Writer and actress Marie Findley worked with maverick filmmaker Ken Russell in the later years. Here she shares her memories of him.
What were you doing before you met Ken?
In my late teens I lived in Torquay and a couple of friends and I decided that we were going to be the English Riviera's answer to John Waters. We got a super 8 camera, some outrageous clothes and adopted new personas: Emma became Cherry Muffin, Jamie was Leggy Mañana and I was Tulip Junkie. We started making trashy films and called ourselves Lovely Movies - our naive and rather smug attempt at irony. The films were full of cross-dressing serial killers, gratuitous vomiting and, for some reason, a lot of bad running. A few years later, after participating in numerous underground cinema events, Emma and I (now writing comedy for TV) hosted our own club 'Afflicktion' which had a run at the Edinburgh Festival. We had cherry picked the best of the underground scene for the uninitiated. 'Our Honeymoon' was a film of found footage, spliced together to form a basic narrative: there was a sweet and wholesome fifties/sixties wedding and then bang - the film cut to a 70s porn flick, hence the title of the film. Our Honeymoon happened to contain a tiny flash of an erect penis but that tiny flash was enough to get us on the front page of the Edinburgh evening news (or some such paper) and a serious threat of closure for the Pleasance, where we were performing. It was all very nasty but the ruckus also ensured us guest places on Ned Sherrin's radio 4 show Loose Ends, and Our Ken was one of the guests.
What was it like meeting him?
I was beside myself with excitement because I was a big fan of his work. When I was studying for my theatre A level, I remember my English lecturer asking me what my dramatic ambitions were and I said that I wanted to be in a Ken Russell film. Tommy had kick started my interest - a real assault on the senses - and my fascination continued the more I saw of his work. He was unapologetic, indulgent, and outrageous - in short, everything I longed to be. I was dying to meet him.
Compared to the other esteemed guests, Emma and I really had no right to be on Loose Ends but Avalon were our wonderfully pushy agents and, despite the initial intimidation, we found ourselves enjoying the playful banter between Ken, Ned and Leslie Phillips. We joined in happily - I retold the tale of our misfortune for daring to show the sacred sausage and Emma shocked the sophisticated Radio 4 audience by saying "beef curtains", though I don't remember why. I don't know whether it was these things that piqued his interest or whether he just fancied an afternoon snifter but we ended up having a drink with Ken in the Pleasance, of all places, and invited him to come and see our humble show. There was some sycophantic appreciation of his work but I genuinely think it was the idea of the underground scene - people making incredibly inventive films with next to no budget - that convinced him to come.
Afflicktion did not get a massive daily audience, I have to confess. Maybe it was our poster, which featured a cartoon character throwing up at the thought of Forrest Gump, who knows. But the small crowd always made the obligatory audience participation a bit of a trial. However, Ken put his heart and soul into it and I could tell he was enjoying himself. After the show, Ken spoke to us about the show and was bubbling over. He was particularly enthusiastic about the work of Arthur Lager who, like Ken, not exactly subtle, had created a cinematic orgy between a Barbie doll and several aquatic sea creatures. The cogs were turning - it was true. There were thousands of people out there who weren't concerned with a trifling little thing like funding. They were creating their vision anyway, no matter how ambitious. As Ken enthused about our underground offering I could feel something changing. Were we witnessing, dare I say it... an epiphany?
So how did you end up working with him?
A few weeks later, back in our flat in London, Emma and I were trying to recover from the mayhem of the Edinburgh Fringe. We kept looking at Ken's number but we were nervous. What if he was just being polite? Maybe he just felt flattered? Perhaps this wasn't even his number. Eventually I dialed and the self doubt subsided because Ken was pleased to hear from us. And that's how it started.
The films we made with Ken, came to be known as his 'garage films'. I am aware that many, many people would have probably preferred it if Ken had not made any garage films at all. I get the sense that admirers of his work feel this is the point where a dramatic genius went off the boil. Perhaps they're right, but I think some of the things that people have always enjoyed about Ken - that he was flamboyant, audacious and often ridiculous - are embodied in these films. They enabled him to grow old disgracefully - I mean, we are talking about Ken Russell here - he was not going to go quietly. What more did we expect, and what more could we want? Ken was not trying to hark back to his former glory or attempting to recreate a Hollywood production with hardly any money. He was embracing the underground movement and trying to make a trash movie. And that was one of the most wonderful things about Ken - he was still hungry, he was still curious, he did not want to stagnate - he was invigorated by experimentation. In my mind, the most enjoyable underground films are the ones that recognise what can't be achieved and celebrate that. They are fiercely anti-slick and generally feature flawed story lines, exaggerated and implausible characters, friends and family members struggling with demanding roles, cheap special effects and maybe even a deliberate continuity error thrown in for good measure. Ken's garage films were textbook trash. So, when considering the merits of Ken's work, a comparison between his garage films and his former feature lengths seems a bit irrelevant - they are two different art forms. Yes, Ken's later works might not be as good, but that's partly because he was aiming for bad. For we trash movie makers, low art is a lofty ambition.
Did you enjoy being directed by him? Must have been quite surreal...
For some reason, I had it in my head that Ken would be a tyrannical kind of director. It must have had something to do with the stubborn and singular vision that runs throughout his films. My enduring memory, however, is of an incredibly generous director - one who would regularly take on my suggestions and ask my opinions. It felt like a genuine collaboration. And, in the days before Lisi wrote his emails for him, he would write weekly letters discussing ideas, his inspirations and possible creative solutions. I think he enjoyed the immediacy of low budget filmmaking. If he had an idea he could execute it there and then; no waiting around while lights were repositioned, cameras rearranged, actors marks changed. And of course, no one stopped him from showing off in front of the camera himself. He was fired-up which made for an exhilarating shoot.
Because of the nature of this type of filmmaking, we would stay at Ken's house in the New Forest. It was a unique experience to be able to live and work with him at the same time. After work, we'd take his pudgy dog Nipper for very short walks. Ken would cook, the wine was uncorked and the stories would begin. Ken had so many stories - tales of his time in the navy, problems with his ex-wives, hanging out with Ollie Reed. Despite his shuffling walk and the socks and sandals combination there was a child-like exuberance about Ken. A naughty child I might add. All his stories came with dramatic embellishments, silly voices and Ken's faux naivety. One particularly devilish thing he used to do was, if introduced to somebody he was unsure of or just didn't like, he'd wait for the handshake and then let his wrist go limp and shake about his floppy hand saying, "poorly hand, poorly hand," in an oh so pitiful voice. He wasn't going to do anything for the sake of politeness if he didn't want to. And that is my enduring and definitive memory of Ken: that floppy hand was a cheeky act of defiance and despite looking lifeless, it was actually a hand sticking up two fingers to the establishment and to convention.