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The Independent Culture
Oliver Reed, 57, began acting in 1959. He has appeared in films including Oliver (1967), Tommy (1975) and Castaway (1986). In June he will star in Ken Russell's radio play about Alexander Scriabin. Married to Josephine Burge, he lives in Cork. He has two children from previous relationships. Ken Russell, 68, began directing biographies of composers for the BBC in l958. He has dir-ected Oliver Reed in films inc- ing Women In Love (1969) and The Devils (1971). He lives in Hampshire with his third wife, actress Hettie Baynes, and their son. He has seven other chil- dren from previous marriages.

OLIVER REED: I was 23 years old when I got called to see Ken Russell about a film part. I remember him sitting behind a desk and asking me if I knew anything about Debussy. I said I didn't, so he told me about him. After about an hour-and-a-half, he asked me if I'd like the part. At that time, I was driving a minicab to pay the rent.

I'd been working for Hammer films and building up my experience there, but it all came to a stop when I got my face badly cut up in a fight. Nobody was keen to offer me work because of it. I said to Ken: "What about the scars?" and he just replied, "What about them?"

I remember him being very unlike how he is now. He was very thin, but also very bizarre. After a while I started to call him "Jesus", because he used to think that he knew it all. In a certain respect, I suppose he probably did.

I love working with him because we don't have to say very much to each other. I instinctively know what he wants. Other directors either don't bother to give directions or don't know how to. A lot of them are fairly inexperienced, and I've made a lot of inexperienced films, I suppose.

Ken and I both like making fun of the same things. I remember once when we were making the television film Debussy, we had to stay in a hotel in the north of England. There was a ladies' hat show taking place there and we volunteered to go on their judging panel after consuming a lot of wine. We had spaghetti all down the front of our shirts - it was amazing they let us do it. Nobody really takes me seriously. If I go on a chat show I make a fool of myself on purpose because I can't take the people who ask the questions seriously.

The truth is, neither of us has ever grown up. I don't know what it is to be grown up, or if I do I seem to have missed it somewhere along the line. Ken's the same - he's a prankster. When we were making the film The Devils, he used to walk around with Donald Duck hats on and Pluto shoes. He's the sort of person you can say to, "Roll over and pretend you're dead." We once had a duel with those big double-handed swords after we'd discussed a script I'd written. Ken took the fight seriously: I leapt back and he split my chest; I've still got a slight scar there. The bugger, he nearly killed me.

Ken will never grow up. I think, really, that he's taken a bit of an emotional kicking in life, but he's probably asked for it. That's why he's so good at depicting emotions in his films. He's kinky but delightfully so; you only have to see his films - they can be quite bizarre. They include things that we all often think about but wouldn't dare do. But I don't think he thinks of it as daring. He's a man of marked opinions, and sometimes I think he frightens people. After Women In Love, he was very hot and he could do more or less what he wanted. But I'm sure he didn't sit too easily on the throne in Hollywood. You've got to be a special type in LA - to go with the stretch limousines and a system where they're just banging out films to a format.

Our friendship has lasted a long time because he keeps offering me jobs. When he's got something of interest, he'll call me up, which is the biggest compliment you can be paid. Ken really has been my artistic mentor. I think we've had two rows, and they've only lasted a fraction of a minute.

One of them was while we were working on The Devils. Ken had a long lunch and I arrived at the set on time. After 20 minutes, I stormed off. Minutes later, I heard him at the other end of the corridor, screaming at an assistant, "What do you mean, he's stormed off?" I strode towards him, shouting, in my huge great cloak. "What do I mean!" I corrected him. But when I reached him, he opened his arms and cuddled me, saying, "Let's go in arm- in-arm, otherwise they'll think there's some truth in this."

You've only got to see us at a dinner table to know how similar we are. Both of us like the good things in life. We love art, pretty ladies, good food, wine and uncivilised conversation. We're kindred spirits.

KEN RUSSELL: I first met Oliver when I was working at the BBC in l965. Melvyn Bragg had written a biographical picture about Debussy and I was directing it. I wanted an actor who looked like Debussy.

I'd seen this very vivacious chap on Juke Box Jury and was greatly taken with him. He struck me as cheeky and not run-of-the-mill. I thought he resembled Debussy and got in touch with his agent. He came to see me and looked terrific. I remember him being very moody and glowering. I liked his spirit - everyone else seemed to fade into insignificance.

I talked about the film with him and he didn't say much. He just sat there and listened. At the end of the interview, he walked to the door and I said, "Actually, I'd like you to play the part." He turned round and said, "But what about this?" and pointed to his chin, which was really cut up. Someone had hit him in the face with a broken bottle, and I suddenly realised: that's why he hadn't been in the public view as much. Apparently he'd gone to interviews and people had said: "Pity about the scars, but cheerio." I thought they added to his character. I replied, "What about what?" and that was it.

We quickly developed a natural friendship. He's a sort of telepathic actor. We used to have a shorthand where he'd kid me and say, "I've only got three expressions. What do you want: moody one, moody two or moody three?" According to the level of drama in the scene, I'd say one, two or three.

There was a strong emotional understanding between Oliver and myself which was unspoken. Film picks up things that you don't see with the naked eye - the relationship between actor and director. He was never unpredictable to work with. In fact, I found him terribly serious. It was only after work that he played. When he was in Tommy, I didn't see a great deal of him. He was always mucking about with Keith Moon, who was busy driving Rolls-Royces into swimming-pools. But they were never as wild as I expected. They were rather tame and well-behaved.

Over the years we've had some pretty hair-raising experiences. One time while we were filming Tommy in Portsmouth, I dropped into the pub on the way back to the hotel and Oliver was at the bar shouting, "Jesus, have a drink." He called me Jesus for obvious reasons. I like drinking, but not every day, so I mumbled something about not staying because there weren't any whelks left to eat,

As I was driving out of the car park Oliver, still dressed in evangelist uniform, leapt on to the bonnet of the car and gripped hold of the windscreen wipers. I drove at about 60mph along a straight road with him shouting, face pressed to the window, "Why won't you drink with me any more?" I replied, "I just wanted some whelks." I drove him back and drew up by the beach,

He walked into the sea, fully clothed, and emerged with two huge fistfuls of mud. "Here's your f***ing whelks," he said, throwing them on to my bonnet. We went into the pub and started drinking. And, of course, two hours later I was carried out.

Oliver is actually quite a spiritual sort of character, and he's very poetic. He once wrote a script about St Thomas Becket's murder, which was really spiritual as well as dramatic and poetic. The only tragedy is that it was never made.

When he'd finished writing the script, he invited me round to discuss it. He said he wanted me to play one of the knights and got out this sword - the kind that killed Becket. He said, "Tell you what - we'll have a duel. Try and kill me." I brought the sword right down so it touched about a foot of his chest - just a millimetre deep. Blood spurted over his white shirt, which he tore off. Then he put it in a Victorian glass dome by the mantelpiece and said, "We're blood brothers now." That's typical behaviour. He acts it out but it's serious as well. We're quite similar in a way. I think I'm a pale shadow or a laid-back version of Ollie Reed.

Oliver's never been "actor-ish" or bitchy. When he became famous he wasn't starry about it. He'll always join in and be one of the lads. I think he has always been underrated. Sadly, he doesn't always get the chances he deserves. !