Ken Russell's Voss

The Patrick White film that never was
 Vincent Plush

The British film director Ken Russell died on 27 November 2011. But Russell was equally notorious as an opera director, as audiences at the Spoleto Festival in Melbourne realised in 1986, when they witnessed his controversial production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Less known is another possible connection with Australia: at one stage, Russell was slated to direct the film version of Patrick White’s novel Voss.

For the past few years, I’ve been working with Robyn Holmes, Senior Curator of Music at the National Library of Australia, researching the background to Voss and its place in the cultural history of Australia. Our aim is to produce an e-publication, Patrick White, Voss and the Australian Cultural Landscape, which will accompany the celebrations of Patrick White’s centenary in May 2012.

To celebrate the life of Ken Russell, here is an extract from this forthcoming e-publication.

Enter the Showman: Ken Russell
Ken Russell in 2010. Photo by Week of Wonders

In 1968, Patrick White went to a neighbour’s house in Sydney to watch television. He and his life partner Manoly Lascaris wanted to watch a telemovie about composer Frederick Delius and his amanuensis Eric Fenby. This was Song of Summer (1968), directed by Ken Russell. Impressed by the ‘wonderfully real characterisation’ in the film, White tried to enthuse the impresario Harry M. Miller about Ken Russell directing Voss, White’s novel which had been published just over a decade earlier.

The interest of the sceptical producer grew as Russell’s name, reputation and box-office takings climbed to stratospheric heights with his rollicking realisation of DH Lawrence’s novel Women in Love. By now persuaded by the artistic and commercial viability of White’s latest suggestion for director, Miller flew to London to sign up Russell to direct Voss. He gave the director a copy of the novel, which Russell passed on to his collaborator, John McGrath. His feedback was that it was one of the greatest novels he had ever read, and it needed to be filmed. Harry M. Miller had, it seemed, pulled off another of his spectacular coups: a deal with one of the hottest names in contemporary cinema, Ken Russell.

At Russell’s behest, McGrath flew to Australia in July 1970. At Mascot Airport, the quivering Irishman ran the gauntlet of the Sydney press: What do you think of Australia? Was it true that the lead roles were going to non-Australian actors? How could an Irishman living in Scotland write a film script about Australia? Had he actually read the novel?

Appalled by McGrath’s treatment at the hands of ‘this pack of newspaper hacks’, White gave his first press interview in 10 years. This, he hoped, would assuage his public, his readers and, not incidentally, potential investors who may be lurking in the wings. ‘I only pray this film is a tremendous success artistically,’ he wrote to his friend Ronald Waters , ‘so that we can throw it in the faces of all these foul Australians.’

White liked the 35-year-old Irishman immensely. ‘[McGrath] seems both professional and sensitive,’ he wrote to Waters. ‘I’m sure from one or two things he has said that he will produce something good for the script.’

Back in London, McGrath produced a first draft by Christmas 1970. Miller mentioned to White that this first script was possibly too long and that Ken Russell was beginning to sound difficult. White had caught press reports of what was on Russell’s plate: the British wunderkind was slated to direct Peter Maxwell Davies’ opera Taverner at Covent Garden, as well as direct the movie version of the Sandy Dennis musical The Boyfriend (with orchestrations by Maxwell Davies) and another film called Under the Volcano (1984), starring Albert Finney. With a schedule like that, White wondered, how could Russell possibly find time to squeeze in making a film of Voss?

On 25 March 1970 White had signed an approval for Ken Russell to direct Voss. On 14 July Russell’s company in London, Russfilms Ltd, signed an agreement with Harry M. Miller Productions Ltd setting out the conditions for their joint venture. Ken Russell would direct, John McGrath would create the screenplay, and Russell and Miller, as co-producers, would form a company to produce the film. Subject to Russell’s initial satisfaction with his script, McGrath would be paid £15,000 for the first draft of the screenplay, with a further £5000 and a 5 per cent share of the film profits for subsequent development. Harry M. Miller and John McGrath, as writer, had reached verbal agreement on this earlier and had signed an agreement on 7 August 1970.

Their contract stated that Ken Russell would supervise and collaborate on script development. Russell would receive no payment for his contribution to script development. He would, however, have complete artistic control over making the film, though he was to ‘consult in good faith’ over the selection of locations in Australia, principal cast and production budget. Russell was required to fully commit to the making of the film within 12 months of receiving a script that satisfied him. If such an undertaking was not fulfilled by 31 December 1974, the agreement could be terminated and any net profits for the rights or literary material would be divided between the two parties.

