Ken Russell and the Press: Why such fury?

The Devils

‘… This is its writer-director’s most outrageously sick film to date, campy, idiosyncratic and in howling bad taste from beginning to end…’ Leslie Halliwell on The Devils

‘The most excessive and obscene of all this director’s controversial works…’ Leslie Halliwell on Lisztomania

The climactic moment of Ken Russell’s relationship with the press came when he smacked Evening Standard critic Alexander Walker over the head with a rolled-up copy of his own review, on live television, while letting out a loud expletive. (Sadly, the BBC, with its usual disregard for history, does not seem to have preserved this footage.) Most of the time, however, the blows were verbal and travelled in the opposite direction. With the great director’s death last year, and the release of his monsterpiece The Devils (1971) on DVD in something at least resembling a director’s cut, Russell seems on the verge at last of becoming respectable. But why was he so beyond the pale in the first place?

The Devils is released on DVD by the BFI on 19 March 2012. Review online soon.

At first the answer seems obvious: think of all the extreme, graphic and unpleasant imagery in Russell’s films. Think of the copious nudity, the bizarre tonal shifts, the campy acting. Russell was outrageous, and the critics were duly outraged.

‘A garish glossary of sado-masochism … a taste for visual sensation that makes scene after scene look like the masturbatory fantasies of a Roman Catholic boyhood.’ Alexander Walker

One distinctive characteristic of Russell’s divisive oeuvre is the way time has treated it: a slow wave of respectability or near-respectability has been advancing over it, starting at the beginning and working forward. At the time of The Music Lovers (1970), there were voices bemoaning his creation of such a dreadful, unsubtle and lecherous film when his BBC work had been so very fine. The unspoken feeling was that tight budgets and strict supervision by Huw Weldon had focused Russell, curbed his tendency to excess, prevented plunges into sensationalism. Which was probably true enough. Hand in hand with that belief went the assumption that artists are better when controlled by executives, or that the moving image isn’t an art and needs to be governed by some kind of management class. Cinema had unleashed a monster, given Russell too much freedom from censorship and editorial constraint, too great resources, too much adulation and self-importance.

It wasn’t until the 80s that one began to hear positive things about his work of the 70s. In his documentary A Turnip-Head’s Guide to British Cinema (1986), filmmaker Alan Parker praised The Devils, but included an interview with David Puttnam, who had worked as a producer on a couple of Russell films, arguing that the vituperation of the British press had essentially sent Russell round the twist, with the burlesque of Lisztomania (1975) positioned as the tipping point. This theory seemed to inform the slightly more sympathetic reviews given to Russell’s 80s films by a new generation of reviewers. These films were bad, according to the reviewers, but they were bad because they caricatured the real merits of Russell’s fine films of the previous decade. This position was still being parroted by Alan Yentob in his recent obituary profile, Ken Russell: A Bit of a Devil, which might as well have been subtitled ‘Why I Never Employed Ken Russell at the BBC’.

‘A welter of arbitrary gags, manic self-references and frantic exploitation-movie clichés.’ Tony Rayns

Of course, some critics were sympathetic, to a point, and admitted to finding The Lair of the White Worm (1988) amusing, as it was obviously intended to be. But there was often either a patronising note to their amusement, or a sense of regret that Russell was apparently no longer capable of ‘serious’ work. Others saw the more dignified The Rainbow (1989) as a step in the right direction, and declared it Russell’s best film since Women in Love (1969), following Russell’s own lead. But such views still disavowed the value of excess, camp and hysteria in the Russell oeuvre.

Electric Sheep and Strange Attractor will screen The Lair of the White Worm on March 14 at the Horse Hospital as part of Ken Russell Forever.

Now it’s not too hard to find critics who will admit to admiring Gothic (1986) or even Salome’s Last Dance (1988). It’s impossible to imagine such films being made today, with their jostling together of high art and low comedy, Glenda Jackson and wank-mag models. You still struggle to find anybody who’ll talk knowledgeably about the later TV work, much of it for The South Bank Show (was Melvyn Bragg’s loyalty a result of friendship, admiration or the sheer inertia that otherwise made the ITV arts show so dull in its later years?), or about Russell’s self-produced final films. Lack of visibility is part of this: a film like The Strange Affliction of Anton Bruckner (1990) should certainly appeal to admirers of the early BBC work, and it’s possible that one day even The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2002) will be honoured.

‘Russell’s swirling multi-coloured puddle … made me glad that both Huxley and Whiting are dead, so that they are spared this farrago of witless exhibitionism.’ Stanley Kauffman

The opprobrium hurled at Russell still seems remarkable, and we’re approaching a time when it will look as quaint and wrongheaded as that which greeted Peeping Tom (1960). When Alexander Walker spoke of his loathing for The Devils and his admiration for A Clockwork Orange (1971), I always wanted to hear why one was terrible and the other wasn’t. Both make their moral points via a lot of sex and violence, and both could be accused of relishing the attendant horrors a bit too much. If anything, the Kubrick film strikes me as the more pornographic.

