Passed/Failed: An education in the life of the controversial film director Ken Russell

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The Independent Online
Ken Russell's films include `Women in Love', `The Devils' and `Tommy', and he has made TV documentaries on Delius, Elgar and, soon, JM Barrie. Now he is also a novelist with `Mike and Gaby's Space Gospel'

Primary colours: St George's was a private school, just around the corner from where we lived in Southampton. The headmaster must have been a fascist. When a very famous man visited, we stood to the side and cheered. I was very envious of the senior boys in their wonderful uniform and jackboots, who joined Mr (Oswald) Mosley, marching down the avenue and saluting.

I guess I was about nine when I went to a school called Taunton in Southampton. I was very good at long-jumping, but academically it was all chemistry and physics, which I seemed unable to absorb.

The [Second World] War came, and the school was evacuated to Bournemouth. I preferred the bombs at home to missing my mother, and came back after three months. Southampton was bombed absolutely flat. Our house was damaged by a stick of five bombs.

At Clarke's College, one of a string of business or secretarial colleges, they taught us how to add up and do accounts - and handwriting. I can still write: "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" in a beautiful copper plate: that's the only part of my education that stuck.

Secondary characteristics: I was 131/2 when I went to Pangbourne Nautical College near Reading. The captain of the Queen Mary lived a few doors up from us. I think my father hoped that I would be a ship's captain. He had been a ship's detective on liners going to New York: it was during Prohibition and there were some dodgy characters about. I knew the Merchant Navy went to the South Seas and I hoped I would meet Dorothy Lamour [star of the exotic comedy Road to... movies with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby] there.

I hated Pangbourne at first: it was my accent. The other boys used to ask: "How is our old docklands' boy today?" Then I learned to speak proper, and I was one of them. I learnt to tie knots and row.

I was the only cadet ever to fail life-saving. You had to dive down and retrieve a white brick. The area designated had 120 white bricks, but I couldn't find one. I used to cheat too: another boy and I would mark each other's tests, but when we took School Certificate (GCSE) we both failed everything, except English.

On the last day of my last term I put on a drag show and the students went absolutely bananas while we did Carmen Miranda numbers with socks stuck in our bosoms - probably the first and last drag show Pangbourne will ever see. Usually the shows consisted of boys in school caps singing about fishermen.

Further education: I left before I was 18 and went into the Navy. After one trip, I resigned: we had a mad captain. Then I met a sailor who was a ballet dancer and I went into the International Ballet School in South Kensington, but I was always spraining my ankles and they threw me out. Next, I met a photographer who taught at Walthamstow Tech and I learned photography for three years. There were no film schools. I tried to break into movies, but you had to know someone.

Just before the war my parents gave me a Pathescope and I gave film shows in my father's garage. Pathescope had bought an entire German film library: During the Blitz I'd be showing Siegfried while the sons of Siegfried would be dropping bombs outside.

Interview by Jonathan Sale