undoubtedly no advocate of the proverbial British good taste, once exemplified in the cinema by beautifully suppressed emotion and clipped middle-class accents, he was never quite the strange and hairy monster determined to scandalise the bourgeoisie or, at the very least, to exemplify everything that's foreign to the steadier British temperament.

He was much more like one of the last of the great British romantics, whose roster included Michael Powell. Much of Powell's work also attempted to cut through the conventional treatments of controversial subject matter and expose the often boiling passions underneath. For this, Powell was frequently attacked – Peeping Tom being so badly mauled that it almost ruined his career. So was Russell, and most would say with better reason. Regularly set upon as vulgar, crude and deliberately shocking, he was never best friends with the British film critics. He once called me, after a favourable review, "the best of a very bad lot".

That was praise indeed. But when you look at films such as Song of Summer (1968), about the composer Frederick Delius, blind and syphilitic, attempting to complete his last works with the aid of his fellow composer Eric Fenby, you see a side of Russell that it would be difficult not to cherish. It is one of the very best films about a composer and his work.

The film was based on Fenby's memoir Delius As I Knew Him and co-scripted by Fenby and Russell. Russell seemed to understand Delius and his muse so perfectly that what you hear and what you see are completely indivisible. It is a daring, beautifully performed film with an impish sense of humour that remains deeply moving. It was finally shown in the cinema in 2001, at the Telluride festival, in Colorado, where he received a standing ovation.

Russell was born in Southampton to Ethel and Henry, a shoe-shop owner. He was educated at Pangbourne naval college and studied photography at Walthamstow art school. He pursued life merrily and drank with what one might call a certain not always discreet dedication. After time in the merchant navy (in 1945) and the RAF (1946-49), he tried life as a ballet dancer and was a freelance photographer before arriving at the BBC, where Delius was one of a series of musical films that he made, including studies of Sergei Prokofiev, Béla Bartók, Edward Elgar, Arnold Bax, Claude Debussy and, most controversially of all, his anti-Richard Strauss diatribe Dance of the Seven Veils. He also made a 1966 film about the dancer Isadora Duncan and Dante's Inferno (1967), which examined the life and work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

He was not the only film-maker encouraged by Huw Wheldon, who steered the Monitor series, but he was probably the one who had the most arguments with him. At first, Wheldon refused to allow Russell or anybody else to make a film about an artist with an actor actually playing him. But gradually he relented, allowing Russell, in particular, a freer hand than most. He even let him appear himself as a randy Bax. Watched by millions, the series of films set a standard for arts television that has never been beaten or, some would say, even equalled.

Led by the success, and sometimes the notoriety, of these films, Russell progressed into the cinema. In 1963 he made an underrated offbeat comedy, French Dressing, and, four years later, a thriller, Billion Dollar Brain, taken from Len Deighton's novel and starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer. His first real commercial success came in 1969 with his version of Lawrence's Women in Love. Its fireside nude wrestling scene with Oliver Reed and Alan Bates jolted a good many, including apparently the actors themselves and a nervous censor, but the film brought Russell an Oscar nomination and made him a director to be reckoned with. Hollywood took note, but it was a long time before he took note of them. After the freedom Wheldon had given him, he was not best pleased by the relatively uncultured suits he found on visits to the west coast.

There followed a stream of films: The Music Lovers (1970), a swingeing account of the gay composer Tchaikovsky's marriage and death, which starred Richard Chamberlain in the lead role and certainly helped his co-star Glenda Jackson into worldwide prominence; The Devils (1971), an interpretation of Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudun that contained some of Russell's most brilliant and audaciously cinematic work but was cut by Ted Ashley of Warner Bros, who didn't like such things as nuns masturbating at representations of Christ on the cross; The Boy Friend (1971), a musical based on Sandy Wilson's successful stage production and paying homage not just to Wilson but also to the choreographer Busby Berkeley; Savage Messiah (1972), about the tempestuous life of the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska; and Mahler (1974), a fictionalised biography starring Robert Powell as a very neurotic composer. Many of these were criticised for factual inaccuracies, but the point of most of them was that Russell intended them to be psychological fantasias rather than biographies.

