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More Ken Russell

There's no need for probing questions when Ken Russell's around. He has an exciting story to tell and he means to tell it.

IN A SPECIAL FEATURE, INGRID PITT DISCUSSES HORROR WITH FILMMAKER KEN RUSSELL, ONE OF BRITAIN'S TRUE AUTEURS

Part 2 of this Interview may be found HERE

Ken Russell Film - Altered

Altered - Not the happiest film Ken ever worked on.

I had arranged to meet Ken Russell, the acclaimed and oft scorned director for lunch at a little Italian restaurant in Brockenhurst. As soon as I arrived I realized that I had made the wrong decision as the waiters all had a Mario Lanza complex and kept belting out snatches of the more popular operas. Would my newly-acquired tape recorder cope? Here I was, about to interview one of the most misinterpreted, misunderstood, misquoted and critically dismissed artists that England had to offer. He gave the world The Devils, The Music Lovers, The Lair of the White Worm and Gothic. I didn't want to lose any of his pearls of wisdom to a badly rendered 0 Sole Mia! Ken arrived and there were the usual OTT hugs and kisses. I think Ken is a genius. The work he has done is fantastic and I wanted to talk to him about all of it if time allowed. I told him about my reservations regarding the location he suggested we run away to the Isle of Wight "a quaintly weird, surreal place, an idyllic nirvana with wonderful hotels and brilliant vistas", he said.

With the food ordered (spaghetti for Ken, bloody steak for me, and a bottle of chianti for the tipple), I began the interrogation.

When we were both interviewed on Channel Four's Light Lunch programme, Ken had some pretty powerful things to say about the nature of Horror in the movies but I thought for a minute that the interview wasn't going to get very far!

"Darling," he admitted, "I can't remember any of it. I can never remember anything I said with the TV camera on me. It dries up the memory."

I prodded his memory with a few suggestions. Eventually it started to come back.

"James Herbert said something like 'Horror is Horror is Horror whatever the time, whatever kind of Horror you have', schlock or anything else. I disagree. What's important is what titillates the audience. Light and shade, sound - what you think you see and what you don't, etc. The bloodshed is not the essence of a Horror film. I was trying to think what Horror films I really like. I think a film should involve you. It should be credible and real. A film I think is stupendous is The Hitcher. You just don't know what will happen next. You're on the edge of your seat. And that dead man's finger served up with the ham and eggs in the diner. Delicious!"

I remind Ken of George Romero's film Martin, in which the vampire kills his victims with a syringe.

"How hygenic!" he sighs. "The best vampire film I've ever seen is Near Dark. Katherine Bigelow made it about 10 years ago [1987].

It's about this group of vampires. They look like hippies, very tacky with long hair and short tempers. It takes place in some dark land in America, maybe Texas. They get to this redneck saloon where the locals start sending them up because they have got black necks. And so it goes on, ‘til one of the red necks hassles a teenage vampirette. They're all 'round this pool table and the little tot picks up a cue and just drives the cue through one guy's head. She has this tremendous strength because she's a vampire. Then her mates tear the place apart, they get into their van and bugger off. The vampire leader [Lance Henriksen] is a marvellous character dark, gaunt, unshaven. He starts talking about the Civil War and he really looks like he was alive in the Civil War. The great part is the ending. All the vampires are holed up in a shack and the sheriff and his posse start shooting holes in the shack 'til the sun shines through and kills the vampires. It's a fabulous film."

"James Herbert gave me two of his books. One was called Shrine. It was about this girl who becomes a kind of second-hand Virgin Mary and there were things in the book that I thought were terribly good. James said to me he can't understand why nobody films it, but I think it had something like 2000 people at the end - and an earthquake! It has some very scary moments in it. They were not obvious and very good. At the end I could see why it hadn't been made into a film because it got totally out of hand."

I told Ken that I thought his film Gothic was in a class of its own. How did he come to pick a subject like Byron?

"He was handed to me on a plate by Virgin. Having seen Tchaikovsky, Mahler and many others, they knew I was a push over for 19th Century romantics."

Was the script the way you shot it, or was it very much altered?

Ken Russell Film - Gothic

Gothic - One of my favourite Film Noir(s)?

"It was a good script and I just shot it as it was. Some variations, of course but that always happens. I probably embellished it here and there. I think the knight with the face full of leeches was my idea, and the mechanical belly dancer, and the headless automaton playing the harpsichord. “

"I suppose I have a special affection for Byron, especially for his club foot. Or should I say cloven hoof? A lot of people regarded him as the devil, you know."

Ken is unduly modest. He paints his pictures on film like a painter uses a canvas. He creates a weird feeling with lighting and amazing sounds. In Gothic, he brilliantly combines the elements of the house, the lake and the horrific weather. And the rats! I asked him, did he have to have the rats?

"Ah well," he says," If you do a Horror film you have to have the rats. You just can't keep them out, can you? I did a film for the BBC which I think you'd like very much. It was called Dante's Inferno and it was about Dante Gabriel Rosetti - the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite, a great friend of Millet who did the famous painting of Ophelia drifting down the lake. They lived around 1850 and they would save women from the streets. “

"One woman that Rosetti 'saved', he taught to paint or to write - I can't remember which. She worked in a hat shop in Piccadilly and at night worked the streets. Rosetti used her as his model, but remember that they were all on drugs and laudanum. He wrote lots of poems about her and then he married her. He carried on with other women too and was completely debauched. Then she died. When they buried her, Rosetti put this book of his poems in her hands. Later, he had second thoughts about this grand gesture because he hadn't got a copy. So, by torch light, he and his friend Millet opened the grave. Rosetti saw the decayed face of his dead wife, her hands clutching the book of poems. Rosetti reached into the coffin and pulled the book out. He went totally mad after that. The film was 90 minutes long and Oliver Reed played Rosetti. The BBC should have it but they overtaped so much. We shot it on 35mm so maybe its still in their archives. And this is how I got Gothic, of course. I made the Rosetti film in 1965 and the man from Virgin had seen it and had always remembered it."

