As in art, making odd or even wrong choices in life becomes an aesthetic. – R.B. Kitaj
One makes room in Heaven for all sorts of souls … who are not confidently expected to be there by many excellent people – Stephen Crane.
Ken Russell: Two Visits
In May 1995, I had dinner with Ken Russell at a Mexican restaurant in Los Feliz, Los Angeles.
We had a pleasant conversation about his recent projects, including the disappointing Yuri Geller TV biopic “Mindbender” and his upcoming camcorder-shot version of Treasure Island, featuring his new wife, Hetty Baynes.
Our discussion also touched on various topics such as Old Master paintings lost on the Lusitania, the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and the surge in tourism in the Lake District.
Ken also mentioned a potential project with The South Bank Show on the composer Albert Ketèlbey.
On returning to Ken’s hotel, we raced through Hollywood in my beat-up Triumph Spitfire with the top down.
With his white hair blowing in the wind, Ken unexpectedly burst into song, singing the vocal chorus to “In A Persian Market” loudly.
This spontaneous moment encapsulated why I admire Ken.
In the desert, like at sea, death is constantly present, accompanied by difficulties, lawlessness, and isolation.
Unlike in crowded places where death is viewed as a celebration, the desert’s perpetual sense of peril adds an intriguing dimension to the experience of traveling through such harsh and unforgiving terrain.
In the desert, even more than upon the ocean, there is present death: hardship is there, and piracies, and shipwreck, solitary, not in crowds, where, as the Persians say, ‘Death is a festival’; — and this sense of danger, never absent, invests the scene of travel with an interest not its own.
The sons of Great Britain are model barbarians – Sir Richard Francis Burton
In May 1995, in the South Downs of England, I ascended to the peak of Chanctonbury Ring.
I was in Findon for the wedding of my old high school friend Vincent to his English bride Fiona.
Chanctonbury and the nearby Cissbury Rings are remnants of ancient hilltop fortifications from the Iron Age.
They offer commanding views of the picturesque West Sussex countryside, with Cissbury being particularly striking due to its expansive size, enclosing nearly 65 acres.
While exploring Cissbury, I tore my pants needlessly, scaling a barbed wire fence, unaware of an access gate nearby.
The substantial size of the double ramparts at the summit misled me into thinking they were natural formations rather than artificial structures.
While walking, I searched for “Roman era ruins” rumored to be close to the Ring, only to realize from a local redhead that I was standing on them.
Chanctonbury can only be reached through a strenuous climb through the woods, and the area within the ramparts is now overgrown and off-limits, reportedly still utilized by a local witches’ coven, as per a waitress at the inn where I was staying.
Conversely, Cissbury remains accessible to the elements, joggers, dog walkers, and local grazing cattle. On a clear day, it is said that one can see the Isle of Wight.
Eavesdropping in a local second-hand bookshop in Chichester, I listened in on a heated discussion among the youthful owner and his friends regarding the censorship of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs in England.
They also shared their admiration for the editing in a scene from Ridley Scott’s Black Rain where Andy Garcia loses his head, with a sarcastic remark added that it “couldn’t happen to a better man.”
The English second-hand booksellers present were not particularly fond of Andy Garcia.
Drove to Ken Russell’s country residence, Old Tinsley, in the New Forest for lunch. Ken was found in the greenhouse wearing a straw hat, diligently working on the script for Treasure Island in Longhand.
Old Tinsley, a 16th-century thatched house, has been Ken’s writing haven since he acquired it in 1972.
While he prepared spaghetti in the kitchen, he shared the challenges of owning an old house in England.
He recounted the ordeal of obtaining approval to build the greenhouse, which involved encounters with officious council representatives.
Despite facing hurdles due to the house not being historically protected, Ken managed to navigate the situation by leveraging legal threats and ultimately built the greenhouse.
Now, we enjoy the ambiance of Ken’s splendid greenhouse, complete with wooden church angels and a high-tech sound system, which he protects from the sun with a cloth.
During lunch, Ken quizzed me about the American Civil War, asking if it still meant anything to most Americans.
He observed that the radicals responsible for the recent bombing in Oklahoma City seemed to share a common motive with the Confederate States – both objected to being told what to do by the Federal government – and he wondered out loud if America would have another civil war.
He also mentioned that the British, in his opinion, seemed to have little sympathy for America over the Oklahoma City tragedy since they’d been experiencing IRA attacks for decades.
In contrast, most Americans seemed to side with the IRA.
After lunch, we took a short walk around the garden. The sundial in the back was a gift when he married his most recent wife, Hetty.
He read the time for me, which turned out to be an hour early because sundials don’t correct for daylight savings time.
Later that day, I ascended Cissbury Ring once more to bid a late afternoon farewell to the lush English landscape.
I encountered a distressed cow and her calf, seemingly separated from their grazing herd. I trailed them until the cow ascended the embankment and stood face-to-face with me.
After a brief moment, we both went our separate ways in peace.
And they led the most pleasurable of lives and the most delectable, till there came to them the Destroyer of delights and the Sunderer of societies, and they became as they had never been. – Sir Richard Francis Burton, The Arabian Nights
In late 2006, in Los Angeles, several months after collaborating with Ken on his segment “The Girl With The Golden Breasts” for the anthology film Trapped Ashes, which he directed and I wrote and produced, an unexpected twist occurred at the end of the episode.
Surprising everyone, Ken appeared as one of the eccentric scientists who revealed their vampiric female breasts to the camera.
He had kept his role as one of the doctors a secret until the actual filming.
During the editing process, he affectionately dubbed me “Dennis Scissorhands” for trimming down his segment (the full-length cut was eventually released on the DVD, much to Ken’s reluctant satisfaction).
Subsequently, I received news that Ken had tragically become homeless due to a fire that had ravaged his picturesque thatched cottage, Old Tinsley, nearly claiming the life of his fourth wife, Elize, who miraculously escaped at the eleventh hour.
Eventually, I learned that he had decided not to rebuild the cottage.
Nay, more annoying than the fear which they inspired was the odious extravagance of their equipment, with their gilded sails, purple awnings, and silvered oars – Plutarch describing the Cilician Pirates
In late November 2011, I was informed of Ken’s passing.
We had been in communication recently as I had assisted in securing him as the director for a proposed remake of the 1976 film Alice In Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy. This project had greatly enthused him.
Even though I no longer own my Triumph Spitfire, there are moments when I drive through Hollywood at night with the windows down.
At a particular spot, I can still discern faint echoes of a passionate Englishman joyfully chanting “baksheesh … baksheesh!!”
Also, see Movie-Watching Memories: The Quo Vadis.