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And Even More Ken Russell

Ken thinks John the Baptist is a Horror story. He didn't know about Ingrid's book, Annul Domini, due out in 2012. (See www.publishing.avalard.com).

PART TWO OF INGRID PITT'S REVEALING INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR KEN RUSSELL

Part 1 of this Interview may be found HERE

Amanda Donohoe in Lair of the White Worm

Amanda Donohoe in Lair of the White Worm

It is safe to say that no-one ever knows what to expect from a Ken Russell production. Since his pioneering television films of the '60s, with which he established his 'controversial' reputation, Ken has always created wild and fascinating images. He has put before us his love affairs with the art forms of music and film. And Horror? Oh yes! Because alongside the lyrical and the poetic, Ken has also put on screen some of the most disturbing and frightening scenes. Altered States presented a man lost in a hallucinogenic nightmare, transforming into a ferocious primordial creature and a shapeless semi-human blob. Gothic presented the story of the night that Frankenstein was born in the imagination of Mary Shelley. The Lair of the White Worm put a comic-strip spin on the Hammer style, and yet still managed some startling Horror images amidst the outrageousness. In the first part of our interview, Ken explained, over a splendid lunch, his views on Horror and how music influenced his life. So now we go on ... OBSESSION

Principal themes in Ken's films are obsession and madness, and nowhere are these more apparent than in his 1972 film The Devils, which deals with the Witch trials at the Abbey of Loudon.

"I wrote the script," Ken explained. "John Whiting wrote the play The Devils which was done by Richard Johnson and Dorothy Tutin. There was a book by Aldous Huxley, Grey Eminence, a study of Richelieu's adviser Pere Joseph. Both were inspirations - especially the book. The backgrounds of all the events were so well documented. The dialogue in the play was also excellent. So I amalgamated the two. In the end Warners went bonkers and cut it. They said I'd changed the script. I went through it line for line and it was exactly as I'd written it."

"A lot of the cut scenes were important to explain the trauma - especially the torment of the Mother Superior (played by Vanessa Redgrave) in the convent. There's a scene when she pushes her deformed body through a tiny window to watch out for her fantasy lover. So much of the film is gone now that it doesn't make a lot of sense. Every scene was important to balance the rest of the film. For example, the motivation of Grandier (Oliver Reed) who is quite normal when compared to the other characters' abnormalities."

"The Devils is my favourite amongst my feature films," he says. "I think it has a lot more to say than the others which were more or less just biographies, like The Music Lovers and Mahler. But The Devils was about brainwashing, the manipulation of the masses and all that."

I tell Ken that I think Oliver Reed was wonderful as Grandier. I loved the scene in bed with his wife. It's such a painfully tender, loving relationship that virtually sets up the torment which follows later. Gemma Jones was so good, too, and of course, Vanessa Redgrave. What an unforgettable performance she gave! Ken painted The Devils in different shades of white. The white of the convent, the white of the city, the white of the city walls, and then the whole thing bleeding into black at the end. Without the cuts, I think The Devils would have been Oscar material, as it was it remains a cinematic cause celebre.

"What people didn't understand," Ken adds "is that The Devils was done with a great sense of irony. Like a send-up. The two doctors were comic characters but they did evil things. I used to think it was hilarious when the Three Stooges played Nazis. Hitler, Goebbels and Goering doing these crazy slapstick scenes. I thought that was fantastic."

I would disagree, because I know that there is nothing funny about the Nazis at all. But that's Ken. Always stating his point of view - never afraid to shock.
As well as film-making, Ken has an international reputation as an opera director. How does opera differ from directing films?

Stratford Johns & Glenda Jackson in Salome's Last Dance

Stratford Johns & Glenda Jackson in Salome's Last Dance

"My experience is that directing opera is mainly an architect's job, the director is almost an after-thought. I think they employ me to direct opera because I do it like a film. I will always go for the spirit of the thing. The music is the most important aspect, so I don't change a note of the music. Many opera directors will change the words. The English National Opera, which is translated anyway, play around with the text and the score. When I'm asked to direct anything, I insist on taking my own designer. The house designer invariably gets pissed off and puts obstacles in the way. I did Salome in Bonn and my poor designer was up against the whole local art department.”

"The story of John the Baptist is a Horror story in itself. In my version we had the brothel-keeper putting on a special show and bringing in prostitutes and the clients - you couldn't tell who was who and it all worked out really well."

Russell explored the story further, using the play-within-a-play format in his heady film Salome's Last Dance, with Stratford Johns as Herod and Glenda Jackson as Herodias. Ken's 1984 film Crimes of Passion starred the great Horror icon Anthony Perkins.

