A tribute to Ken Russell

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British producer and director Don Boyd remembers his friend and frequent collaborator

The British filmmaker Ken Russell died on November 27, 2011 after a long career that included ‘Women in Love’, ‘Altered States’ and ‘The Devils’. Friend and collaborator Don Boyd pays tribute to an unpredictable genius

I nearly fell off my sofa and checked to see if I was really at home and not living in some surreal dream worthy of his films when, in 2007, the ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ presenter Davina McCall announced that one of my friends and lifelong heroes, film director Ken Russell, then 79 years young, was to step out of a limousine and become surely the least likely reality TV contestant ever. Ken burst into song underneath an umbrella (yes, ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, he was a trained dancer in his youth) and began to dance for the camera on the red carpet in his baggy red trousers and multi-coloured waistcoat.

The crowd screamed as Ken stumbled through the snow and sleet down the ‘Big Brother’ red carpet looking like an exhausted Santa Claus. But those who had pitched up in the freezing cold to boo and hiss could only guess at the real significance of this great man’s decision to appear in this riotous spectacle. Ken’s appearance was akin to having Salman Rushdie turn up as a contestant on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. Ridiculously, this giant of British cinema needed money.

Was this the same man I had watched in the early 1970s, when I was just out of film school, roaring at the film unions at Pinewood who were at that time scuppering the film industry with strike threats and their ridiculous working methods? ‘When I worked at Pinewood,’ recalled Russell, ‘the set fell down!’ His television biographies of Frederick Delius, Edward Elgar and the dancer Isadora Duncan had been inspirational catalysts for a generation of budding filmmakers. He created several masterpieces. ‘Women In Love’ (1969), adapted from the DH Lawrence novel, gave the sublime Glenda Jackson her Oscar. ‘The Devils’ (1971), adapted from the Aldous Huxley novel, starred the great Vanessa Redgrave as a demented sex-obsessed nun. ‘Altered States’ (1980), the definitive film about hallucinatory drugs based on Paddy Chayefsky’s novel, starred Golden Globe nominee William Hurt. Was this the man I had watched in the late 1980s being cheered by adoring fans for twenty minutes at the end of an opera production he directed in Genoa and then saw getting involved in a violent brawl with a critic who had disliked his show? ‘Mephistopheles’ was the opera. ‘I hate all critics, Don!’ When Ken agreed to appear on ‘Celebrity Big Brother’, it was akin to Faust’s contract with the devil and yet the show’s brand of hysteria paled in comparison to what Ken has so controversially evoked so brilliantly on screen.

I thought back to 1987 and the star-studded dinners, parties and publicity stunts arranged during the ten days before the Cannes Film Festival screening of ‘Aria’, a live-action opera film I had produced with ten famous directors, which was nominated for the Palme d’Or. At first I had left Ken out of my list of collaborators for ‘Aria’. And so imagine my embarrassment when I sheepishly fielded the inevitable call from a very rumbustious Ken while I was already in production: ‘Why the f… have you not asked me work on this film with you? I know more about music and opera than anyone you know and I have as much talent as any of the rest of that shower you have collected!’ (This ‘shower’ included Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Altman!) ‘Ken you are a notorious pain in the arse and I thought that you would turn me down if I asked you,’ I replied. ‘It would have been a cliché to ask the great director of music films to go on a busman’s holiday with me!’ ‘Nonsense!’ he said. ‘Come round backstage to Her Majesty’s Theatre tonight and, over a bottle of champagne, I want to join in on your madcap enterprise.’

I was warned that Ken had a short temper and was prone to shouting fits. He proved to be the opposite when directing a version of ‘Nessun Dorma’, long before this sublime Puccini aria had become world famous as a football song. He was a consummate professional.

Before we began, Ken produced a handwritten two-page note describing his ideas. Somewhat phased by this and needing to do my job properly as his producer, I asked him to promise to deliver a simple shooting script to help me prepare his contribution to ‘Aria’. He teased me about this. He knew how much I needed it but was damned if I was going to get it easily. Over three or four months of pre-production, he attended casting meetings, chose and briefed his artistic collaborators and helped design the set we built for him in a studio in south London. Still no shot list. Hardly a tantrum. Just a twinkle in the eye as he helped paint the special body make-up onto the tall naked ballet dancers he was featuring in his exotic fantasy of heaven. On the morning of the first day of photography, he gave me an envelope. ‘This is my resignation letter!’ My heart sank. Inside was a detailed, shot-by-shot list of everything he planned alongside a second-by-second description of the action and the lyrics and notation from the Puccini music. The only time he shouted was when he was frustrated with his own camerawork or when the champagne was five minutes late one evening. In a strange, peculiar way, I think he was a little frightened of me too. He had a charming ability to make everybody around feel important.

Ken took just four days to shoot the complicated scenes. He was calm. He was always polite. And when he was behind the camera he was meticulous. We gave all the shot footage to an editor who rang me 24 hours later asking me to a viewing which I assumed was a preliminary ‘rough cut’. Far from it. With Ken’s shot list, the editor had been able to piece together the final film within that one day. The images on the screen precisely corresponded to that two-page description he had handwritten months before. It was a breathtaking example of a maestro delivering his special kind of magic with modest simplicity. They cheered Ken’s section of ‘Aria’ during its premiere at the closing night of the Cannes Film Festival. He was wearing a sailor’s uniform and chuckled proudly! Such a performer.

I remember his brilliant manipulation of the chaotic system at Cannes. He wanted to make sure that we launched a protest when one of the other ‘Aria’ directors, the great Derek Jarman – who had designed ‘The Devils’ for Ken – was manhandled and thrown out of the Palais des Festivals for not wearing a tuxedo. Ken went to war with the security guards and officialdom and reversed 40 years of tradition. He removed his own black tie the instant Derek was barred. And staged a protest which finally got past the uglies guarding the red carpet. The festival boss came over to me and announced that because of the furor I was going to be presented with a bill for £20,000! Our Ken was a wilful man and wrote a very funny article in The Observer about this called ‘No Cannes Do’. Ken knew how to come out on top as he did against the Cannes heavies and against the litigious owner of Penthouse magazine when he famously tried to deny Ken his cutting rights on an ill-fated version of ‘Caligula’ he had directed.

Ben Travers, the British playwright who lived into his nineties, wanted to have one phrase as an epitaph: ‘The fun starts here!’ Luckily for the ‘Big Brother’ producers, for Ken the fun had started again during his eightieth year. Even the tragic loss of his house and precious archives in a fire couldn’t keep him away from his great passion as a filmmaker. He had continued to make mini masterpieces in his back garden on digital cameras and post them on the internet. He came to the National Film Theatre to talk about ‘Aria’ again with Time Out’s film editor – and was as scurrilous as ever. He came up to Liverpool with me last year to work with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under the great Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko on two Mahler symphonies he curated for Hibrow, a soon to be launched online arts platform. Generous, funny, intelligent and brilliant, he continued to inspire all of us.

Ken told a few of his fellow celebrities that he wanted to be buried in a marble mausoleum in the shape of an Odeon cinema, with his films playing on a constant loop, his ex-wives to be the usherettes. That would be a great honour – but his body of work alone will continue to be a reminder of the man’s genius.



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2 comments
Don Boyd
Don Boyd

Dear Greg, Thanks for your note. Yes, of course. Moll Flanders was the ill-fated Penthouse project. Silly me! I will ask TO to kindly correct my copy.

Greg Robinson
Greg Robinson

Nice piece, but was it perhaps Tinto Brass who directed Caligula? (I'm open to correction)