Very British movie maverick who put controversy in the picture

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KEN Russell’s death on Sunday, at the age of 84, brings to an end one of the most colourful and controversial film careers in British cinema.

The maverick director was regarded as an enfant terrible of film-making in this country for his graphic portrayal of sex and violence and his challenging choice of subject matter.

His films certainly weren’t for the faint hearted. Women in Love (1969) became famous for the nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates in front of a roaring fire, while The Devils (1971), which featured nuns indulging in orgies, was banned by some authorities in the UK and is only being made available on DVD for the first time next year.

Nevertheless, his peers and those he worked with lined up to praise him yesterday.

Film director Michael Winner paid tribute to Russell’s “unique” contribution to British film- making. “He had a very good run, even though his style of picture-making became obsolete, but that happened to everyone, including Billy Wilder and Hitchcock. His contribution to TV and cinema in this country is absolutely unique. He took it into areas it hadn’t been before.”

Glenda Jackson, who won an Oscar for her role in Women in Love, said Russell’s work would have a lasting legacy. She said Russell had an “incredible visual genius”, “a passion” and “a third eye” when it came to film-making. Jackson, who also starred in Russell’s The Rainbow (1989) and The Music Lovers (1970), added: “He created this wonderful climate for actors to work in. He knew what he didn’t want, but he was prepared to be surprised.”

Russell became a film-maker through chance rather than by design. He harboured a childhood ambition to be a ballet dancer but instead joined the Merchant Navy as a teenager. It was while he was recovering from a nervous breakdown after the war that he first heard Tchaikovsky on the radio, inspiring a lifelong fascination with classical composers.

After a spell in the Royal Air Force, he became a photographer and made amateur films while working for the magazine Picture Post. He first gained a reputation as a promising film-maker while directing for BBC arts programme Monitor. His documentary Song of Summer, about the Yorkshire-born composer Frederick Delius, was widely acclaimed while his study of Edward Elgar did much to revive the composer’s music.

Jane Giles, head of film and video distribution at the British Film Institute (BFI), says there was more to Russell’s career than his controversial films. “He was a very important television and film-maker. His TV documentaries in the 60s which introduced dramatisation for the first time changed the way documentaries were made,” she says.

It gave him the platform to branch out into film directing. “What was different about him as a film-maker was the way he unleashed the visual imagination at a time when British films looked a little grey and staid,” explains Giles. “He provoked critics and audiences by going to the extremes of sex and violence and creating a kind of hallucinatory state on screen.”

His cinema career peaked during the 70s, but by the following decade his films had lost their lustre. “Critics became tired of his provocative style and many felt his films had become too indulgent. By the 90s, he was making films from his garage and in the noughties he was appearing on Celebrity Big Brother with Jade Goody.” By the end of his life, he had become a marginalised figure in the film world, but Yorkshire Post film critic and writer Tony Earnshaw is in no doubt about Russell’s mercurial talent. “He was a titan. Ken Russell re-invented British movies in the late 60s and 70s, but he was never wholly understood by the so-called establishment because he was too experimental, too visionary and too unique.

“That was his downfall in many ways. Had he existed in a different time where the movers and shakers had a different mindset he would have been recognised for what he was – a genius. The tragedy is it takes his death to make people realise what he gave to the movies. No doubt we will see a raft of retrospectives about his work in the coming weeks and months but it’s too late.”

Earnshaw admits that Russell had a habit of rubbing some people up the wrong way, but says this shouldn’t detract from his skill as a director. “He wasn’t always an easy man, he could be awkward, combative and confrontational – all the things that put off studio executives. But for a brief, shining moment he was absolutely up there at the very top.”