Film Fanatic: Russellomania!

Why is The Beek having such a tough time tracking down Ken Russell's films in the UK?

British cinema lost one of its true legends in November with the death of director Ken Russell. Regularly described as an iconoclast and the enfant terrible of the UK film industry, the Southampton-born Russell carved out a niche as one of our most pioneering and controversial filmmakers, yet one who has been mostly overlooked by the majority of DVD labels in his native country. Indeed, the only bright spot surrounding his passing is that UK studios and distributors might finally get their act together.

Because, as odd as it might seem, only a small selection of Russell’s films are out on DVD in the UK. And few still have been treated with anything like the kind of care and attention they deserve. Of what are widely seen as his four best-known works, only Women in Love and Altered States are currently available – and as barebones discs in need of a serious AV overhaul. Meanwhile, Tommy: The Movie is out of print on DVD, and, while The Devils is finally on the cards for a Special Edition DVD release from BFI Video in March, it’s of the 1971 UK cinema cut, not the 2004 restoration.

Other Russell movies are available on DVD over here, such as Crimes of Passion, but, again, little effort has been put into any of the discs. And there are others, like Tommy..., that have simply gone out of print – such as BFI Video’s wonderful DVD releases of his celebrated biopics Elgar and Delius: Song of Summer. Put simply, there’s nowhere near the range you would expect on these shores for such a uniquely British filmmaker.

Sex, death and religion
My own introduction to Russell’s work came through his bigscreen take on The Who’s ‘rock opera’ Tommy. At some point during a family visit to relatives in Bournemouth, I sat down with an older cousin who was in the process of watching the film on video. Being of a somewhat tender age at the time, I pretty much missed the point of the film, but was at least enjoying the music – until Tina Turner’s Acid Queen turned up with her sarcophagus full of hyperdermic needles. Maybe it was just Turner’s singing, or maybe it was the sequence’s confusing collision of wild sexuality and abject horror, but whatever the case, it was too much for my younger self and I fled the room.

After that traumatic incident, my first deliberate encounter with Russell’s films came towards the end of the 1980s, when I watched Altered States and then Crimes of Passion in fairly quick succession after learning about them both from some now forgotten book about cinema. My teenage mind was much more willing to accept, understand and actively enjoy Russell’s flamboyant aesthetics and controversial take on sex, death and religion (frequently all three at the same time). Before long I was watching everything of his I could find, from The Devils to Lisztomania, Women in Love to The Lair of the White Worm (my introduction to the wondrous Amanda Donohoe). I collected and voraciously devoured every Ken Russell film I could find.

But today, there are hardly any of his films in my collection. I had always hoped that somebody here in the UK would get the man himself involved in some reissues of his films on DVD, but clearly it was never to be. So now I just hope that his recent death might at least provoke a little more interest and demand in his ouvre from the public. One that the studios and distributors might be willing to accommodate with a more complete collection of his work on DVD, and maybe even Blu-ray.

Which other filmmakers are in need of more TLC on DVD?
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This column first appeared in the March 2012 issue of Home Cinema Choice