art, culture and ideas
Issue 6: Supernatural
A Ban Apart
Ken Russell talks about The Devils, Gothic, Lair of the White Worm, trickery, his long career and… ‘that bed lady’, Tracey Emin.
Interview by James Payne.
In the 1970s, Ken Russell was as well known in the art-house as the council house, where, in those pre-video days, it was a great way for teenage boys (like me) to see lots of flesh. I recently met the director at the Phoenix cinema in Finchley, where he was being filmed with Mark Kermode for The Culture Show. Ever the director, he yelled ‘cut!’ and ‘action!’ before the real director had a chance, until Kermode jokingly told him ‘stop directing, Ken’. Refusing to do more than one take, proclaiming ‘I’m one-cut Ken’, he had the crew creasing up with laughter with his hammy acting.
Ken Russell is a true iconoclast, an audacious maverick and daring film-maker who, like that other great showman Busby Berkeley, perfectly understood the meaning of son et lumière. Now 81 but with the intellect and stamina of a much younger man, Russell is virtually his own film genre; if he were French or Italian he’d still be making big budget films, but in the kitchen sink world of British Film there is shamefully no room for bombast.
Russell is curious as to why Garageland is so-named. When I tell him it came from Transition Gallery which was originally housed in a garage, he says that he sees himself as a ‘Garage-iste’ and that ‘it’s a new movement. I was making films in my garage for several years until my house burnt down. Now I don’t have a garage anymore, I have a conservatory, so I’m a conservatoriste! (laughs)’. His house burnt down in 2006 and his 53-year old wife was forced to flee naked from the flames. He arrived later and said at the time ‘There was a naked lady running around the garden – pity I was not there to film it.’
He is still working hard making films with a camcorder, but hasn’t made a studio film for a while. He says that the advantages of working in this way are that ‘all you have to do is press a red button. And there’s nobody telling you what to do, it’s also nice to have control over what I’m doing now, like I had in my early films such as Amelia and the Angels. It’s free and easy and anything that comes into one’s mind is achievable. There’s a way to achieve without resorting to money.’
Amelia and the Angels (1956) was the amateur film that got Russell a job on the BBC’s iconic arts documentary series Monitor. Around the same time, Lindsay Anderson and others set up their Free Cinema movement with a series of groundbreaking documentary films. Ken, who had recently converted to Catholicism (‘I’m still a great believer in aspects of it’), made the film as a statement of his new-found faith – it was radically different from the Free Cinema movement. Yet, as he explained, with the ad-hoc nature of underground cinema at the time they did have one thing in common.
‘When I joined Monitor some of the Free Cinema movement had made documentaries on The Lambeth Boys and Elephant and Castle, and the boss of the programme [Huw Wheldon] got a bit tired of these. I did a film about a Catholic girl who loses her angel wings that was so different from theirs that I got the job. But we had all borrowed the same camera! It was a 60mm camera from a documentary firm, and Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reiz and I all borrowed it. And we all couldn’t have been more different!’
Russell describes Monitor as ‘the only truly experimental film school that Britain has ever produced’. In 1962 he directed the influential documentary Pop Goes the Easel, are there any contemporary artists that interest him? ‘I’m sort of out of touch. I think Damien Hirst would be a good subject. I bumped into the bed lady the other day, I liked her a lot. I thought she was very bright. She’s made several films…’ Yes, she made a film about herself. ‘That sounds… interesting’. Hirst and Russell could make a great film together. Two entertainers who both know a thing or two about showbiz.
In 1971 Russell directed The Devils, one of the most controversial films ever made about religion. Based on an Aldous Huxley book about possessed nuns in seventeenth century France, The Devils has never been shown with its notorious ‘rape of Christ’ scene intact. Although some consider it to be blasphemous, The Devils is actually an attack on church corruption. As Russell explains: The Devils is on the curriculum at the Loyola University of Chicago (a Jesuit college). It’s a good Catholic film’. The film, a brutal sensory overload (as one character says: ‘Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights’ – perhaps a line that could be used for many of Russell’s films) is seen by many as his true masterpiece, yet it’s still not available on DVD. ‘Warner Brothers didn’t like it even though it was exactly the script they’d approved. And they wanted all the pubic hair cut out, which would have made it the shortest film ever made!’
