Bloomberg News

U.K. Provocateur Ken Russell, Director of ‘Tommy,’ Dies at 84

December 11, 2011

Nov. 28 (Bloomberg) -- The British film director Ken Russell, who died yesterday at age 84, was once challenged to write a script that deserved to be banned. He rose to the occasion with a draft titled “A Kitten for Hitler.”

Russell caused a stir with many of his movies. In his 1969 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love,” he included a nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates that shocked viewers.

“I know my films upset people. I want to upset people,” the filmmaker once said. His death was today reported by the British Broadcasting Corporation, which cited Russell’s son as saying the film maker died peacefully in his sleep.

Born on July 3, 1927 in Southampton, England, Russell attended a naval school (“full of sadomasochists,” he said) before becoming a merchant seaman. That was followed by an unlikely five years at ballet school.

A career as a photographer for “Picture Post” suited him better. After converting to Catholicism, he made a short film in 1959 entitled “Amelia and the Angel,” which so impressed the British Broadcasting Corporation that they commissioned him to produce films for their “Monitor” art series.

Russell quickly showed his predilection for sensationalizing the lives of composers, producing controversial programs on Delius and Elgar. He took that style to the big screen with “Mahler” (1974) and “Lisztomania” (1975), which featured Wagner as a vampire and Ringo Starr as the Pope.

Clapton, Daltrey

His greatest commercial success was a film of The Who’s rock opera “Tommy” (1975), with Roger Daltrey in the title role, the Swedish-American singer Ann-Margret as Tommy’s mom, and Pete Townshend as himself. Also in the cast were Eric Clapton (a preacher), Elton John, and Jack Nicholson.

Russell later spoke of the suffering and pressure that went into the making of the rock opera. “That’s one of the things I like about film,” he told the New York Post in 1975, according to Joseph Lanza’s book “Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films.”

“It’s a sort of an odyssey,” he told the daily. “You get a lot of people on a ship, and you go off on a Grecian adventure, meet the cyclops and the sirens and the hydra with the head full of snakes and cross the Styx and some people die along the way.”

His “Women in Love” won Russell a best-director nomination at the 1971 Academy Awards, while Glenda Jackson took the best-actress statuette.

Having survived a career slump and a stroke in the 1990s, as well as the MRSA “superbug” in 2005, Russell became a housemate in the reality television show “Celebrity Big Brother” in 2007. Looking increasingly frail, he left the show voluntarily after five days following a confrontation with the now deceased reality-TV star Jade Goody, whom he described as a “guttersnipe.” Most recently, he was a film columnist for The Times of London.

He is survived by his fourth wife, Elise Tribble, and by eight children from his previous marriages.

--Editors: Catherine Hickley, Jim Ruane

To contact the writer responsible for this story: Iain Millar at, Farah Nayeri in London

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at

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