Another point of comparison is the career of Derek Jarman. Russell’s production designer on The Devils and Savage Messiah (1972), he embarked on a directorial career of his own that was by no means universally praised, but he never faced the united front of derision and fury that Russell had to put up with. Perhaps the greater dynamism of Russell’s camerawork made his films more powerful, therefore more upsetting. Perhaps his early footing in mainstream cinema led to his movies being judged by different standards. But if one looks at the nudity, the irreverent humour, the stylisation, the bloodshed, it’s hard to see why Jarman would provoke less outrage. I have a vague theory, and it’s that Jarman’s homosexuality afforded him some protection in the liberal media. When he indulged in camp humour and shock tactics, the critics somehow felt he was entitled to do so, by virtue of his sexual orientation. Russell, as a known heterosexual, had no business being flamboyant, indulging in vulgar humour, or celebrating the arts with the enthusiasm of a football fan.

‘Ken Russell doesn’t report hysteria, he markets it.’ The New Yorker

Russell’s sense of humour is a particular sticking point. His jokes aren’t always very funny (but sometimes they’re hilarious, to me anyway) but they make a tonal point, throwing the viewer off balance, and they often establish Russell’s attitude to his material, his characters, his audience, and sometimes, yes, his critics. The evolution of one gag, as recounted by Jarman, is instructive.

‘What would really offend the British public?’ asked Russell one day as they were prepping The Devils (so he was influenced to plunge further into controversy by the critical attacks). ‘Well, I suppose you could kill a lot of people,’ mused Jarman, ‘but if you really wanted to upset them you would kill some animals.’

‘Yes!’ cried Russell, seizing upon the idea, and proposed that they show King Louis XIII relaxing on his lawn by blowing the heads off peacocks with a musket.

‘Oh, we can’t do that!’ protested Jarman, but Russell thought they could, and set about getting a special effects man to rig explosive collars to the birds so they could be decapitated on cue.

But a little while before the peacock shoot, Russell’s conscience got the better of him. Remembering Louis XIII’s strange obsession with blackbirds, he suggested instead that the monarch might be taking pot-shots at a Protestant prisoner attired in feathers and beak. Shirley Russell, his brilliant costume designer and wife, duly created a blackbird outfit, and the scene was shot.

As Graham Armitage, the actor playing Louis, watched the crow sink, perforated, into an ornamental pond, he jokingly remarked, ‘Bye, bye, blackbird.’ In another fit of enthusiasm, Russell had him do it on camera. Then, in post-production, he had his composer, Peter Maxwell Davies, quote the 1920s song of that name on the soundtrack. The moment was duly singled out by reviewers as proof of Russell’s offensive flippancy, his reckless anachronism, his lunacy.

‘This gaudy compendium of camp, second-hand Freud and third-rate pastiche is like a bad song without end.’ Sight&Sound

It’s Russell’s arch, bawdy comedy that really seems to get their backs up. When Russell kept his tongue out of his cheek, even if he let it loll out of his mouth a bit, he didn’t usually attract so much negative press. But his more po-faced pieces, like the BBC Lady Chatterley (1993), received at best faint praise, probably because they’re really not as interesting as the ‘swirling, multi-coloured puddle’ films.

The use of parody and pastiche in Russell can seem problematic: it’s often far off the mark in terms of accurately evoking the subject being spoofed, since Russell’s sense of humour was rather Rabelaisian. What I take to be a mockery of Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) in the opening duel of Lisztomania is barely recognisable in its intent, while the Chaplin sequence in the same film is as distant from its source as Roger Daltrey is from the Little Tramp, although at least the tribute to The Gold Rush (1925) is discernible. Later, the Gothic horror stuff in Castle Wagner is terrific fun, but feeds on a vague shared consciousness of generic stereotypes rather than anything specific to, say, Hammer or Universal.

If Russell were concerned with accuracy any more than he was concerned with strict biographical authenticity, this would be a problem, but the satires are pretty much tossed off without regard for stylistic precision. Russell’s own camera style is so dynamic, he can’t limit himself to the static, classical set-ups of Lester and Chaplin. But there’s one filmmaker whose visual sense he adheres to more doggedly.

The Boy Friend (1971) is an elegant and faithful transition of Busby Berkeley’s remarkable style to a 1920s setting and a wide-screen presentation. Both these modes alter the look of the results greatly, but the compositions and movements (which go well beyond the statuary overhead shot) are pitch-perfect. Crucially, Russell isn’t spoofing Berkeley, or referencing him as part of a set of stylistic ideas, rather, he’s channelling his talent.

Berkeley, more even than Lang, Welles, Eisenstein and Fellini, is the primary influence on Russell’s vision: the floating head of Wini Shaw singing ‘The Lullaby of Broadway’ in Gold Diggers of 1935 is re-imagined as a goat’s head in Altered States and a skull in Gothic. The symmetrical shots in Russell owe more to Berkeley than Kubrick (who was probably influenced by K.R.). And Ken didn’t need pop art to inspire his visuals, since the popular art of Berkeley already showed how to turn trashy modern aesthetics into sheer beauty.

Ken Russell Forever runs from 10 to 20 March 2012 and includes screenings of Altered States, Gothic, Savage Messiah, Lisztomania and Women in Love.

David Cairns