Late Ken Russell's work may at last be rediscovered, writes Geoffrey Macnab
It is the commonplace fate of British cinema's more visionary talents to end their careers marginalised and even mocked. This was certainly what happened to Ken Russell, who has died aged 84.
In his latter years, with his shock of white hair and his red face, the director cut a cantankerous and slightly buffoonish figure.
He asked for money for interviews. His greatest work wasn't much in circulation. Those who knew him from such lesser efforts as The Fall Of The Louse Of Usher (2002), his eccentric and low-budget Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, or for his Cliff Richard and Sara Brightman videos, were probably baffled that he had such a glowing reputation.
The director's son, Alex Verney-Elliott, said his father had died in hospital after a series of strokes. Russell's widow, Elize, said she was devastated by her husband's death, which had been "completely unexpected".
He was so often called the "enfant terrible" of British film no one paid as much attention to his craftsmanship as they should have done. His films were too extravagant, too full of sex, too pretentious in artistic references to appeal to the tastes of some of the primmer critics of the time. "The talent is there but somehow it is an appalling talent," critic Dilys Powell said of him early in his career.
Russell often seemed to be spoiling for a fight. "This is not the age of manners. This is the age of kicking people in the crotch and telling them something and getting a reaction. I want to shock people into awareness," was one of his belligerent early proclamations.
There was the notorious occasion when he hit the Evening Standard's critic, Alexander Walker, on the head with a newspaper during a debate about The Devils (1971), arguably his greatest film and his most problematic as far as the British censors were concerned.
Walker responded a year or so later by writing: "This man must be stopped: bring me an elephant gun." (Russell had just partnered producer David Puttnam to make a series of six films on composers.)
Even late in his life, he had the ability to wrongfoot or startle the questioner. In his final TV interview, filmed in August and due to be aired on Sky Arts this week, he confessed to having a four-decade "crush" on Glenda Jackson. He also talked about seeing - while still a child - one of his cousins blown to pieces as she played in a British field and stood on a landmine.
Think of Ken Russell films and the images most likely to spring to mind are of Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestling naked in front of the fireplace in Women In Love (1969), the torture sequences and masturbating nuns in The Devils, the steel phallus in his creepy and underrated Crimes Of Passion (1984) and a neurotic looking Richard Chamberlain (as Tchaikovsky) thumping the keyboard in The Music Lovers (1974.)
A cinephile as a child, Russell used to project old German expressionist silent films in his father's garage. He left the Merchant Navy after a breakdown. While recovering, he heard Tchaikovsky on the radio and was smitten. By the time he enrolled at Walthamstow Art School in the late 1950s, he was - as he joked - "the oldest photographic student in London".
As he put it, his "education proper began at the age of 32 with Huw Wheldon [BBC Arts producer and presenter of Monitor]. And I stammered and stuttered my way through 20 documentaries with him". He took over at Monitor from John Schlesinger.
He wanted to use dramatic elements in documentary and documentary elements in drama. Song Of Summer (1968), his film on Delius, was the ultimate refinement of this technique: an adaptation of Eric Fenby's book Delius As I Knew Him. Alongside the biopics about composers, there are spy thrillers (Billion Dollar Brain), rock operas (Tommy), nostalgic musicals (The Boy Friend) hallucinogenic sci-fi films (Altered States), seaside comedy (French Dressing) and plentiful DH Lawrence adaptations.
He worked in Britain and in Hollywood, on TV and on the big screen.
Whatever neglect he endured in his final years, his work is bound to be rediscovered now he is dead. This is invariably the way with British cinema's most visionary talents.