Ken Russell: Sweet Swell Of Excess

Film still for Ken Russell: Sweet Swell Of Excess

Known for their exuberant vulgarity and visual panache, Ken Russell's films of the 1970s and 1980s constitute a genre in their own right. And he's still working, he tells Linda Ruth Williams.

The career of writer, actor, producer and above all film director extraordinaire Ken Russell spans television, cinema and the internet. Born in Southampton in 1927, he made his name in the 1950s as a pioneer of the British television arts documentary (see page 31), created a distinctive cinematic oeuvre in the UK and Hollywood in the 1970s and 1980s, and now distributes his digital films on the web. With his outrageous, exuberant and frequently vulgar signature style, he is almost the dictionary definition of the word maverick. Mention his name in 2007 and you might elicit any number of responses. Those who love the astonishing run of films he made in Britain between 1969 and 1975 may rue the day he was lured across the Atlantic. Others who revere his landmark early television work for Monitor and Omnibus may regret he ever made a movie. Russell himself jokes that some people probably thought he was dead before his characteristically unpredictable appearance on Celebrity Big Brother earlier this year. In fact, not only is he alive and well and making films in a staunchly independent fashion, but he will celebrate his 80th birthday in July with an exhibition of his photographs at London's Proud Gallery.

Fellini once said, "They call me the Italian Ken Russell" - and indeed Russell is one of the most visionary directors Britain has produced. His early studies of composers, painters, sculptors and writers were groundbreaking in their combination of creative dramatisation, visual panache and a daring use of sound. He is passionate and erudite about classical music, often allowing music to drive or lead his narratives. He has continued to punctuate his film career with smaller-scale TV projects that exploit the British landscape as a location for sometimes radically non-British subject matter. He probably invented the pop video. And he has attracted the hippest talent at just the right moment: Alan Bates and Glenda Jackson c.1969; Vanessa Redgrave c.1971; the Who c.1975; Rudolf Nureyev c.1977; William Hurt c.1980; Kathleen Turner c.1984. Even Jack Nicholson did a quirky turn for Russell.

Though his big-film career started with the calling-card Michael Caine vehicle Billion Dollar Brain in 1967, it is the award-winning D.H. Lawrence adaptation Women in Love (1969) that is widely regarded as Russell's breakthrough film. Then came an unbroken run of audaciously inventive and often controversial movies: the Tchaikovsky biopic The Music Lovers (1970); The Devils (1971), based on Aldous Huxley's novel about an ecclesiastical power struggle in 17th-century France; the musical The Boy Friend (1971); Savage Messiah (1972), a biopic of early-20th-century French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska; Mahler (1974); the rock opera Tommy (1975), derived from the Who's album of the same name and starring Roger Daltrey; the extravagant Lisztomania (1975), which recast the 19th-century composer as a 20th-century rock star; Valentino (1977); the sci-fi horror Altered States (1980); the erotic thriller Crimes of ­Passion (1984). Russell's exuberant and sometimes shocking imagination made him a household name and cinematic brand, a popular auteur whose style was as recognisable to non-cineastes as to the critical cognoscenti. By 1975, whether you went to see Tommy because you rated Tina Turner or rushed to Lisztomania to experience Ringo Starr as the Pope, you knew a Ken Russell film when you saw one; he was almost a genre in his own right. Even later films that received mixed critical responses found popularity due in large part to his distinctive stamp: The Lair of the White Worm (1988), with its over-the-top hallucination scenes,is obligatory cult-horror viewing; the four-part adaptation of Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover made for the BBC in 1993 reportedly attracted audiences of 12 million.

Flights of hallucinogenic fancy

Russell tells a ripping good story (he has won awards for his screenplays), but long after his audiences have forgotten the baroque twists of his picaresque tales, it is individual images that linger in the memory: Oliver Reed trailing through the blue-frozen hell of the Alps in Women in Love; Glenda Jackson tossing her head back against a sunburst in the same film; Jackson (again) in a frustrated sexual frenzy on the train in The Music Lovers; abstract Busby Berkely-esque body patterns whirling through The Boy Friend; Leslie Caron's cloak swept across the corpse in Valentino; Roger Daltrey's glam-angelic spaceship in Lisztomania; Gabriel Byrne decorated with leeches in 1986's Gothic, the story of the night Mary Shelley gave birth to Frankenstein; the widow walking from Loudon as The Devils' end credits roll. When I met him in May this year, Russell suggested that the look of these moments may be partly due to his training as a photographer: "We were taught texture, form and design - it was drummed into us," he says. "I always compose all the pictures. All the framing is mine. I do the operating a lot now too, and I have always done the camera set-up."