During this time, Russell became not only the most controversial British director but also the first in the history of British film to have three films playing first-run engagements in London simultaneously - The Music Lovers,The Devils and The Boy Friend. But his reputation as a kind of unruly cinematic anarchist, capable of frightening even the horses and doubtless making some of his subjects swivel in their graves, tended to cloud the formidable technique he brought to everything he did. In most of them there were some extraordinary passages. It might have been better if there had been a few more ordinary ones as well.

Tommy (1975), an engaging version of the Who's slightly dotty rock opera, was followed by two of his less successful freeform biographies, Lisztomania (1975), starring the Who's Roger Daltrey, and Valentino (1977), starring Rudolf Nureyev. The almost psychedelic Altered States (1980), based on a novel and a (disowned) screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, was Russell's first Hollywood picture. In 1984 his Crimes of Passion was an extremely uninhibited essay on American sexual dreams and nightmares starring Kathleen Turner as the prostitute China Blue. Yet Russell hated Hollywood, regarding the whole place as deeply corrupt and horribly predicated towards the kind of timidity and compromise he abhorred.

I remember putting on Gothic in 1986 as the finale of the London film festival. Set at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva and featuring Byron, Shelley and Mary Godwin in the weird events which led up to the writing of Frankenstein, it was, surprisingly, the first Russell film ever shown at the festival. When it was over, I went with Russell towards the final-night party. We were instantly refused entrance by the heavies at the door. "But I'm the director of the festival," I said, "and this is Ken Russell." Ken was much amused when one of them said: "Go on, tell us another one. I'll let you in, but not him."

Gothic was not particularly vintage Russell, though it certainly had its moments. It was an illustration of his talent both to entertain and provoke, to delve into the psyches of fellow artists and to show us, in particular, that the biopic doesn't have to be safely anodyne, undemanding in technique or heavily compromised by speaking to a largely ignorant audience.

After the 1991 film Whore, Russell directed often for television, including another Lawrence adaptation, Lady Chatterley (1993), starring Joely Richardson and Sean Bean. There is hardly a film Russell made that has not caused critics to fulminate against him, sometimes with justice, and hardly one that doesn't have its supporters. One of his staunchest allies, perhaps surprisingly, was Stan Brakhage, the experimental American film-maker whose work was in a different world from Russell's, but who frequently showed his films to students as object lessons in effective audacity.

Whether you loved or hated his work, Russell was an original. And not quite the "shrill, screaming gossip" Pauline Kael called him. He once wrote an article entitled The Films I Do Best Are About the People I Believe In. And he made a television programme called Ken Russell's ABC of British Music (1988) which proved that point absolutely. It won an Emmy for best performing arts programme. Look at that film and at Song of Summer and the Elgar film and you have the best of Russell on television. Look at The Devils and Crimes of Passion – and the first quickfire 20 minutes of Tommy – and you have just about the best of him in the cinema.

Russell's autobiography, A British Picture, was published in 1989. A new edition came out in 2008, shortly after he had lost his cottage in the New Forest to a fire and had appeared on Celebrity Big Brother. He had lost most of his money over the years but never his sense of humour. When he wanted an email address and was told that it couldn't be plain "Kenrussell", he asked for and got "Thekenrussell".

He was married four times: in 1956 to Shirley Kingdom, with whom he had five children; in 1983 to Vivian Jolly, with whom he had two children; in 1992 to Hetty Baynes, with whom he had one son; and in 2001, to Elise Tribble. Elise followed an appeal on Russell's own website which had engendered a dozen answers: "Unbankable film director Ken Russell seeks soulmate. Must be mad about music, movies and Moet & Chandon champagne."

He is survived by Elise and his children.

