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Russell, Ken (1927-2011)

Director, Producer, Writer, Actor

Main image of Russell, Ken (1927-2011)

Ken Russell was born in Southampton on 3 July 1927. After serving in the Merchant Navy and the RAF, he worked as an actor and dancer and in the 1950s became a successful freelance photographer. His short films Peepshow (1956) and Amelia and the Angel (1957) won him admission to the BBC, where he made several documentaries for the arts programme, 'Monitor' (1958-65). His 'Elgar' (tx. 11/11/1962) brought him national attention and the chance to direct his first feature film, French Dressing (1963), a seaside farce starring James Booth and Roy Kinnear. It proved insufficiently popular to sustain Russell's cinema career and he went back to television to make an economical adaptation of The Diary of a Nobody (BBC, tx. 12/12/1964) and a series of highly original dramatised documentaries - 'Bartok' (tx. 24/5/1964), 'The Debussy Film' (tx. 18/5/1965), 'Always on Sunday' (tx. 29/6/1965), and Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World (tx. 22/9/1966).

Russell returned to the cinema to make Billion Dollar Brain (1967), the third of the Len Deighton spy films for Harry Saltzman starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer. Cinema audiences were unprepared for Russell's stylish excess - his recreation of the Battle on the Ice from Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (USSR, 1938), for example, and Billion Dollar Brain was less successful than its two predecessors. Russell went back once again to the BBC and made two of his best dramatised documentaries - Dante's Inferno (tx. 22/12/1967) and Song of Summer (tx. 15/9/1968), before finally establishing himself as a cinema director with Women in Love (1969). There were complaints that Russell had taken liberties with D.H.Lawrence's novel, but the film was generally well-received and a success at the box-office.

There was more controversy over Russell's next film, The Music Lovers (1969), which dwelt as much upon the troubled sex life of Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) and his wife (Glenda Jackson) as it did upon his music-making, but this hardly compared to the furore around The Devils (1971). Along with Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971) and Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), Russell's film was taken as a sign that permissiveness had gone too far and had to be repulsed. Extras told tales to the tabloids about their on-set antics; and the sensationalist combination of sexual activity and religious iconography which Russell had pioneered in Dante's Inferno was taken to extremes which, even in the twenty-first century, have been deemed too offensive to be allowed to be seen uncensored. But the film itself is a plea for tolerance and freedom, both personal and political, and marks the high point of Russell's cinema career.

In the same year, Russell completed a very different film, The Boy Friend, an extravagant adaptation of Sandy Wilson's musical in the style of the Busby Berkeley musicals of the 30s. Savage Messiah (1972) a life of the artist Gaudier-Brzeska, and Mahler (1974) seemed to return Russell to the sort of subject he had made his name with in television, and hardly seemed to break new ground for him. Russell's appetite for excess found a suitable outlet in his highly successful film of Pete Townshend's rock opera Tommy (1975), but since then Russell has found it difficult to recapture his former creativity. Lisztomania (1975) and Valentino (1977) seem like parodies of his earlier artist films. His two American films, Altered States (1980) and Crimes of Passion (1984), show a broadening of his concerns, but he returned to baroque excess with Gothic (1986) and The Lair of the White Worm (1988) - and, much later, The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2001). His adaptations of D.H.Lawrence's The Rainbow (1989) and Lady Chatterley's Lover (1993) are competent rather than inspired; though he acts the part of Lady Chatterley's raffish father with great panache.

Russell's career is disappointing in the sense that he failed to continue the creative momentum of his earlier years, but the revival of his BBC films on DVD has displayed what a remarkable talent he possessed and what an impressive body of work he produced.

Atkins, Thomas R., Ken Russell (New York: Monarch Press 1976)
Baxter, John, Ken Russell - An Appalling Talent (London, Michael Joseph 1973)
Grant, Barry Keith, 'The Body Politic: Ken Russell in the Eighties', in Lester Friedman (ed.) Fires were started: British Cinema and Thatcherism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993)
Hanke, Ken, Ken Russell's Films (Metuchan, New Jersey/London: Scarecrow Press, 1980)
Phillips, Gene D. Ken Russell (New Jersey/London: ASU Presses, 1999)
Russell, Ken, Altered States (New York: Bantam 1991)
Russell, Ken, The Lion Roars (London: Faber and Faber, 1994)
Wilson, Colin, Ken Russell, A Director in Search of a Hero, (London: Intergroup 1979)

Pamela Church Gibson, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Amelia and the Angel (1958)Amelia and the Angel (1958)

Early amateur short by Ken Russell that kick-started his career

Thumbnail image of Devils, The (1971)Devils, The (1971)

Ken Russell's controversial film about the political abuse of religious faith

Thumbnail image of Debussy Film, The (1965)Debussy Film, The (1965)

Ken Russell's film-within-a-film about the French composer

Thumbnail image of Elgar (1962)Elgar (1962)

Ken Russell's remarkably imaginative portrait of the composer

Thumbnail image of Pop Goes the Easel (1962)Pop Goes the Easel (1962)

Ken Russell's kaleidoscopic impression of the Pop Art universe

Thumbnail image of Song of Summer (1968)Song of Summer (1968)

Ken Russell's moving drama about the last years of the blind composer Delius

Related collections

Thumbnail image of MusicalsMusicals

Song and dance on the big screen

Thumbnail image of Ken Russell on TelevisionKen Russell on Television

A colourful and controversial small-screen career

Thumbnail image of Ken Russell's ComposersKen Russell's Composers

A list of all composers given the Ken Russell treatment

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Jackson, Glenda (1936-)Jackson, Glenda (1936-)


Thumbnail image of Reed, Oliver (1938-1999)Reed, Oliver (1938-1999)


Thumbnail image of Russell, Shirley (1935-2002)Russell, Shirley (1935-2002)

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