I nearly fell off my sofa and checked to see if I was really at home and not living in some surreal dream worthy of his films when, in 2007, the ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ presenter Davina McCall announced that one of my friends and lifelong heroes, film director Ken Russell, then 79 years young, was to step out of a limousine and become surely the least likely reality TV contestant ever. Ken burst into song underneath an umbrella (yes, ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, he was a trained dancer in his youth) and began to dance for the camera on the red carpet in his baggy red trousers and multi-coloured waistcoat.
The crowd screamed as Ken stumbled through the snow and sleet down the ‘Big Brother’ red carpet looking like an exhausted Santa Claus. But those who had pitched up in the freezing cold to boo and hiss could only guess at the real significance of this great man’s decision to appear in this riotous spectacle. Ken’s appearance was akin to having Salman Rushdie turn up as a contestant on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. Ridiculously, this giant of British cinema needed money.
Was this the same man I had watched in the early 1970s, when I was just out of film school, roaring at the film unions at Pinewood who were at that time scuppering the film industry with strike threats and their ridiculous working methods? ‘When I worked at Pinewood,’ recalled Russell, ‘the set fell down!’ His television biographies of Frederick Delius, Edward Elgar and the dancer Isadora Duncan had been inspirational catalysts for a generation of budding filmmakers. He created several masterpieces. ‘Women In Love’(1969), adapted from the DH Lawrence novel, gave the sublime Glenda Jackson her Oscar. ‘The Devils’ (1971), adapted from the Aldous Huxley novel, starred the great Vanessa Redgrave as a demented sex-obsessed nun. ‘Altered States’ (1980), the definitive film about hallucinatory drugs based on Paddy Chayefsky’s novel, starred Golden Globe nominee William Hurt. Was this the man I had watched in the late 1980s being cheered by adoring fans for twenty minutes at the end of an opera production he directed in Genoa and then saw getting involved in a violent brawl with a critic who had disliked his show? ‘Mephistopheles’ was the opera. ‘I hate all critics, Don!’ When Ken agreed to appear on ‘Celebrity Big Brother’, it was akin to Faust’s contract with the devil and yet the show’s brand of hysteria paled in comparison to what Ken has so controversially evoked so brilliantly on screen.
~ Don Boyd, December 2011