Sunday 21 July 2019

John Baxter's Adventures in the Movie Trade (3) - Ken Russell and Derek Jarman

Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed, Women in Love
In January 1970, just off the boat from Australia,  I walked into Southampton  and saw my first movie on British soil -  Ken Russell’s Women in Love. Eighteen months later, in London, a friend screened the 1937 Under the Red Robe, about Cardinal Richelieu. In the discussion that followed, I defended the latest re-telling of this story, by Russell in The Devils, his film about the 1634 witch hunt in Loudon which resulted in the torture and burning of the town’s pastor, Urbain Grandier.  Here, I insisted, was a directorial tour de force. It was Ken Russell about whom we should be writing books, not the likes of Lindsay Anderson.
Vanessa Redgrave, The Devils
The only person to agree was a soft-spoken American who turned out to be a Jesuit priest – and, moreover, Ken Russell’s spiritual advisor. A few days later, Russell’s secretary rang me. ‘I understand you’re writing a book about Ken.’ My reply required no thought. ‘Something like that’, I said.
Ken Russell, circa the production of The Devils
The British art scene had no hotter talent in the early seventies than Russell. Cross Quentin Tarantino’s iconoclastic film-buffery with the quirky entrepreneurship of Diaghilev and you have some idea of his influence. “I’m eaten up with the image,’ he told me. “With the way things look!” His lifestyle provided ample evidence of this. Posters by Cocteau and illustrations by Maxfield Parrish decorated his house in Notting Hill Gate, identifiable by the antique dentist chair on the first floor balcony. 
Self-taught in music, Ken was also a voracious, eclectic and adventurous listener who put his money where his ears were and financed recordings of Eight Songs for a Mad King andVesalii Icones by Peter Maxwell Davies, who also wrote the music for The Devils.
'hip young' Derek Jarman
The Devils’ sets were by Derek Jarman, archetype of the hip young designer. To borrow French TV’s capsule introduction to his recent retrospective, “He was young, he was gifted, he was gay, he was punk.” Derek occupied a cavernous loft at 13 Bankside, in the middle of which, to keep warm, he’d erected a small greenhouse. In better weather, he reclined in a hammock. When Russell arrived for their first meeting, the walls were hung with cardinals’ capes decorated with dollar bills, flowers, and debris skimmed from the Thames. Ken admired this sarcastic take on organised religion. Though a Catholic convert, he’d created his own version of the faith, stronger on mysticism and superstition than philosophy. He claimed, for instance, to have overcome his snuff addiction by praying to the Virgin Mary while carrying home her statue on top of a London bus.  
The Devils
Ken decided that the film’s interiors should resemble “a rape in a public lavatory”. Jarman’s white-tiled sets, evoking both lavatories and Fritz Lang’s futuristic Metropolis, excited much comment, though less than Ken’s bloodthirsty and erotic images, so unsparing that one sequence, depicting Oliver Reed as Christ on the cross being raped by voracious nuns with a hunchback Vanessa Redgrave at their head, was excised altogether.
When I began the year-long series of interviews that would make up most of the book An Appalling Talent, (cover at left) he and Derek were working on a production of Maxwell Davies’ two-act opera Taverner for Covent Garden, based on the life of the 16thcentury composer John Taverner. 
In a recent interview with Iain Fisher, Russell shrugged off this project. “Other commitments clashed with it and I couldn’t manage it; there was another film.” 
The reality is more interesting. For two months, I watched them develop their conception of Taverner, a protégé of Cardinal Wolsey who played the organ at Cardinal’s College, Oxford. In 1528, he and others at the College were accused of heresy, but Wolsey secured his release. The experience transformed Taverner, who abandoned composition to become a ruthless agent of Thomas Cromwell in his campaign to obliterate the Catholic church and its institutions. 
Davies saw Taverner as an artist who, in order to conform and survive, destroyed his talent. Tried for heresy before a White Abbot, whom he later burns at the stake, the opera’s Taverner stumbles into a moral maze. He’s manipulated by a King obsessed with divorcing his wife, and misled by a jester character called Joking Jesus, later revealed as Death, who bestrides a large Wheel of Fortune. At the climax, as the White Abbot burns, Taverner realises the fire is also consuming his talent.
Drawing for costume design by Derek Jarman for
Jazz Calendar
Though Jarman had already designed Jazz Calendar for the Royal Ballet, John Gielgud’s English National Opera Don Giovanni, and Throughway for Ballet Rambert, only the first had succeeded; critics so savaged Throughway  that choreographer Steve Popescu committed suicide. 
Notwithstanding this, startling designs flowed from Ken and Derek’s combined imaginations; a monkey in the triple crown of the Pope, characters who appeared female from one side, male from the other. Ken further proposed to lower all doors into the House to a metre. Patrons would enter on hands and knees, to confront the carcases of freshly-slaughtered animals hanging on the walls, while monks and nuns fornicated in the aisles. 
I never believed Covent Garden would accept this scheme, and when Ken and Derek returned from the make-or-break meeting it was clear they’d been turned down. Derek had prepared a notebook containing his designs. He also carried a folder of rough sketches, and a copy of Davies’ libretto, heavily annotated. As they came into Ken’s front room, he started to drop them into the wastepaper basket.
I said, ‘You’re not throwing those away?’ 
He looked at them in surprise. ‘They aren’t going to do it. Not with us anyway.’
‘Let me buy them from you.’
 ‘Have them, John,’ he said. ‘They’re no use to me.’
I accepted them with delight. I have them still.
Savage Messiah
Taverner had its Covent Garden premiere in July 1972, in a largely unmemorable production designed by Ralph Koltai. Derek designed Russell’s 1972 film Savage Messiah and also did preliminary work on a version of Gargantua, to have been shot in Rome, but effectively the collaboration was at an end. He became one of the most innovative British artists of his generation, while Russell descended into the excesses of Lisztomania and Mahler, devoured by the images and the music that he loved. With hindsight, one can see Taverner as the point where their paths began to diverge.

Editor's Note: Ken Russell died in 2011. Derek Jarman died in 1994. The piece above was first published in in 2003 in TATE, the magazine of Tate Modern. 

John Baxter is an Australian-born all-round writer, scholar, critic and film-maker who has lived in Paris since 1989 with his wife Marie-Dominque Montel and daughter Louise. His Wikipedia entry details the many books he has written which include the first  ever critical volume devoted to the Australian cinema as well as studies of Ken Russell, Josef von Sternberg, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Federico Fellini, George Lucas, Robert De Niro and Luis Bunuel. His most recent book, one of a number of studies of Paris is A Year in Paris, described by the New York Times thus "In “A Year in Paris,” (Baxter) strings together the beautiful beads of the French everyday, all held together by the invisible act of imagination that makes a country cohere and endure." 

Previous entries in this series can be found if you click on this link.  or on this link

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