But there is magic here as well as technique. For Russell, such moments rely on an artistic condensation that renders them more powerful than the sum of their parts. Key instances in Virginia Woolf's novel The Waves, he says, result from her ability "to contain a total experience in something that takes 30 seconds to read. It's a spiritualisation of the characters. Film too should strive towards this - if she can do it with words, then we should be able to do it with pictures." Russell achieves it (though perhaps in a manner more spirited than spiritual) in such tropes as the preacher's voyeuristic cubby-hole in Crimes of Passion, Ann-Margret writhing in a sea of baked beans in Tommy, Delius' wife casting blossoms on his corpse in the TV biopic Song of Summer, the montage sequence of a condensed life that concludes his TV film Elgar, or Altered States' flights of hallucinogenic fancy.

In such extraordinary set-pieces Russell's eye for an arresting composition is energised by a reckless personal courage. But he also has an instinct for developing relationships with talented collaborators: Derek Jarman was his designer on The Devils and Savage Messiah; costume designer Shirley Russell (also his first wife) worked with him from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s; Melvyn Bragg wrote The Music Lovers and contributed to a number of Monitor TV projects; composers Peter Maxwell Davies and Georges Delerue injected musical vigour into The Devils and The Boy Friend (Davies) and the 1963 comedy French Dressing and Women in Love (Delerue). The infamous male-nude wrestling scene in Women in Love (the cause of one of the director's first run-ins with the BBFC) is remarkable as much for its gorgeous, naturalistic firelight (courtesy of cinematographer Billy Williams) and its zippy editing (by Mike Bradsell) as for its swinging penises. Editors Bradsell and Stuart Baird are longtime Russell associates, contributing a controlled dynamism to his films (Bradsell is now reunited with Russell in his latest independent ventures). But while Savage Messiah's scenes in the Vortex Club, modernist venue for all that was artistically fashionable c.1914, are extravaganzas of kinetic design courtesy of Jarman, it is Russell who had the insight to recognise the younger man's ability to deliver what he wanted. And it was Russell who put singing suffragette Helen Mirren centre stage at the Vortex as Scott Antony's Gaudier-Brzeska shouts: "Give her the vote and take off her knickers!"

Indeed Russell has never been afraid of accusations of vulgarity, revelling in a seaside-postcard mischievousness of the naughty nuns and visual puns variety, though usually cleverer than a Carry On. Many viewers have hated this aspect of his work and it has clouded his reputation as a serious film-maker (though why shouldn't vulgarity be serious?). But at a time when 'extreme cinema' has become a fashionable brand-name, I propose that national treasure Ken Russell be anointed the patron saint of British Extreme - and not just because of censored sequences such as The Devils' 'Rape of Christ' scene (still withheld by Warners) or its crippling of Oliver Reed. There are other extremes here: camp (as purveyed by a heterosexual man in the era of glam-pop and pomp rock), sexual and fantastic. Think of Elton John as the Pinball Wizard in Tommy, teetering on gigantic platform bovver boots; or Roger Daltrey's eight-foot erection bedecked with jolly dancing girls in Lisztomania; or Crimes of Passion's Kathleen Turner robed as a nun and singing 'Onward, Christian Soldiers' as she straddles Anthony Perkins. These images exceed the conventions of taste and propriety, but according to Russell: "There's no such thing as taste. Taste is in the eye of the beholder. Who's to say what's vulgar and what isn't? What does vulgar mean anyway?"

It is perhaps as an arch fantasist, however, that Russell is at his most persuasive. His Monitor programme on Elgar was pathbreaking precisely because he dared to weave dramatisations around the bare facts of the composer's life, and the imagined view of Elgar with his daughter and kite is one of the transcendent images in television history. We can trace a direct line from Elgar's kite through the 1812 Overture exploding-head image in The Music Lovers and Mahler's Catholic conversion sequence (in which Cosima Wagner makes the Jewish composer jump through fiery Christian hoops) to the eyes that replace nipples in Gothic. Russell's fantasies are not a substitute for reality; rather he uses fantasy as a way of exploring his subjects' interior and cultural lives. Fantasy is where different sexual and psychic identities can be tried out (and tried on, given the director's fascination with dressing up, masks and drag). And fantasy is both where he has most fun and is most serious.

Sublime or ridiculous?

Russell rants passionately about his disdain for kitchen-sink sagas and for the legacy in British cinema of the 'Old Mother Riley' school of film-making that he endured as a child in the 1930s, a legacy of which he wants no part. Yet not for nothing did he call his autobiography A British Picture. He is, he says, "as British as Elgar - with all that pomp and circumstance. But also Elgar's poetry and mysticism." When I ask how these elements find their place alongside the gaudy, kitsch aspects of his work, he points to a statue on his mantelpiece of a bare-bosomed Madonna and Child. "Kitsch is an aspect of God," he says. "Look at that very vulgar reproduction of the Holy Mother there. I have been asked, 'Why do Catholics have all these vulgar statues?' Of course, they're in appalling taste, but it doesn't matter how vulgar an image of Our Lady is. I might see it as over the top, but if someone has envisioned the Holy Mother like that, then I have to take that into account. It's what's in everyone's mind that's important, not just in the minds of those with so-called good taste." For Russell, then, kitsch is found at the heart of certain spiritual experiences, while it is vulgarity's very exuberance that renders it transcendent.

