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Ken Russell

August 2007
IN case they didn’t go for it, Ken Russell had a Plan B. A Plan B involving the two sisters in the film.
But his first choice was to have leading men Alan Bates and Oliver Reed rolling around a carpet, tackle out.
And they were both up for it.
At first.
“As the moment of truth drew near they both got a bit chicken and produced doctor’s certificates saying ‘sorry Ken we can’t do it’”, says Ken Russell, remembering the Women In Love shoot on location in Derbyshire nearly 40 years ago.
“Alan had a cold that could develop in to pneumonia and Oliver had sprained his ankle that could develop in to something serious.
“I said ‘see you tomorrow morning at 8.30, chaps’, hoping for the best.
“Much to my surprise and delight at 8.30 the next morning the boys turned up, took off their dressing gowns and stood there as naked as the day they were born. I was gobsmacked.”
He later discovered that his friend Oliver Standing had taken them down the pub the night before, during which time they had a chance to “compare” at the urinals and decided, so Standing told Russell, “that there wasn’t much in it”.
Russell: “There wasn’t much in it, to tell you the truth. Though in between takes Oliver would disappear behind a screen and give nature a helping hand.”
Despite Glenda Jackson’s Oscar win for her role as Gudrun Brangwen, the wrestling scene is what Russell’s adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel is remembered for.
“It was a bit of a moment in history. The greatest nude wrestling scene in the movies. Probably the only one, actually”.
Women In Love, about the relationships between two friends and the sisters they fall in love with (Jennie Linden was the other sister), was Russell’s third film and made him an internationally known filmmaker.
Though he initially turned it down.
“I hadn’t heard of Lawrence, to be frank. When United Artists asked if I‘d like to do a film based on Women In Love by D.H. Lawrence, who I‘d never read, I said I‘d read the script. I read the script, I hated it. It was written by an American and had lost a lot of its Englishness.”
Which he discovered when United suggested he read the novel.
“As soon as I‘d read the book I gave them a call and said ‘hey, when can we start?’”
After Women In Love, Russell would direct a number of flamboyant and eccentric but acclaimed films, including The Music Lovers, The Devils, rock opera Tommy, Gothic and Lair of the White Worm.
Though the Oscar eluded him, he notched up a few BAFTAs and other international awards.
By 1990 his appeal within the industry had waned and he struggled to get offers from studios, though he continued to direct self-financed low budget films, what he calls his “home movies”.
Still does.
He’s in hospital for a check-up the day after we speak but otherwise he’s in good health for an octogenarian – he turned 80 last month.
Is he still dancing?
“Dancing and singing,” says Russell, who once toured the country as a dancer in his teens. His latest film, which he’s making with his fourth wife, is a historical biopic.
“I’m doing a movie called Boudica Bites Back, on our beautiful Queen of 60AD who drove the Romans out.”
He’s filming it in Wales using the facilities at a college in exchange for lecturing duties.
It’ll reach audiences via the internet only, he says.
As well as lecturing in Wales, he offers his wisdom to film students in his home city, Southampton.
“My mum was a great film fan. She took me to the movies almost every day,” he recalls.
Just before the war, his parents bought him a hand-cranked projector on which he would screen movies in the family garage for friends and neighbours.
“I showed a lot of Charlie Chaplin, Betty Boop and Felix The Cat. When the war broke out I was showing feature films but the only ones that were available were German silent films. So while they were dropping bombs on us I was showing their movies. It was a weird situation.”
After a spell in the RAF he moved to London where he worked as a fashion photographer, making short films as a hobby.
He was a regular at art house cinemas soaking up the work of the French new wave directors like Francois Truffaut, and Swede Ingmar Bergman, who died last month.
“They certainly left an impact on me.”
One of his short films made its way to the BBC and he was employed to direct arts programmes, such as Omnibus. His films, particularly those based on Debussy and Elgar, were great successes and led to him being given the opportunity to direct for the cinema.
As well as directing, Russell continues to appear in front of the camera, committed to appear in a forthcoming low-budget horror called The Invasion Of The Not Quite Dead.
It was his appearance in front of the Celebrity Big Brother cameras in January that came as a surprise to many. The enfant terrible of British cinema and reality TV?
“The programme fascinates me,” admits Russell, who last year produced a ballet for the Bronte Festival called Charlotte Bronte Enters The Big Brother House.
“You know how the Victorians used to visit places like Bedlam as entertainment? Where you‘d pay half a crown and you could watch the mad men? Well, I don’t have to pay anything and I can still watch the mad men.”
That said, his own experience of it lasted just a week, walking out following a row with Jade Goody over cheese.
He is avidly watching the current series on Channel 4.
“I‘d like the twins to win. If they’re pulling a fast one they’re most clever people on the planet. And if they’re not, they’re the most honest people on the planet. So they should win.”
But Brian is the favourite.
“Yes, but he’s too thick for me. He’s a thicko.
“And the ugliest stripper in England (the now evicted Shanessa), I don’t go much on her either.”

Ken Russell will talk ahead of a screening of Women In Love at Broadway in Broad Street on Wednesday August 15 at 7.30pm. To book call 0115 952 6611.

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