. Obit: Never a Soft or quiet Russell | London Progressive Journal
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Obit: Never a Soft or quiet Russell

Wed 30th Nov 2011

For lively-minded people, the mid-teens are a dazzling voyage of discovery, a time when one starts seriously to explore identity, personality, friendship, sexuality, romance, psychology, politics, intellect, culture, self-expression and all the richness of existence and the world. Something that impacted forcibly on that period of my own life was the early work of Ken Russell.

Embraced and nurtured by the BBC at a time when the Corporation was fearlessly expanding and could train and encourage individual talent, Russell made a string of short documentaries of all kinds, including one on the young Salford playwright Shelagh Delaney (whose death preceded his own by only a few days), that was shown again on BBC4 just last year.

Then he was invited to join the Monitor team. This arts strand was the fiefdom of Huw Wheldon, a dynamic and deceptively avuncular Welshman with the public service ethic gushing through his veins. Wheldon was a fine editor, gathering about him programme-makers of exceptional ability and panache – John Boorman, John Berger, John Schlesinger, Humphrey Burton, Melvyn Bragg, David Jones – and he went on to be a canny managing director of television when the BBC led the world in innovative programming.

For Wheldon, Russell made a variety of programmes on a variety of arts and artists – Marie Rambert, Peter Blake, Le Douanier Rousseau – but it was his series of films about composers that marked him out and caught my own rapt attention. After more conventional portraits of Kurt Weill and Gordon Jacob, Russell persuaded the deeply dubious Wheldon to let him make a partly dramatised study of Edward Elgar. Wheldon would only agree to enactments without dialogue or identified actors. He, Wheldon, would speak the narration, which the two men wrote together.

Like all real artists, Russell rose gamely to the constraints. His film was elegiac but troubled, finding memorable images both to complement the music and to evoke the events of Elgar’s life and the struggles of his personality. The result was a triumph, kick-starting renewed interest in the music that has obtained ever since.

And Wheldon, knowing a good thing when he saw it, accepted one composer portrait after another, each less constrained either in form or in content than the last. Prokofiev, Bartok and Debussy saw out Monitor’s run. By now, Russell had bankability for BBC managers and his ambitious and visually sumptuous portrait of the larger-than-life dancer Isadora Duncan was given a free-standing slot. It exercised the press for days and made a temporary star of the eccentric actress Vivian Pickles who took the lead. Karel Reisz later made a feature film of the same story starring Vanessa Redgrave but, though it offered Eastmancolor instead of the BBC’s black and white, the Russell is superior in every way, including cinematography (I’ll take Dick Bush and Brian Tufano in monochrome over Larry Pizer in colour any day).

After 'Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World', the offers of features came flooding in. Russell, who appreciated the autonomy granted by the BBC and knew well enough that cinema was much less flexible, played the studios off against the Corporation shrewdly over a few years. For the new BBC1 arts strand, Omnibus, he made five films. The penultimate was the finest thing he ever did. 'Song of Summer' was a rapturous portrait of the blind and ailing composer Frederick Delius and his increasing dependence on the young composer Eric Fenby, for whom the word amanuensis seems practically to have been coined. Fenby was alive then – in 1968 – and he co-wrote the film with Russell.

Nowhere before or since did Russell so tenderly and instinctively tap into the mystery and agony of creation. The relationship delineated by Max Adrian as Delius and the former dancer Christopher Gable as Fenby is enthralling from beginning to end and much of the underpinning is provided by the radiant performance of Maureen Pryor as the devoted Jelka Delius. Just when you begin to get a sense that the filming may have fallen in love with its own rarefied atmosphere, Russell introduces a glorious passage of irreverent energy when David Collings as Percy Grainger invades the scene, racing up and down to throw and catch a cricket ball from either side of Delius’ house. Like everything in the piece, it is perfectly judged.

But Russell’s judgment was fitful. His next film was his most notorious: 'Dance of the Seven Veils', a riotous skit on the life of Richard Strauss and his supposed sympathy for the Nazi Party. It was so scattergun in its method and so inordinate in its traducing of Strauss’s reputation that there were questions in the House and the Strauss estate injuncted against it. I watched its transmission while coming down from an acid trip, in retrospect the ideal conditions. It seems unlikely that I will ever have the chance to see it straight.

By this time, Russell was an Oscar-nominated features director – for 'Women in Love' – and, though his instincts about the lowering effect of the movie industry were on the button, he perhaps thought he could parlay a protected career. For a few years he did indeed get to make much of what he wanted, having started with a mix of idiosyncratic gossamer ('French Dressing' and a charming Lamorisse-inspired short called 'Amelia and the Angel') and hack work ('Billion Dollar Brain').