Derek Jarman did the astounding set for The Devils. I ask Russell how he had got involved: ‘An artist friend bumped into Derek on a train coming back from Paris and he gave her his seat on a crowded train. He had his portfolio with him and he showed it to her and she said: “Ken’s doing a film, I think he might be interested in you”. So I met him and I thought he was very… unusual. He lived in a warehouse in the east end. It was vast and cold and he had a tiny greenhouse in the middle which he lived in so he could keep warm. And on the walls when I went to see him he had cardinals’ coats he’d made with transparent material and dollar bills and I thought “that’s my bloke, he’s the man for me.” So I signed him and we had a great time’. Jarman’s stark white tiling perfectly captured the asylum-like feel of a convent, creating one of the most memorable sets ever seen on film. ‘I showed him Fritz Lang’s Metropolis because in Huxley’s book he wrote that the exorcism of sister Jeanne was the equivalent of a rape in a public lavatory. That reminded me of Metropolis because of the arches and the tiles you see in public lavatories, and so I showed Derek that and we decided to have the nun’s convent in the same style. Then we did another film together, Savage Messiah (1972), where we had a bit of the Vorticist influence. He was a very clever bloke, a great friend.”
German expressionist cinema was a formative influence on Russell. ‘As a child I used to show films to my parents in my dad’s garage, shorts like Felix the Cat and Betty Boop. Then I got hold of a copy of Seigfreid (Fritz Lang, 1924). The only films available were German Expressionist films, silent films. And to help them I’d play records like ‘Things to Come’ by Arthur Bliss, and as soon as it finished I’d turn over and start again. And sometimes the music hit the scene perfectly and this introduced me to the power of music.’
Those early film shows led to a lifelong fascination with the power of music and film… and sex. ‘You know I showed Faust (FW Murnau, 1926) to the fire brigade during the war. There was a rather randy bit in it where Faust is having his way with a girl on a four poster bed and he’s rocking away, and it was quite something for those days. And the camera tilts up [here he ‘frames’ the shot] and Mephisto is on top of the canopy laughing his head off. And the fireman all enjoyed that (laughs). I didn’t know what was going on. I was only a boy!’ But Metropolis is still his favourite film. ‘It has the sexiest robot on film’ and was made the year of his birth (1927) or as he says, ‘it was made in honour of my birth.’
Were there any other filmmakers that he liked? ‘Michael Powell I loved. I liked Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. There’s a wonderful scene where they’re handcuffed and they have to spend the night together. That film was ahead of its time’. I suggest that Hitchcock was about suppressed sexuality whereas his films are anything but, which amuses him. He continues: ‘Of the French New Wave I liked Truffaut very much. But he was the only one. Chabrol and co I thought were overrated’. How about Godard? ‘Godard?’ he sneers ‘Oh God! No, I adored Truffaut, I liked the composer he used, George Delerue (he made a documentary on him in 1966) and he wrote the music for my first disaster French Dressing (his first feature film made in 1964 as a comedy, it flopped and he went back to television), but I liked Cocteau best of all, just before the New Wave’. He rapturously extols the virtues of Beauty and the Beast, Cocteau’s 1946 masterpiece which, like Russell’s films, is filled with hallucinatory imagery. ‘It was on TV when my daughter was six and I hadn’t seen it for years. By the end of the film we were both crying, moved to tears. There’s a spiritual truth in that film that continues to this day. Beautiful photography mise-en-scene, and acting that still has the ability to move. I love it’. What of his contemporaries? ‘Kubrick was very clever. He made glorious films but 2001 is too long. He should have cut out 20 minutes. His use of music was a bit… wilful. With the exception of the masterful use of Strauss in the opening, I felt his use of music sat uncomfortably on the image’. And The Shining? ‘Over-rated’. Don’t Look Now? ‘Over-rated’. Rosemary’s Baby? ‘Yes I saw that again the other day. It’s quite extreme. It’s more sinister than you think. Funny as well, black comedy. Mia Farrow is extraordinary.’
