Russell was born in Southampton, England, on 3 July 1927, the elder of two sons of Ethel (née Smith) and Henry Russell, a shoeshop owner. His father was distant and took out his rage on his family, so Russell spent much of his time at the cinema with his mother, who was mentally ill. He cited Die Nibelungen and The Secret of the Loch as two early influences.
He was educated at private schools in Walthamstow and at Pangbourne College, and studied photography at Walthamstow Technical College (now part of the University of East London). He harboured a childhood ambition to be a ballet dancer but instead joined the Royal Air Force and the Merchant Navy as a teenager. On one occasion he was made to stand watch in the blazing sun for hours on end while crossing the Pacific. His lunatic captain feared an attack by Japanese midget submarines despite the war having ended. He moved into television work after short careers in dance and photography.
His series of documentary 'Teddy Girl' photographs were published in Picture Post magazine in 1955, and he continued to work as a freelance documentary photographer until 1959. After 1959, Russell's amateur films (his documentaries for the Free Cinema movement, and his 1958 short Amelia and the Angel) secured him a job at the BBC.
Between 1959 and 1970, Russell directed art documentaries for Monitor and Omnibus. His best known works during this period include: Elgar (1962), The Debussy Film (1965), Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World (1967), Song of Summer (about Frederick Delius and Eric Fenby, 1968) and Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), a film about Richard Strauss. He once said that the best film he ever made was Song of Summer, and that he would not edit a single shot.
Elgar was the first time that a televised arts programme (Monitor) broadcast a feature-length film about an artistic figure, rather than a series of shorter segments. It was also the first time that re-enactments were used. Russell fought with the BBC over using actors to portray different ages of the same character, instead of the traditional photograph stills and documentary footage.
His television films became increasingly flamboyant and outrageous. Dance of the Seven Veils sought to portray Richard Strauss as a Nazi: one scene in particular showed a Jewish man being tortured while a group of SS men look on in delight, with Strauss's music as the score. The Strauss family was so outraged by the film that they withdrew all music rights. The film is effectively banned from being screened until Strauss's copyright expires in 2019.
Russell's next film after Altered States was The Planets, about Gustav Holst's musical suite of the same name. This 53-minute film was made in 1983 specially for The South Bank Show, the weekly arts programme of the ITV network in Britain. It is a wordless collage that matches stock footage to each of the seven movements of the Holst suite. John Coulthart wrote "familiar Russell obsessions appear: Nazis, naked women and the inevitable crucifixion." After essentially disappearing for decades, in 2016 the film was re-released on DVD by Arthaus Musik.
Russell's first feature film was French Dressing (1964), a comedy loosely based on Roger Vadim's And God Created Woman; its critical and commercial failure sent Russell back to the BBC. One of his films there, in 1965, was Always on Sunday, a bio-pic of the late 19th century French naive painter Henri Rousseau (known as Le Douanier). This was followed by Dante's Inferno about the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his tortuous relationship with his wife Elizabeth. His second major commercial film was Billion Dollar Brain (1967), starring Michael Caine, based on author Len Deighton's Harry Palmer spy cycle.
In 1969, Russell directed what is considered his "signature film", Women In Love, an adaptation of D. H. Lawrence's novel of the same name about two artist sisters living in post-World War I Britain. The film starred Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed, Jennie Linden and Alan Bates. The film is notable for its nude wrestling scene, which broke the convention at the time that a mainstream movie could not show male genitalia. Women in Love connected with the sexual revolution and bohemian politics of the late 1960s. It received several Oscar nominations, including his only nomination for Best Director. The film was BAFTA-nominated for the costume designs of Russell's first wife, Shirley; they collaborated throughout the 1970s. The colour schemes of Luciana Arrighi's art direction (also BAFTA-nominated) and Billy William's cinematography, which Russell used for metaphorical effect, are also often referred to by film textbooks.
He followed Women in Love with a string of innovative adult-themed films which were often as controversial as they were successful. The Music Lovers (1970), a biopic of Tchaikovsky, starred Richard Chamberlain as a flamboyant Tchaikovsky and Glenda Jackson as his wife. The score was conducted by André Previn.