'Women in Love', a very confident and rather persuasive dramatisation (written by Larry 'The Normal Heart Kramer') of the Lawrence novel, gave Russell the clout to negotiate a continuation of his fantasy biographies of composers. He got to celebrate (and simultaneously mock) Tchaikovsky ('The Music Lovers'), 'Mahler' and Liszt ('Lisztomania') but clearly the audience for classical musicians was limited, especially as the movie-going demographic was growing ever younger. Nevertheless, for most of the 1970s, he managed to come across as a genuine auteur whose work could only be his – indeed, for a year or two, he and Alfred Hitchcock were the only British directors whose names appeared above the title on posters.

It couldn’t last. The British movie industry was too fitful. Hollywood had firmly cast British directors as easily bullied but good with scripts and actors, and Russell fitted no part of that cliché. History was against him. With the exceptions of Boorman and Ken Loach, none of the directors who learned their trade in British television in the 1950s and ‘60s – Schlesinger, Philip Saville, Alan Bridges, Michael Apted, Alan Clarke, Claude Whatham, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Alan Cooke, Roy Battersby, Mike Newell, Roland Joffé – got to make movies that were a patch on their television work.

Moreover, Russell was too wilful and irascible to look for ways to accommodate himself to front office and box office considerations. He couldn’t fashion a consistent and reliable methodology. Nor did he have the nous to show the executives a reassuring script. Russell’s screenplays were proverbially around forty pages long, a mere jumping-off point for what was in his head.

And he had no feel for the dynamics of performance. He veered between pliable people with whom he was familiar and stars handed to him. Though he worked with some fine players – Glenda Jackson often, Kathleen Turner, Alan Bates, William Hurt, Vanessa Redgrave, Natasha and Joely Richardson – he was more likely to cast limited or one-note actors – Oliver Reed often, Judith Paris often, Robert Powell, Richard Chamberlain, Ann-Margret, Vladek Sheybal, Theresa Russell (no relation), Andrew Faulds, Lindsay Kemp, Georgina Hale, Michael Gothard, Murray Melvin and – in the lead in 'Savage Messiah' – Scott Antony who, to the evident disappointment of some, thereafter sank without trace. Another ineffectual regular was the away-with-the-fairies Hetty Baynes, at least during her period as Mrs Russell in the 1990s. I always imagined that her real name was Betty Haynes.

Russell also employed rather more than his share of non-actors to busk their way through: Roger Daltrey, Rudolf Nureyev, Twiggy, young Gable (to whose puppyish charms none could object), Christopher Logue, Michelle Phillips, Eleanor Fazan, Clive Goodwin, Caroline Coon, Ringo Starr, himself …

Russell clearly had a wonderful and instinctive rapport with music-makers, (though Sandy Wilson, who wept over the wild inflation of his modest pastiche of a musical, 'The Boy Friend', would not agree). He would have certainly subscribed to Walter Pater’s famous dictum that “all art aspires to the condition of music”. His own gift was for visualising. Much of his work is ravishing or at least eye-popping to look at. The source of this was his own immersion from an early age in cinema. Russell’s visual style harks back three generations, to that of Griffith, Eisenstein, DeMille and Von Stroheim. No director’s work resounds through his more than that of Fritz Lang, from whom Russell must have gained his penchant for symmetrical framing and expressionist camera angles.

Unlike the run of British directors, Russell was a born creator of film images. Most of those British reliables upon whom Hollywood leans are superb at reading scripts – other people’s scripts – and coaxing actors into bringing those scripts to life. But they are largely interchangeable, their work is not distinctive. Russell’s cinema is, for the most part, as unmistakeable as that of Michael Powell or Nicolas Roeg or Peter Greenaway or Mike Leigh or Danny Boyle or Christopher Nolan. And like most of them he often teetered on the tightrope. After 'Altered States', his hallucinogenic misfire of 1980, it became harder and harder for Russell to get his projects off the ground and although that has been true of every maverick movie-maker, including many greater than Russell – Powell, Orson Welles, von Stroheim, Stanley Kubrick. Roeg, Terry Gilliam – it is no less frustrating for someone full of notions.

Mavericks tend to alienate critics and Russell was far from an exception. Indeed, so many commentators found his work vulgar, overblown, reckless with sources and shameless that a reputation as a monstre sacré became impossible to shake. Yet many serious and properly gifted people were happy to work with him, especially behind the scenes: Melvyn Bragg (who commissioned many of his last pieces for The South Bank Show), Peter Maxwell Davies, Derek Jarman, John Corigliano, Ferde Grofé, Douglas Slocombe, André Previn, Georges Delerue, David Watkin, Tony Walton …

Like many monomaniacs – and just about any movie director worth his salt is undoubtedly a monomaniac – Ken Russell was often his own worst enemy. He was certainly not the first, and he won’t be the last, whose pre-big-screen work is superior (often simply because less compromised) than his movies. And that applies to actors, writers and composers as well as to jobbing directors and auteurs like Russell. His BBC work certainly will pass the test of time, provided it remains available to see (some of it presently is not). And he added greatly to the excitement and stimulation of the age, not just for this highly receptive teenager.
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