Monday 19 June 1995 23:02

It's hard to pinpoint when it was that Ken Russell drifted over the line into self-parody. There's always been an air of parody about his films, which I put down to two reasons. First, he refuses, more or less on principle, to adopt a serious tone - the seriousness, he thinks, is so deep in the core of everything he does that he can afford to chuck in a bit of arsing about on top. Second, his favourite theme is the way in which the earthy, sexy side of human natures collides with the civilised, intellectual (and, naturally, artificial) bits. This means that his films are full of lurid juxtapositions of high art and low comedy, the rarefied and the downright dirty; and this kind of juxtaposition is a common technique of parody.

At some point, though, in the last 10, 20, or 30 years - take your pick - he seems to have stopped simply doing what he does, and to have begun aping what he does. As I say, pointing to the exact moment when this started isn't easy; but it's clear, from listening to The Death of Alexander Scriabin (Radio 3, Sunday), his first radio play, that the process has been going on long enough to become firmly entrenched.

If there was a fault with this play, considered as parody, it was that it was too mercilessly accurate. One by one, Russell's foibles were caught, gassed and pinned into place: you want music 'n' sex? You can have Scriabin, a man whose most famous work (the "Poem of Ecstasy") is a lengthy orchestral depiction of orgasm (surprising Russell hasn't got round to him already, come to think of it). You want orthodox religion defied? Over-the-top acting by Oliver Reed? Bizarre fantasy sequences? All right, he can play the celebrated devil-worshipper Aleister Crowley, and he and Scriabin can have a black mass in a cathedral and then go off on safari with their mistresses, only to narrowly escape being eaten by Cambridge-educated cannibals, and then it can all turn out to be the product of Scriabin's terminal delirium. And Bob's your uncle.

Of course, nobody else would have dared to stick so close to the traditional Russell formulae. And nobody else would have dared to make the jokes so cheap: " 'Oldin that big cock all night ain't my idea of fun," complains Crowley's mistress - and it turns out she's talking about an actual cock, being used in a sacrifice. How we roared.

In the end, this felt rather less like a radio play and more like a 50- minute commentary on something Russell considers far more important, his own films: all in all, flatulent, self-indulgent and artistically redundant.

Did I say that I loved it?

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