The following year, Russell released The Devils, a film so controversial that the producers Warner Bros. refused to release it uncut. Inspired by Aldous Huxley's book The Devils of Loudun and using material from John Whiting's play The Devils, it starred Oliver Reed as a priest who stands in the way of a corrupt church and state. Helped by publicity over the more sensational scenes, featuring sexuality among nuns, the film topped British box office receipts for eight weeks. In the United States, the film, which had already been cut for distribution in Britain, was further edited but never widely released theatrically in anything like its original state; the original, uncut version has only been shown in the U.S. at film festivals and art houses.
In 2017, AMC Networks-owned horror film streaming service Shudder premiered the uncut version of the film for the first time on streaming.
British film critic Alexander Walker described the film as "monstrously indecent" in a television confrontation with Russell, leading the director to hit him with a rolled up copy of the Evening Standard, the newspaper for which Walker worked. The uncut version of the film remains censored.
Russell followed The Devils with a reworking of the period musical The Boy Friend, for which he cast the model Twiggy, who won two Golden Globe Awards for her Performance: one for Best Actress in a musical comedy, and one for the best newcomer. The film was heavily cut and shorn of two musical numbers for its American release; it was not a big success.
Russell himself provided most of the financing for Savage Messiah, released in 1972. The film is a biopic of the painter and sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who died fighting for France at age 23, in 1915, in the trenches during the First World War was The film stars Dorothy Tutin, Scott Antony, and Helen Mirren.
In 1974, Russell worked with David Puttnam on Mahler, widely regarded as one of his best pieces of work.
In 1975, Russell's star-studded film version of The Who's rock opera Tommy starring Roger Daltrey, Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Elton John, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton and Jack Nicholson, spent a record fourteen weeks at the No.1 spot and played to full houses for over a year.
Two months before Tommy was released (in March 1975), Russell started work on Lisztomania (1975), another vehicle for Roger Daltrey, and for the film scoring of progressive rock keyboardist Rick Wakeman. In the film, the music of Franz Liszt is stolen by Richard Wagner. Wagner's operas then put forward the theme of the Superman.Tommy and Lisztomania were important in the rise of improved motion picture sound in the 1970s, as they were among the first films to be released with Dolby-encoded soundtracks. Lisztomania, tagged as "the film that out-Tommys 'Tommy'", topped the British box-office for two weeks in November 1975, when Tommy was still in the list of the week's top five box-office hits.
Russell's next film, the 1977 biopic Valentino, starring Rudolf Nureyev, also topped the British box-office for two weeks, but was not a hit in America.
Russell's 1980 effort Altered States was a departure in both genre and tone, in that it is Russell's only foray into science fiction. Working from Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay (based upon his novel), Russell used his penchant for elaborate visual effects to translate Chayefsky's hallucinatory story to the cinema, and took the opportunity to add his trademark religious and sexual imagery. The film had an innovative Oscar-nominated score by John Corigliano. The film enjoyed moderate financial success, and scored with critics who had otherwise dismissed Russell's work. Roger Ebert, who had given The Devils "zero stars", and had panned Russell's early composer portraits (he did, however, give three stars to both Tommy and Lisztomania), gave it his highest rating for Russell's work (three-and-a-half stars), praising it as "one hell of a movie!"
Russell's behaviour on set, including a row with Chayefsky himself, caused him to become a virtual pariah in Hollywood. Beyond this, Russell's last American film, Crimes of Passion (1984), with Anthony Perkins and Kathleen Turner, had moderate critical success but did not perform at the box office.
After taking a break from film to direct opera, Russell found financing with various independent companies. During this period he directed Gothic (1986) with Gabriel Byrne, about the night Mary Shelley told the tale of Frankenstein, and The Lair of the White Worm (1988) with Amanda Donohoe and Hugh Grant, based on a novella by Bram Stoker.
1988 saw the release of Salome's Last Dance, a loosely adapted esoteric tribute to Oscar Wilde's controversial play Salome, which was banned on the 19th century London stage. The cult movie defines Russell's adult themed romance with the Theatre of The Poor and was also notable for the screen presence of Imogen Millais-Scott as Salome.
Russell finished the 1980s with The Rainbow, another D. H. Lawrence adaptation, which also happens to be the prequel to Women in Love. Glenda Jackson played the mother of her character in the previous film.
