Acclaimed British film-maker Ken Russell has died aged 84. Best known for his controversial films Women in Love and Tommy, Russell died peacefully in his sleep in hospital on Sunday, according to his son, Alex.
Speaking to the BBC, director Michael Winner hailed Russell’s “duplicity of mind”, adding he had made an “enormous contribution” to British cinema. “He pushed the barriers completely and got away with it sometimes and didn’t others, but he made some startling movies,” he said. “He had an eye for the composition of each image on the screen – a great eye for imagery and then, of course, he had a great idea for the grotesque.”
Russell’s career began in British television with short films and regular pieces for Monitor, the BBC’s famous documentary series presented by Huw Wheldon in the 1950s and 60s. These shorts were typically arts features but never ordinary: for a Monitor profile of archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes in 1962, he turned in a little fantasy tale. Radio Times explained that the idea was: “No one is left alive in England. All that remains are fragments of our civilisation.”
Russell made the move into fiction proper and feature films with 1967’s Michael Caine spy thriller Billion Dollar Brain, based on the book by Len Deighton and adapted by Russell and his BBC colleague from the Monitor years, John McGrath. Then in 1969 he directed DH Lawrence’s Women in Love, which became controversial because of the nudity of its stars, Alan Bates and Oliver Reed.
“The nude male wrestling scene makes unnecessary macho points that didn’t need emphasis, but emphasis gave the film notoriety,” said Radio Times at the time. “And where would Russell be without notoriety?”
He did write and direct non-controversial films such as 1971’s The Boy Friend, starring Twiggy, but in that same year he adapted and filmed Aldous Huxley’s The Devils. Radio Times called it “repulsive, hysterical, disturbing, overwhelming, stunning, compelling and fascinating”, adding: “For once Russell’s surreal hallucinogenic style matches his frenzied material and, while condemned for being anti-religious, this is in fact a highly moral tale of absolute faith.”
In 2007, aged 80, he became the oldest contestant to take part in Celebrity Big Brother and joined it for the show’s most controversial series. He left early after a disagreement with Jade Goody, who was later involved in allegations of bullying against Shilpa Shetty.