With his smash adaptation of the rock opera Tommy, British director Ken Russell is the new Pinball Wizard of the movie biz, but he relishes his work at least as much when it lights up TILT. It was Russell who decided to turn a film biography of Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers, into “the story of a homosexual who marries a nymphomaniac.” His version of The Devils was condemned by the official Vatican newspaper as “a perverted marriage of sex, violence and blasphemy.” But unchastened, Russell has, in his upcoming film Lisztomania, cheekily cast the freshly divorced Ringo Starr as the Pope. When taxed by a London critic during a TV talk show for such studied outrages, Russell upped and smacked him with a coiled newspaper—on the BBC live.
So much for the obstreperous public image of Russell, the artist as Mailer chauvinist pig. At home, Ken is, for all his excesses, surprisingly receptive to criticism. “When one half of me doesn’t want to admit an idea is bad,” he says, “it’s wonderful to get in bed and ask your other self for an honest opinion—and get it.” That other self is his wife and collaborator of 18 years, Shirley. According to the credits trailing all those Russell epics, she is just the costume designer, but as the director gallantly and accurately declares: “A Ken Russell film is also a Shirley Russell film. It just wouldn’t be me unless her hand is in it. She is very much a part of my,” or, rather, he corrects himself, “our visual style.” (It was, for example, Shirley who dreamed up the iron-maid-en-with-syringe contraption in Tina Turner’s movie-stopping Acid Queen scene in Tommy.)
Besides fitting out his movies and keeping his ego in equilibrium, Shirley mothers their five children, runs three households plus a boutique peddling her old costumes, and manages to produce a traditional English roast beef dinner for seven every Sunday. “She is the most complete woman I have ever come across,” testifies David Puttnam, co-executive producer of Ken’s last two pictures. “Such is their interplay that it’s impossible to say in any film what is his and what is hers.” Roger Daltrey, the young rock superstar of The Who and the lead in both Tommy and Lisztomania, admits to fantasies about the dazzling Shirley if she “weren’t Mrs. Russell. She’s still to be classed as crumpet.” Ken is 48, Shirley 40 and Roger 30.
The Russells’ mutual professional respect does not eliminate useful creative abrasion. “He started shouting at me a fortnight after we met,” Shirley says, and she became so enraged during the filming of Lisztomania that she marched off the set, flinging curses at his shaggy head. “I just disappear for a few days,” she explains. “I don’t do it often, maybe once every film.” Ken insists, “It’s good we can throw things at each other; it sparks off ideas.”
Ken’s pyrotechnics began in Southampton, where his father ran a boot shop. From the age of 6 he was watching three movies a day and was eventually dispatched to a nautical college where he dressed his fellow cadets in drag for imitations of Carmen Miranda. Despite his present pear-shaped build, Ken started out as a dancer with the Norwegian ballet and a road company of Annie Get Your Gun, before going to art school to learn still photography. Shirley, daughter of a clerk on the London stock exchange, was also a dance dropout before studying theatrical design at the same school. “I needed photographs of my clothes, and he needed a model,” she recalls. Ken notes, “I was at an advantage, being eight years older and slightly dissimilar to the struggling artists around her”—though in fact he struck her, understandably, as “a wild and woolly creature.”
At school they made their first practice film together, a fantasy called Peepshow, and set a working pattern they’ve followed ever since: Ken directing and Shirley doing, she says, “everything else: costumes, tea, props, and even some acting.” Thereafter, kids started arriving with what Shirley calls “alarming regularity”: Xavier, now 17; James, 16; Alexander, 15; Victoria, 12; and Toby, 10. As students, the Russells had converted to Catholicism. “Now,” says Shirley, “we have drifted away. But we still defend it. Of all the religions it’s the best.”
For all of Ken’s kooky posturings, the Russells live as conventionally as John and Jane Bull in their Ladbroke Square townhouse. They rarely go out, and Shirley says that Ken’s idea of bliss is settling “like a bladder of lard” in a wicker chair flanked by stereo speakers listening to classical warhorses from his vast record collection. Dressing him is hopeless. “When Harrods has a sale,” he says, “we grab everything with a 44 waist.” Otherwise, he wears Dracula capes and Donald Duck hats. Russell’s Victorian concept of child-rearing—”early to bed, mean with pocket money”—has had only mixed results. And his designer wife also admits to failures with the kids. “They’re the worst-dressed children you’ve ever seen,” Shirley confesses. “During a film, everything suffers. The children use our credit account at a neighborhood restaurant.”
“As they grow up,” reports Ken, “they’re gradually filling the place with their personalities and driving us out”—though that is not such a calamity, considering the Russells have two other homes, in the Lake District and in Hampshire. The kids’ redeeming grace may be that they were the ones who originally turned classicist Ken on to rock music—and thus Tommy. “The children,” he concludes, “give me a sense of humility.”
Shirley has noticed. “I used to feel swamped by Ken’s personality but not anymore,” she says. Ken concurs. “Marriage as a union should be carried forward in all directions, but I still don’t know how she does it all. In a sense, I’m the sixth child, more demanding than the five together. Knowing what we can’t do is her way of life. Then she just does it, pulls it out of the hat.”