In the 1990 film The Russia House, starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, Russell made one of his first significant acting appearances, portraying Walter, an ambiguously gay British intelligence officer who discomfits his more strait-laced CIA counterparts. Russell henceforth occasionally acted.
The 1991 film Prisoner of Honor allowed Russell a further opportunity to explore his abiding interest in anti-Semitism through a factually-based account of the Dreyfus affair in France. The movie featured Richard Dreyfuss in the central role of Colonel Georges Picquart, the French army investigator who exposed the army establishment's framing of the Jewish officer Captain Alfred Dreyfus.
In 1991, Russell directed his final film of any note, Whore. It was highly controversial and branded with an NC-17 rating for its sexual content. The MPAA and the theatre chains also refused to release posters or advertise a film called Whore, so for this purpose the film was re-titled "If You Can't Say It, Just See It". Russell protested his film being given such a rating when Pretty Woman got an R, on the grounds that his film showed the real hardships of being a prostitute, and the other glorified it.
By the early 1990s, Russell had become a celebrity: his notoriety and persona attracted more attention than his recent work. He became largely reliant on his own finances to continue making films. Much of his work after 1990 was commissioned for television (e.g. his 1993 TV film The Mystery of Dr Martinu), and he contributed regularly to The South Bank Show including documentaries such as 'Classic Widows' about the widows of four leading British composers; dance sections in these were choreographed by Amir Hosseinpour.
Prisoner of Honor (1991) was Russell's final work with Oliver Reed. His final film with Glenda Jackson before she gave up acting for politics was The Secret Life of Arnold Bax (1992); this TV film was also his last composer biopic.
In May 1995, he was honoured with a retrospective of his work presented in Hollywood by the American Cinematheque. Titled Shock Value, it included some of Russell's most successful and controversial films and also several of his early BBC productions. Russell attended the festival and engaged in lengthy post-screening discussions of each film with audiences and moderator Martin Lewis, who had instigated and curated the retrospective.
Russell had a cameo in the 2006 film adaptation of Brian Aldiss's novel Brothers of the Head by the directors of Lost in La Mancha. He also had a cameo in the 2006 Colour Me Kubrick. He directed a segment for the horror anthology Trapped Ashes (2007) which also includes segments directed by Sean S. Cunningham, Monte Hellman, and Joe Dante. Prior to his death in 2011 he was reputed to be in pre-production for two films: The Pearl of the Orient and Kings X.
Efforts such as The Lion's Mouth (2000) and The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2002) have suffered from low production values (for example, being shot in video on Russell's estate, often featuring Russell himself) and limited distribution.
In 2003 he was a member of the jury at the 25th Moscow International Film Festival. He also acted in "Final Cut", an episode of the BBC television series Waking the Dead, playing the role of an aging director of a notorious 1960s crime drama similar to Performance.
From 2004, Russell was visiting professor at the University of Wales, Newport Film School. One of his many tasks was to advise students on the making of their graduate films. He also presented the Finest Film Awards (for graduate filmmakers of Newport) in June 2005.
Russell was appointed visiting fellow at the University of Southampton in April 2007, where he acted in a similar capacity to his role at the Newport Film School, until March 2008. His arrival was celebrated with a screening of the rare director's cut of The Devils hosted by Mark Kermode.
He began production of his first full-length film in almost 5 years, Moll Flanders, an adaptation of Daniel Defoe's novel, starring Lucinda Rhodes-Flaherty and Barry Humphries, but a finished film failed to materialise.
Also in 2007 Russell produced A Kitten for Hitler, a short film hosted by the Comedybox.tv website. Russell commented that "Ten years ago, while working on The South Bank Show, Melvyn Bragg and I had a heated discussion on the pros and cons of film censorship. Broadly speaking, Melvyn was against it, while I, much to his surprise, was absolutely for it. He then dared me to write a script that I thought should be banned. I accepted the challenge and a month or so later sent him a short subject entitled A Kitten for Hitler. 'Ken,' he said, 'if ever you make this film and it is shown, you will be lynched.' "
Russell joined Celebrity Big Brother in January 2007, at the start of the series, but left voluntarily within a week after an altercation with Jade Goody.
