Eyewitness: Ken Russell, by his son

Eyewitness: Ken Russell, by his son


norman lebrecht

December 07, 2011

We are privileged to publish the first family memoir of the late film director. It is specially written for Slipped Disc by his son, Alex, and it contains tantalising snapsots – how Ken Russell turned down Steven Spielberg, how he tried to teach Andre Previn to conduct Tchaikovsky and what it feels like to be molested by a pack of mad nuns. Here’s Alex’s text:

My earliest memory of Ken the film director was when I was playing an extra in Always on Sunday (1965) about the painter Henri Rousseau. I had to throw a coin in the painter’s hat, as he was busking with a violin. I kept missing the hat with my autistic throw, so Ken had to keep re-taking the shot again and again until I got it in.
I was also in a scene with Michael Caine in the Billion Dollar Brain (1967) when I had to take bread from a table and remember Ken’s direction to be very laid back and relaxing with the scene shot with a sparse economy of direction.
One of the most intensely terrifying yet euphoric experiences of my youth was in The Music Lovers. I was in a scene with Iza Teller (who was playing Madame Nadedja von Meck) and remember being tightly clasped to her bosom hearing her heart pounding profusely, as she read a letter. Here Ken used Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliette Overture for the take (but not for the final edition) which was played very loudly on set. The intensity of the music, the lights, the crew and her beating heart created an overwhelming sensation of bliss and anxiety all at once. Such a juxtaposition of emotions of dread and delight were also felt when I was an extra in The Devils, being molested by hysterical screaming naked nuns. After shooting we would go and view the rushes around 6.30 and I recall seeing the now lost edits of Oliver Reed as Urbain Grandier having his legs broken by repeated hammer blows which were heavily cut in the released version. Most film critics are unaware of this, focusing their attention on the censored Rape of Christ scene.

At home, Ken’s passions were cooking and picture-hanging. He had a huge collection of art and artefacts and loved to juxtapose bizarre combinations of images, the old with the new. He would have made a great curator. He could have also been a master chef. My mother Shirley Russell, taught him how to cook. At the dinner table Ken’s grotesque humour came to the fore – hilarious jokes about people he was working with.  

Ken had a healthy hatred of politics and politicians and was courageously  ‘politically incorrect’,  speaking his mind even if it upset and shocked people. He described himself to me as “one of Nature’s Aristocrats” and he was. He was also one of Culture’s aristocrats. Ken introduced me to painting by taking me to the Tate Gallery and National Gallery and pointing out paintings which had helped his use of lighting in films. I recall him pointing closely to light falling across some buildings in a Canaletto when a rather grumpy guard woman slinked up to him and said “Don’t touch the painting!” Ken replied that he did not and she said: “I will make sure you won’t next time”; to which Ken repeated “I did not touch it!.” This farcical exchange went on and on with neither giving way. Ken loved showing me the Turners more than any other artist. There was something of Turner in Ken, two artists very much attune to being one with nature being attune to the sensations of the Divine in Nature.

For recreation Ken loved walking the Lake District fells and in the New Forest, where he nurtured images and ideas from nature for his films often wearing his Bavarian breeches, cape and cap and walking cane. We would all go off up the hills and through the forests trailing behind his fast stride with our feet often aching on walks which seemed to last an eternity and often in stormy weather; and I remember  when we were very young Ken bought us all Lederhosen looking like the von Trapp family from The Sound of Music!