So is Ken Russell more sublime than ridiculous? What is vulgar for one era has been reinterpreted as artistic courage in the next, from Wordsworth's emoting, through the pre-Raphaelites' mystical psychedelia, to D.H. Lawrence's Romantic obscenity. Russell owes many debts to these precursors - he is, after all, the biographer of William and Dorothy in a 1978 TV film and of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1967, while Lawrence provided the source material for a 1989 adaptation of The Rainbow as well as for Women in Love and Lady Chatterley. But do Russell's challenges to the national stereotypes of reserve and decorum undermine his Britishness in any way?

It may seem sacrilegious to compare the Russell whom some now consider an unbankable joke to the canonised Michael Powell, but Powell's visual energy and sense of fun and fantasy were also once seen as an affront to British cinematic propriety, while 1960's Peeping Tom met with appalled responses. As a young ballet student, Russell went to the first public screening of Powell's The Red Shoes, and he regards the director as a key influence. "He is the greatest British film-maker - there's no question about it," he says. But Russell was also nurtured by German expressionism: as a teenager in Southampton during World War II he raised money towards a fund supporting the Spitfire factory by projecting rented prints of films such as Murnau's Faust or Fritz Lang's Siegfried to the accompaniment of classical records. The irony of screening German films to firemen who by night extinguished the Luftwaffe's attempts to wipe out Hampshire is not lost on him.

Russell is fascinated by celebrity, by the unfashionable quality of genius, and by the celebrity of genius (the 'great man' focus of his oeuvre has proved a point of contention for postmodern post-feminist post-subjects, though he has also tackled female artists including Isadora Duncan as well as Mary Shelley). He maintains that he feels privileged to be able to spend time with his artistic heroes as his projects develop: "All those chaps over there," he says, gesturing to his extensive music collection, "are geniuses. And it's wonderful to be privy to their vision. You learn about them, conjuring up the possibility of inspiration. I like to be overwhelmed by the subjects I choose."But far from being hagiographies, his biopics are as earthy as their subjects - and Russell insists that artistic talent and a decorous lifestyle rarely go hand in hand. As Gaudier-Brzeska declares in Savage Messiah, "Art is dirt! Art is sex! And art is ­revolution!", a mantra that could well have been the director's own. For Russell, making art is no more polite than making love.

Lurid and lyrical

But perhaps what most distinguishes Russell's portraits of artists is his sensitivity to the workings of inspiration. Biopics too often falter when trying to convey the moment of creation - think of Ray Manzarek stumbling upon the 'Light My Fire' hook in The Doors or Beethoven generating the 'Ode to Joy' in Immortal Beloved. By contrast, Russell envisages sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska in Savage Messiah dancing around the Portland quarry by the sea with airy exuberance, exulting in the tactility of the stone he will shape and imagining his buyers might "float away their statues in boats." The hut in which Mahler composed bursts into flames at the start of his story in an image of the power of inspiration that is itself a stroke of cinematic genius. "I didn't think of it - it comes out of the subconscious," says Russell. "All the fantastic energy that was created in that hut when he was writing his symphonies can't contain itself any more - it has to escape." Russell likens directing to a conductor leading an orchestra, or to the art of composition itself: "It's like a composer writing down the melody. Where does that come from? He can write the notes and I can devise the pictures but you don't know where from." You have to trust your instincts, then, I suggest. "Yes," he replies, "and they're not always right."

Russell's work is infused with a Romantic view of the natural world that veers between the lurid and the lyrical, celebrating emotional intelligence, sexual excess and the folly of ambition in the context of a late-20th-century revaluing of the British countryside - whether Borrowdale or the Malvern Hills or the Larmer Tree Gardens. The director's latest project will take a cycle of seasons to make and returns him to the rhapsodic modern English pastoral of his first films. Here, however, landscapeis explored in the digital medium with a new group of collaborators: student poets, film-makers and composers. In a further return to his roots, Russell has also become a Visiting Fellow at Southampton University.

A passionate man, Russell has inspired passionate responses throughout his career. He is not just a love-him-or-hate-him director; even for those with affection for his work, he is a love-him-and-hate-him figure. Directors with small but perfectly formed oeuvres have evaded the risks Russell has taken with his sprawling, prolific corpus - his reputation has risen and fallen in part because he has kept on working despite the vicissitudes of budget fluctuations and critical fickleness. His provocative body of work continues into the 21st century, entertaining us, at times horrifying us, but leaving more questions open than answered. Lisztomania's Princess Carolyn quotes Oscar Wilde on the pleasures of the equally unfashionable guilty thrill of smoking: "It's exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied." It's a definition of desire, of addiction - and of Ken Russell's movies.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012