Ken Russell: The film-maker laid bare

It's easy to deride the spectacle of a 79-year-old Ken Russell in 'Celebrity Big Brother'. But Britain's most extraordinary film-maker is more than capable of holding his own among the wannabes, has-beens and never-weres of reality TV. Boyd Tonkin defends a true original
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The Independent Online

"Hope I die before I get old". The Who's lyrics, which later inspired Ann-Margret's notorious baked-bean bath and all manner of campy stunts in Ken Russell's movie of Tommy, should perhaps be taken to heart by every pioneering film director of a certain age. Failure to do so may lead to grim outcomes for auteurs from a senior generation.

In the case of Orson Welles, there were the Domecq sherry commercials. Nic Roeg, Ken Russell's equal in the pantheon of maverick British geniuses, plunged into a deep circle of straight-to-video hell and ended up putting his wayward art at the service of a Claudia Schiffer short. And Russell himself has now sashayed down the catwalk of contempt, looking rather like the aftermath of an orgy in a carpet warehouse. The director, who turns 80 this July, instantly becomes the largest artistic talent ever to join the wannabes, has-beens and never-weres whose narcissistic hissy-fits drive Celebrity Big Brother.

Why did he do it? For a film-maker whose watchword has for so long seemed to be "excess all areas", it might seem like no large leap to perform in front of, rather than behind, the lens of an exhibitionistic freak show.

"If I err, it's by overstating," he once redundantly admitted - in a drastic understatement. His later career has stuttered and stumbled from one mangled project to another, from the prison-set schlock of Dogboys to the lame self-parody of The Fall of the Louse of Usher. Crueller viewers might ascribe his resurrection among the micro-celebs, some of them unborn when his career first started to slide, as a reminder to producers and funders that this fabled monster from the past still lives.

Yet, in one sense, Russell's presence amounts to a stroke of casting genius, on his own or Channel 4's part. This most deliriously gothic of directors must have spotted how perfectly the CBB format fits the tradition that he follows. After all, his 1986 movie Gothic (when the rot irreversibly set in, according to some buffs) takes place within a sinister house completely cut off from the outside world.

Inside, a collection of shrieking creative misfits swap insults, throw tantrums, germinate wacky ideas, put one another through ludicrous ordeals - and, of course, obsess about sex all the time. The maniac mansion in question is Villa Diodati, on the shores of Lake Geneva, where, in the wet summer of 1816, Lord Byron, Dr John Polidori (author of The Vampyre), Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin Shelley stayed and scrapped, and where the latter's novel Frankenstein took shape. Forget about merely appearing on Celebrity Big Brother. Ken Russell directed it, two decades ago,

In a kindly light, you might conclude that his entry into the CBB Frankenstein's laboratory (marked on the first night by a very Russell-esque nude scene) keeps faith with his half-century of provocative passions for the wilder shores of British life and art. A freewheeling romantic and surrealist on one hand, a vulgar comedian and lover of music-hall sauce on the other, Russell is a living link with the raucous and reckless side of the national culture. Now his leap into the belly of the reality-TV beast suggests that the crowd-pulling outrage of the genre may be more deeply, and domestically, rooted than we suspected. Look hard at the cavorting grotesques of Hogarth, Dickens or Russell himself, and you may be tempted to spot the ancestors of Davina McCall's shamelessly hammy victims.

Suitably enough, Russell's youth managed to combine paradoxical stints as both a serviceman and a ballet dancer. Born in Southampton in 1927, the year that Al Jolson first talked on screen, he developed a taste for cinema early and, by his teens, was showing silent masterworks such as Fritz Lang's Metropolis (still a firm favourite) to neighbours in the family garage - for an entrance fee. "The money I got went to the Spitfire Fund," he recently told critic Sheila Johnston. "The Spitfire factory was just down the road, so we were often bombed, but it never struck me as odd that I was showing German films while the sons of Siegfried were raining fire on us."

The young Russell served in the post-war merchant navy and RAF, and trained for a spell as a dancer with Ny Norsk Ballet. In the 1950s, he worked as a pretty successful freelance photographer. His break into the moving image came via shorts such as Amelia and the Angel (1957). Its rapt religious theme reminds you that Russell's later work offers some choice cuts from the history of lapsed Catholicism in Britain. Amelia, made soon after Russell and his first wife, Sheila Kingdon, had converted, had even won backing from the Catholic Film Institute. Then, after a number of brief TV items on pop-cultural themes, came a succession of remarkable music documentaries for the BBC arts strands Monitor and Omnibus.

Russell began with profiles of Sergei Prokofiev and Gordon Jacob, and made his breakthrough film: the hauntingly beautiful Elgar in 1962. Given the lingering fuss over the intrusions of reality TV, it's instructive to find out that Russell's approach to composers' lives - via the dramatic reconstruction of actual events - was deemed tasteless at the time. His BBC boss, Huw Wheldon, actually forbade the characters in Elgar to speak any dialogue. Russell turned that obstacle into a virtue: he matched music to image in a creative synergy that would serve him powerfully in later films.