• Ken Russell, film director, born 3 July 1927; died 27 November 2011
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Post  eddie Thu Dec 01, 2011 6:34 am

Ken Russell's photography reined in his cinematic excesses

The understated observational reportage style of Russell's 'still films' is an antidote to the surrealism and extravagance of his movies

Sean O'Hagan, Monday 28 November 2011 16.11 GMT

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Detail from Ken Russell's photograph of Jean Rayner from the series The Last of the Teddy Girls. Photograph: TopFoto/Ken Russell

In March last year, I interviewed Ken Russell, who has died, aged 84. We spoke over the phone about his days as a working photographer in the 1950s. It was a tough call: he was slightly deaf and very grumpy. Our first attempt at communication ended abruptly when he shouted: "That will be all, thank you very much!" and slammed the phone down. I persevered and, with the help of Lucy Bell, who was hosting an exhibition of his work in her gallery in St Leonards-on-sea , finally got a more illuminating interview.

Having given up on his ambition to be a dancer, Russell started working as a freelance photographer in 1951, aged 23. In the interview, he referred to his photographs as "still films" which, in a way, they were. Initially he was a street photographer, wandering the streets of London's Notting Hill "until something caught my eye".

He also made portraits, mainly of the lithe and pretty girls with whom he had studied dance. Even then, the surrealism of his later films was evident. He photographed the dancer, Frances Pidgeon, for a series he called Alternative Uses of the Hip Bath. She wore it on her back, only her long legs and arms visible beneath. He was, he said, a fashion photographer, "but it was too early for my kind of style". Undaunted, he set about making even more outré images often featuring surreal props – hats, window boxes, prams. They results were, he chuckled, "absolutely unbankable".

The photographs lay unseen in the vaults of his agency, TopFoto, for 50 years. They were unearthed in 2005, but were not returned to him; as it turned out, this was rather fortunate. In 2006, his house burned down and he lost everything, including the original scripts of Women in Love, The Devils and Tommy.

It is Russell's street photographs that stand the test of time. He photographed the first wave of West Indian immigrants that settled in and around Notting Hill, his understated observational reportage at odds with his flamboyant character. His series, The Last of the Teddy Girls, featuring the striking 14-year-old Jean Rayner, is one of the first instances of British youth cultural reportage and stands comparison to Don McCullin's early British street images. Russell photographed teenagers doing the syncopated hand jive in the packed Cat's Whiskers coffee Bar in London's Soho: "There was no space to do anything else so they danced with their hands," he explained. "I used to join in – it was something anyone could do."

For all the surrealism and extravagance of his cinematic vision, I find Ken Russell's films exhausting, too full-on from start to finish. I much prefer his photographs. Something about the medium reined in his excesses, made his a more thoughtful observer of the everyday and the eccentric. The world would be a duller place without his films, but more people should see his photographs and glimpse, too, the quieter, steadier imagination that created them.
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Post  eddie Thu Dec 01, 2011 6:39 am

Ken Russell: Sex, nuns and rock'n'roll

Naked wrestling, religious mania and The Who's Tommy: director Ken Russell transformed British cinema. His closest collaborators recall a fierce, funny and groundbreaking talent

Interviews by Melissa Denes and Laura Barnett, Monday 28 November 2011 19.30 GMT

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‘He was open to everything’ … Women in Love, with Glenda Jackson second left. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext

Glenda Jackson

I worked with Ken on six films. Women in Love was the first time I'd worked with a director of that genius, and on a film of that size. What I remember most was the creative and productive atmosphere on set: he was open to ideas from everyone, from the clapperboard operator upwards. Like any great director, he knew what he didn't want – but was open to everything else.

As a director he never said anything very specific. He'd say, "It needs to be a bit more … urrrgh, or a bit less hmmm", and you knew exactly what he meant. I used to ask him why he never said "Cut", and he said, "Because it means you always do something different." They gave me an Oscar [for her performance as Gudrun Brangwen], but I couldn't collect it as I was working. I haven't seen the film since the initial screening for cast and crew.

Working with Ken was one of the great joys of my life. My whole memory of him is infused with laughter. His imagination grew and developed over the course of the films we made together [The Music Lovers, The Boy Friend, Salome's Last Dance, The Rainbow, The Secret Life of Arnold Bax]. I think it's a great disgrace to the film industry that he has been ignored for so long, that people have not respected the barriers he broke down.

The last film I worked with him on was about the composer Arnold Bax, in which he played Bax. He was so frightened as a performer, very nervous. He cast himself in his films because nobody was giving him enough to do.

