On the face of it
As mentioned, the Encyclopaedia Britannica set from 1977 has Ken Russell listed as an "author" before filmmaker. I'm not sure why but as I'm still reading up on all he's done he may well have written many books in the 50s and 60s I have yet to discover. Why the term author would precede film director still puzzles me though. Perhaps the voluminous amount of screen and teleplays Ken has penned constitute author for EB. It certainly does for me anyway. I do think Ken Russell is a fantastic writer of both fiction and non-fiction. So many of the greatest performers and film makers are. You know when a huge star you admire has reached 40 odd or so and has yet to write anything, including a biography that they are truly dullsville with the pen.
So I'm breaking my vow and getting loads of Ken books as I can afford them. A British Picture, Ken's autobio (pictured) is with me now and his volume on directing and writing for films plus Lanza's Phallic Frenzy are both taking FAR too long to arrive in the post! Here is a great review of the latter from The Times of London a few years back:
Phallic Frenzy, Ken Russell and his Films by Joseph Lanza
This delightful biography of the eccentric British film director could be the most fun you'll have with a book this summer.
The Sunday Times review by Antonia Quirke
Ken Russell was born into a lower middle-class family in Southampton in 1927. When he was little he went to see Pinocchio and was fondled by the man in the seat next to him. Ken marched out and complained to his Aunt Moo, but she didn't really listen. Neither did Mum or Dad, but then they weren't particularly switched on.
Ken was definitely switched on: he thought that a gorilla resided next door, and longed to live in a puddle. Mum loved the cinema above all else and forced Ken to go with her every day to watch ghastly romances. ("You said there wasn't going to be any love in the film and they're kissing already!") So Ken converted the garage into a cinema, adding extension arms to his Pathescope 9.5mm hand-cranked projector, renting Die Nibelungen and Metropolis from the local chemist (some chemist), and screening them for whoever would watch.
Soon Ken was sent to a naval college where he dressed the other cadets in drag, using rolled-up rugger socks for boobs. And he hadn't even noticed real girls yet. Plus it's only page 12.
I could go on. In fact I will, because nothing I could invent could be any more interesting than the things Ken Russell has actually done. Simply, Joseph Lanza's passionate, witty bow to the director is the most fun you'll have with a book this summer. Taking us through Russell's oeuvre of more than 90 films (for small and big screen, some familiar, others rarely seen), it pummels the reader with detail and anecdote, using interviews with actors and producers, reviews, bombastic description, academic theories, personal opinion, and the occasional, tantalising photograph. Although Lanza never actually clapped eyes on Russell himself, the whole thing manages to back-flip off the page, fresh and unlikely.
So. Dad wanted Ken to be a shoe salesman like him, but back home in Southampton his son literally had a nervous breakdown at the thought, and was incapable of moving off the settee except to pee, until one day Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 1 came on the radio and Ken understood that he must be a ballerina. Aunt Moo immediately made him join the RAF.
Soon after, marrying young and living on gooseberries, Russell took an eye-catching series of photographs of Teddy Girls on bomb sites and landed a job at the BBC making films about famous composers — this was 1958, when showing even the traces of an actor's hands or feet while depicting the lives of historical personages was thought of as a perversion of the truth.
But perverting the truth was Ken's whole bag. "TV audiences are asleep in armchairs," he reasoned. "It's a good thing to shake them up — if only to reach for the phone." Ken showed a child actor playing Elgar riding a horse across the Malvern Hills, thus changing the definition of verisimilitude on British screens for the rest of time. The public went potty with enthusiasm, voting it the best thing they'd ever seen. Before they knew it, Ken was giving them Isadora Duncan gyrating naked on a grand piano in advance of being rescued from suicide by a one-legged man (Ken in a cameo). As they say, be careful what you wish for.
The rest — the rise, and fall, of sorts — is a matter of public record. By 1978 Ken had found mucho notoriety and wealth with films such as Women in Love, The Devils and Tommy. Alan Bates and Oliver Reed had wrestled naked in front of a fire in a scene the Argentinians found so worrying they cut it to just the two actors shaking hands. Gabriel Byrne's Shelley had tongued Julian Sands's Byron, Hugh Grant had passed out in the lair of a gigantic white worm, and Sean Bean had had Lady Chatterley up against trees lined with flower-strewn corpses. Some people (the British censor John Trevelyan) loved what they saw, others (the American critic Pauline Kael) despised it. Friends and colleagues croaked, years passed, marriages exploded. One wife recalls that the only way she could calm Russell during a career-busting phone call to Hollywood was to douse him head to toe in Pimm's. Today the "unbankable" director makes films in the back yard of his new house (his last one burnt to a crisp) with his neighbours and the fourth Mrs Russell, a sensible American he found on the internet.
And yet, when Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni died last year, the BBC immediately scurried to Russell for comment. Their cameras regarded him — this 80-year-old infant, this apparent monument to unashamed hysteria — but were unsure what to make of him. Well, here's what to make of him. Ken Russell is an artist. He knows in his bones that cinema is the delirious form. He understands that the last thing we need are adults behind the camera, and that the greatest directors — Orson Welles, for starters — have essentially been children. At their best, Russell's films feel as if they are ferociously warding off death itself and have inspired enough sweat and wowzow tears to float a fleet down the Thames. At their worst they are merely out to lunch. We love and need Ken Russell. This exhilarating book reminds us how much.
Phallic Frenzy, Ken Russell and his Films by Joseph Lanza
Aurum £18.99 pp384