It seems only a few years back (at most a decade or two) that Ken Russell was the enfant terrible of the cinema.
Then, a couple of days ago, he turned 80 and there he was holding court at the Proud Gallery in London's Buckingham Street, where an impressive turn out of the great and the good were in attendance for the launch of a new exhibition of 1950s Russell photographs from the TopFoto archives.
They are, unsurprisingly, compelling!
Introducing myself - immediately after he had been reunited Georgina Hale (one of the Russell Repertory Company regulars) - Uncle Ken did me the great courtesy of acting as if he knew who I was. This civility was greatly appreciated by someone who charts his early obsession with movies by the films of Ken Russell.
I was 13 years old when I saw his groundbreaking film about Elgar (1961) made for the BBC’s TV arts programme, Monitor. Revolutionary, in that it included dramatized scenes with actors, Elgar, scorched itself into the memory with searing black and white images such as that of the young Elgar galloping across the Malvern Hills on a white pony.
KEN RUSSELL! It was the name to watch --- and I watched!
In 1968 I saw Song of Summer, the achingly exquisite portrait of Frederick Delius with Max Adrian as the blind, crippled composer struggling to write his final compositions through the medium of his amanuensis, Eric Fenby (Christopher Gable).
It was a sign of the television times in which we then lived that an elitist art film was viewed by enough of the population to subsequently be the subject of loving spoof on The Benny Hill Show!
With these early programmes, Russell defined a new style in filmmaking that was quickly adopted by others, notably Jonathan Miller, Lindsay Anderson and Stanley Kubrick.
Ken soon moved on from TV to cinema and I followed... watching a string of brilliantly controversial films: his adaptation of D H Lawrence’s Women in Love with Glenda Jackson, Jennie Linden, Oliver Reed and Alan Bates – "Tut, tut!" went the critics in response to male nude wrestling by firelight with shocking full frontal views! – and Glenda again, on this occasion with Richard Chamberlain, in The Music Lovers which caused more tut-tutting, this time about Tchaikovsky’s much-loved music being irredeemably tainted by smutty references to homosexuality!
Next, I ran the gauntlet of local Christians picketing the Astor cinema in Bromley in order to see The Devils: Ken’s shocking take on Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudoun in which Sister Vanessa Redgrave did unforgivably naughty stuff with a convent candle!
Ken was everything I loved about 'sixties and 'seventies cinema: bold, daring, dangerous and outrageous.
There were fantastic, dazzling flights of high campery with a 'twenties-style Twiggy in The Boyfriend and Roger Daltry, Elton John & Co in the rock folly, Tommy. There were also dynamic explorations of the entanglements of art and passion in Savage Messiah and in the monstrously magnificent Mahler which starred Robert Powell and Georgina Hale and swung hysterically – but unforgettably – from the beautiful to the banal and back again. But then Russell was never afraid to fall or fail, it was all part of risk of flying to the sun on home-made wings!
Anyway, that – and, of course, much else besides – is the Ken Russell everyone knows; what comes as a revelation is this superb collection of photographs, Ken Russell's Lost London Rediscovered: 1951-1957, on show at the Proud Gallery until 21st August; 11.00-18.00, seven days a week.
Of course, we really shouldn’t be surprised that, during his years before breaking into filmmaking, he was already demonstrating such an exceptional skill in composing and creating memorable imagery. As Russell told the Telegraph: “In a way I was making still films, I suppose…”
Picture Post and other magazines, are candid glimpses of London life in the 1950s as encountered by Russell in the streets around his then lodgings in Portobello Road such as raggedy children playing amongst rain-drenched, post-war bombsites and four-square housewives in curler-disguising turbans and wrap-around aprons.
There are elderly women sitting in graveyards or playing cellos on the steps of the National Gallery; the forgotten cult of Teddy Girls modelling their modish home-made fashions; middle-aged men confusedly contemplating the inexplicable bizarreness of modern art; and - for good measure and pure whimsical delight - eccentric images of mock duels and expeditions by penny-farthing bicycles.
© TopFoto and Ken Russell
The photographs, all of which are available as signed limited prints, were found amongst a cache of boxes that TopFoto bought from Picture Post 30 years ago, but remained overlooked - until now. Mercifully, they were not in Russell’s thatched house in Lymington when it burned down last year, taking with it all the filmmaker's scripts and papers.
These dynamic pictures are a reminder for my generation (and an introduction to a younger generation) of Ken Russell’s extraordinary and extravagant genius behind the lens of a camera…
[Images: Photo of Ken Russell by David Weeks; all photographs from the exhibition © TopFoto and Ken Russell]