KEN Russell – the infamous enfant terrible of British cinema – was one of the most acclaimed and controversial film directors of his generation.
He made his name with his sexually-graphic 1969 adaptation of D H Lawrence’s Women in Love, which earned him an Oscar nomination and international recognition.
The late actor Oliver Reed, who wrestled naked with Alan Bates in the film, said when he worked with Russell on Women in Love, the director was “starting to go crazy”.
Reed said: “Before that he was a sane, likeable TV director. Now he’s an insane, likeable film director.”
The success – and notoriety – of Women in Love enabled Russell to embark on outlandish pseudo-biographical films which helped earn him the reputation he craved – that of an unconventional eccentric on the wild side.
One of his pet projects was that of a biopic of Hollywood’s great screen lover Rudolph Valentino.
The very name conjured up images of Hollywood excess, the glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age. It screamed style.
Maybe it was the insanity Reed later referred to but, when Russell and his team looked for locations as a backdrop for that most stylish of eras, the Illawalla nightclub, in Thornton, came to mind.
Not only that, Blackpool’s Tower Circus, Ballroom and Winter Gardens were drafted in.
The reason was the resort’s superb architecture echoed that of prohibition-era America.
Legend has it a press ban was imposed by Russell. As Gazette feature writer Jacqui Morley said at the time: “Russell was clearly anxious to preserve his mystique and shield the film’s diffident star (ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev as Valentino) from the glare of publicity.”
Jacqui should known, given she was one of the 600 locals who answered a Gazette advert and became an extra on the film.
The 1977 film was savaged though by critics. Valentino is today listed among The 100 Most Amusingly Bad Moves Ever Made in Golden Raspberry Award founder John Wilson’s book The Official Razzie Movie Guide.
Most reviewers agreed there was ‘too much sex’ and sub-par acting, including that of the leads. The director would later famously denounce the film, saying: “What idiot made this?”
At $5m, his most expensive film to that date, the commercial failure is said to have almost ended Russell’s career.
Today, tributes continue to pour in following the director’s death at the age of 84.
Russell “passed away peacefully in his sleep on Sunday afternoon,” his devastated wife Elize said.
Glenda Jackson, who won a best actress Oscar for her role in Women in Love, said it was a “privilege” to know Russell, as both a film director and a friend.
She said Russell had an “incredible visual genius”, “a passion” and “a third eye” when it came to film-making. “His contribution to cinema internationally, will last,” she said.
But the MP, who also starred in Russell’s The Rainbow (1989) and The Music Lovers (1970), said he had not been given the recognition he deserved in later years.
“It’s an absolute shame the British film industry has ignored him. It’s an absolute disgrace... he broke down barriers for so many people,” she said.
Born in Southampton in 1927, Russell was known for his uncomfortable stories about the church, and for using sexually-challenging material.
After early failures at entering the film business he turned his attention to ballet, classical music and fashion photography.
He then started to make black and white silent films. He took one of these films, Amelia, to the BBC, and as a result, he landed a job on the Monitor arts programme.
Russell made 32 films for the Monitor and Omnibus programmes, and was then given the opportunity of directing outside TV.
The Devils, in 1971, initially featuring a scene with naked nuns, was banned by some authorities in the UK and in many other countries.
Film director Michael Winner said: “What the censor took out of The Devils was almost as long as the rest of the movie.”
Russell, he said, “was the most innovative director”, adding: “His television was in a field of its own, it was absolutely extraordinary. He took it into areas it hadn’t been before.
“They were riveting movies and TV because this strange mind was at work.”
And did it get any stranger than getting a ballet star to play Valentino, and then set the thing in Blackpool?
But then again that was the unpredictable Ken Russell through and through.