Ken Russell

Ken Russell

Infobox actor

name = Ken Russell
birthname = Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell
birthdate = birth date and age|df=yes|1927|7|3
location =Southampton, Hampshire, England
spouse = Shirley Russell (1956–1978)
Vivian Jolly (1983–1991)
Hetty Baynes (1992–1999)
Lisi Tribble (2001—)
academyawards =

Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell, known as Ken Russell (born 3 July 1927), is an English film director. He is known for his pioneering work in television and film and for his controversial style. His subject matter is often about famous composers, or based on other works of art which he adapts loosely. Russell began directing for the BBC, where he did creative adaptations of composers' lives which were unusual for the time. He also directed many feature films independently and for studios.

He is best known for his Oscar-winning film "Women in Love" (1969), The Who's "Tommy" (1975), and the sci-fi film "Altered States" (1980).


Early career

Russell was born in Southampton, and was educated in Walthamstow and at Pangbourne College. He served in both the Royal Air Force and the Merchant Navy, and moved into television work after short careers in dance and photography.

His series of documentary [ Teddy Girl] photographs were published in "Picture Post" magazine in the summer of 1955, and he continued to work as a freelance documentary photographer until 1959. After 1959, Russell's amateur films (his documentaries for the Free Cinema movement, and his 1958 short " [ Amelia and the Angel] ") secured him a job at the BBC, where he worked regularly from 1959 to 1970 making arts documentaries for ""Monitor"" and "Omnibus". Among his best-known works from this period were: "Elgar" (1962), "The Debussy Film" (1965), "Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World" (1967), "Song of Summer (Delius)" (1968) and "Dance of the Seven Veils" (1970), a film about Richard Strauss. The Elgar film proved to be ground-breaking because it constituted the first time that an arts programme ("Monitor") showed one long film about an artistic figure instead of short items, and also it was the first time that re-enactments were used. Russell fought with the BBC over using actors to portray different ages of the same character, instead of the traditional photograph stills and documentary footage. This in particular is very influential, as seen in the recent Bob Dylan film I'm Not There, where several actors of varying age and genders portray Dylan at various points in his life.

His television films became increasingly flamboyant and outrageous. "Dance of the Seven Veils" sought to portray Richard Strauss as a Nazi: one scene in particular showed a Jew being tortured while a group of SS men look on in delight, to the tune of Strauss music. The Strauss family was so outraged they withdrew all music rights and imposed a worldwide ban on the film that continues to this day. This would not be the only time Russell courted controversy.

Russell's groundbreaking BBC work, along with that of Peter Watkins, influenced many directors in British cinema in the 1960s, particularly Stanley Kubrick, who admired the settings for his films, which he used in "Barry Lyndon".

Russell's first feature film was "French Dressing" (1963), a comedy loosely based on Roger Vadim's "And God Created Woman"; its critical and commercial failure sent Russell back to the BBC. His second big-screen effort was part of author Len Deighton's Harry Palmer spy cycle, "Billion-Dollar Brain" (1967), starring Michael Caine.

In 1969, Russell directed what is considered his "signature film", "Women In Love", a rollicking adaptation of D. H. Lawrence's novel of the same name about two artist sisters living in post-World War I Britain. The film starred Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed, Jennie Linden and Alan Bates. The film is notable for its nude wrestling scene, which broke the convention at the time that a mainstream movie couldn't show male genitalia. "Women in Love" was a groundbreaking, highly intellectual film that connected with the sexual revolution and bohemian politics of the late-60's. It was nominated for several Oscars, and won one for Glenda Jackson for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Russell himself was nominated for an Oscar -- that for Best Director (his only to this day) -- as were his cinematographer and screenwriter.

The film is also notable for the BAFTA-nominated costume designs of Russell's wife, Shirley Russell, with whom he would collaborate throughout his 70's prime. The colour schemes of Luciana Arrighi's art direction (also BAFTA-nominated) and Billy William's cinematography, which Russell used for metaphorical effect, are also often referred to by film textbooks. Russell enjoyed a short-lived prestige during this period, when he was praised as "Britain's Orson Welles".

1970s and controversy

He followed "Women in Love" with a string of innovative adult-themed films which were often as controversial as they were successful. "The Music Lovers" (1970), a biopic of Tchaikovsky, starred Richard Chamberlain as a flamboyant Tchaikovsky and Glenda Jackson as his wife. The score was conducted to great acclaim by André Previn. The film was widely panned but it was successful at the box office.

