Closing Credits: Ken Russell
The director Ken Russell died on Sunday 27th November, peacefully but unexpectedly following a series of strokes.
He was a flamboyant and often decried director, but he made some classic films that will live on for a long, long time and he gave British cinema an edge, often at times where there was nothing more than a soft pillow.
Ken Russell began studying as a photographer, and after serving in the Merchant Navy and the RAF he tried many things, including freelance photography, before joining the BBC where he made a series of musical films about such names as Sergei Prokofiev, Béla Bartók, Edward Elgar, Arnold Bax, Claude Debussy, and Richard Strauss in his film Dance of the Seven Veils.
According to the very well written The Guardian obituary, Russell's films from this time have never been beaten or they say even equalled, and remain a standard for arts television. That is a surprise if you think of Ken Russell, for this isn't what you associate with the man, you think of controversial films of sex, death and often religion.
In 1964 he moved from television documentaries and films and headed to cinema with a comedy called French Dressing which I have never seen but apparently is surprisingly good. That was followed by some more television and the next feature film Billion Dollar Brain, which is perhaps even more surprising than the comedy as it is an adaptation of the Len Deighton thriller novel starring Michael Caine as the character of Harry Palmer.
1969 saw the first big film of his career, and amazingly only his third feature film, Women in Love starring Alan Bates, Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson. It was a controversial film that is still known for the nude male wrestling scene; however it won the Oscar for Glenda Jackson for Best Actress and was nominated for Cinematography, Screenplay and Director, as well as being nominated for ten BAFTAs, and suddenly made everyone stand up and notice Ken Russell.
Imagine that, on his third film gaining so much recognition and praise, and yet he is often so underrated and doesn't get enough positive commentary on his work.
He followed that with The Music Lovers in 1970, a film starring Richard Chamberlain as Tchaikovsky and once again Glenda Jackson. This film told the story of the composer's marriage, despite being gay, and his death.
However controversial these films would have been at the time, nothing compared anyone for his next film in 1971 called The Devils, which still gains recognition today as being hugely controversial. It is based on the Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudun and told the story of a Priest, played by Oliver Reed, of a fortified town in seventeenth century France holding out control against the power hungry Cardinal Richelieu who, in order to topple the Priest and wield complete control of the country, sends in a witch hunter to demonise the Priest and convince everyone he is evil.
The story sounds a lot easier going than the film turns out to be, which is a story about repression, not just sexual repression but also that of faith and thought, and looks to the horrors of the witch hunts in the name of religion. In fact there are many more subtexts to it, and many more read in by critics galore.
The film caused huge controversy though as it featured some very sexually open scenes and ideas, ones which resulted in the studio cutting the film and it not being truly recognised for what it was for many years.
It is films like these though that overshadow some of his other works such as The Boy Friend in 1971 which was a musical starring the model and actress Twiggy which was based on the Sandy Wilson stage production, or the 1972 Savage Messiah which is a film about the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and saw Helen Mirren cast, or the fictional story of the 1974 Mahler which has Robert Powell playing a neurotic composer. The Guardian tells us that these films too gained their own controversy around their inaccuracies; however Ken Russell never intended them to be direct biographies of the people's lives.
So came another iconic Ken Russell film, a film that doesn't court as much controversy as others, the 1975 Who musical with a star filled cast, Tommy. It's still a great film to watch and has a shed load of talent throughout.
That was followed by Lisztomania in 1975, another musical, with Roger Daltrey once again, Paul Nicholas, Rick Wakeman, and Ringo Starr, trying to emulate the power of Tommy but not achieving so much. Then there was Valentino in 1977 about the 1920's actor Rudolph Valentino with Rudolf Nureyev in the lead which also fell by the wayside somewhat.
So it was great to see Altered States arrive and bring some attention back to the director. Adapted from the Paddy Chayefsky novel, which itself gave rise to controversy again as, according to The Guardian write up, the author disowned the screenplay he wrote for the film. I still remember scenes of this film to this day, obviously because I've seen it since, but I mean from my first viewing. William Hurt playing the scientist conducting experiments on himself in regression. A strong and unsettling film at times.
A couple more documentaries for television and then we see Crimes of Passion starring Kathleen Turner, Bruce Davison and Anthony Perkins. A film that could be described as his first Hollywood film, but even then it was pushing the boundaries particularly of the most taboo of subjects, sex. With a priest and a prostitute it's hard to believe that America would even accept such a film these days. I remember seeing this on one of the Channel 4 Red Triangle evenings.
Gothic in 1986 starred Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands and Natasha Richardson as Byron and both Shelly's, it's another great example of Russell taking grand characters and stories to the big screen. This has great potential, being the story of when the three authors sat together and the evening gave rise to Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein, but it didn't receive the critical acclaim that it should have.
Salome's Last Dance came in 1988, and what strikes me about these films from Ken Russell is that even if you haven't seen them, there's a damn good chance you know the title or something about them. I was surprised looking at this list of films to see so many recognisable titles and remember so much about films I thought I hadn't seen. Especially when I thought I hadn't really seen that many Ken Russell films. Whatever he did and however successful the films were, he did manage to attract the names, and here he had Glenda Jackson playing the lead of the adaptation of Oscar Wilde's play.
1988 and we see Hugh Grant against Amanda Donohoe in the film The Lair of the White Worm which sees him taking Bram Stoker's novel and adapting it himself into a horror film which I remember seeing when I was much younger and not only scaring me but also aiding my crush on Donohoe at the time. Actually I have a lot to thank Russell for.
The Rainbow in 1989 is perhaps one of the feature films of Ken Russell's that I haven't heard about, coupled perhaps with his very first. It's the story of a young woman in the early 1900's dealing with her adolescence and the arrival of adulthood and starred Sammi Davis and Paul McGann with Amanda Donohoe and Glenda Jackson.
1991 saw the release of Whore starring Theresa Russell which I don't think I've ever seen. The film was a type of fake documentary looking at the life of a prostitute, and marked his last feature film, from here on he returned to television, and it's something that many people don't realise about Ken Russell, his prolific list of television films, documentaries and television series.
From the mini-series Lady Chatterly starring Joely Richardson and Sean Bean to his Treasure Island with Gregory Hall and Michael Elphick, to Dogboys with Bryan Brown, Dean Cain and Tia Carrere. Yet there was documentary and music all through his career from Elgar: Fantasy of a Composer on a Bicycle to The Planets and the very well received Ken Russell's ABC of British Music.
Ken Russell was far more than the image that his name conjures up, and a wander through his films and television work shows you just that almost immediately. A visionary and controversial director who, although it may have taken some a little time to realise, was never just being controversial for the sake of it and deliver thought provoking, visually enticing and often mind bending films. British cinema should be proud to have had the pleasure of his talent.