A couple of years ago a friend in New York asked me if there was any chance of getting Ken Russell to a convention there. Bravely I agreed to ask him. It was brave because I hardly knew the director of such controversial films as The Music Lovers (1970), The Devils (1971), Gothic (1986)and Bram Stoker’s last novel, The Lair Of The White Worm (1988). I had met him on the noonday talk-show Light Lunch and had only spoken to him half a dozen times since then. To my surprise, he seemed to be quite taken with the idea. He suggested we meet at his favourite restaurant in Brokenhurst and I gave him the low down on what the trip entailed. I’m not sure that the restaurant was the best idea in the world but I could see why he liked it. The waiters all seemed to be out of work opera singers and gave us the benefit of their training at full volume. Ken loved it. It suited his florid character. Six months later we headed Stateside.
I arrived a day earlier and was surprised at the amount of interest Ken’s visit had sparked. In England, he seems to be the kicking boy of every critic and pundit with a column to fill. In America, they really appreciate his innovative bad-boy image. Ken isn’t known for his appearances at public spectacles and that was sparking the interest.
Next day, he swept into the hotel, full of apologies. He seemed to think he might be overlooked. Impossible. He had given me one of his books and I had read it in the plane on the way over. Just as well. We were due to have a joint interview – and when the interviewer didn’t turn up, I took up the challenge and posed the questions myself. It was a hoot! Ken is like a big, mischievous, chubby, huggable seraphim. He produced a little bag from his pocket and each time he said anything he hit the bag and peals of manic laughter came from it. It had the audience rolling in the aisle. I can’t remember what I asked him. Just that there was a feel good atmosphere about the whole show.
Later, when Ken was signing autographs, a man came up to him and asked him to sign a copy of a Dracula script Ken had written some years earlier. Ken signed without thinking about it. After the man left, the thought struck him that he had done a daft thing. The script had never become public property and the film never made. The script he had signed was probably the last extant copy in the world. He should have asked for it back. But it was too late and someone is walking around New York with a highly collectible piece of Russell memorabilia that is worth a small fortune. The rest of the weekend went without a hitch. On Monday morning we went into New York and mooched around. Had a snack at de Niro’s restaurant, spent hours watching Ken sift through thousands of recordings of classic compositions by different orchestras and then had dinner at my favourite restaurant in New York – the Tavern on the Green in Central Park. Then it was back to JFK for the boring flight back to London. Only this time it wasn’t! Boring that is!
After we had ingested the indigestible and settled down, Ken tried to find some music on the inboard entertainment. There was plenty of music but Ken said it was so badly amplified that it was impossible. I took that as an opening and asked him how he developed his interest in music.
He settled in the corner, gave me one of his cherubic smiles and told me. He had been in the Merchant Navy during the war. Probably the most hazardous form of war service you could have with the German Wolf-pack U-boats on the prowl. When he at last left the Service and returned home, he was like a zombie. He just sat around the house staring vacantly at the wall, listening to the roar of his mother’s Hoover. “The radio would always be mixed with the sound of the Hoover,” he said. “Then I heard the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. It got through to me.”
To his mother’s surprise, he got up, put air in the tube of his bicycle tyres and peddled to the nearest music shop where he bought Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B Flat. “I played it until there was more hiss than piano and then went back for more.” Since then, his collection, like Topsy, has just ‘grow’d and grow’d’. “I can’t resist rooting through 78s, EPs, LPs, Sheets, CDs. Any variation on an old tune and I’m up for it.”
His first inclination was towards ballet. The combination of music, movement and drama appealed to him. Then there was the lure of the tights and the prospect of grabbing lithe young female bodies in intimate places without getting his face slapped. He joined a ballet school and worked hard to convert the music into twinkling dance steps. He confessed he wasn’t much of a dancer but he made up for it with a welter of enthusiasm and eagerness to perform. It was enough to get him into the chorus line of Annie Get Your Gun.
Ken is philosophical about his dancing days. If he had been halfway decent as a hoofer he might never have taken up photography. It seemed to offer just what he wanted. A ‘with-it’ image, nothing too strenuous to do but wind on the film and the chance to meet girls. He managed to get himself a few jobs in the fashion industry. Plenty of gorgeous girls willing to do practically anything to get themselves in print. It was an era when photographers were still bound by the image of the Royal photographer, Baron. All Saville Row suits, old school ties and a blue carnation in the buttonhole. Ken went in for tight jeans and baggy sweaters. Work dropped off and Ken found regular eating difficult. But he didn’t waste his time working for sustenance. He used his newly acquired photographic skills welding his vivid imagination onto moving celluloid. He produced and directed two 10 minute shorts, Peep Show and Amelia And The Angel. He made them just to keep himself busy and have something to put on his calling card.