Cynics who presume that Russell lost the plot years ago should watch his lovingly restrained return to Elgar for Melvyn Bragg's The South Bank Show in 2002. It raises the disturbing question as to whether the director's decline was hastened by a refusal to allow him to do the work that he does best.

What he did best also included Song of Summer, the glorious portrait of Frederick Delius for Omnibus in 1968. Consult the internet, that infinite sump of misreadings and half-truths, and almost every self-appointed Russell expert will blather on about his incorrigible urge to twist the facts of composers' lives in order to play up his own sexual fixations. Well, the blind Delius's assistant, Eric Fenby (played in Song of Summer by Russell's long-term collaborator, Christopher Gable), himself vouched for the accuracy of the director's portrayal. Later, over-the-top sequences in composer biopics such as The Music Lovers (about Tchaikovsky) and Mahler resort to fantasy to convey the inner drama of the music. Still, Russell in his prime generally grasps where facts end and dreams begin.

He had first made his mark in the cinema thanks to the Len Deighton spy-yarn adaptation Billion Dollar Brain in 1967. But it was his version of DH Lawrence's Women in Love (1969) that really magnified his international renown. As with his beloved composers, Russell finds a vision that matches the author's feverish, erotic- apocalyptic style. The notorious naked wrestling match, with Alan Bates and Oliver Reed, neatly fits the mood of that part of the novel. Thanks in part to that grunting pair, and to Glenda Jackson and Jennie Linden, Women in Love proved not just a scandalous smash but a cultural landmark.

Russell, the often-overblown romantic, found a literary soulmate in Lawrence. His adaptations of The Rainbow (in 1989) and Lady Chatterley's Lover, for the BBC in 1993, contain much of the best of his later work. The Russell Lady Chatterley, in fact, gave him a too-brief respite from deepening obscurity. Sean Bean and Joely Richardson, as gamekeeper and mistress, drew 12 million-plus viewers to the four-part serial.

If, during the 1970s, Russell's films slipped ever further into silliness and sensation, then no one can deny that much of the wider culture did the same. The orgiastic pantomimes in Mahler or The Music Lovers are trying, however misguidedly, to strip away the patina of familiarity from late-Romantic music and shock viewers back into a feeling for its deep erotic charge. Russell's TV film on Richard Strauss, Dance of the Seven Veils, outraged the Strauss clan and led to its suppression. In his usual delicate manner (prancing SS torturers and all), Russell was aiming to explore the double mind that led Strauss both to the ecstatic charm and refinement of works such as Der Rosenkavalier, and to high office and honours under the Third Reich. If you dare to pose such questions in the language of modern film, it's unlikely the answers will resemble a pretty perfume commercial.

So the religious fanaticism and fundamentalism of Aldous Huxley's book The Devils of Loudun reached the screen via the ecclesiastical Grand Guignol of The Devils - for which Derek Jarman designed the sets. The duel of Oliver Reed, as the enlightened priest in 17th-century France, and Vanessa Redgrave, as the persecuting nun from hell, ran into censorship trouble in both Britain and the US. It remains one of the most ferociously hostile accounts of the deformations of organised religion ever to be funded by a major studio. Perhaps only a one-time Catholic could have made it.

After that came Mahler and the under-rated Savage Messiah, on the rebel modernist sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. It enjoyed a pointed script by poet Christopher Logue and memorable designs, again from Derek Jarman. Russell decisively entered his premature artistic dotage with the absurd "rock opera" Tommy, and the atrocious biopic Lisztomania. In the latter, Roger Daltrey of the Who plays the pianistic prodigy who became a priest (spot any recurrent themes?); Rick Wakeman soupily adapts Lizst's music; and Ringo Starr gives the world his cameo Pope. At the film's climax, Lizst comes back from heaven in a kind of starship to despatch his arch-rival, Richard Wagner. Critical comment seems superfluous.

To dwell for too long on Russell's post-1980 work would be a bit like spectating at a gory traffic accident. Diehard Russell fans suggest that Altered States (1980) shares interesting territory with the baroque SF of early David Cronenberg, and Crimes of Passion (1984) with the Buñuel of Belle de Jour. Thereafter, lurid self-imitation takes hold, although Hugh Grant's turn in the Bram Stoker-based horror Lair of the White Worm could appeal to some connoisseurs of camp classics.

But film, as the director himself stresses in his book about the home-grown movie business, Fire Over England, is a social and collective medium. If its dominant forms and firms allow a gifted virtuoso to lose his way so desperately, then the institutions may need just as much scrutiny as the individual. As the case of Roeg also shows in spades, British film and television seldom know quite what to do with big, unruly talents. And, as often as not, the forces that run the industry will happily watch them go to hell in their own sweet way.