My most intimate times with my father were spent listening to music together. I remember seeing Ken cry at the closing of Bernard Haitink conducting Mahler’s 3rd Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall and when listening to Jeffrey Tate’s recording of Elgar’s In The South with the LSO. Ken introduced me to relatively unknown South American and Scandinavian composers. While writing and cooking, Ken would play Stan Kenton, Billy May, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra. When we were young Ken played us Arthur Fiedler’s Boston Pops Goes Latin and Quincy Jones’ Big Band Bossa Nova (and Ken would often play ‘bad taste’ kistch muzac as a tactic to evict geusts who had stayed long past there invite date). For his travels, Ken used to play Gershwin’s Rhapsody in BlueConcerto in F, and An American in Paris and Holst’s The Planets on his 8 Track Car Sterol on the way to the Lake District or down to the New Forest as a remedy to stop our car sickness which we all tended to suffer. Listening to music in concert always turned into an eccentric event: I vividly remember us all peddling our legs in the air riding imaginary bicycles to Khachaturian conducting his Sabre Dance from Gayane  with the LSO in a box at the Royal Festival Hall in 1977.
Ken would tell me what the music meant to him through visual imagery. Ken was primarily imagistic as music always initiated and inspired images within him like the sensory hallucinations in Altered States. Ken  was always seeking the ideal image to match the music and it was his exacting juxtaposition of music and image that was the essence of his genius as a film director (and no other director comes close to Ken in the combination of image and music, not Kubrick, not Godard, not Palmer.  When Ken showed us Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) on our home family projector, he used Charles Munch’s Boston Symphony performance of Martinu’s Sixth Symphony as the sound track, uncannily matching image and music to total perfection. Another example of this is in Mahler in the scene near the beginning when the lakeside summer hut explodes in flames to the brass cries in the Adagio of the Tenth Symphony.

When he was preparing to make the film, he played me Mahler’s 6th Symphony explaining what the music meant to him when all of a sudden my mother walked in on cut to Alma’s theme in the first movement and said: “Is this meant to be me?”

We both shared a love the same conductors that included Toscanini, Reiner, Klemperer, Mravinsky, Ansermet,  Mitropoulos, Monteux and Munch. One of Ken’s favourite LPs was Munch’s mesmerizing account of Ibert’s Ports of Call (Escales) especially those sparkling strings and harps that he felt perfectly evoked the light and sea; it reminded me of a similar sensation we shared when we  were in Cannes in 2001 for the showing of Louse where we both stood looking out to the misty sea at this luxury yacht that seemed suspended in mid-air as if floating in the sky and Ken seemed so moved and mesmerized by this strange sensation of a yacht suspended in the sky.

Ken loved playing Toscanini’s 1953 performance of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony which he felt all other conductors made far too tame, as Previn did, when recording it for The Music Lovers with the London Symphony Orchestra. I remember at the recording sessions Ken kept on trying to get Previn to make the climax of the closing first movement much more dramatic saying: “add lib” (as it is in the score). Ken once played me Comissiona’s recording of Pettersson’s 8th Symphony pointing out that a certain section reminded him vividly of a heart-beat monitor machine in a hospital whilst the repeated staccato-rhythm pointed-woodwind cries heard in the closing of Klemperer’s recording of Bruckner’s 9th Symphony reminded him of a Morse Code signal being sent out in to space. For Ken music was essentially and primarily an initiator of images and no other film director was able to originate and initiate  images from music like Ken could and one wonders how Beethoven’s music would have inspired Ken’s imagination but no Beethoven film ever materialised despite being planned. Ken met Klaus Kinski in Northern California in 1981 to discuss him playing the composer in Beethoven’s Secret which was to be shot in 1982 but no money materialized so sadly the project was postponed.


The last two films I worked on with Ken at his New Forest ‘Old Tinsley’s’ cottage were two of his shoe-string budget productions Lion’s Mouth and Fall of the Louse of Usher. We bought the props and costumes from Oxfam in New Milton where Ken would barter for a bargain and never ever pay the price on the tag for Ken was a great haggler! Working on these home made movies was incredibly stressful because of Ken’s demanding nature. I was an awful camera operator and Ken got furious when I badly framed a sequence and accidentally cut off his head in some shots! On several occasions at night both Ken and I shared the same paranormal experiences of a powerful force that pushed us out of our beds as did another friend who was staying so the cottage contained troubled spirits.
 When I went with Ken to see Steven Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence (2001) we both wept in unison at the closing scene with the robot boy and the Blue Fairy frozen under sea. Spielberg offered Ken the chance to work in the United States after Altered States but Ken refused. Ken did regret this. When working on Lion’s Mouth, Ken said to me that when he died he  wanted his tombstone to be inscribed with the words: “OK – So I fucked Up.” He reiterated this point again and again and said make sure it is done.

