Ken Russell

The maverick British filmmaker turns up the volume at QFT

Ken Russell is in Northern Ireland for the first time. It has taken 82 years for him to get here, but the grand old madman of British cinema has finally made it. The BBC’s William Crawley, our host for the evening, introduces Russell to the audience at Queen’s Film Theatre as a ‘maverick’ and an ‘iconoclast’.

The director’s idea of himself is rather less fanciful. ‘I’m a timid little boy!’ Russell squeaks. Of course, he’s bluffing. Russell is as maverick and as iconoclastic as they come. The creator of such unique pieces of work as the Oscar-winning Women in Love, the catholic church-baiting The Devils and the Who’s rock opera, Tommy, has made a career from a volatile mix of sex and religion, delighting audiences and offending sensibilities in roughly equal measure.

The barrelling, white-haired filmmaker is in Belfast to launch QFT’s Ken Russell season, part of this year’s Belfast Festival at Queen’s. He’s not plugging a book and there are no new movies, but he has decided to treat the assembled cineastes to the first European screening of his 2007 short film, Boudica Bites Back.

The 20-minute epic is a demented clash of plastic swords, sandals and operatic wailing from Russell’s wife, Elize. Mrs Russell, who is in the front row tonight, acts as Ken’s teleprompter, reminding her 82-year-old husband of names and dates when his own memory fails - which, to be fair, isn’t that often. Russell is still wonderfully sharp and quick-witted.

During the question-and-answer session, QFT founder Michael Open asks Russell, rather long-windedly, if 1980’s sci-fi shocker Altered States had been influenced by Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome from 1954. Russell fixes him a glare, pauses for effect and… ‘No,’ he snaps, with delicious comic timing. Boudica Bites Back, meanwhile, wipes the smiles off everybody’s faces. As most present are still gathering their jaws back up off the floor, the only words Crawley can muster are: ‘Wasn’t that fun?’

Russell also introduces a pop music video he made in the mid 80s. ‘Trial of the Century’ by Richard Golub (no, we haven’t heard of him either) is very much of its time, but neatly showcases Russell’s flamboyant, campy style. The director made the four-minute promo for Golub, an attorney and aspiring rock star, as part-payment for winning a court case concerning the Moll Flanders project. The video is set in New York’s Sing Sing prison, with Golub as a preaching lawyer singing and dancing through the exercise yard, every so often coming up against the harsh judge, played by Russell. The inmates, as old Ken reveals with relish, were played by actual killers.

Later, Russell treats the audience to Alan Bates and Oliver Reed’s infamous nude wrestling scene from 1969’s Women in Love, as well as a clip from Altered States, featuring a young William Hurt as a scientist suffering a drug-induced meltdown.

Throughout, the director sits perched beneath the screen, his neck craned back like Lemmy from Motörhead. He is viewing images he must have seen a thousand times, but he remains transfixed. ‘Louder!’ Russell barks at the beleaguered festival staff, waving his walking aid in their general direction and sending them scuttling off to adjust the volume.

As the night comes to a close, Crawley steers the conversation onto the possibility of Russell making a film in Belfast. He’d love to, it transpires, and Crawley agrees to put the wheels in motion. All Russell needs is £10,000. ‘I’ll be at the door with a hat,’ roars the director, as a couple of hundred people beat towards the exit before they are roped into playing Roman centurions or writhing snake-women.

Andrew Johnston