We were great friends, and I treasure that very much. We used to call him Cuddly Ken. He wasn't this wild director, merely out to shock and discomfort people. This idea that he was some kind of voyeur could not be further from the truth. He was passionately devoted to the screen, and passionate about social justice. Where did he stand politically? I wouldn't know: we never talked about it. But he was one of the two great directors in my life time – Ken, and in the theatre, Peter Brook. Without Ken, I would not have had my career.

Robert Powell

He was both extraordinary and impossible. He was always absolutely immersed in the world of the film he was working on, and he expected the same commitment of everyone: if he thought you weren't up to scratch, he would order you off the set.

With Ken, everything was immediate: he'd suddenly come up with an idea, and want to get on with it there and then. I loved working that way. He was also very trusting. When we worked on Mahler [the 1974 film in which Powell played the composer], we spent two and a half weeks filming in the Lake District, without being able to view the daily rushes. That meant we were working pretty much blind – but he trusted me, the other actors and the editor completely. The editor later said he was worried I wasn't sympathetic enough on screen; Ken kept that from me for a long time.

He could be immensely funny. He once told me that he'd been invited to address a drama school on the subject of film acting. "Why don't you come with me, Robert?" he said. "We'll take a stepladder, a bucket of water, a bucket of leaves and dirt and filth, and a wind machine. We'll put an actor on the ladder, and throw everything at them: then they'll understand how difficult it is." That made me laugh: in one scene in Mahler, I had been required to stand on a stepladder, with an electrician holding me up by keeping a large hand on my bottom.

Melvyn Bragg

I met Ken on [BBC arts programme] Monitor, where he was the star turn. He had just done Elgar, which had expanded people's appreciation of what an arts programme could do. It was bookended by two glorious shots: one of a boy riding a white horse across the Malvern Hills; another of men with bandages over their eyes, stumbling across the detritus of war, with Land of Hope and Glory playing in the background. It was shattering.

It was also an area of arts programming that hadn't been explored before, using fiction to make a documentary, and it caused a hell of a row. I was 24 when we worked together on Debussy, and it wasn't done to say: "This actor, Oliver Reed, will play Debussy." People said we were degrading expectations of what BBC documentaries should be.

Ken didn't go to university, but he knew more about film than anyone else. At Oxford, I'd been the film critic on the university newspaper; when I met him, Ken was this innocent Friar Tuck character who had seen every film ever made. Thank goodness Huw Wheldon gave him a job at Monitor. Ken scarcely spoke in those days; he was just waiting to get hold of a camera.

I wrote the screenplay for The Music Lovers, and we made a dozen or so documentaries for the South Bank Show. For the last 15 years of his life, I was his major commissioning editor. The critics had rather lost interest in him by then. He didn't get the backing of a Hollywood studio, or a British funding body, and so was slightly abandoned – a difficult place to be.

But he was fearless, eccentric and silly; I liked the first two and excused the last. Nobody else played with music and imagery the way he did; in Tommy, he cracked the rock world, and it's a very powerful piece of film-making. Ken didn't lack for boldness. I liked him a lot.

Vanessa Redgrave

He was a genius of cinema, an iconoclast. I am so proud that I played Sister Jeanne in The Devils for him. His brilliant choice of Derek Jarman as his set designer is a "for instance" of that genius. It's strange to think that the Vatican banned this film; it's also weird that in the UK we still had film and theatre censorship. I'll always remember Savage Messiah, and likewise The Music Lovers, with Glenda Jackson and an amazing script, photography and cast. He directed Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1992 for the BBC, and there were more than 15 million viewers. My daughter Joely Richardson played Lady Chatterley. We will both be for ever grateful to Ken for his thoughtful and loving obituary of our Natasha. She played Mary Shelley in Ken's Gothic. I hope the BBC will rerun the brilliant black-and-white films Ken directed about some of the world's famous composers; this would be a great and deserved tribute.

Peter Maxwell Davies

Ken was that very rare thing: a film director who actually loved, understood and respected music, and who took his relationship with a composer very seriously. I composed the music for two of his films: The Devils and The Boy Friend. Ken had heard my piece Eight Songs for a Mad King and liked it; the call asking me to work on The Devils came out of the blue. I had never done anything like it, and I will always be grateful to him for asking me.