So, just in case his stretch of 24-hour surveillance ends in tears or worse, it might be worth spelling out why Ken Russell will matter after his moment in the tawdry limelight fades. No director in the history of cinema has delivered a more consistently inventive body of work about music and musicians. The South Bank Show's Elgar hinted that he can still pair scene and score with outstanding skill; someone should ask him to do it again, urgently.

And no mainstream auteur has ever directed films with a sensibility so much in tune with English late romanticism. Russell has (or had) an uncannily sure grasp of the erotic undercurrents that power the anti-industrial, nature-worshipping pantheism of the school, and a knack for making those moods into images. Lawrence could never have found a more sympathetic interpreter; and some smart patron should at least have asked Russell to direct a work by Thomas Hardy. His South Bank Show on the symphonies of Vaughan Williams (in 1984) often put the director himself in front of the camera: a frank admission that Russell feels a part of this tradition, as much as its observer.

As for the run of increasingly frenetic blockbusters from The Music Lovers to Valentino, you may read them in the light of history. They trace, and echo, the collapse of Sixties sensual idealism into Seventies commercial sleaze. His stagy sauciness, best exhibited in the retro musical The Boyfriend, taps into a deeply ingrained British vein of off-colour, end-of-the-pier fun. And the flair for heretical religiosity that culminated in The Devils stems from an urge to mount a debate between faith and freedom in the starkest possible terms - an urge that looks even more timely now than in the early 1970s.

"I know you, but you won't know me, I'm an old English film-maker," Russell said to the younger housemates on his arrival. "Old English film-maker" sounds exactly right. He makes his métier sound as quaint and time-encrusted as the sort of blacksmith's shop in the Notts countryside that Bert Lawrence looked back on with nostalgia. But the studios and stations that control the fates of English film-makers, young or old, have never known quite what do do with such visionary artisans.

Russell may well make a silly spectacle of himself over the coming days. So what? As a result, a few curious people might make a trip to the DVD sales sites and get to know an erratic but ecstatic corpus of films. And nothing that befalls him or his fellow-inmates on the CBB premises could ever be as stupid or as shaming as the waste of many millions of Lottery cash over the past decade on dismally crass and dreary Brit-flicks.

Ken Russell, pushing 80, plays Albert Steptoe for the chortling millions on Channel 4. Meanwhile, the UK film business that often squandered his unique gifts pins its hopes on the likes of Sex Lives of the Potato Men. Now, who's the sadder case, and the bigger fool?

Ken on Ken

* "You can be as violent as you want in America, but you talk about sex and everyone reaches for their chastity belts."

* "Films were my world. Every day. With my mother. In the dark. I never saw daylight till I was 10."

* "Unbankable film director Ken Russell seeks soulmate - mad about movies, music and Moët and Chandon champagne."

Internet ad Russell placed looking for a soulmate. The respondent, Lisi Tribble, became his fourth wife

* "All my films have been Catholic films - films about love, faith, sin, guilt, forgiveness, redemption. Films that could only have been made by a Catholic. Except for The Boyfriend."

* "There are so many bad films about. There's this cult of the Mafia, and all the critics seem to be taken in by it - they're all sentimental, they're all abysmal, they're all crap, and they all have the same actor in, what's his name? De Niro, yeah, they daren't make a film without him."

* "The director has his daughter in it. What's his name? Coppola, yeah. And she's the ugliest girl you've ever seen - not her fault, but she shouldn't be exposed in close-ups. And at the end there's this scene where they're watching Cavalleria Rusticana and everyone starts killing everyone else, and then the Godfather comes out with the director's boring daughter, who's bored everyone to death by not being able to act or even walk properly, and suddenly she's blown apart with a shotgun and everyone in the audience shouts 'Hooray!' Now that was good. I wouldn't have got that in my sitting room. That was worth turning out and paying good money to go to the cinema for."

Ken on The Godfather: Part III

* [Richard] Dreyfuss had the cheek to say, "I know you're very good on music, so I'll send the film back when I've cut it my way and you can supervise the music." That's a bit like someone asking you to hold your sister down and spray her with perfume while he rapes her!"

Ken on making The Prisoners of Honour

* "I suppose direction is 75 per cent choreography. You say to the actor, 'Come in through that door, walk up to the glass and drink.' 'Well I don't know, do I have to? What's my motivation?' asks the actor. 'Just fucking do it!'"

* "Reality is a dirty word for me, I know it isn't for most people, but I am not interested. There's too much of it about."

* "It is a pity when one, either through force of circumstance or because one is afraid of being ridiculed by others, won't produce and expose to everyone that little spark of something special which is unique to him alone."