Ken Russell : Nowhere to go but the outside?

One of the UK’s most renowned (notorious?) of British film directors died just a few days ago at the age of 84 leaving behind a striking body of work that ranges from the lyrical to the shocking, from the accomplished professionalism of his biopics to the patchy self-financed experiments of his ‘garagiste’ last years. As tributes flow in from critics and friends it’s interesting to see how Ken Russell’s reputation seems at once hard to ignore yet equally hard to locate within post-war British Cinema.

Originally an accomplished black and white photographer with a keen eye for the unusual and the challenging, Ken Russell’s early documentaries for BBC Monitor (Elgar, Delius: Song of Summer, Debussy) showed many of the elements that were to characterise his later work: an appetite for lush and sensual cinematic design, a delight in surprise and the surreal and a passionate feel for cinematic musical scoring.

These were all qualities that were to appear in his mid-career music features: the rock opera ‘Tommy’ (with Roger Daltrey) and the music biopics: ‘Mahler’ and ‘The Music Lovers’ (of which he said “If I hadn’t told United Artists it was a film about a homosexual [Tchaikovsky] who fell in love with a nymphomaniac it might never have been financed.”)

Russell’s visual and directing style are impossible to summarise. His early works such as Elgar have a great lyrical beauty combined with an economy of direction and a warmth of feeling and genuine charm totally suited to both the subject and the medium of domestic broadcast TV. (See the extended clip for the beautiful opening sequence of the boy Elgar riding up the Malvern hills on his pony.) His 1960’s TV documentaries of artists and musicians did much to define this newly emerging genre.

But it was Ken Russell’s inclination to shock which showed most strongly in his best known features and often accompanied his most popular films. ‘Women In Love’ in 1969 precipitated a battle with the censors over the nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, but the film also achieved an Oscar for lead  Glenda Jackson and won Russell himself one of his few public awards. In that case Russell was able to manage his and the films reputation successfully:

“More than 40 years after Oliver Reed and Alan Bates writhed naked by the fireplace – the first time that many viewers had seen full frontal nudity in British cinemas – it has emerged that Russell was in cahoots with the chief censor, John Trevelyan, to ensure the scene did not have to be cut… Trevelyan’s level-headed approach [in passing the scene after Russell and producer Larry Kramer agreed to tone down the lighting] is clear from his own earlier letter, in which he told the film-makers: ‘We all think it’s a brilliant film and are taking this into account in our judgement of it.’ ” (Guardian:

Russell’s 1971 film ‘The Devils’ (based on Aldous Huxley’s non-fiction account of a case of 17th century religious possession) was far more shocking to many and suffered far more stringent censorship. It brought together nudity, cruelty, religious and blasphemous imagery in an often unrelenting mixture which brought the film extremely mixed critical responses and also led to very limited official showings. ‘The Devils’ is finally to be released on DVD in March 2012, 42 years after it was first made (when it will form part of the British Board of Film Classification centenary celebrations).

His later films were often patchy and as he found his maverick reputation no longer attracted established film backing, many had to be self financed, but his dictum had always been to make films any way he could, an approach that reflects the economy and directness of his earliest BBC work.

Tributes and articles have appeared over the last few days (see links below) and present a fascinating picture of this ‘wild boy’ director often at odds with the film culture of his time but equally unafraid to take a risk.

Ken Russell: Obituary

Ken Russell: an Appreciation by Mark Kermode

Ken Rusell: a Career in Clips