Director’s Chair Introduction: Ken Russell

by Tony Cogan · September 9, 2019 · Director's Chair, Uncategorized · 1 Comment

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Deadline: 6th October 2019

Hello everyone, it’s time to announce the highlighted director for September and, seeing how The Devils is Movie of the Month, I thought it would be good to focus on the career of Ken Russell.

Now Russell got his start directing documentaries and moved into the BBC, where he received acclaim for a documentary he made about composer Edward Elgar as part of the Monitor documentary series. Whilst he made his film debut with French Dressing in 1964, the critical and commercial failure of the film led to Russell going back to the BBC. After making more documentaries and TV films with the BBC, which also included Russell’s first collaboration with Oliver Reed with The Debussy Film, his TV work got the attention of Harry Saltzman, who hired Russell to direct Billion Dollar Brain, the third film in the Harry Palmer series. After that was a disappointment commercially, Russell again did some TV work, including a version of Dante’s Inferno.

In 1969, Russell directed one of his signature films, and one that marked the first of many battles with the ratings system, with Women in Love. The film broke the convention that mainstream films could not show full frontal male nudity, with the film earning Russell his only nomination for Best Director at the Oscars. Following this, Russell made a few more TV films and films for the BBC, including Dance of the Seven Veils about Richard Strauss. The depiction of Strauss in this outraged his family so much that they refused to grant permission for his music to be used, meaning that it effectively cannot be shown until the copyright for Strauss’ music expires.

In 1971, Russell made 3 films, the most controversial and famous of these being The Devils. Loosely based on the book The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley the film was heavily edited in the US and UK and the film has never been released in its original state. A version as close to the original version as possible has been shown at festivals and the BFI after film critic Mark Kermode found the cut footage, although the version Kermode has supervised has not been received a full release. The cut scenes are available in different versions, but no one version has all of the cut scenes. A brilliant documentary about Russell’s battles with the BBFC was made in 2011, which I’ve embedded below.

For the rest of the 70s Russell made a few more films before scoring probably his most commercially successful film with the film version of The Who’s album Tommy. The film spent 14 weeks at number 1 from March 1975 and played to full cinemas for a year. Even when Russell’s next film, Lisztomania, was released in November 1975 and topped the box office, Tommy was still in the top 5. Both films were heavily influential in the sound of cinema as they were some of the first films to be released with Dolby-encoded soundtracks.

In the 80s, Russell went to Hollywood to direct Altered States, Russell’s only foray into sci-fi. The film enjoyed moderate financial success and received praise from critics who were initially dismissive of Russell. After doing some more TV work for The South Bank Show, building on previous TV work he’d done with the host of The South Bank Show, Melvyn Bragg, with his work here including a film based on Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

After making the sexual thriller Crimes of Passion in 1984, Russell directed a few operas before returning to film with Gothic, about the night Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein. The film was a hit for Vestron Pictures, who signed Russell for a three film contract, which included Salome’s Last Dance; Lair of the White Worm and The Rainbow, an adaptation of the prequel to Women in Love.

Following an acting appearance in The Russia House, Russell directed Whore in 1991, which was granted an NC-17 rating and the MPAA refused to promote the film with its title. Russell protested this rating, claiming hypocrisy on the part of the MPAA due to Pretty Woman being rated R. Russell continued to work on TV alongside his films in the 90s, making frequent contributions to The South Bank Show and directing an adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

In the 2000’s, Russell continued to direct, including directing the short A Kitten for Hitler, stemming from a dared Russell received from Melvyn Bragg to make a film he thought should be banned. He also directed an Off-Broadway play, was a contestant on the 2007 series of Celebrity Big Brother and was a visiting professor at the University of Wales, Newport Film School and the University of Southampton.

As a reminder, the films of Russell’s you can cover are listed below.

  • French Dressing
  • Billion Dollar Brain
  • Women in Love
  • The Music Lovers
  • The Devils
  • The Boy Friend
  • Savage Messiah
  • Mahler
  • Tommy
  • Lisztomania
  • Valentino
  • Altered States
  • Crimes of Passion
  • Gothic
  • Salome’s Last Dance
  • The Lair of the White Worm
  • The Rainbow
  • Whore
  • The Fall of the Louse of Usher: A Gothic Tale for the 21st Century

I look forward to reading what you send me.