Skip to content

Russell as I Knew Him: Personal Remembrance and Public Recognition

I was extremely saddened to learn of the death of Ken Russell on November 27th. It took me some time to gather my thoughts, but I’ve produced them at The Modest Proposal. You can read an excerpt: Well, I finally was in England, and with nearly a month ahead of me. I had hopes of talking to Russell in-depth. Maybe I’d rent a bike and try to ride it to the New Forest, where he’d lived for many years. Maybe I’d run into him in a coffee shop. Who knew. I dialed the number. Phone numbers in this country seemed to have too many digits. I must have done it correctly, because someone picked up the phone. I recognized the voice. It was Ken Russell. And he didn’t sound too happy. I launched into my semi-prepared opening remark: “would/could it be possible to have a chat about your films I am an American student and am writing about your work wait I should have mentioned that I was given your number by one of your friends wait did he tell you I’d be calling?” I can’t blame him, but Russell regarded my incomprehensible opening salvo as any of us would a telemarketer. He dismissed me readily. He didn’t have time to talk about his films. Anyway, why did I want to talk about them? Any questions I might have can all be answered by the film itself. I must have not been watching his work carefully enough. That introductory phone call doubled as a wake-up call. Who was I to call during the middle of the day? Besides, why talk to me? I was just a kid. Dispirited but determined, I soon learned of my second chance for contact. My new friend Paul Sutton—editor of Camera Journal, a Cambridge-based film magazine that had recently done a large issue devoted to Russell and his work—had tipped me off to a public appearance. Ken was to be at the Clerkenwell Film and Video Festival as a guest. He’d show Revenge of the Elephant Man (2004) a new short film that he’d made at and around his house, with his friends, neighbors, and wife as the cast and crew. I managed to convince a close friend of mine to come down to London with me. At best, it would be a cool event with good food. At worst, he could tell everyone about how much of an idiot I was. The event itself was in a strange indoor space that had access from the street, but then descended into a terraced room. There were seats and couches everywhere, with a bar conspicuously placed in the back. It didn’t take long to find Ken and his wife. They were merrily talking to attendees, business associates (at this time, Russell was attached to a project called King’s X, which if memory serves was to be about a serial killer on the loose in the seedy King’s Cross area of London), collaborators (editor Michael Bradsell), and whoever else came by. I timidly introduced myself, and mumbled something about being an American student who had called. He remembered, apologized, and talked with me about the event. He briefly went over the idea behind his Gorsewood films—while Hollywood is an American phenomenon, the cottage he then called home was covered by Gorse and, since he made films from home, it was dubbed Gorsewood—and generally made me feel welcome. It was extremely gratifying to watch the film with Ken in attendance. As I recall, he gave away some awards and gave a short speech. I left with some signed books, pictures, and some confidence. Ken and Lisi would later answer my more academic and factual emails with great care. Things had very much worked out for the best. Read the rest at The Modest Proposal.