Farewell to the wild man of cinema

Director Ken Russell, who has died aged 84, spent his life pushing boundaries with his explicit films. But forget the lurid headlines – Hollywood has lost one of its most visionary and underrated talents, writes Geoffrey Macnab

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It is the commonplace fate of British cinema's more visionary talents to end their careers marginalised and even mocked. This was certainly what happened to Ken Russell, who has died aged 84. In his latter years, with his shock of white hair and his red face, the director cut a cantankerous and slightly buffoonish figure. He asked for money for interviews. His greatest work wasn't much in circulation. Those who knew him from such lesser efforts as The Fall Of The Louse Of Usher (2002), his eccentric and low-budget Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, or for his Cliff Richard and Sara Brightman videos, were probably baffled that he had such a glowing reputation.

The director's son Alex Verney-Elliott said his father had died in hospital after a series of strokes. Russell's widow, Elize, said she was "devastated" by her husband's death, which had been "completely unexpected".

Even in his pomp, he had always been a figure of considerable controversy. He was so often called the "enfant terrible" of British film that no one paid as much attention to his craftsmanship as they should have done. His films were too extravagant, too full of sex, too pretentious in their artistic references to appeal to the tastes of some of the primmer critics of the time. "The talent is there but somehow it is an appalling talent," the respected critic Dilys Powell said of him early in his career.

Russell often seemed to be spoiling for a fight. "This is not the age of manners. This is the age of kicking people in the crotch and telling them something and getting a reaction. I want to shock people into awareness," was one of his belligerent early proclamations.

There was the notorious occasion when he hit the Evening Standard's critic, Alexander Walker, on the head with a newspaper during a debate about The Devils (1971), arguably his greatest film and certainly his most problematic as far as the British censors were concerned. Walker responded a year or so later by writing: "This man must be stopped: bring me an elephant gun." (Russell had just partnered producer David Puttnam to make a series of six films on composers.)

Even late in his life, he had the ability to wrongfoot or startle the questioner. In his final TV interview, filmed in August and due to be aired on Sky Arts on Friday, he confessed to having a four-decade "crush" on Glenda Jackson. He also talked about seeing – while still a child – one of his cousins blown to pieces as she played in a British field and stood on a landmine.

Think of Ken Russell films and the images most likely to spring to mind are of Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestling naked in front of the fireplace in Women In Love (1969), the torture sequences and masturbating nuns in The Devils, the steel phallus in his creepy and underrated Crimes Of Passion (1984) and a very neurotic looking Richard Chamberlain (as Tchaikovsky) thumping the keyboard in The Music Lovers (1974.)

"I've never had final cut on any of my films. Kubrick does on his films but I can't think of anyone else. You get three cuts and three previews and then they take it over and chop it up," Russell reflected when I interviewed him for Sight And Sound magazine in the late 1990s – just as an incomplete version of The Devils was about to be released on video.

What was immediately striking then was his huge frame of reference. In describing his work with his production designer Derek Jarman on The Devils, he invoked everything from the masques of Inigo Jones to Fritz Lang's Metropolis. He was irritated by critics' claims that the film was full of anachronisms. Everything, from the spectacles the cardinal wore to the green lipstick, was based on painstaking research and was, he insisted, historically accurate.

Russell was a late developer as a film-maker. A cinephile as a child, he used to project old German expressionist silent films in his father's garage. He left the Merchant Navy after a breakdown. While recovering, he heard Tchaikovsky on the radio and was immediately smitten. By the time he enrolled at Walthamstow Art School in the late 1950s, he was – as he joked – "the oldest photographic student in London".

As he put it in a late interview, his "education proper began at the age of 32 with Huw Wheldon [BBC Arts producer and presenter of Monitor]. And I stammered and stuttered my way through 20 documentaries with him." He took over at Monitor from John Schlesinger, who went off to make feature films, just as he himself would later do. He was passionately interested in composers and made a series of films about them for the BBC, becoming gradually more adventurous in his approach. He wanted to use dramatic elements in documentary and documentary elements in drama. Song Of Summer (1968), his film on Delius, was the ultimate refinement of this technique: an adaptation of Eric Fenby's book Delius As I Knew Him.

In the film, the young composer Fenby (Christopher Gable) is startled by the elderly Delius's boorishness and struggles to understand how such a cranky old man who behaves so monstrously could write such delicate and transcendent music. A similar question was sometimes asked of Russell during his latter years. But for all his outrageous pronouncements, the director was a pragmatist. He clearly liked to keep busy and his filmography is far more varied than you might expect. Alongside the biopics about composers, there are spy thrillers (Billion Dollar Brain), rock operas (Tommy), nostalgic musicals (The Boy Friend) hallucinogenic sci-fi films (Altered States), seaside comedy (French Dressing) and plentiful DH Lawrence adaptations.

He worked in the UK and in Hollywood, on TV and on the big screen. He is credited with reinvigorating the biopic. His films on composers, from the wonderfully overwrought The Music Lovers to his work with the Beeb in the 1960s, were never hagiographies. Russell always sought to draw a connection between the life and the work.

There was no snobbery about him either. His films may have been literary adaptations or stories of great composer but that didn't stop them reaching a mass audience or (in the case of Women In Love) winning Oscars. "I think people are afraid to employ me," Russell said in one interview late in his career.

However, even if the financing dried up in the last two decades of his life, Russell's career was rich and extraordinarily varied. It is fitting that in the very month that he died, the British Film Institute announced it was finally releasing the original "X" certificate version of The Devils on DVD. Whatever neglect he endured in his final years, his work is bound to be rediscovered now he is dead. This is invariably the way with British cinema's most visionary talents.