Running naked in the rain

Michael Glover at the Hay Festival hears Ken Russell discuss DH Lawrence with the biographer Brenda Maddox
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The Independent Culture
Ken Russell has a reputation for misbehaving himself in public, but he seemed a little cowed in the presence of the biographer Brenda Maddox, a brilliantly sharp-tongued American with a seemingly effortless mastery of every esoteric fact in DH Lawrence's life. Did I say cowed? Cowed in the way that a lion might be cowed.

The fact, of course, is that Russell's mind doesn't work like that of a biographer - nor does he look as if it works like that. Russell is a great shambling giant of a man who sprawls in his chair looking a little boyishly shy at the idea of being pressed into the mould of the festival man, and a touch mischievous too. He talks about Lawrence not precisely but rhapsodically; not taking keen, factual stabs at the subject, but wheeling round it in ever widening circles. He hasn't read as much of Lawrence as he would like to have read for this occasion - and certainly not a tenth of what Maddox has read - but he knows what Lawrence feels like and is.

"When I started to read him properly, I knew that Lawrence was the literary equivalent of Elgar and Mahler. It was quite mind-blowing, the way he wrapped up men and nature. He went for nature. He understood the specialness and the strength of these islands, their mystery. He sang Britain, like Delius and Elgar."

What were his recurring themes? asked Jaci Stephens, the Daily Mirror's film critic. "Well now," said Russell, thumbing his lip, "horses, the moon - always the moon - and people running naked in rainstorms."

It wasn't until right at the end that Russell threw off the sense that he was being restrained by the need to pose as a kind of Lawrentian egg- head. Someone asked him how he shot the wrestling scene in Women in Love. Suddenly, he exploded into life. At last, he was talking like a man in a bar who enjoys telling a story. "It was the most difficult scene I've ever filmed. I didn't know how two grown men could take off their knickers and do it with a straight face. Ollie came round to the house and said "It ain't in the book" in that marvellously articulate way of his. Eventually he said he knew how to do it, but as the day drew nearer, both he and Alan Bates seemed to be uneasy about it. Then they both turned up with doctors' certificates saying that it would be injurious to their health to do nude wrestling.

"Anyway, a friend of Ollie's told me he had a plan. He'd get them both pissed, and make sure they both went to the urinal at the same time. 'They would get their thingies out' he said, 'and see there's not much in it'. It worked - and they did it."

As John Cole said to Roy Hattersley earlier in the week, "The best leaks always take place in the urinal."