The following year, Russell released "The Devils", a film so controversial that its backers, the American company Warner Brothers, still refuse to release it uncut. Inspired by Aldous Huxley's book "The Devils of Loudun" and using material from John Whiting's play "The Devils", it starred Oliver Reed as a noble priest who stands in the way of a corrupt church and state. Helped by publicity over the more sensational scenes, featuring sexuality among nuns, the film topped British box office receipts for eight weeks. In America, the film, which had already been cut for distribution in Britain, was further edited. It has never played in anything like its original state in America. British film critic Alexander Walker described the film as "monstrously indecent" in a television confrontation with Russell, leading the director to hit him with a rolled up copy of the "Evening Standard", the newspaper for which Walker worked.

Russell followed "The Devils" with a spectacular reworking of the period musical "The Boy Friend", for which he cast the model Twiggy, who won two Golden Globe Awards for her performance: one for Best Actress in a musical comedy, and one for the best newcomer. The film was heavily cut, shorn of two musical numbers for its American release, where it was not a big success. Russell himself provided most of the financing for "Savage Messiah", a biopic of the artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and he provided the producer David Puttnam with a rare box-office hit with "Mahler", a film which helped to make the name of the actor Robert Powell. In 1975, Russell's star-studded film version of The Who's rock opera "Tommy" starring Roger Daltrey, Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Elton John, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton and Jack Nicholson, spent a record fourteen weeks at the No.1 spot and played to full houses for over a year. Adapting the rock opera record for the screen, Russell had the composer, Pete Townshend, add some new numbers to fill out the story and changed a key detail in the traumatic murder that Tommy witnesses (leading to the child becoming deaf, dumb and blind).

Two months before "Tommy" was released (in March 1975), Russell started work on "Lisztomania" (1975), another vehicle for Roger Daltrey, and for the film scoring of prog-rocker Rick Wakeman. One of Russell's aims with this wild comic strip of a film was to explore the power of music for good (inspirational) and evil. In the film, the good music of Franz Liszt is stolen by Richard Wagner who, in his operas, puts forward the theme of the Superman."Tommy" and "Lisztomania" were important in the rise of improved motion picture sound in the 1970s, as they were among the first films to be released with Dolby-encoded soundtracks. "Tommy"has become a bit of a cult favourite, while "Lisztomania" was and is considered too overblown, even for Russell. Still, "Lisztomania", tagged as "the film that out-Tommys 'Tommy'", topped the British box-office for two weeks in November 1975, when "Tommy" was still in the list of the week's top five box-office hits. Russell's next film, the 1977 flat biopic "Valentino", also topped the British box-office for two weeks, but was not a hit in America.


Russell's 1980 effort "Altered States" was a departure in both genre and tone, in that it is Russell's only foray into science fiction. Working from Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay (based upon his novel), Russell used his penchant for elaborate visual effects to translate Chayefsky's hallucinatory story to the cinema, and took the opportunity to add his trademark religious and sexual imagery. The film was also noteworthy for its innovative Oscar-nominated score by John Corigliano. The film enjoyed moderate financial success, and scored with critics who had otherwise dismissed Russell's work. Roger Ebert, who had given "The Devils" "zero stars", and had panned Russell's composer portraits, gave it his highest rating for Russell's work (three-and-a-half stars), praising it as "one hell of a movie!"

Unfortunately, Russell's behaviour on set, including a row with Chayefsky himself, caused Russell to become a virtual pariah in Hollywood. Beyond this, Russell's last American film, "Crimes of Passion" (1984), with Anthony Perkins and Kathleen Turner, was seen as an all-round failure, and Russell subsequently returned to Europe.

After taking a break from film to direct opera, Russell found financing with various independent companies. During this period he directed "Gothic" (1986) with Gabriel Byrne, about the night Mary Shelly came up with Frankenstein, and "The Lair of the White Worm" with Hugh Grant, based on a novella by Bram Stoker. Though dismissed at the time, both of these films are now considered cult classics of the horror genre.

Russell finished the 1980s with "The Rainbow", another D. H. Lawrence adaptation, which also happens to be the prequel to Women In Love. Glenda Jackson played the mother of her character in the previous film. It was a more subdued film for Russell and impressed critics. It is widely regarded as his last "personal film".


