Robert Powell


By Jeremy Miles

Actor Robert Powell has worked with some of the finest film directors of the past 50 years but the late, great Ken Russell – though sidelined by the industry and dismissed by critics as  a maverick – stands out as a particularly favourite. 

Paying tribute to Russell, who died aged of 84 earlier this week, Powell described him as “An extraordinary talent and great film-maker” He first met the flamboyant director when he was cast in the title role his 1974 film Mahler. They got on so well that a year later Russell asked him to play Captain Walker in his movie version of The Who’s rock opera Tommy. 

“Ken taught me a huge amount,” says Powell. He remembers Russell as a perfectionist who demanded “100 per cent plus” from his cast and crew. On the very first day on set for Mahler he witnessed a make-up man being unceremoniously fired for reading a newspaper when he should have been working.

But far from finding him intimidating he says Russell was “a lovely cuddly man” who he got on with extremely well

Powell knows his movie tyrants and he says that Russell (pictured left) definitely wasn’t one of the bad guys. “ I’ve worked with some the hardest and toughest reputations in the world. Directors like  Liliana Cavani, Franco Zeffirelli and even James Ivory who was difficult  in a different sort of way but still a bloody nightmare. Ken wasn’t a nightmare. He just committed himself utterly to whatever project he was working on and really didn’t want anyone around who wasn’t equally committed.

“I instinctively understood this because I believe that there’s no point in doing anything unless you do it properly. It’s no good just doing enough you have to do more than enough. Its almost my family motto. Ken had no problem with people who weren’t actually working going off and reading a newspaper or doing the crossword but he didn’t want them doing it on the set.” 

Powell himself says he rarely left the set between takes.  “I stayed by the camera, and I used to do this with Zeffirelli too, because you never know when the director is going to want to say something, discuss an idea or talk to an actor about what’s coming up. It’s about using the energy that we all feed off on set, the performers, the director, everybody.

 “People always talk about directors getting the best out of actors but it’s not a one-way street. It works the other way round as well. You have to know how to manipulate a director so that he gets the best out of you.”

Powell had a good relationship with Russell. “We liked each other and enjoyed each others company.” he told me. “He made me laugh and I used to be able to make him laugh. I took the mickey out of him too which I’m not sure many other people did but I think he enjoyed it.”

He has happy memories too of working alongside Russell’s favourite actor Oliver Reed – even though “he beat me death in Tommy”.

The notorious hard-drinking hell-raiser was perfect for an impassioned director like Russell.

“Ollie was a visceral actor. Not a head actor. Ask him to do something and he just did it. I think Ken enjoyed that. He was extremely good at getting the best out of people.”

Even though he made some hugely popular films -  Women in Love, The Music Lovers, The Devils, Tommy  - Russell’s career was sidelined, largely due to his flamboyant behavior and refusal to compromise and kowtow to the demands of the movie industry. 

Though he appeared defiant and in recent years had taken to making what were effectively home-movies in the garden of his Hampshire home, Russell felt he still had much to offer and was clearly hurt by the snub 

 “I talked to him about this.” says Powell “and I know that he felt a little abandoned even though part of him knew that in many ways he only had himself to blame.”

Sadly the modern film business seems to have no place for free-spirits like Ken Russell  

“Unfortunately our business has become populated, particularly at the top,  not with artists but with businessmen with balance-sheets,” says Powell

“You can see by the quality of the films that are being made that there are very few people who are prepared to take risks anymore.  No one has any confidence in their own judgment and that’s why Ken got sidelined.

 “The reason he thrived in the sixties was because back then the BBC was actually run by producers and not by accountants and there were people prepared to take risks with him and give him his head.”

It was as a direct result of the groundbreaking documentaries he made  for the BBC’s arts programme Monitor that gave Russell the reputation and  platform to break into mainstream movies.

Powell believes the golden era of film-making that produced so many cutting edge films in the sixties and seventies has been lost in the age of the bean-counters.

“ It’s extraordinary, when you consider the market, that the really good films being made today number maybe four or five a year,” he says. Ten years ago of the top ten films, in terms of grossing, two were children’s films. Now eight are childrens films. Things like Pirates of the Caribbean. The trouble is they’re dross, they’re complete rubbish. Nobody puts any effort it to it. They can’t be arsed.” 

He says he finds it hard to believe that Ken Russell is gone but feels his career spanned some of the most fruitful years for a film-maker

 “I last saw him about 18 months ago. He was frail and struggling to walk but it still came as shock when I heard that he had died.  Somehow I have always thought of him as a kind of monolith who would go on forever.”

© Jeremy Miles 2022