Ken Russell – underestimated genius – one of film’s greatest.

Ken Russell (1927-2011)

When certain great people die, it is tempting for other people to claim that the deceased changed their lives – I resist these claims but in the case of that most charismatic, under-estimated, over-publicised, cruelly-under-funded and brutally ridiculed and patronised British film director, Ken Russell, I feel that I have to say that the man did make a difference to my life.

As an impressionable schoolboy looking for excitement in the wonderful world of the arts, Ken Russell crashed into my life with a BBC television movie about the French composer Claude Debussy (The Debussy Film, BBC 1965). For once, I can really say that I was never quite the same again after seeing this hypnotic, erotic, rhapsodic and visually thrilling film that for all its invention and film-maker’s flair, went straight to the heart of the composer’s neurotic and seductive music. This was, for a now horribly inspired kid, the coming together of two passions: classical music and film. I don’t think any other film director has ever matched Russell’s particular genius here. I remember sitting on a grassy bank with a friend talking non-stop for a very long time about the wonders of that programme and how I wanted to live my life on the same level of creative excitement. Well to be young is bliss as Wordsworth told us.  Of course, I was then hooked on his work and watched all the other composer films that he made for the BBC at that time – the glorious Elgar (1962) with its now iconic image of the young composer on his white pony, Song of Summer (1968) his muscular and often brutal portrait of Delius and Dance Of The Seven Veils (1970) about Richard Strauss, his wild and maybe best film attempt at depicting hysteria and obsession.

First loves are strong loves and The Debussy Film was the one for me. The young Oliver Reed was perfect in the role of Debussy switching in and out of character in the film as the trendy, cannabis-smoking, typical “sixties” actor preparing for his performance as the trendy and sexy composer from the perfumed world of French Art Nouveau. For me then, and maybe still, this was pure intoxication – art breaking the rules but celebrating art itself.

I was thrilled, of course, when the master hit the big screen with that string of movies that made him, for a period, one of the biggest names in cinema. Women In Love (1969) was maybe his best film in the sense that it allowed his imagination to fly whilst being constrained by D H Lawrence’s text. Of course everyone remembers the naked wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates but there was a lot more to the film than that and Glenda Jackson deserved her Oscar for best actress in a leading role. Russell got an Oscar nomination, it was the only time, and briefly, the film world was at one in singing his praises.

The schoolboy in me was even more thrilled though when his most scandalous film came out in 1971. The Devils (with Oliver Reed – again – and Vanessa Redgrave) did what I hoped cinema would always do from then on, it took the art of film-making by the scruff of the neck and shook it until we were all shaking with excitement in our seats. It was then that the great parting of the ways began between Russell and the worthy film critics. He was never to be forgiven. One day, people will come back to this film and ask why anyone who could love the art of film could not see this movie as a truly great and exciting example of its power.

After The Devils, we, his fans, all needed to take a deep breath and relax, Russell did just that with The Boyfriend (also 1971) starring, in a brilliantly original piece of casting, the most famous of all Sixties models, Twiggy. The film, patronised and dismissed by many, is sheer joy, fun and invention and it completes the quartet of my favourite Russell movies. After that there were great moments, enjoyable things, a lot of laughs and, yes, I suppose, disappointments. Did he go off the boil, was it his fault, was he a victim of his own wildness or was he destroyed by a narrow-minded movie industry? We all have different opinions here. There are plenty of other films to watch if you are an aficionado but I would like to stop here remembering the works that turned me on to the glories of film and maybe to the possibilities of art too. I truly hope that he will be remembered as one of cinema’s greats.

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