But Ken did not fuck up and was arguably one of the most original and innovative film directors in the history of cinema. It is thus absolutely appalling that he never received BAFTA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Ken was never given the public recognition he deserved when alive and was far more appreciated and admired abroad than he was in the UK (like the artist Francis Bacon was). In 1973 I met Federico Fellini when he was shooting Amarcord and I said to him how Ken was influenced by his films to which he replied that he was influenced by Ken’s films! Aesthetically speaking, Ken is a European film director despite being always associated with Delius and Elgar films as essentially an English director and Ken felt that there was a ‘Continental feeling’ in his films and said to Peter Buckley “I much prefer Continental films. I don’t particularly like English films. and I’ve seen very few I care for.”

 Indeed, Russell (like Bacon) was appreciated abroad more than in the UK and both were largely misunderstood and so lazily labelled as ‘controversial’ and ‘sensationalist’ and condemned for ‘going over the top’ and ‘going too far’ (which simply means being true to ones instincts being an ‘instinctual’ rather than ‘intellectual’ – Bacon once said that people nearly always live through screens through “a screened existence”. Bacon wanted to remove the screen whilst Ken wanted to remove the veil and so Ken used the screen to lift the veil to reveal all. Both Bacon and Russell (like Fellini and Picasso) were tied to images of their youth and remained forever young and both Bacon and Ken never obeyed the ideology of old aged. In his youth Bacon remembered the sensation of mortality  when seeing a dog shit on the pavement whilst Ken recalled to me the disturbing sight of a small dog with an elephantine erection the length of its entire body and both these abject images haunted them for years to come and these images seemed to have locked them both into an eternal youth.
My father (along with Bacon) was the only true genius I have ever met and both had an intensely vivacious and youthful poignant presence. Ken loved Bacon’s Popes and Bacon, according to Eddie Gray, loved The Devils, especially the corpses on the cart wheels on tall poles. When we listen to music often images from Ken’s films come to mind as if they were always in the music. Ken lived life to the empty bottle of Chardonnay and will be gladly pissed as he directs his latest film, Alice in Wonderland!
I would like to end with an interview Ken gave for the release of Savage Messiah in 1972, in which he reveals his close affinity with Gaudier-Brezeska: “Of course he was also the outsider against society, believing in himself and gradually winning through against the odds, but of course he wasn’t conscious that he was an outsider. I mean everyone’s so conscious today if they’re outsiders, but it was just the normal thing for him to be, I suppose. Remember that up until quite recently the outsider didn’t seem to have much chance whatsoever, while today everyone’s conscious  if they’re outsiders and it’s a great bonus. One is more likely to succeed than not. Well of course Gaudier did succeed in what he created even in his short life, and I think he would have been the best sculptor in the world; certainly in England. … He’d do a classical torso, he’d do an Epstein, Brancussi, and Picasso, but much better than Picasso; much much better, at the same age. You know they’re afraid people will laugh at them or say they’re copying this person or that. Well Gaudier wasn’t afraid of anything, and that was part of his genius… This whole normal-abnormal thing is just so – well, what is normal? What is abnormal?… If you want to make a film of an artist, you’d be hard pressed to find one that one could call normal. Everyone’s a law unto themselves!” (Savage Saviour – Ken Russell talks to Peter Buckley about the outsider against society, art and revolution…and Ken Russell, Films and Filming, October 1972.)
Alex Verney-Elliott: 7th December, 2011


  • Vicki Price says:

    A clearly, well balanced article. Ken Russell’s son Alex has written a beautiful and honest rendition of his relationship with his Father. I admire Ken’s self-righteous and upholding of his belief in his films, ‘stuck to his guns’ whether the ‘industry’ liked them or not. Powerful! He will be missed, but of course Ken Russell will go down in History as one of the ‘best’ and ‘heroic’ film-maker’s of ALL time.

  • Super Amanda says:

    Thank you so much for sharing such personal observations and treasured memories. How your father could inspire such anger in his home country after doing so much to popularize British film post war is baffling and inexcusable. British films before your father, Lindsay Anderson and Michael Winner were all about
    showing Gunga Din and Bosambo of Monrovia “the white man’s way” or Ealing Studio comedies. It is no coincidence that the establishment tried to obliterate all memory of the Archers in a similar fashion. Thanks to your father I have a deeper understanding of music and so many other things. My husband and I watched Elgar today and we both broke down in tears. So much more I could say but it won’t be enough for such an amazing and prolific artist. All my best.