November 28, 2011 4:37 pm

Iconoclast who pushed at boundaries of taste and decency

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Ken Russell, the British director who died on Sunday aged 84, divided the cinema-going public like few of his contemporaries. His bombastic films pushed constantly and playfully at the boundaries of what constituted good taste and public decency. They chimed perfectly with the experimental spirit of the late 1960s and early 1970s and the best of them, an adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, even earned him an Oscar nomination.

That was a rare moment of official recognition for Russell, who was otherwise regarded by the film establishment as a dangerous iconoclast. His undoubted talent as a visionary was compromised by an unrestrained love of excess and schoolboy humour that was to prevent him from being regarded in the very first rank of filmmakers. His most remarkable work – The Music Lovers, The Devils, Tommy – showed a vivid imagination, but also a lack of discipline that was to prove his downfall. By the 1980s, a less indulgent time for filmmaking, even his keenest supporters had lost faith in him and he spent the rest of his career making small-budget films, some of which acquired a cult following, but most of which went neglected.

Russell was born on July 3 1927 in Southampton, England, educated in Walthamstow and Pangbourne College, and served in the Royal Air Force and the merchant navy. After a short spell as a photographer, he joined the BBC at a time when the corporation was intent on producing high quality and ground-breaking arts documentaries.

Russell began to make films about classical composers for the BBC’s Monitor and Omnibus strands which were notable for their powerful imagery and contentious viewpoints. He courted controversy, and made fun of the consequences. When he made The Dance of the Seven Veils, depicting Richard Strauss as a Nazi, the composer’s outraged family withdrew permission to use Strauss’s music. Russell responded by using the schmaltzy waltzes of Johann Strauss in the film’s soundtrack in punning revenge.

The small screen was always likely to be unable to contain Russell’s idiosyncratic talents, and he duly made the move to cinema. Women in Love, released in 1969, achieved notoriety for a nude wrestling scene featuring Alan Bates and Oliver Reed and its morally lax portrayal of bohemian life among intellectuals. It won Glenda Jackson an Oscar for best actress.

Next came The Music Lovers, a Tchaikovsky biopic, and in 1971 The Devils, a film based on Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun, that depicted a depraved church in terms so explicit that it has only in recent weeks been finally cleared for DVD release in its uncut version.

Savage Messiah, Mahler and Tommy were classic Russell films, replete with over-the-top imagery and tin-ear dialogue, but also full of shrewd and humorous insights into their subjects. But somewhere in the middle of the decade, the director crossed the line separating artful experiment from high camp.

By the time of 1977’s Valentino, Pauline Kael, the estimable New Yorker film critic, represented the views of many filmgoers when she wrote: “There is no artistry left in Ken Russell’s work. By now his sensationalist reputation is based merely on his ‘going further’ than anybody else. His films have become schoolboy black masses – a mixture of offensiveness and crude dumbness.”

Russell had one final blast at conquering Hollywood in 1980 with the relatively well-received Altered States, but his days as a mainstream filmmaker were numbered. He diversified his work, trying his hand as a novelist and newspaper columnist, and made cameo appearances in films and television.

A sign that he had begun to be regarded as a national treasure came when he joined the Celebrity Big Brother house in 2007, but he left prematurely after some heated exchanges with Jade Goody. “I don’t want to live in a society riddled with evil and hatred,” he said after his departure. Russell had finally met his match.

Married four times, Russell is survived by his wife, Elize Tribble, and his children.

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