Ken Russell, 1927–2011


May–September 1970, Ladbroke Grove: Ken asked me what would most upset an English audience. Louis XIII dining al fresco, carelessly shooting peacocks on the lawn between courses. “Impossible,” said Ken. “How would you do that?”

“Make some dummies, stand them on the lawn and detonate them.”

“No, you’d have to shoot real peacocks. It wouldn’t work otherwise.”

Derek Jarman, Dancing Ledge (1984)

It hardly seems worth adding to the Russell eulogies when The Guardian over the past few hours has been so profligate with their stories you might think they’d offed the director in order to boost their readership. For my part I’ll keep it brief and say I used to be guilty of taking Ken Russell for granted, he seemed so ubiquitous when his feature films were turning up all the time on British television. He was fortunate to make the most of that brief moment when American studios were nurturing a handful of world-class talents in the UK. A shame it didn’t last. Derek Jarman, after working on The Devils and Savage Messiah, designed a production of Stravinsky’s The Rake Progress that Russell directed in 1982. Discussing that period in Dancing Ledge he says: “Ken is deeply disillusioned with the cinema, the end of a love affair. Whenever the subject comes up there is sadness, tales of betrayal and hopes dashed.” About British cinema in general, Jarman had this to say:

The English film world is mesmerized by Oscars, and almost any project has to pass the Hollywood test. All indigenous work has to be historic and “quaint” – Brideshead or Chariots of Fire, a dull and overrated TV film, fit the bill. All the rest take their chances.

The BFI is finally releasing The Devils on DVD in March 2012. Unlike The King’s Speech it never won any Oscars. No need to guess which one I’d rather watch.

Guardian obituary | Ken Russell: a career in clips
• The Independent: Farewell to the wild man of cinema
Telegraph obituary
Fuck Yeah Ken Russell

Previously on { feuilleton }
Salome’s Last Dance

11 thoughts on “Ken Russell, 1927–2011”

  1. The best Russell films—as well as the worst—are of the sort that will never be made again. Though famed for his bouts of cinematic excess, he was a director who understood the power of artifice, often evoking emotional extremes both onscreen and in the audience. He marched, danced, staggered and occasionally fell to the beat of his own drummer, with no apologies. The world is unquestionably richer for the works he has left behind.

  2. Well said. As it happens, the only one I saw in a cinema was Altered States which is one of his least typical. Even then I still felt like I’d been tripping afterwards.

  3. I, too, saw Altered States when it first came out. Little did I know at the time that there would be plenty of hallucinogens in my future, and floatation tanks, as well!

  4. Gabriel: No impaled nuns…I think he was slacking that day.

    Thom: Floatation tanks… I wanted to try that after reading John Lilly’s The Centre of the Cyclone which I think may be one of the source books for the film.

  5. Indeed, ‘The Devils’ is not a fiome for everyone. I has been forbidden in Brazil for years, until it finally came, in 1984. Then it went again, to Hell, I suppose, since I was never able to see it again anywhere, not even in DVD. But I also remember another Russel filome which I liked a lot (Altered States), although this one is much more easy to find, and to watch on TCM. R.I.P.

  6. QUOTE
    There’s an interesting anecdote about the Altered States script/movie. Chayefsky had an unprecedented clause in his contract requiring that the movie be shot exactly according to his script — scene-by-scene, line-by-line.

    Ken Russell, the director, did just that. Still, Chayefsky demanded that his name be taken off the movie. The screenplay is instead credited to “Sidney Aaron.”

    The reason? Chayefsky apparently wanted all the long speeches of the script to be spoken very deliberately by the actors, so the audience could mull them over. He hated the fact that Russell had the actors race through the dialog.


  7. Yeah, I’ve read all that about Chayefsky vs. Russell, and the restrictions on the filming before. Derek Jarman says Russell was overjoyed when he heard Chayefsky had died. Arthur Penn was going to direct the film originally but he also fell out with Chayefsky so my sympathies are with Ken.

    As for the book, John Lilly reckoned Chayefsky borrowed an MS copy of The Scientist: A Metaphysical Autobiography from a publisher which he used as the basis for his novel. Lilly pioneered all that drug and flotation tank stuff after all.

  8. When I was a teenager back in the 70s two very different talents changed the way that I looked at cinema. One was Sam Peckinpah and the other Ken Russell. When The Devils ended I simply sat there stunned. To this day I can’t be objective about Russell. I’ve always insinctively ‘got’ him. Yes, even stuff like Liztomania.

    It’s a disgrace that he was never properly honoured in his own country. By the time I moved to Ireland he was the only mainstream director that I’m aware of who had four films banned outright.

    If you can track down a copy of Ken Russell by Joseph Lopez (1976) it is a heavy but very worthwhile read. Joseph Lanza’s more recent Phalic Frenzy is more chatty and accessible but still a terrific and pretty much up to date book. Very much recommended.

    I think he would have laughed his head off at the piece in The Daily Mash: Ken Russell Funeral Banned by the BBFC!

    Ken, you mad old bastard, I’m going to miss you.

  9. Chaiefsky did take his name out of the filme version, which I saw at the movies en 1982. Butr recently, watching it on TCM, his name was in full flag, at the credits.

Comments are closed.