Cheat Sheet: Ken Russell


Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell


3rd July 1927 – 27th November 2011

Place of birth:

Southampton, Hampshire, England

Special moves:

Directing, Writing, Acting, Big Brother, Ballet Dancing (for serious)

Films include:

Women in Love, Tommy, The Devils, Mahler, Altered States

What you probably already know:

You probably know Ken Russell as a “maverick” British film maker. He made controversial movies, some of which are so extreme that they had to be heavily cut before he was allowed to release them, even to the point where there is still no completely uncut version of The Devils (the one were the nuns go sex mad) available in Britain. He largely emerged as a powerful force in British film after his second feature film Women in Love grabbed an Oscar nomination (a SEXY nomination).

Ken Russell’s not all about fornication and nudity, though, sometimes he turns his hand to the seriously trippy. In Altered States we see a scientist exploring the limits of his mind through the application of lots of drugs, while in Tommy (you know, the film your dad always calls a classic, but left you really confused) his adaptation of The Who‘s seminal concept album was seriously tripping. As in HIGH AS BALLS.

If you’re really up on your Russellology, you might also be aware that he had something of an obsession with classical composers, doing quite a few biopics of them, the most famous of which being Mahler.

What you might not know:

Let’s start by revising the number of composers given the Ken Russell treatment from “quite a few” to a whopping fifteen films, including ones about Liszt (Lisztomania), Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers), Elgar (Elgar – Fantasy of a Composer on a Bicycle) and Prokofiev (Prokofiev). He also did about the same number of films on the general subject of music, and worked with dozens of contemporary composers on his own films.

Then there was his style, which proved the man was a pioneer of far more than simply breasts. For a start, you know the style of documentary then blends recreation and fiction with reality? The sort that these days would be labeled “docu-drama”? That was him – he pretty much invented that whole subgenre during his extensive work for the BBC. He was also the first to use much of the sexual and religious iconography and symbolism that we take for granted in so much of today’s arthouse fare.

Then there’s his life, which was brilliant. For a start, his careers prior to taking on the director’s chair included serving with the Merchant Navy and a ballet dancer. It was when at sea that a life-changing event occurred: his Captain, fearing an attack by “Japanese midget submarines”, forced him to stand on watch for hours in the blazing sun. He suffered a nervous breakdown and collapsed. It was during his recovery that he developed his obsession with Classical music and the rest is cinematic history.

Ken Russell quote:

“This is not the age of manners. This is the age of kicking people in the crotch and telling them something and getting a reaction. I want to shock people into awareness. I don’t believe there is any virtue in understatement.”

What to say at a dinner party:

“People always dismiss Russell because his films often delve into the extreme side of sexuality and surrealism, but if you can get past that you’ll find that he’s not called the ‘Fellini of the North’ for nothing.”

What not to say at a dinner party:

“I though he was good on Celebrity Big Brother.”

Final thought:

It’s easy to mock Ken Russell as a dirty old man (he did manage to sex up Liszt, after all), and maybe some of the rabbling is justified. However, a penchant for flesh makes him no worse a director, and anyone who take the time to look into his works will see a pioneering film maker, shunned by a cinematic community not willing to see past his eccentricities to the excellence within his works.

Which is your favourite body part immortalised by Ken Russell? Let us know in the comments below!

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