Ken Russell was 62 when I interviewed him some 20-odd years ago but people were still calling him an ‘enfant terrible’, a label the director took as a compliment.
‘I quite like being called an enfant terrible,’ he told me. ‘Enfant means that you’ve retained a childlike perspective on things, a childhood sensibility of absorbing things as if for the first time.
‘As for terrible, if it means not being restrained, being “operatic”, then that’s fine too.’
Ken had just published his autobiography, A British Picture, and he was in reflective mood, recalling his childhood in Southampton and the roots of his imagination.
‘I grew up on cinema and the tree in my back garden, which I see is still there. As a child you invent your own world. A matchbox can be a golden treasure chest, you can turn a tree into a galleon and it actually won’t be a tree anymore, it actually becomes a galleon. As you walk along the tree trunk you’re supplying the sails, the masts, the rigging, everything. You suspend disbelief; you create one reality out of another, while experiencing both. I think people find that very difficult when they got older.’
Not Russell. From his days making arts documentaries for the BBC to his cinematic heyday with such films as Women in Love, The Devils and Tommy, he made a career out of startling, surreal and sometimes scandalous juxtapositions of images and ideas. An enfant terrible to the end.
Ken Russell: born Southampton, 3 July 1927; died London, 27 November 2011.