"Antony Perkins was lovely to work with. Kathleen Turner was a bit undecided. She had just landed the plum role in Romancing the Stone and was a little churlish about losing her virginity and playing a zonked-out nymphomaniac prostitute in Crimes of Passion. I think her boyfriend wasn't too keen on her sucking John Laughlin's face and having Tony Perkins explore bits of her he hadn't got around to yet."

One of Ken's favourite actresses, Glenda Jackson has become an MP. How does Ken feel about losing his muse?

"It's her life!" he says, philosophically.

"I think the last film she did was for me - The Secret Life of Sir Arnold Beck. She played my mistress. I played a strange English composer. I loved his music - I felt I really got into his head. Glenda appeared in the last reel. We even kissed ... " .

Was it because of that kiss that she gave up acting and went into the House of Commons?

"No, I don't think so. She'd come to the conclusion that she had done everything. She'd been applauded, got Oscars and awards on the English stage. She always had a very strong social sense. I guess she'd made enough money and done her thing to her satisfaction and could only go on repeating it. She is my favourite actress, a wonderful actress. You don't have to say anything to her. She knows what to do - always. She has a great instinct.

"I don't think it's a shame that she gave it up at all. She wanted a new challenge. She feels she is more use to society now. Life is about getting satisfaction from what you do and there was no more to achieve as an actress."

But what about actors and their egos? Who started the dreadful rumours that Ken Russell does not treat his actors very well?

"I did," jokes Ken. "I treat them like furniture. 'Just speak your lines, dear, and don't trip over.' But seriously, you won't find good actors complaining. People like Kathleen Turner or Oliver Reed, or Alan Bates. It's always the mediocre people who complain. Honestly, anyone from the clapper boy up can make suggestions to me. I'm not saying I'll use them, but they can make them."

Do you meticulously plan your day, shot for shot?

Ken Russell - Nuns in The Devils

Ken Russell - Nuns in The Devils

"I always allow for some unforeseen happenings to turn it all upside down! On Mahler the set-up for the day was bright and sunny. We had a rainstorm, so I just re-thought it. I think you should use happy accidents in a film. You have to have improvisational skills as a film director. And you have to welcome - or at least go along with - happy accidents. I don't mean that you don't know what you're doing and making it up as you go along. But to go along with happy accidents is a priority."

Ken has always fielded accusations of blasphemy about his work, with startling and twisted scenes of the crucifixion in The Devils and The Lair of the White Worm among others. Ken's latest project returns him to religion but - of all places - into Outer Space.

''I'm writing a novel which is called Space Gospel, the New Testament as SciFi. It started as a film script 15 or 20 years ago which no one wanted to buy. It was considered blasphemous. I guess by now you can do anything about Jesus. I thought it was a good concept and I decided to try and write it as a novel. Then I realized that I was writing a satire. Sci-Fi, but a satire based on the New Testament. “

"The film script had Jesus as a regular guy. Jesus, Mary, Mary Magdalene, they were all real people and there wasn't an air of sanctity about it. Jesus takes his mum and dad out to a restaurant just before he goes fasting in the desert and Joseph says 'you know we've got a big carpentry job to do'. Jesus is a very good worker and not just this ethereal guy. A jobbing carpenter. The book involves a race of robots.

That idea is based on a brilliant play from the 30s, written by a Czech called Karel Capek. The robots have a spaceship which is a bit like Captain Nemo's submarine. It's a bit archaic, and it's also a sort of zoo. They put animals in the zoo to see how they develop. They put two new ones together and, hey presto, it's a man and a woman, Adam and Eve. “

"They set them down on the Earth and then they scud off into the cosmos, meaning to be back in 20,000 years or so to see how their experiment is doing. They return to find the Earth is in chaos. Everyone is killing everybody else. What is going on? Why are they doing this? Why are they killing each other in the name of someone, or something, called God? The robots didn't create a God! So they need to come up with a solution pretty smartish. I think it could become a hit. It's a good title too, don't you think - Ken Russell's Space Gospel!"

How do I round things up? I can only say, from the heart, Ken, I love your work. I think what you've done is very special and you've done it so bloody well. You'll go on forever! It was great to spend some time in the company of a genius who is also such a nice man. But the last word goes to Ken, with his characteristic modesty. When asked to sum up his feelings about his work, he says simply ''I'm just lucky to have had the chance."

Part 1 of this Interview may be found HERE

The Writings of Ingrid Pitt