In the 1990 film "The Russia House", starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, Russell made one of his first significant acting appearances, portraying Walter, an ambiguously gay British intelligence officer who discomfits his more strait-laced CIA counterparts. Russell has since occasionally acted.

The 1991 film "Prisoner of Honor" allowed Russell a further opportunity to explore his abiding interest in anti-semitism through a factually-based account of the Dreyfus Affair in France. The movie featured Richard Dreyfuss in the central role of Colonel Georges Picquart, the French army investigator who exposed the army establishment's framing of the Jewish officer Captain Alfred Dreyfus.

In 1991, Russell directed his final film of any note, "Whore". It was highly controversial and branded with an NC-17 rating for its sexual content. The MPAA and the theatre chains also refused to release posters or advertise a film called "Whore", so for this purpose the film was re-titled "If You Can't Say It, Just See It". Russell protested his film being given such a rating when "Pretty Woman" got an R, on the grounds that his film showed the real hardships of being a prostitute, and the other glorified it. Often considered one of his worst efforts, it also served as the final nail in his professional coffin.

By the early 1990s, Russell had become a bit of a celebrity: his notoriety and persona had attracted more attention than any of his recent work. He became largely reliant on his own finances to continue making films. Much of his work since 1990 has been commissioned for television, and he has contributed regularly to "The South Bank Show". "Prisoner of Honor" (1991) was Russell's final work with Oliver Reed; his final film with Glenda Jackson before she gave up acting for politics, "The Secret Life of Arnold Bax" (1992) is also (to date) his last composer biographical drama. "Mindbender" (1996) was dismissed as propaganda for mentalist "Uri Geller" and "Dogboys" (aka "Tracked") (1998) was unrecognizable as a Russell film.


Russell had a cameo in the 2006 film adaptation of Brian Aldiss's novel "Brothers of the Head" by the directors of "Lost in La Mancha". He also had a cameo in the 2006 "Colour Me Kubrick". He directed a segment for the horror anthology "Trapped Ashes" (2007) which also includes segments directed by Sean S. Cunningham, Monte Hellman, and Joe Dante. He is currently in pre-production for two films: "The Pearl of the Orient" and "Kings X".

Efforts such as "The Lion's Mouth" (2000) and "The Fall of the Louse of Usher" (2002) have suffered from low production values (for example, being shot in video on Russell's estate, and often featuring Russell himself) and limited distribution.

Since 2004 Russell has been visiting professor of the University of Wales, Newport Film School. One of his many tasks is to advise students on the making of their graduate films. He also presented the Finest Film Awards (for graduate filmmakers of Newport) in June 2005.

Russell was appointed visiting fellow at the University of Southampton in April 2007, where he will act in a similar capacity to his role at the Newport Film School, until March 2008. His arrival was celebrated with a screening of the rare director's cut of "The Devils" hosted by Mark Kermode.

Russell is currently (2007) in production of his first full length film in almost 5 years, "Moll Flanders", an adaptation of Daniel Defoe's novel, starring Lucinda Rhodes-Flaherty and Barry Humphries.

In 2007 Russell produced "A Kitten For Hitler", a short film hosted by the website. Russell commented that "Ten years ago, while working on "The South Bank Show", Melvyn Bragg and I had a heated discussion on the pros and cons of film censorship. Broadly speaking, Melvyn was against it, while I, much to his surprise, was absolutely for it. He then dared me to write a script that I thought should be banned. I accepted the challenge and a month or so later sent him a short subject entitled "A Kitten for Hitler". "Ken," he said, "if ever you make this film and it is shown, you will be lynched." [ [ My Kitten for Hitler is all in the best bad taste - Times Online ] ]

In 2008, he will make his New York directorial debut with the Off Broadway production of "Mindgame", a thriller by Anthony Horowitz and starring Keith Carradine, Lee Godart and Kathleen McNenny. “After reading "Mindgame", I was convinced that I had to direct this play in New York,” said Russell. “Anthony Horowitz has written a fascinating thriller with a new surprise every five minutes.”


