Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Altered States: The Autobiography of Ken Russell

Picture the scene - A hotel in London, sometime in the late 70's... A drunk and naked Ken Russell finds himself locked out of his room. Carefully making his way to the reception he hisses at the night porter who's busy dealing with some new arrivals. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" the night porter demands. "I've locked myself out of my room" the beleaguered director replies. "You silly old fart", the night porter sneers, "What's your number?"

Just one of the many stories from Altered States (the 1991 US edition of A British Picture: An Autobiography), a lively, charming and funny account of the life of one of the greatest wildcards of British Cinema. Typically, Russell throws out the conventional structure of the autobiography - there's only a vague sense of narrative, as he jump cuts to various episodes throughout his life and career. Worth mentioning up front for fans of The Devils, that Russell dwells little on his most infamous work, perhaps the film inspired some painful memories - it was during the making of the film that his marriage began to crumble, as well as his Catholic faith. There's some good stories from his other films - his early career making artist biopics for the BBC television series Monitor, how he convinced Oliver Reed and Alan Bates to perform the nude wrestling scene in Women In Love, and Kathleen Turner's reluctance to get dirty in Crimes of Passion. The meatiest memories are reserved for his 1980 sci-fi Altered States, Russell describing his battles with the film's writer Paddy Chayefsky, who was obsessed with controlling every aspect of the production leading to a bitter fallout with the director and Chayefsky disowning the film.

One of the strengths of the book is Russell's honesty - the slow and painful dissolution of his marriage to Shirley, the death of family members like his parents and a beloved cousin from childhood, as well as a candid critique of his work. Russell admits that the work dried up after the failure of his 1977 film Valentino - the dismal performance of the film in the US made him a pariah among the major studios, and the director had to cope with increasingly long spells of unemployment. Russell is highly critical of his work on Gothic, a failure due to the "monumental miscasting and hysterical pace" and alleges that he was Warners' 27th choice to direct Altered States (among the previous 26 film makers the film was offered to, was Andrei Tarkovsky!).

Another revealing aspect of the book is Russell's near misses - at one stage he spent over a year of pre-production of the musical Evita, before it was abandoned, and Russell was also set to direct a version of Dracula, with Mick Fleetwood as the Count, only for it to be cancelled due to three other rival productions in the works. Russell also discusses his work outside of Cinema - throughout the 80's and early 90's he directed a number of controversial but visually striking operas. His 1982 opera The Rake's Progress saw him collaborating again with Derek Jarman who was the set designer on The Devils and Savage Messiah. Russell also directed the video for Elton John's 1985 hit, Nikita, and confesses that when he wrote the treatment for the video - about a man's crush on a female East German border guard, he assumed Nikita was a woman's name.
In 2008 the book was revised under the British Picture title and brings Russell's life up to date, including recent events like the fire that destroyed his home in April 2006 and his ill-advised appearance on Channel 4's Celebrity Big Brother in 2007. Ken Russell's loyal fans are used to taking the rough with the smooth, but this memoir is a treat and the book is highly recommended.


  1. Does Hugh Grant's finest ever performance in Lair of the white worm get much of a mention Wes?

  2. I'm afraid Hugh Grant fans will be disappointed as he earns zero mention in the book ! Not even a fleeting entry in the Index.

  3. I never got why Chayefsky hated the film so much. I've read the book, and if I remember correctly, the film is a pretty faithful adaptation. Would have thought he'd be happy with the lengths to which Russell was willing to go to achieve some of those amazing practical and visual FX! It's a great movie (but then I shouldn't need to spell out my feelings - look at my avatar!)

  4. Thanks for that Aylmer, cos I never read the book so that's interesting... Yep, those hallucination visuals are really fantastic - the striking sleeve design for Godflesh's Streetcleaner album is a still from one of those sequences...

  5. Altered States got me to watch after it was so strongly featured in Starlog magazine back in the day - it was certainly the trippiest movie I'd ever watched in my young life the night it premiered on Showtime in the early 80's. I have since enjoyed others of Russell's films - but not Gothic - so I'm pleased even he found it a misfire - I'm in good company then! I think I would enjoy this book - I will keep an eye out for it!

  6. I'm a fan of Gothic I must say. I enjoy it very much, it's easily one of Russell's major films of the 80's - this is another example of artists not being the best judges of their work ! It's been years and years since I saw Altered States - in fact I can remember quite well and it's been years, so a revisit is on the cards. I must check out the Blu-Ray. Despite the absence of the film all these years, a CD I listen to quite regularly which lifts a still from the film for the album artwork is almost never out of reach...