One thing I lament very much was that Ken was offered Dracula and he never did it. There are apparently 238 different versions of Dracula. Just think what Ken would have done with Bram Stoker!

"I did Bram Stoker's last great masterpiece, The Lair of the White Worm. When I was offered Dracula there were three different Dracula films announced and you know about Hollywood. If someone else is doing it they run scared. But if someone else had done it and it's a success, then they want to do it again! I was keen to do it and I was sorry not to. I'd written two Dracula scripts. Both were very heavily based on the book. There was a wonderful scene in a chapel where Dracula dies and a lot of action takes place. When we went to the Chiller convention in New Jersey, '97, a guy came up and asked me to autograph one of the Dracula scripts! He actually had no right to have it, but I autographed it and gave it back to him. Can you imagine? I have no idea where he got it. There were only ever half a dozen copies around."

"One of my favourite characters is Renfield. The end of the book is very exciting too. When they all get boats and trains and coaches to get back to the castle before Dracula does. I can't remember what Coppola did at the end. I thought the acting was very poor. Especially the women. They looked like Hollywood bimbos. There was such a hooha about it when it came out and then it all died down very quickly. Of all the versions I've seen I still have a bit of a soft spot for Max Shreck's Nosferatu."

Returning to the Light Lunch' interview, I remind Ken that he had some very strong words to say on the subject of Wes Craven's Scream, which at that time had just been released.

"I think it was totally unnecessary to show the murdered girl hanging from the tree in medium close-up with her stomach cut open. It could have been handled in a long shot. She was obviously dead. The gore was purely gratuitous and yet the film was supposed to be a black comedy. There was the scene where the girl was alone in the house making popcorn and she kept getting these phone calls from the maniac saying 'I'm coming to kill you.' It was very upsetting and that sort of thing is very scary if you are a kid. When I came out of the cinema there were these kids around who had obviously seen the film and they were saying to each other 'I'm coming to kill you ... ' They even said they had chosen a tree where they were going to hang their victim. “

"Written Horror does not pose these sorts of problems. When you are reading a Horror story you have time to adapt the image in your mind to something that is acceptable to your own sensibilities. In a film there is no defence against the director's often warped vision. You are raped before you know it."

One of Ken's most abstract and disturbing films, and one that contains moments of genuine terror, is his 1980 film Altered States. It was made during Ken's stay in Hollywood when he also made Crimes of Passion.

“Altered States was one of those films. Everyone else from Scorsese to Michael Winner had turned it down and then Muggins comes along. There was twice as much drama offscreen than on. It was just one eternal fight for control with the scriptwriter Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote the script from his book. Warner's finally had to step in to separate us. (Chayefsky eventually used a pseudonym, Sidney Aaron, on the picture.) Paddy actually directed the film, you see. He told the actors what to say. They all thought he was drunk but he only drank Sanka and ate doughnuts and cold turkey sandwiches."

Ken Russell - The sailor's farewell.

The sailor's farewell.

Hardly Ken's style that. I remember at the Chiller convention we went to together he complained about the food and I called him a spoiled brat! One thing that few people know about Ken is how he developed his abiding love of music.

"I was in the Merchant Navy during the War and we had some rather nasty experiences on board ship. When I got home, I was a sort of vegetable. Sort of shell-shocked. I'd sit at home vegetating and my mother, who was a stickler for cleanliness, would Hoover 'round me. The radio would always be mixed with the Hoover. One day I sat up as a new sound came into my life. I heard the most beautiful sound I've ever heard. It got through to me. When the music came to an end, the announcer mentioned the author of the work ... Tchaikovsky. To the surprise of my mother, I jumped up, pumped up the flat tyre on my bike, and peddled to the nearest record shop. I asked if they had the Tchaikovsky B Flat Piano Concerto played by the Halle orchestra. I had written it all down, you see, and the assistant just said 'Yes, Sir'.”

“It was the slow movement that I had heard, but now I had all the rest. I played it over and over and over and got better and better. I got to love it very quickly. 1 went back to the record shop and asked if he had anything else like it. That began an exploration of the treasures of music which is still going to this day."

Ken went on to discover the delights of Rachmaninov and Elgar, but with Tchaikovsky it was 'love at first stanza.'

"That was why I made The Music Lovers. I had to pay homage to someone who had profoundly changed my life."

The latest outcome of Ken's love of music would seem to be a submission to his old colleague Melvyn Bragg at the South Bank Show for a programme entitled Classic Sex!

"I did a programme called Classic Widows a while back. Four years ago! It was quite a sweet programme really, about the widows of English composers who were trying to get people to listen to their husbands' works."

The new programme will involve CDs of virtual reality memories stimulated by music. As ever with Ken, it will be spectacularly innovative, provocative, and doubtless far ahead of its time.

CLICK HERE FOR PART 2 OF THIS INTERVIEW

The Writings of Ingrid Pitt