Wife escapes as blaze destroys Ken Russell's home

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An inferno has ravaged the New Forest home of the film director Ken Russell, destroying valuable film memorabilia and almost killing his wife.

Firefighters said the blaze, which began at 9.30am yesterday, had also consumed Mr Russell's current work. The director saud he was thankful that neither he nor his fourth wife, Elize, 53, died in the flames. "We have lost lots of personal things, but what are personal things when we both survived?" he said. "You thank God it didn't happen when we were fast asleep."

The 78-year-old director was at a doctor's appointment when the fire started in the 16th-century cottage in the picturesque village of East Boldre, Hampshire. Mrs Russell was lucky to escape unhurt - if naked - after being alerted by a fire alarm while she lay in the bath.

Mr Russell returned from his appointment to find flames leaping through the thatched roof, and, in the confusion, feared she had been caught inside. "I was shouting 'Elize, Elize, where are you?' Then I looked up the stairs and there were no stairs, it was like an inferno of flames, because I was going to run up the stairs and rescue her. Then I happened to glance downwards and there she was, she had gone into the building to look for me." He added: "My wife is the most wonderful person I have met. If she was going to die, I would die trying to save her."

The damage done to the property and its contents was "pretty much 100 per cent", according to a spokeswoman for Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service. "Talking about salvage, it was pretty much the worst-case scenario," she said. "He had a lot of work in progress on the premises; we understand Mr Russell had been working on a number of projects at home. But they seemed very philosophical about it and put it in perspective." She added that the fire appeared to have begun accidentally.

About 80 firefighters were present. They destroyed two chimney stacks in danger of collapse so they could safely enter the gutted cottage and extinguish the flames. "Without the smoke alarm system this could have been a fatal fire because it developed so quickly," said Carlton Kerr, incident commander on the scene for Hampshire Fire and Rescue. He said Mr Russell had been concerned about his car keys and the couple's passports, but had soon realised the futility of trying to save their possessions.

It is not the director's first close encounter with a serious fire. South Parade Pier in Southsea burnt down while he was filming The Who's rock opera Tommy in 1974. The director asked his props man to "go easy on the smoke" - only to be told it was genuine and that the cast and crew should run for their lives. He filmed the flames and added them to the finished movie.

He met Elize in New York 25 years ago and they married in 2001. He has fathered "eight or nine" children and directed films including The Devils, Women in Love, Lisztomania and Altered States. Forthcoming work was scheduled to include two new films, Brave Tart versus the Loch Ness Monster and Pearl of the Orient, and a series of books on the sex lives of the composers Elgar, Delius, Beethoven and Brahms.