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Kirsty Asher

Ken Russell – The Last Folk Hero of British Cinema

If British Cinema were to have its own Lord of Misrule it would be Ken Russell. The Rabelaisian flamboyance of his films echoes down the centuries of irreverent theatre, art and literature throughout British history. His blistering attack on formalised religion and its hypocrisy in The Devils (1971) holds comradeship with the libertines and rakehells of Restoration comedy who raged against Puritanism. Phallic imagery abounds in films like Lisztomania (1975) and The Lair of the White Worm (1988), as proud and rude as the Cerne Abbas giant. They are joined to Russell in their unabashed earthiness, rudimentary magnetism and a refusal to kowtow to Christianised ideas of virtue and morality. His work traversed the biographical, the fictional and the mythical.  He was the Robin Goodfellow of film, Blakean in his singular, blazing vision. 

He also earned a notable reputation as a destructive presence in the British film industry. Lindsay Anderson once said that “British cinema lost its way with the romantic neo-baroque of [Nicolas] Roeg and Ken Russell”. Pauline Kael was on a one woman mission to bury the man. She finished her review of one of Russell’s tamer projects, Savage Messiah (1972), a biographical film about the life of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, by saying: “One can’t just dismiss Russell’s movies, because they have an influence. They cheapen everything they touch—not consciously, I think, but instinctively.” It’s funny to read this now knowing that his campest and most outrageous films were still a decade in the making. Poor Pauline.

His reputation is that of a coarse filmmaker, devoid of poetic flair for camera work, editing or indeed sound design. Yet the striking Bosch-like visuals of his films and the mythologising reputation he built as a result all play into the everchanging view of British cinema as it waxes and wanes in relevance and strength. Cheap though they may be to Kael, his outlandish adaptations of both the biographical, the fictional and the mythical contribute to storytelling in the same manner of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979), her seminal collection of short stories which reframed well-known fairytales through a darker, feminist lens. 

Folklore and mythology is never fixed and immovable, for there are always fluid socio-cultural factors in society which change how we view the old tales and the historic figures. As much as figures such as King Arthur were mythologised through tales of their great deeds, in this day and age mythos is found in how we recount the eccentricities and joyous idiosyncrasies of the people who pass in and out of your life. As Brandice Palmer puts it in her essay Seeking Story: Finding the Modern Day Folktale in the Daily News (2005), “Interviews with everyday people, and encounters with their customs and traditions, are living histories of people who helped compose the world we humans live in and give it context.” Oliver Reed, star of perhaps Russell’s most renowned film, The Devils, said on Parkinson in 1973 that having been recommended he join RADA after he left the Navy, he instead spent five years in his local pub. Who we choose to lionise in our cultural memory is a declaration of the values we wish to impart on the world.   

In 1998, Russell embarked on a passion project, a surreal and sometimes bizarrely staged 50 minute documentary called Ken Russell: In Search of the English Folk Song. The first half of the documentary doesn’t extend beyond his New Forest village, where he chats with locals about their take on folk songs. He meets with a village neighbour, a born and bred New Forester, who feels an affinity with Native American culture, hates General Custer, and writes songs taking the piss out of rednecks. Later he talks to co-founder of the folk rock group Fairport Convention, Ashley Hutchings, and asks him “What is English folk song, where does it come from? Where is it going?” Hutchings likens it to chasing the Holy Grail, but claims its death in the purest sense came at the advent of television and radio communication. However, he then describes his band’s new take on an old lamenting song, “The Young Man Cut Down in His Prime”, sung from the perspective of a man dying from a sexually transmitted disease, and reframes it as a soft, woeful ballad of the AIDs era. There might still be room for new meaning in the old songs. 

In no Russell film is this sentiment more evident than in Salome’s Last Dance (1988) which took Oscar Wilde’s adaptation of a Biblical text and gave it the sumptuous, indefatigably camp treatment. Decadence, on decadence, on decadence. Aubrey Beardsley provided artful inspiration for Wilde, whose work is later elaborated and adorned by Russell. Layers of art unfurl themselves from the source material like riotous petals, irrevocably shifting the image conjured in the collective mind when hearing the name “Salome”. The premise finds Wilde and his lover Alfred “Bosie” Douglas calling at an all-male brothel on Guy Fawkes Night 1892, where Wilde is treated to a rendition of his recently banned play Salome performed by Bosie, (a young Douglas Hodge), in-house sex workers, the brothel’s procuror, a mysterious regal actress (played by Russell stalwart Glenda Jackson) and a young maid in the title role, played with impish imperialism by Imogen Millais-Scott.