His approach to film-making was very similar to that of a musician: his films evolved in long musical sentences, with moments of high tension followed by moments of relaxation. He certainly understood the importance of the score: I would sometimes say to him that I didn't feel a particular piece of music had been given enough time to breathe, and request another half-minute of footage. He would say, "Let me think about it," and then come back and say yes. That's almost unheard of.

He showed an irreverence for the lives of the great composers that sometimes came in for criticism. I believe his film about Strauss [Dance of the Seven Veils] – which featured a scene in which Hitler danced around with Strauss on his shoulders, playing the violin – had questions asked about it in parliament. But what I admired about Ken was that he always had immense confidence in his vision, even when it got him into trouble.

Douglas Hodge

He was capable of being both Vermeer and Benny Hill. With Women in Love – which I still think is one of the greatest British films of all time – he was the former: he had this wonderful, painterly eye. So when I was cast in one of his films - I played Lord Alfred Douglas and John the Baptist in [the 1988 film] Salome's Last Dance – I went with high expectations. Unfortunately, this was one of his Benny Hill phases. It might well be the worst film he ever made.

On my very first day on set, I was handed a leather string and told this was my entire costume. I was only 25, so I didn't complain. Nor did I complain when the makeup people told me that Ken wanted my entire body painted green. So they spent ages painting me, and then I went out into the freezing-cold lot, and Ken shouted: "Not that green!" All day I went back and forth between makeup and the set, until finally Ken was happy with the colour. By then everyone else had left, so I just put my clothes on and went home, thinking, "God, I've got to be back here getting painted green again at 5am."

I saw Ken a few more times after that; at the premiere of Salome, all the cinema ushers were topless. He was both sublime and ridiculous; both qualities lived in him simultaneously.

Don Boyd

In his later years, Ken was hugely marginalised by the film industry – they were afraid of him, I think. They shouldn't have been: he could be difficult, yes, but what great artist isn't? And he was incredibly collaborative, as I discovered when I worked with him.

Getting to work with Ken was a real watershed moment: I'd worshipped him from afar for years, ever since seeing his films about Elgar and Delius. The way he paired music and images was a revelation. When I saw him on TV being berated by [the Evening Standard film critic] Alexander Walker, and then standing up and hitting Walker over the head with a rolled-up copy of the Standard, I thought, "This is a man I love."

We eventually worked together on a couple of scripts that never came to fruition, and on Aria, a compilation-movie I made consisting of operatic pieces directed by some of the world's greatest directors. When he heard I was doing it, Ken called me up and asked to direct Nessun Dorma. I told him to go ahead, and he sent me a two-page handwritten letter explaining exactly how he would make the film. "I can't go ahead just with this," I said, but we did.

Ken was wonderful on set: methodical and committed. He never shouted at anyone, and he drank a glass of champagne at 6pm every day. Twenty-four hours after we'd finished shooting, he had the film edited and ready; every scene was exactly as he had described it in that two-page letter. He always knew exactly what he was doing; that was the source of his genius.
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Post  eddie Sun Dec 04, 2011 12:25 pm

Raunchy Alice musical could be Ken Russell's final legacy

Ken Russell's work in progress on bawdy Wonderland film could be completed by new director

Ben Dowell, Friday 2 December 2011 19.27 GMT

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Ken Russell died in hospital after a series of strokes. Photograph: Rex Features

He died last weekend leaving a legacy of classic films, such as The Devils and Women in Love, that led to tributes from across the film world.

But this may not be the last the world sees of Ken Russell. A raunchy musical version of Alice in Wonderland, which the director had been working on at the time of his death, is expected to be made by the same team who were working with him, incorporating his ideas but with a new director.

Russell, 84, who died in hospital after a series of strokes, had nearly finished the script for the film, which is described by the producers as a bawdy musical comedy and will be loosely based on a 1976 film adaptation of Lewis Carroll's story.

Russell had hoped to attract an all-star cast of some of his favourite actors from his long career. Roger Daltrey, the Who frontman who appeared in Russell's rock musical Tommy, is understood to have been approached.