I want to talk about his own ‘supernatural’ films. I’d heard he was supposed to direct The Hunger. ‘I regret not doing that. Having seen it I liked it. But I’ve often made mistakes with films.’ He was also supposed to direct Cliff Richard in Summer Holiday, an unlikely Russell film. ‘I withdrew because I couldn’t get on with the composers. I did end up working with Cliff Richard though [in 1988], I made a video for him but it got banned by the BBC.’ Why? ‘Because I showed children playing with fire. You are not allowed to do that on the Bee…Bee…Cee’.
His first big budget film was the 1967 spy thriller Billion Dollar Brain. ‘As far as I know, it’s the only Hollywood film where the Soviet Russians were the heroes and the Americans were the enemies (laughs). No-one seemed to notice!’ But the 70s were his commercial peak, leading us to talk abut how these big box office films are today seen as ‘arty’. Would films like The Music Lovers even be funded today?
‘The whole situation’s different now. You wouldn’t make that film today. There seems to be a sort of provincialism around. Most films in those days were financed by America [the British government gave them tax breaks], and they had a more universal remit than local films made here. They were more international. And when they [the American studios] went, British films became more parochial. And still are it seems to me. There’s too much ‘reality’ now. Whereas in those days people like John Schlesinger actually made a much wider range of good films. Also, there were only a handful of people you had to convince to make your film, nowadays a committee decides whether or not you make a film, including investors who also have a say in what films are made. ’
In the 80s Russell returned to Britain and made Gothic and Lair of the White Worm. Gothic (1986) is set during the famous night that Percy Shelley, Dr Polidori and Mary Shelley spent the night in Lord Byron’s country estate telling drug-induced horror stories, just before she wrote Frankenstein and Polidori wrote Vampyr, a precursor to Dracula. It’s not a great film, I find its relentless hysteria too much, but I love it for its frenzied and astounding imagery, and its use of colour and lighting is almost painterly. It was marketed as a horror film but watching it again recently I found it to be a complex psychosexual drama about the act of creating art. It unfortunately has a terrible soundtrack (by Thomas Dolby!) right out of a cliché horror film. Russell describes it to me as ‘a pre-Raphaelite romp’, but does he consider it horror? ‘No, I didn’t call it a horror, but what the distributors call it is another matter. Like a number of films, I was asked to do it and it was a subject I was keen on.’
Two years later Russell made Lair of the White Worm at the same location, a fantastic piece of modern camp horror. Like Gothic it has extreme imagery, rampant sexuality and debauchery galore. The film is based on Bram Stoker’s novel and the plot, as such, involves the discovery of the cult of the giant D’Ampton worm, the appearance of the strange Lady Sylvia Marsh, and the subsequent attempts to stop her from freeing the creature from its cave. Early on there’s the obligatory Russell dream sequence featuring a crucifixion, giant snakes and a rape by Roman legionnaires… and then it really kicks off! As in many of Russell’s films, it revels in extreme imagery, which many have been put forward as a reason for his dismissal as a ‘serious’ filmmaker, but I’d argue he once again demonstrates the sublime and supernatural quality of the film-going experience.
‘I had already written a script for Dracula and never made it, but it was one of my favourite stories. I thought he [Bram Stoker] was a bit bonkers’. Actually Bram Stoker was insane by the time he wrote Lair of the White Worm wasn’t he? ‘Yes… none the worse for that!’
This is an excerpt from an article which appears in full in Garageland 6