Occasionally, the thought went through his head that he might be discovered and swept away to Hollywood to remake Ben Hur with more gristle. Almost as an act of defiance, he sent his miniature masterpieces to Huw Wheldon at the BBC. At that time Wheldon was producing a long running series called Monitor. It was a show that kept pace with what was happening in the artistic world and had a huge audience. Ken was gobsmacked when he received an invitation, in 1959, to direct a 10 minute episode on John Betjeman called Poet’s London. Later that year, he examined the eccentricities of Spike Milligan in Portrait Of A Goon. The following year, he put his ballet lessons to good use with a look at the Ballet Rambert in Shepherd’s Bush.
At this point in Ken’s reminiscing, the cabin lights went out and Ken called a truce. He curled up in the corner of his seat and dropped off to sleep. I had more trouble hitting the zeds and had just dropped off when the lights went on and the cabin staff clanked up and down with the trolleys. Ken was still in a reminiscing mood. I asked him what he thought was the film which had the most influence on his career. “Elgar. I made it in the early sixties. It was a full blown 50 minute piece to celebrate the 100th Monitor. I couldn’t believe it when Huw Wheldon asked me to direct it.” Ken also made a film for the Beeb on the life of Debussy. It wasn’t easy to get it on screen. Debussy’s family fought against it for ages. He brought in Oliver Reed, a rising young actor, to play the lead. “Olly wasn’t the brightest candle on the chandelier but we hit it off. He had the knack of knowing what was required without rationalising it. Great for a director.” It was the start of a long partnership in film.
Now Ken wanted to break free and explore. It wasn’t easy. His first odyssey onto the cinema screen, French Dressing (1964) with James Booth and Roy Kinnear, was panned by the critics and his second film Billion Dollar Brain (1967) didn’t fare much better. To his surprise, in 1966, he was asked back to make four feature length films. These are considered by many to be his best work. Isadora Duncan, The Biggest Dancer In The World (1966), Dante’s Inferno (1967), Song Of Summer (1968), and The Dance Of The Seven Veils (1970) all broke new ground. Ken professed to have reservation about all of them but I could see he was happy when I told him I thought they were wonderful. Then he was offered Women In Love (1967). It established him as a full ranking film director. A year later he got The Music Lovers (1970). “It was a film I was destined to make,” he said soberly. “Tchaikovsky had kick started my brain so I was determined to make a film worthy of him. When he was alive he was exploited by everyone. I must say that Glenda Jackson as the composer’s wife ultimately driven mad by her husband’s homosexuality, is one of the best performances I have ever seen on the screen.”
Oliver Reed was once again brought in for The Devils (1971). It shocked audiences everywhere and Russell, a Roman Catholic, came in for a lot of kicking from the church. The Ken Russell Rep. Co., with the addition of a dancing Twiggy, had a less onerous outing for the next film, The Boy Friend (1971). It still had that undercurrent that applies to all Russell films but it has some good music and Twiggy is gauchely competent. But the feel good factor didn’t last. Savage Messiah (1971), Mahler (1974), Tommy (1975), Lisztomania (!975) and Valentino (1977) were all a drift back to what Ken does best. But now he was getting more and more offers to stage musical events in the theatre. “The great thing about the Theatre is it is immediate,” he explained. “You get that instant reaction from the audience – or not.” Then he got a call from the West Coast.
“Altered States (1980) was one of ‘those’ films. Everyone from Scorcese to Michael Winner had turned it down and then Muggins comes along. It was not a happy experience. The scriptwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, just wanted the Russell name on the film but intended to direct it himself.” They didn’t get on. Chayefsky was so upset he took his name off the film… I asked why. Ken just shrugged and looked morose, so I didn’t pursue it.
The plane landed at Heathrow and Ken and I had a last cuddle and said goodbye. I watched him shamble off through the crowd and wished I had questioned him more closely. Why hadn’t I asked him about Tommy (1975) or my favourite horror film, Gothic (1987) or…….?
Read Ingrid’s column every Tuesday at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.
[Also, Ken Russell’s A Very British Picture is a fascinating read for any film-lover – Ed]