This production of the musical The Boy Friend is not exactly going to play to a packed house, but the show must go on, even though the assistant stage manager Polly Browne (Twiggy) makes the error of whistling in the dressing room - they're very superstitious these show people. And no sooner has Polly tried to fix the problem by going out, turning around three times and knocking on the door than the news reaches the cast and crew that the star (Glenda Jackson) has broken her leg on her way there. Now what are they going to do?
How about that old musical cliché made famous by 42nd Street, put on the inexperienced kid who may go out there a nobody, but will come back a star? Or something like that. This was an adaptation of Sandy Wilson's pastiche stage show of the nineteen-fifties, given the Ken Russell treatment and winding up not one of the cult director's favourite films. According to him the main problems were twofold: he wanted to keep everything in, creating a lighthearted romp that dragged on for well over two hours, and the studio wanted to drastically cut it, which they did without his permission or indeed input.
So while it may have seemed at the time that this might not have appealed to anybody, over the years this, like most of Russell's films, worked up a devoted following of those who not only appreciated what he was trying to do, but genuinely enjoyed the deliberately ramshackle stylings. It's a tricky thing to make a success of, fashioning an entertainment that is supposed to be very accomplished about something that is unavoidably shoddy, and while you could not say they did that perfectly here, enough of it had the charm they were aiming for that you could understand why it might attract the select few.
The conceit here was the version of the show being put on at this Plymouth theatre was not as professional as those involved might have liked, so all the missed cues, flubbed lines, bumping into each other and even outright arguments were as much part of the texture of the film as the more elaborate numbers Russell staged as dream sequences. These were often the thoughts of one of the audience in the box at the side of the stage who the cast recognise as De Thrill (Vladek Sheybal), a film director who they all hope will whisk them away to Hollywood should they impress him sufficiently with their talents.
Naturally, although we can see he is laughing at the performers, the notion of showbusiness being not only a method of escapism for the audience but the performers and artists as well ran through every scene. The numbers exhibited a sprightly zest even when they were meant to be amateurish, after all we were supposed to be finding amusement here and if it had been all too shabby then the joke would have been lost of most of those watching. The intrigue backstage, where Polly is having trouble persuading the leading man, Tony (Christopher Gable), of her feelings for him, was also filtered through the cheap but vital sentiment of the show, leaving either fiction or real life scarcely more fantastical than the other. In the director's cut there was undoubtedly too much of a good thing, yet Russell's obvious love for the material and hard work bringing his vision to it made this one of his more accessible movies.
It was trips to the cinema with his mother that made British director, writer and producer Ken Russell a lifelong film fan and this developed into making his own short films. From there, he directed dramas on famous composers for the BBC, and was soon making his own features.
French Dressing did not make much of an impact, but if his Harry Palmer episode Billion Dollar Brain was fairly well received, then his follow up, Women in Love really put Russell on the international movie map. From there the seventies produced most of the highlights of his career, never shying away from controversy, with The Music Lovers, The Devils (most reviled of his films and his masterpiece), musical The Boy Friend, and more music and artist based works with Savage Messiah, Mahler, Tommy (the film of The Who's concept album) and Lisztomania.
After the seventies, which he ended with the biopic Valentino, his popularity declined somewhat with Altered States suffering production difficulties and later projects difficult to get off the ground. Nevertheless, he directed Crimes of Passion, Gothic, Salome's Last Dance, cult horror Lair of the White Worm and The Rainbow in the eighties, but the nineties and beyond saw more erratic output, with many short films that went largely unseen, although a UK TV series of Lady Chatterley was a success. At the age of 79 he appeared on reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother but walked out after a few days. Russell was one of Britain's most distinctive talents, and his way of going passionately over the top was endearing and audacious, while he rarely lost sight of his stories' emotional aspects.