Russell has written books on filmmaking and on the British film industry; a brilliant and witty 1989 autobiography entitled "A British Picture: An Autobiography" (published in the United States as "Altered States: The Autobiography of Ken Russell"). He has also published five novels, three on the sex lives of composers - Delius, Brahms and Beethoven; one a science-fiction rewriting of "Genesis". His latest novel, published in 2006 is called "Violation". It is a very violent future-shock tale of an England where football has become the national religion. He currently writes a column for "The Times" in the Film section of times 2.

"Celebrity Big Brother 5"

Russell joined "Celebrity Big Brother" on 3 January 2007, at the start of the series. He left voluntarily on the following Sunday (7 January), after an altercation with Jade Goody. He had however earlier that day, before his argument with Goody, told Big Brother in the diary room not to be surprised if he asked to leave.

As he entered the house, he sang "Singin' in the Rain"; his entrance was unusual as he was escorted down the stairs to the interior of the house by host Davina McCall. [ [,,11049-2007000356_2,00.html The Sun: Latest news from the "Celebrity Big Brother"] ]

On the 7 January episode of "Celebrity Big Brother's Little Brother" it was revealed that Russell had made the decision to leave the house, citing difficulty dealing with the arrival of Jade Goody and her family. The cause of the argument between Goody and Russell was the servant task set by the show, in which eight celebrities were told they had to wait on Goody, her family, and three other contestants (including Russell). Ken Russell left the Big Brother house on the afternoon of 7 January, even after he and Jade had called a truce. In a statement he said: "I don't want to live in a society riddled with evil and hatred". []

During his time in the "Celebrity Big Brother" house, it emerged that Russell once had a cameo in an episode of the popular British soap "EastEnders".Fact|date=February 2007


In the early stages of his career Ken Russell struggled to break into the film industry. Before 'making it', Russell enjoyed a brief fling with photography. An exhibition displaying some of Russell's work is currently on display in central London's Proud Galleries in The Strand, London.

The exhibition, entitled "Ken Russell's Lost London Rediscovered: 1951-1957", is set to run until 21 August 2007 and includes over fifty limited edition prints from Russell's personal collection. As implied by the title, the prints displayed are all taken in and around London, with many of the pictures being taken in the Portobello Road area of London.


[] --BBC Interview with Ken Russell and Tony Lane on "Invasion of the Not Quite Dead" (2008)

elected Filmography

* "Elgar" (1962) (TV)
* "French Dressing" (1964)
* "The Debussy Film" (1965) (TV)
* "Always on Sunday" (1965) (TV)
* "Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World" (1966) (TV)
* "Dante's Inferno" (1967) (TV)
* "Billion-Dollar Brain" (1967)
* "Song of Summer" (1968) (TV)
* "Women in Love" (1969)
* "Dance of the Seven Veils" (1970) (TV)
* "The Music Lovers" (1970)
* "The Boy Friend" (1971)
* "The Devils" (1971)
* "Savage Messiah" (1972)
* "Mahler" (1974)
* "Tommy" (1975)
* "Lisztomania" (1975)
* "Valentino" (1977)
* "Altered States" (1980)
* "Crimes of Passion" (1984)
* "Gothic" (1986)
* "Aria" (short segment) (1987)
* "The Lair of the White Worm" (1988)
* "Salome's Last Dance" (1988)
* The Rainbow (1989)
* "Whore" (a.k.a. "If you Can't Say It, Just See It") (1991)
* "Prisoner of Honor" (HBO television movie) (1991)
* "Lady Chatterley" (1993) (TV)
* "The Fall of the Louse of Usher" (2002)

External links

* [ Savage Messiah] --a Ken Russell site by Iain Fisher
* [ Ken Russell's film on Delius, "Song of Summer"]
* [ Ken Russell on Television] - a comprehensive study of Russell's small-screen work, from the British Film Institute's Screenonline site. Video clips are restricted to UK schools and libraries for copyright reasons, but the text can be accessed by everyone.
* [,,11049-2007000406,00.html Celebrity Big Brother Updates: Ken Russell]
* [ Celebrity Big Brother 5 Coverage]
* Claude Debussy
* Huw Wheldon creator of the Monitor arts programme
* Edward Elgar
* [ Ken Russell Discussion Group : The Lair Of Ken Russell]
* [ Ken Russell Discussion Group : Savage Messiah]
* [ Ken Russell interview on BBC Film Network Sept 2008]
* [ Mindgame official site]

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