The musical on which the Alice film is loosely based was made by 20th Century Fox and made nearly $100m at the box office when it was first distributed in the late 70s.

In it Alice, played by Kristine DeBell, falls asleep reading Alice in Wonderland. The White Rabbit appears in her dream and takes her to a sexual wonderland.

The new version has the same producer, Bill Osco, and is due to take inspiration from the original film. The producers are looking for a replacement for Russell on the script and direction and the songs will continue to be written and scored by British composer Simon Boswell.

Boswell had held a number of meetings with Russell before the director's death and expects that the film will still be made. He is currently in Los Angeles, where he is in negotiation with financiers and the production team.

Boswell said: "It was in many ways a perfect Ken Russell film – raunchy and funny. Alice in Wonderland is almost his perfect vehicle, with sexual freakery and religious aspects.

"When we met about it he was in good spirits and in good health and having a great time talking and joking about it."

Boswell had been approached to score the film because of his wide-ranging experience, taking in horror as well as more conventional period films. He has had a varied career, including composing music for a Vatican tribute to Pope John Paul II as well as making the music for Channel 4's controversial 2003 film Pornography: The Musical in which various porn stars sing about their experiences.

"I think that mixture of Catholicism and blasphemy is what tickled Ken," said Boswell. The producers are also discussing the possibility of Boswell recording a new version of White Rabbit, a Jefferson Airplane song about hallucinogenic drugs, for the film.

Russell was also hoping to approach Lady Gaga and Rihanna to sing on the film. Daltrey has confirmed that he was approached to play the Mad Hatter.

"His contribution to the visual art of cinema and TV was enormous," Daltrey said after Russell's death. "Love him or hate him, you could never accuse him of being boring. One of Britain's greats, he should have been honoured by his country. Sadly now it's too late.

"He was tremendous fun to work with because he was so imaginative and always willing to listen to a good idea. He was still thinking about work right until the very end."

A production source said this new film would be "properly financed", unlike some of the films Russell made later in his life, sometimes filming in his back garden. This late period, when he was unable to raise much funding for his work, came after a stellar career which included his masterpieces: The Devils, his 1971 historical drama about a priest accused of witchcraft, and Women in Love, his 1969 adaptation of DH Lawrence's novel.

The producer Norman Hill said of Alice in Wonderland: "It was a pleasure working with Ken on this film – he was at the top of his game and he had amazing ideas and we are adamant that we will incorporate his ideas and vision into this project.

"It is a shame that he cannot be here to see it through but we will be working with his widow, Elize, and do our best to keep his vision intact."
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Post  eddie Sun Dec 04, 2011 1:00 pm

Ken Russell, 1927-2011: an appreciation by Mark Kermode

Film critic Mark Kermode knew Ken Russell for 20 years. Here, he recalls the passion and generosity of the "illustrious maestro", one of the giants of British cinema

The Observer, Sunday 4 December 2011

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Ken Russell, photographed in April 2011: 'magnificently cantankerous'. Photograph: Sam Frost

I was standing in Mothercare in Southampton when my mobile phone rang and a familiar voice came on the line. It was Tim, an archivist from Warners whom I had been pestering for years about trying to track down some long-lost film footage. "I've got the tin you were asking for," said Tim, with an edge of excitement in his voice. "I'm not sure what's on it, because when I opened it, it smelt of vinegar, so I've sent it to be treated. But I had a quick look at the first couple of frames and from what I could see there was a bunch of naked nuns and a bloody massive crucifix…" "I'll call you straight back," I said, hastily hung up the phone and dialled another number. "Ken, it's Mark. Listen, I'm in the nappy department of Mothercare and I think we just found the rape of Christ…"

Like so much of Ken Russell's fiery oeuvre, the infamous missing sequence from The Devils had long been shrouded in a cloak of controversy. Cut from the film back in the 1970s by both the censors and (more importantly) shocked studio executives, the sequence – which respected Catholic theologian Father Gene D Phillips SJ correctly described as "depicting blasphemy" without "being blasphemous" – had entered the annals of modern mythology. Indeed, it was the central topic of conversation when I first met Russell at his home in the New Forest in the early 1990s. I had been sent to interview him for a Sight & Sound magazine censorship special and I was trepidatious – there is, after all, a maxim that says you should never meet your heroes.

