Hello and welcome to Director of the Month, your cut-out-and-keep guide to the very finest auteurs in filmland…

This Month: Ken Russell


Nationality: English

D.O.B: 03/07/1927 Died: 27/11/2011

Years active: 1964 – 2002

Number of films (as director): 19

Do say: “You are quite possibly the most easily identifiable and wildly original British filmmaker of all-time, in terms of uniqueness of style and grandiosity of vision… Yes, more so than Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock, even.”

Don’t say: “Calm down, dear… It’s only a commercial!” – He’s NOTHING like Michael Winner!!!

Who Hell He? When Ken Russell passed away at the end of last year, we here at Days Are Numbers were genuinely really rather upset. You see, Aneet and I had always referred to the great man as “Uncle Ken” (as did many others!), which is perhaps an odd moniker for a shamelessly bold and provocative film director responsible for a handful of the most controversial films ever made in this country. But then there was something genuinely avuncular about Ken Russell, as much of an enfant terrible as he undoubtedly was. I suppose this “uncle” tag most likely stemmed from Russell’s many appearances on British television over the last three or four decades (culminating in a stint on Celebrity Big Brother!), and the fact that he always came across as cheerily good-natured, despite having been dished out some truly rotten hands by the film biz. But I also like to think it’s because we’re all more than a little bit proud of Ken…

Come on, then! Name some great – truly great – British filmmakers? You’ve got the aforementioned Powell and Hitchcock (the latter making most of his great films in America), Charlie Chaplin (who made all of his great films in America) and admittedly a fair few others besides (I’d like to give a nod here to my own personal favourite, Bill Forsyth)… But how many of them could claim to possess the same jaw-dropping panache, visual bravura and the bleary, cheery way of manhandling life, love and death that good old Uncle Ken had? Let’s face it, UK-based British filmmakers (with the exception of Michael Powell) have never fully managed to tear themselves free from the constraints of their social-realist roots in quite the way that their French and Italian counterparts have, so thank God for Ken Russell. Through the 60s and 70s, and even into the 80s, he acted as an unbendingly forthright agent provocateur, making the sort of risque, bedazzling and outlandish cinema that had never been filmed on this soil before, and probably never will be again.

Six of the best:

Billion Dollar Brain (1967)

For his first big-budget film, Ken Russell took on what may initially seem to be a somewhat unsuitable assignment; the third motion picture outing for Len Deighton’s anti-007, not-so-super spy Harry Palmer. But what we have here is one of the most impressive films of the Cold War era, and that’s as much down to its tour-de-force direction as it is the source material’s Bond-baiting complexities. The plot sees speccy anti-hero Palmer (played to perfection by, you guessed it, Michael Caine) aiding Soviet Russia against an attempted coup by a right-wing American terrorist group (!), and Russell keeps it slipping and sliding along nicely, before capping it all off with an ice battle tribute to Eisienstein’s Alexander Nevsky. You won’t see that kind of thing in Octopussy!

Women in Love (1968)

Some films you can’t really talk about without referring to that scene, and yes, the Oli Reed vs. Al-bo Bates nude wrestling match in Women in Love is an absolute hoot. It’s also perhaps the most distinctly Russell-esque moment in his entire canon, but let’s not let it distract from the fact that this is one of the most beautifully crafted and haunting films of the 60s. In turns vulgar, pastoral, visceral and poetic, this is a note-perfect transference of D.H. Lawrence from page to screen, and if anyone can think of a more perfect combination of writer and director, then please let me know.

The Music Lovers (1970)

The first of three barmy big-screen biopics of the lives of the great composers that Ken Russell would helm, this is also by far the best. A swaggeringly provocative - and not strictly accurate - telling of the tale of Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers depicts the legendary Russian as a driven and devilish genius - a closet homosexual who ultimately pushes his neglected, nymphomaniac wife into the abyss of insanity. The musical-fantasy sequence in which several Tchaikovsky rivals – and even friends and relatives – are decapitated by cannon fire to the bombast of the ’1812 Overture’ is once seen, never forgotten.

