Ken Russell in The Sunday Telegraph.

The Sunday Telegraph

Fire and loathing within our Ken

THE Italian restaurant in Brockenhurst — where Ken Russell has suggested we meet — is packed, but it takes less than a second to spot him, hunched over a bottle of chianti. Ken Russell is the only person in the room who looks like an east European emigre, his dazzling white hair streaming from his temples and a patterned velvet scarf slung round his shoulders. Closer up, he looks less awesome: his grey, woolly cardigan is flecked with bits of the New Forest, in which he loves to walk. He has not even painted his fingernails today, or put on blue eyeshadow, as he sometimes does.

“You’ve dressed down,” I tell him, disappointed. Russell protests. “I am wearing red socks and sandals,” he says, pointing under the table to his legs which, it seems hard to believe, once served him as a ballet dancer, before he turned to films.

Ken Russell has retreated here from London, to work at his cottage on the script of his next film about Uri Geller.

Uri Geller? It doesn’t sound like typical Russell material. “How,” I ask him, “are you going to get sex and crucifixes into this one?”

“Oh, quite easily,” says Russell, with a wary smile. “No, sex is having a rest this year. But there are crucifixes. I was told an amazing story by Uri, for which he has a witness. He was doing one of his demonstrations, and when it was over, as he came out of the back door, he saw this lone figure, standing in the rain under a lamppost …”

Russell leans forward to assist me, squinting against imaginary rain. “This figure steps up to Uri and pulls a crucifix from under his coat, shouting ‘Satan! Go Down Satan!’ And Uri stares at the metal crucifix and you know what happened? It just melts in the man’s hand.” Uri’s story, he adds, is typical of the kind he likes. “All my films are straight,” he says, with a straight face, “It’s the people they are about that are controversial. I am just not interested in dull subjects as a lot of people are”

Ken Russell doesn’t give many interviews these days (he only granted this one to push his new book about British cinema). He is tired of the carping press and kept his head down this summer when Lady Chatterley was screened and panned. “It was the same old thing,” he sighs, “that I have had for 30 years, from people who have got it in for me.”

If my development were to be arrested, I would like it to be arrested like Russell’s. He is an exotic, compelling, contradictory, extremely charming man. He is surprisingly gentle, given his mad-dog public image, and his passion for film, only equalled by his love of music, makes most other luminaries in the industry look and sound like callow youths. At the age of 66 he has just had his seventh child — 10 month-old Rex, by his third wife, actress Hetty Baynes.

Ken Russell’s new book, Fire Over England, is a very odd book indeed. It is being touted as a gentle attack on all that is wrong with the British film industry (Ealing comedies – it is a myth, he says, that they are good; overacting; an obsession with disaster; a failure to celebrate the country).

In fact, it is an extremely quirky and intimate, sometimes blatantly silly romp through Russell’s loves and hates in films interspersed with his almost surreal musings on anything from the joys of an English Tea to the problems in The Royal Family.

His conversation, like his book, veers from the impressive to the self-indulgent, Half the time, Ken Russell sounds like the World’s Most Learned Film Director whose education began as a toddler in Southampton, when his mother took him to the cinema every afternoon as her miniature escort.

Even before he had started school, Ken Russell was an informed viewer. “I remember seeing Rene Clair’s Don Quixote I thought what has that got to do with Barrie?”

Russell also thinks Sir Richard Attenborough’s film of Chaplin was “disgusting” for treating his life like a Hollywood soap and including only three minutes of Chaplin at the end. “At least when I make my films about composers, I use their music from beginning to end.”

Russell has spent his life arguing that restraint is the enemy of great art. But he also denies that he sets out to shock, using a calculated stock-in-trade of sensationalist Russellian images.

“But there isn’t an infinite possibility of images,” he says. “It’s like me saying to you that your stock-in-trade is rather limited because you only use 26 letters in the alphabet.”

But on that analogy, you would, still say that Russell tends to, reject the workaday vowels in favour of the meatier consonants that when you think of one of his films, you remember sex, hysterical nuns, crucifixes, writhing flesh, and more sex …

“Well, I think those people, have a low retention factor. They, remember what they want to remember. Obviously a nude woman is more exciting than a nude telegraph pole. But the point is that everybody says these things are my leitmotifs and treat them as a joke when they are very much part of that story. People

trivialise what I do. They take one scene from a film that lasts two-and-a-half hours.”

After nearly two hours of lunch, Ken Russell remains a baffling man who denies he enjoys his I controversial status but then suggests the opposite, and in the same sentence. “Everyone wants to be understood,” he says, “though, God knows, I don’t. Things are bad enough without that.

It is probably an outside risk. He is like his films and his book: a peculiar and also beguiling mix of the visionary and the startling, and the self-conscious and, yes self indulgent.


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