Yet Ken was everything I hoped he would be: passionate, belligerent, friendly, enormously well-read and often laugh-out-loud funny, but with a steely streak of deadly seriousness, a man who had become used to seeing his work misjudged and mistreated, but who never felt the need to apologise for his own genius. I was completely star-struck and promised him there and then that I would make it my mission to help find that lost fragment of film and restore it to its rightful place. "Good luck with that!" he laughed. "They probably burned it!"

That promise became the basis of a friendship, although I remained an obsessive fan-boy whose over-enthusiastic devotion and constant droning on about "missing footage" Ken had the good grace to tolerate and humour. Not that he ever gave me a soft ride.

A few years later, I found myself doing an on-stage interview with Ken (the first of many) at the beautiful Harbour Lights cinema in Southampton. We were meant to be doing a lengthy Q&A prior to a screening of The Devils, but after 10 minutes Ken decided that I was getting a bit boring and suddenly walked off, leaving me alone on stage. We hurriedly started the film and I pursued him out into the bar, terrified that I had done something to offend him. "They've heard enough words," explained Ken in typically forthright fashion. "They want to see the film." "But they've paid to hear you talk!" I pleaded. "Please come back and do some more after the movie." So he did. And 10 minutes later he walked off again!

Ken could be magnificently cantankerous, but he was generous to a fault and loved nothing more than to inspire young film-makers. He was genuinely excited about the digital revolution, as anyone with a video camera and elementary editing software could make movies. Indeed, in his later years, Ken (who never believed in compromise – ever) circumvented the problems of dealing with difficult film companies by simply making his own movies at home, in his back garden, often with his friends and family. He proudly called himself "a garagiste!" and made outlandish productions such as Fall of the Louse of Usher and Revenge of the Elephant Man in his garage.

Many of his later films were musicals, including a bawdy adaptation of the notorious sea shanty "Twas on the Good Ship Venus", which he swore he would document "in its most complete version!" His soul-mate (and fourth wife), talented musician and performer Lisi Tribble, encouraged Ken's musical escapades; he once turned up at our barn party where everyone had been invited to perform a musical number and solemnly announced that he was going to rap. He then produced from his pocket a lengthy screed that had been written (he told us) by a lawyer whose services he had once used in yet another battle with a film company, and who had asked that, rather than pay him, Ken should direct his music video. The song was called "The Sing Sing Rap" (named after the prison) and although I never heard the original, it can't have been any more terrifyingly brilliant than it was the night that Ken performed it in the wilds of the New Forest, to the delight and amazement of the residents of Brockenhurst.

Even more than a national treasure, Ken was a local hero, the boy who grew up cycling between the multitudinous cinemas of Southampton, and who went on to become the area's most celebrated son. He implored young local film-makers to make movies about the trees that surrounded them and made them feel that they were special, talented and brilliant enough to do so – though he didn't suffer fools gladly.

In any other country, he would have been feted as the illustrious maestro who made DH Lawrence come alive with Women in Love, redefined the rock musical with Tommy, pushed the edges of psychedelic sci-fi with Altered States and tested the bounds of the psycho-thriller with Crimes of Passion. He deserved a knighthood and there had long been a petition to get him one, which I think he viewed with amused derision, because at heart he knew he would always be an outsider.

He may have been the greatest film-maker of the postwar period, a visionary genius who broke the mould of stuffy British cinema, but there was always something of the punk-rocker about Russell – the rebel with a cause, even at the age of 84.

My fondest memory of Ken is seeing him walk out on stage at the National Film theatre when the director's cut of The Devils, rape of Christ and all, was finally premiered in 2004. The film had brought him nothing but trouble in its time, but now here it was in its uncut glory and the audience were on their feet giving Russell a riotous standing ovation. The crowd loved the film, but more importantly they loved Ken Russell, as did everyone who had the privilege of meeting him, working with him or just simply being entranced by the magic of his movies. He was a real hero. And a bloody good rapper.
The Gap Minder

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