The art design and costume in this particular film go beyond camp, entering the realm of gender fluidity and queerness. There are nods to the leather community in the studded jockstraps and gladiator skirts worn by the guards. One particular scene finds the Tetrarch Herod, played by Stratford Johns, surrounded by four femme-presenting court gossips, three of them resplendant in gold skin and kohl-rimmed eyes, with the fourth in Antoinette chalk and pastel makeup. Two are languorously retouching their makeup back-to-back before Herod upon the stage steps, while the others hover at his shoulders, puffing on cigarette holders in a modern twist. Both casual and regal in their characterisation, reminiscences of ball culture swim to the surface, further heightened by the theatricality of the performance space, and the geographically queer setting. 

By the time the climactic Dance of the Seven Veils is performed, the actor playing Tetrarch Herod has seamlessly taken the place on the audience sofa previously occupied by Wilde – he is now in an intimate corner with the gold-painted actor playing the pageboy. Yet the dance is performed by a femme male dancer (shots of Millais-Scott feature only in close-ups) whose athletic figure transcends gender. This along with what’s been noted in textual analysis as masculinity in Salome’s forceful lust blurs the lines of desire and betrayal to the extent that it’s no longer Tetrach’s entrapment occurring, but Wilde’s. The ideas of gender transgression through desire that captured Wilde’s imagination with Salome are reimagined through a modern approach to gender performance, and as such Russell’s interpretation begets a new cultural story. This is something Russell himself saw as the most vital aspect of creating art: “That’s the role of the artist in society. It’s just stirring things up to make people look at things in a different way – to enlighten them, to give them a bit of magic.”  

This ‘stirring things up’ resisted the unsexing and defanging of historical figures attempted by more culturally conservative preferences for historical storytelling, and no one could shatter the pearl-clutching illusions surrounding Britain’s Finest like Russell could. Merchant-Ivory’s A Room With A View (1985) indulged both critics and audiences alike with its billowy romance between Julian Sands and Helena Bonham-Carter. It was Sands’ first starring role, and established him as an ideal romantic figure in the traditional period drama genre. Within a year, Sands had been cast in his second starring role as Percy Bysshe Shelley in Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986), an interpretation of the fabled night in August 1816 when Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne), John Polidori (Timothy Spall), Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson) and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont (Myriam Cyr) regaled each other with ghost stories, the resulting creativity of which spawned Polidori’s novel The Vampyre, (1819) and, more famously, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Sands himself later remarked on the abrupt career transition and what it meant for Shelley et al to receive the Russell treatment: “If James Ivory had done a film about Shelley, it would be a much more lyrical and soothing piece of work…With James Ivory you are on a carousel, but with Ken Russell you are on a roller coaster.” Thanks to Ken, Sands went from dreamy Florentine fields and English country gardens in Merchant-Ivory, to being perched naked on the roof of Lord Byron’s Geneva villa like a milk-white gargoyle with an admirable bubblebutt, throwing up his arms in wild abandon to the thunderstorm overhead. 

While camp and over-the-top a film like Gothic may be, it offers a characterisation of Shelley which doesn’t shy away from the neuroses which plagued him – his hallucinatory panic attacks, his sleepwalking. It might seem as though Russell was embellishing the tale with his own mad design by including a dramatic scene where Shelley beholds a bare-breasted Claire, with eyes where her nipples should be, but this was an actual hallucination of Shelley’s, as relayed in John Polidori’s account of that night in his foreword to The Vampyre.  As for Lord Byron, played with simultaneously predatory and world-weary sensuality by Gabriel Byrne, he is not so much an enfant terrible but a full-on monster. He talks about putrefaction at the dinner table and suddenly squeezes Claire’s cheeks in his hand so that spaghetti spills from her mouth like blanched worms, the camera capturing it from an absurdly low angle. Byron later pleasures Claire (who is pregnant with his child) with oral sex, during which she miscarries and he is shown in closeup smiling triumphantly afterwards, her crimson blood gleaming on his lips. From this dramatic interpretation of a real-life figure it becomes easier to understand why Byron may have been an influence for the modern-day image of Count Dracula, and his reputation as an amoral libertine is given a post-sexual revolution revision. This comes back to what Russell talked about with ‘stirring things up’ – he creates new folklore concerning both the biographical and the mythical through his unique interpretation of chosen texts.

Russell achieved a raucously combative presence alongside his contemporaries, simply by remaining resolute in his style of craft. He becomes a folk hero just through existing in British film culture. The craftwork of his bizarre projects were such that they inspired funny industry anecdotes shared across the years. He used his personal documentary to capture the folklore of exuberant everyday people. He even went on Celebrity Big Brother in 2007 and argued with Jade Goody. His existence as a British artist was a vehicle through which localised mythology and dramatic revisioning of old stories could keep ploughing their resonant furrows. Lord of Misrule, yes, but also a spiritual Arthur Pendragon of the film industry. When the time is right and the people are in need, films as ludicrous as his will make their return to adorn the screen once more.