Rebel director whose controversial, but successful, films often enraged the critics
Published 04/12/2011 | 05:00
KEN Russell, the film maker, who has died aged 84, created one of the most extrovert styles in post-war cinema. At first synonymous with lyrical flair and elegiac beauty, exemplified by his BBC film Elgar, Russell fed his talent on increasingly explicit material, dramatised with operatic gusto and lavishly adorned with images culled from his Catholicism.
His reputation as a self-styled enfant terrible was sealed by his 1971 film The Devils, a hysterical cornucopia of mass rape, torture and vomit-splattered exorcism set in a 17th-Century convent. Crimes of Passion (1984), a popular success, in which a prostitute recounted her experiences at a group therapy session, was described as "one of the silliest movies for a long time". It was by no means a unique accolade for Russell.
Once a dancer, then a photographer by trade, Russell first came to note through an exceptional series of biographies of musical figures made in the Sixties for the BBC arts programme Monitor.
Eschewing the fashionable realism of the Sixties, Russell formed a poetic alliance between image, word and music that opened up new vistas for television. He was compared with Fellini and Pasolini, and his gifts were soon sought after by major film producers.
His preference for biographical subjects remained, but increasingly he showed a predilection for the creative opportunities afforded by the internal, rather than the external, lives of his subjects.
Loneliness, madness, death and sex -- whether fantastic or factual -- became overt themes, leading by the end of the decade to the controversy that he thereafter gleefully courted.
Russell remained unrepentant, and regretted only Valentino, his 1977 film featuring Rudolph Nureyev, the abject commercial failure of which he blamed for a substantial hiatus in his career.
A burly bon vivant who favoured a bizarre range of anachronistic clothing, Russell was a mixture of exhibitionist and recluse. While he lived in splendid isolation in his beloved Lake District for many years, and was considered by intimates to be an essentially shy man, he was happy to compensate when promoting his latest film. He varnished his nails red and sported blue eye shadow for TV interviews. He was always quotable, and had pet subjects; few have so publicly and so thoroughly meditated on the desire aroused by the sight of a nun.
Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell was born in Southampton on July 3, 1927, the elder of two sons of a shoe shop owner. He was educated at a series of minor private schools, but from an early age privately developed a love for the moving image. His mother took him regularly to the cinema, and cinema provided a refuge. His schooling was unhappy, as was his parents' marriage, and his mother suffered from mental illness.
After school Russell joined Britain's Merchant Navy, but was invalided out in 1946. Kept on watch for eight hours at a stretch under a Pacific sun, he suffered a nervous breakdown. His recovery, he later said, was hastened by his discovery of Tchaikovsky. He joined the RAF and qualified in radio but, inspired by a fellow serviceman, soon left to essay his fortunes as a ballet dancer. He persisted for five years as a dancer and for three weeks as an actor before admitting that his legs were too short and fat ever to permit him to achieve greatness.
He trained in photography at Walthamstow Technical College and afterwards freelanced. It was on the strength of four amateur films that, in 1958, he was finally embraced by the BBC.
Over the next 11 years he made 35 films for the BBC, stylishly fulfilling his brief to popularise arts programming, and establishing fruitful relationships with, among others, Melvyn Bragg.
In 1970 he created a furore with his BBC biography of Richard Strauss, The Dance of the Seven Veils. Containing scenes of rape and violence, it displayed the composer in Nazi uniform and placed him in compromising positions with various nuns. As it transpired, this was a mere curtain-raiser.
Russell had already made his feature film debut with French Dressing (1964) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967), the latter a well-received thriller starring Michael Caine. In 1969 Women in Love, Russell's version of DH Lawrence's novel, boasting the famous nude wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed, received five Oscar nominations. Glenda Jackson won Best Actress, and Russell became a major international film maker.
In 1970 Russell turned his camera on Tchaikovsky. The Music Lovers, which he tersely described as the story of "a homosexual who marries a nymphomaniac", was another hit, despite critical broadsides. By now there was a certain resigned respect in the attitude of the cognoscenti. "If Russell makes a dreadful movie," wrote one critic, "at least it is his own uniquely dreadful movie."
The year after his Strauss film had assailed public sensibilities, Russell released The Devils, an account of a historic case of demonic possession in a French convent. A film in which no conceivable horror was overlooked, it was reviled by the critics and accompanied by allegations that not all the sex was simulated.
In the ensuing controversy, Russell went on television with Alexander Walker, film critic of the Evening Standard, and rapped him over the head with a furled copy of his splenetic review. Despite being banned in places as diverse as Surrey and the Vatican, the film did excellent business.
Throughout the Seventies Russell mined this vein of high camp with varying degrees of artistic success, embraced by American producers so long as his films continued to make money.
The Who recruited Russell for their 1975 rock opera Tommy, to which he did ample justice.
After the financial failure of Valentino, Russell found work hard to come by and did not direct a major film for three years.
Then, in 1980, he took over from an ailing Arthur Penn on Altered States, an updated, psychedelic version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The studio had tried to obtain 27 other directors before calling for Russell. The popularity of the film restored his career, though it never regained its former momentum.
He made occasional acting appearances, such as in The Russia House (1990), based on the John le Carre book and starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer; Russell took the part of a secret agent. In 2007, he succumbed to making an appearance on Celebrity Big Brother, lasting for four days before being ejected.
Russell was married four times. His first wife was costume designer Shirley Kingdom, whom he married in 1958. The outstandingly successful designer was his collaborator on many films. They had four sons and a daughter before divorcing in 1978.
In 1984 he married an American film graduate, Vivian Jolly, with the actor Anthony Perkins as the officiating priest; they had a son and a daughter, but this relationship also disintegrated.
He had another son with his third wife, the actress Hetty Baines, whom he met while working on his BBC film The Secret Life of Sir Arnold Bax and married in 1992.
Again divorced, in 1997, Russell married Elize Tribble in 2001.
In 2006 they lost most of their possessions when their 16th-Century house in the New Forest burned down.