Ken Russell: Permanent Enfant Terrible

28th November 2011

Just days after it was announced that The Devils is finally to receive a prestigious BFI DVD release (next March), we have the sad news is that its incomparable director, Ken Russell, that permanent enfant terrible, has died aged 84.

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Ken Russell has been pilloried and dismissed for many years. Of course, he seemed to court it. His appearance in a notorious series of Celebrity Big Brother (the one dominated by the Jade Goody-Shilpa Shetty race row) and his ongoing attempts to seemingly parody his glory years with straight-to-video movies shot in his back garden — The Fall of the Louse of Usher, Revenge of The Elephant Man — confirmed, as if we hadn’t expect it, that he was growing old disgracefully. But what was also further clouded was the towering artistic achievement of the two most relentlessly inventive periods of his career: 1964-69 on television, and 1969-75 on the big screen.

The first brought us a series of films under the prestigious BBC arts programme banners, Monitor and Omnibus. Russell’s take on the lives and works of composers — Bartok (1964), The Debussy Film (1965), Song of Summer: Frederick Delius (1968) — were like nothing seen on television before. Abandoning the stuffy, pedagogical principles of ‘Reithianism’, they were unashamedly visual, sensual and emotive. Today they remain in the company of The War Game and Cathy Come Home as the ‘film classics’ of sixties British television.

Graduating to the cinema, Russell pushed his vision onto a broader canvas, with lavisher budgets and fewer restrictions. This was arguably the beginning of his downfall — shock tactics were trowelled on with less and less subtlety. But in the six-year period from 1969, Russell exhibited a tireless artistic energy on a par with Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Jean-Luc Godard, and we are left with a half-dozen classics: Women in Love (1969), The Music Lovers (1970), The Boy Friend (1971), Savage Messiah (1972), Mahler (1974) and Tommy (1975).

But The Devils (1971) — his controversial, riotous, much-censored account of naked nun hysteria in 17th Century France — is in a class of its own. It may be that Russell never really recovered from it; it couldn’t be wiped from his record even if he’d wanted it to be. The Devils represents Russell at the height of his powers — and at the depths of his obnoxiousness. It is technically brilliant but almost utterly unrestrained. It is artfully composed yet extremely badly behaved. Its long awaited DVD appearance early next year will stand perhaps as the most fitting tribute to its brilliantly unhinged creator.

Julian Upton

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