Ken Russell and his wife Lisi Tribble were invited by New York film writer Shade Rupe on a six-week journey across North America, beginning with a Lifetime Achievement Award given by Mitch Davis at the Fantasia film festival on 20 July 2010, followed by a screening of Russell's most notorious film, The Devils. The next day, a near complete 35mm print retrospective of Russell's work at the Cinémathèque québécoise including Billion Dollar Brain, Women in Love, The Music Lovers, Crimes of Passion, The Rainbow, Whore, and many more found projection along with an exhibition of several of Russell's photographs from the 1950s. The next stop was Russellmania! at Lincoln Center, a nine-film overview of Russell's work from Women in Love through Valentino, with Russell present at each evening screening for a nearly sold-out weeklong festival. 30 July 2010, opening night, Russell was joined by Vanessa Redgrave for a 40th anniversary screening of The Devils and the next evening saw The Music Lovers and Women in Love projected with Ken in attendance. Tommy Tune joined Russell the next evening for The Boy Friend and followed the screening with a live stage dance number from the film.
The American Cinematheque in Los Angeles next hosted Mr. Russell at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica with screenings of The Devils and Altered States with Charles Haid and Stuart Baird in attendance, and Tommy and Lisztomania at the Egyptian the following evening. Director Mick Garris extended an invitation and Russell, Tribble, and Rupe joined the Masters of Horror for one of their rarified dinners. The tour wrapped up in Toronto at the Rue Morgue Festival of Fear and a packed screening of The Devils at the Bloor Cinema hosted by Richard Crouse.
In 2008, he made his New York directorial debut with the Off-Broadway production of Mindgame at the SoHo Playhouse produced by Monica Tidwell, a thriller by Anthony Horowitz and starring Keith Carradine, Lee Godart and Kathleen McNenny. "After reading Mindgame, I was convinced that I had to direct this play in New York ... Anthony Horowitz has written a fascinating thriller with a new surprise every five minutes", said Russell. In 1985, he directed Gounod's Faust at the Vienna State Opera, conducted by Erich Binder with Francisco Araiza, Ruggero Raimondi and Gabriela Beňačková in the main roles.
Besides books on film-making and the British film industry, Russell also wrote A British Picture: An Autobiography (1989; published in the US as Altered States: The Autobiography of Ken Russell, 1991). He also published six novels, including four on the sex lives of composers – Beethoven Confidential, Brahms Gets Laid, Elgar: The Erotic Variations, and Delius: A Moment with Venus.
Mike and Gaby's Space Gospel is a science-fiction rewriting of Genesis. His last novel, also science-fiction and published in 2006, is called Violation. It is a very violent future-shock tale of an England where football has become the national religion.
At the time of his death, he had a column for The Times in the Film section of times 2.
Before achieving success in the film industry, Russell enjoyed a brief fling with still photography. An exhibition displaying some of Russell's work was on display during the summer of 2007 in central London's Proud Galleries in The Strand, London. The exhibition, entitled Ken Russell's Lost London Rediscovered: 1951–1957, included photos taken in and around London, with many of the pictures being taken in the Portobello Road area of London. An exhibition Ken Russell: Filmmaker, Photographer ran at several galleries in 2010.
In the late-1980s, Russell directed the music video for "It's All Coming Back to Me Now", a song written and produced by Jim Steinman for his Pandora's Box project. The production featured a range of erotic imagery, including studded bras and spiked codpieces. He'd also directed Elton John's video for "Nikita" which featured a bit of John wearing the same boots he wore as the Pinball Wizard in the film adaptation of The Who's Tommy.
Russell converted to Roman Catholicism during the 1950s.
He was married four times. His first marriage, to costume designer Shirley Kingdon from 1958 to 1978, produced four sons and a daughter. He was married to Vivian Jolly from 1984 to 1991 (the wedding celebrant being Anthony Perkins, who had been ordained in the Universal Life Church); the couple had a son and daughter. He was married to the actress and former ballerina Hetty Baynes from 1992 to 1997; the couple had a son. His first three marriages ended in divorce. He married Elize Tribble in 2001, and the marriage lasted until his death.
Ken Russell died of natural causes on 27 November 2011 at the age of 84. His last three wives and all eight of his children survived him.