by Allan Fish
When I heard of Ken Russell’s death first thing this morning after going onto the IMDb and BBC websites, one felt a sense of shock. And shock at a death can come in so many different guises. Only 24 hours earlier the football world, in the UK in particular, was beyond saddened to hear of the death of Gary Speed, aged 42, who was found dead after committing suicide. He was loved by many, and as with all suicides, the question arose as to why. My mind also thought back to the fact that, less than 24 hours earlier, he’d been on TV’s Football Focus as bright as a button. It was a painful day for many on Sunday.
The news of Ken’s death brought forth a different sense of shock. He was twice Gary Speed’s age. 84. Not a bad innings, all things considered. But there was a similarity. Only days earlier he’d still be tweeting and facebooking under his moniker ‘Unkle Ken Russell’. It was less than a week ago one saw that he had ticked ‘Like’ to various comments about the impending BFI DVD release of The Devils. I felt like I’d lost a friend, a feeling I’d not felt since Kubrick died. When Kubrick had died Steven Spielberg talked of how numb he was and that he always thought that Stan would direct his Ran at 80. Russell’s death didn’t deprive us of more films; he lived longer but was an effective outcast from the early 1980s. He made films and TV dramas after, but only in the way that Karl Freund kept working as DP on I Love Lucy when Hollywood had neglectfully let him rot.
Ask anyone in the US about Ken Russell and it’ll be D.H.Lawrence and Women in Love that comes up first, for that remains his most famous film, if for reasons that may have little to do with Russell, more for Glenda’s Oscar and Ollie and Alan’s nude wrestling scene performed after Ollie got a bottle of vodka for each to drink before filming. There was so much more to him than that, however, and it’s often easy to forget just what a major figure he’d been in the 1960s. In those days, the BBC nurtured such talents as not only Russell but Ken Loach, Dennis Potter, Galton and Simpson, Peter Watkins, Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears. And just as Loach’s best work remains his TV masterpieces Cathy Come Home and the recently reissued and still firebrand Days of Hope, so Russell’s most important work came at the BBC.
He first made his mark at the turn of the sixties with the likes of a documentary on the Salford of Shelagh Delaney, who coincidentally also passed on this last week. That was a poignant piece, especially for those with an interest in Salford’s history, seen on film in Love on the Dole, Hobson’s Choice and the film of her own A Taste of Honey. He did a famous and now little seen version of The Diary of a Nobody in 1964, but he really made his mark with the series of documentaries, cine-essays and biopics he did for the Monitor strain from 1959-1965. Few who saw Elgar (1962), Bartok (1964) or The Debussy Film (1965) would forget them. Even after moving from Monitor to Omnibus he continued in the same vein; Dante’s Inferno (1967), A House in Bayswater: Prokofiev (1968), Song of Summer – Delius (1968) and the inflammatory Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), a biopic of Richard Strauss so controversial it has never been seen since the 1970s and only survives courtesy of timecoded bootlegs taken one assumes from the BBC archives. One can only imagine Strauss’ estate have successfully taken legal action against it ever being seen again.
To watch them all, or even a selection of them, is to see where what would become the excesses of the 1970s take root. He’d never lose that interest in music and the arts. The Music Lovers (Tchaikovsky) (1970), The Boyfriend (1971), Savage Messiah (1972), Tommy (1975), Mahler (1974), Lizstomania (1975) would all follow and divide audiences to this day. In between there came his two most famous cinematic works. Women in Love remains, with Jack Cardiff’s Sons and Lovers, the greatest large screen English language film of Lawrence’s world, with superb photography and performances from Glenda Jackson, Alan Bates, Oliver Reed and Jennie Linden. But better and darker was to come.
Since the announcement only this month of a DVD release of his The Devils courtesy of the BFI as part of their centennial celebrations, the blogosphere has been in overdrive. Some complained that it will not be the uncut version, only shown a handful of times in public and available only through bootleg DVDs. Mark Kermode, who found the missing ‘Rape of Christ’ footage and has long been an advocate and friend of Ken’s, explained his mixed feelings on video. Yes, it would be better in the full version, but we must bear in mind that the uncut footage isn’t in the best of condition and may not stand up to a High Def 1080pi restoration. We abhor that Warners – or to be more accurate the Bible Belt fanatics whose conglomorates control WB – refuse to see it released on Blu Ray (make no bones about it, the BFI would release it on Blu Ray if they could). But at least they got to putting out an official release while Ken was still with us. Or at least he was until yesterday. Thankfully, the commentary with Kermode is already recorded and can be reused for a hopeful High Def remaster in the future.
What to make of The Devils, the film abhorred by virtually every American critic, who the likes of Pauline Kael and Stanley Kauffmann, and British equivalent Alexander Walker, come to that, would like to have seen burned. True, in America the version shown was so butchered that it was unrecognisable. Besides, their media – this was Nixon’s America remember – are hardly likely to support a film that exposes hysteria, when it so blatantly marketed it. Forget the fools who couldn’t look beyond the end of their noses. The Devils is not only Ken’s masterpiece but one of the great British films of its decade. One which, like fellow British hot potatoes of the same year, A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs, grows all the more prescient as the years pass. And for all those who never saw Oliver Reed as much of an actor, the film is a revelation. In any sane world, he’d have had nominations by the bucketload. But Ken’s film had already answered that question; it’s not in any way a sane world.
Everything that followed felt like after the Lord Mayor’s show. He made some good films in the 1970s, but nothing outstanding after the Loudon film. He kept going into the 1980s with Altered States and the underrated Crimes of Passion (at least if you see the uncut version on DVD in the Netherlands under the title of China Blue). A version of The Rainbow followed, but paled besides the BBC version released six months earlier, and then back to the BBC for Lady Chatterley. The old visual eye was there, but it felt flat, tepid in comparison to his earlier works.
It was soon after this, in early 1993, when I first remember seeing him on TV, as part of an Oscar panel on BBC2, in which he championed the visuals of Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula and hoped The Crying Game would do well at the ceremony. It didn’t. He was left to retirement in the New Forest. One still recalls the delight at seeing Ken, in around 2003, as part of Kermode’s Hell on Earth, feeding the birds around his front door and welcoming Kermode, who had brought the tape of the uncut Rape of Christ for him to see it for the first time in thirty years, accompanied by actors Murray Melvin and Georgina Hale. It was a lovely moment and one can only wish that, while I don’t myself believe in a heaven – and both he and Reed were agnostics - he would smile at the remembrances. The best remembrance I could find comes from Ollie Reed himself. This is taken from Ollie’s Parkinson interview in 1973; I have edited it and placed it on Youtube.