The Devils (1971)

Not only the most controversial film Ken Russell ever made (no mean feat as we’ve already seen), but also his greatest and perhaps even the greatest British film of the 1970s - it is impossible to imagine that the intense, warped grandiosity of The Devils could have been pulled off by any other director. Ever. Uncle Ken favourite Oliver Reed is also on top form here as a preening but ultimately noble priest, who inadvertently becomes the eye of the storm when political maneuvering in plague-ridden, medieval France leads to some of the lewdest, most blasphemous mayhem ever committed to celluloid. However, as shocking as these scenes are (even today!), The Devils is also a very heartfelt and even poignant film, as devout Catholic Russell unflinchingly investigates the savage actions an all-too-powerful organised religion can sometimes drive its followers into taking.

Savage Messiah (1972)

From Ken Russell’s most controversial film, to his most underrated; another biopic, but this time ditching the great composers to focus on the life of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Naturally enough, our hero had more than his fair share of sexual hang-ups and Savage Messiah centres on his doomed relationship with a Polish governess almost twice his age. Russell manages to capture the burning intensity of the artists’ notoriously nocturnal working life, and along with some very fine set design from Derek Jarman (taking it down a notch or two from his work on The Devils), we are also rewarded with the most sourly witty closing exchange in film history (but you’ll have to watch it to find out what that is).

Tommy (1975)

From classical composers and French sculptors, to rocking out with The Who! If it cried out for a flamboyant rendering with a quasi-religious slant, producers in the 70s knew who to call. A bit of a hodge-podge of an album, if truth be told, this seminal 60s rock opera gets a bombastic boost from Russell’s archly theatrical staging, psychedelic shock-tactics (Ann-Margaret drowning in baked beans!) and cheeky humour. The most mindbending marriage between rock ‘n’ roll and the movies ever, this is also strangely moving too.

What about the rest?: At first glance French Dressing (1964) may seem like a fairly run-of-the-mill British seaside comedy, but upon closer inspection many distinctly Russell-ian traits are already in place (including several quite stunning sequences set to classical music)… The Boy Friend (1971) is a tad overlong and suffers from some rather pedestrian plotting - but it also boasts some of Uncle Ken’s most infectiously joyous direction, and a showstopping song and dance routine from none other than Barbara Windsor… Mahler (1974) is a return to the lives of the great composers (Gustav Mahler this time, natch), although ever-so-slightly less feverish than The Music Lovers, and less memorable overall… Franz Liszt gets a good going-over in Lisztomania (1975), which could well win the title of “Most Mental Film Ken Russell Ever Made”, and it’s pretty fantastic too… Valentino (1977) was the first flop of what had been a perversely commercially viable run of films, prompting Russell himself to ask “What idiot made this?”, although it’s not actually all that bad… An even bigger disaster loomed on the horizon in the shape of Altered States (1980) a curate’s egg of mindboggling visuals and bizarre sci-fi melodrama which became a byword for both box-office poison and technical innovation… After all that, the S&M-centric neo-noir Crimes of Passion (1984) seems comparatively tame and forgettable… Gothic (1986) is much better (and the first Ken Russell film I ever saw!), being a bonkers, bawdy and, erm, gothic reimagining of the events that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein… Salome’s Last Dance (1988) delves behind the scenes of a private performance of Oscar Wilde’s banned play, coming on like a heady mix between Gothic and The Boy Friend, but it soon collapses under the weight of too much farce and too many in-jokes… The Lair of the White Worm (1988) is a totally bonkers blood ‘n’ guts tale adapted rather liberally from Bram Stoker, and if you ask me, it’s one of the most thoroughly enjoyable British horror films of the 80s… While he would bow out that decade with an underwhelming return to old D.H. Lawrence with The Rainbow (1989)… The engrossing Whore (1991) is sadly the sole 90s effort from a now very much maligned Ken Russell – it’s a cutting response to the pure fantasy of Pretty Woman as a never-better Theresa Russell (no relation) gives us an all-together more honest account of the oldest profession in the title role… It seems pretty harsh to judge The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2002) too harshly as it was made for absolute peanuts, largely at Chez Russell itself, and even then it manages to retain a sort of winning, grubby charm…

And that’s yer lot, I’m afraid… What’s that? Yes, Ken Russell did direct 90s TV bonkfest Lady Chatterly… And yes, he also directed the frankly insane Uri Geller TV movie Mindbender. But let’s not bother with those now. If you’re hungry for more, get yourself on Youtube and check out anything from his early BBC days, before kicking yourself that TV isn’t even remotely that elegant and intellectual anymore. Additionally, I can’t recommend his first short, Amelia and the Angel, highly enough.

RIP Ken Russell. We’ll certainly never see your like again.