Despite his misgivings over Russell’s crammed schedule, Patrick White still thought that Ken Russell was ‘probably the only director who could attempt Voss’. White had made similar pronouncements before, and would do so again. His enthusiasm for particular directors waxed and waned, but heightened with the anticipation of actually meeting these demi-gods of the silver screen. A meeting with Ken Russell would be the highlight of an extended trip Patrick White and Manoly Lascaris would make to the United States and England in early 1971. The meeting with Russell would be ‘a life-or-death occasion’, as far as filming Voss was concerned. The novelist was looking forward to it enormously; privately, he half-hoped it might turn into a comedy.

En route to London, White and Lascaris toured the United States, again. By now, Patrick White had fallen out of love with that country. The only thing he looked forward to was the chance to see the Grand Canyon. The US sales of his books were lamentable. Even so, he refused to help out his publishers, Viking Press, by making a few public appearances.

'Nowhere does one see a soul who might share one’s thoughts and opinions. I can see why my books don’t sell in the States: what is surprising is that any book should sell.'

If they read anything at all that year, Americans might be reading Erich Segal’s Love Story or John Updike’s Rabbit Redux. White and Lascaris travelled across a landscape bleak and forbidding in the depths of winter, with further storm clouds on the horizon. As Tricia Nixon married Edward Finch Cox in the White House, the first segments of the Pentagon Papers were appearing in The New York Times. It was the year of the Attica prison uprising, and an earthquake and the Manson trials in Los Angeles.

As they made that tedious trip across the country, White read Voss for the first time in 14 years. He thought it had stood up quite well, even though he would have preferred to alter ‘much of the punctuation and many a phrase’. Still, he was confident that Ken Russell, if only he could ‘convey it as it is’, would produce a successful film. ‘It is visual all the way,’ he reassured his South Australian friends the Duttons and himself.

Reaching London, White read John McGrath’s script but found himself a little disappointed at the omissions and compressions, minor things ‘which the author of the novel cannot like’. Just what Patrick White really thought of McGrath’s script, all 191 pages of it, is delicious to contemplate. In particular, how could he have sanctioned McGrath’s bizarre ending?

'McGrath ignores White’s ending entirely. After Voss’ death, the climax in his script, he cuts to a final shot of modern-day Sydney, 1971. The camera rises and pans over the city, encapsulating the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the [still incomplete] Sydney Opera House and other symbolic Sydney city landscapes of ‘modernisation.’ McGrath’s ending is disjointed and feels out of place. Moreover, it loses the poignancy White manages to achieve in his epilogue to the death of Voss. Instead of moving time forward 25 years, as White does, McGrath leaps 125 years to the present, perhaps insinuating that Voss’ spirit still inhabits the landscape. However, it is a particularly disappointing end to his script, and feels like a less successful imitation of the end of Nicolas Roeg’s 1970 British-Australian film Walkabout. Not surprisingly then, the National Film and Sound Archive’s copy of this script includes what was a handwritten note next to the end scene, possibly written by McGrath himself, though more likely by the film’s potential director Ken Russell: "This is shit".'


Exit Ken Russell

In London, White and Lascaris teamed up with John McGrath. Together the trio drove down to Portsmouth where Russell was filming The Boy Friend (1971). Already, there were signs of tension between Russell and McGrath. The scriptwriter had refused to write The Devils, a gruesome project that he urged the director to abandon. The tension between the two was palpable.

It soon became clear that Russell wasn’t really interested in White’s novel at all. ‘The only suggestion he made,’ Marr citing McGrath, was that Voss should be seen trudging through the desert and the camera would go up and over a ridge to see a pool of fresh water full of naked Aboriginal women.’ McGrath felt that Russell was patronising his Australian visitors; the director was treating the novelist ‘like a supplicant commercial traveller’.

Over a mediocre Chinese meal, and with Sandy Dennis foxtrots traipsing in their ears, the party discussed their film project. Inevitably, they could not agree on who should play the leading roles. Even so, Russell undertook to fly to Australia early in the new year, scout locations and then return for filming in late July 1972. White was unsettled by Russell’s ‘watertight’ assurances and bland generalisations. ‘It makes one feel that other people are completely incapable of visualising characters as the author saw them in the beginning,’ he confided to Geoffrey Dutton.

The time for Ken Russell’s visit to Australia came and went. His enthusiasm for the project, if ever there was any, dimmed. Australia was a long, long way away and he hated air travel.

'It doesn’t look as though Russell has any intention of doing Voss, and I keep quiet about the whole thing hoping it will fade out. [I see now that] Russell would be completely wrong and I don’t want Harry M [Miller] to come up with some awful alternative. I don’t want anything more to do with film after meeting with experiences I’ve had.'

Harry M Miller subsequently wrote off his initial investment in the Russell film project as a tax loss. By August 1972, White had concluded that the Russell collaboration was dead in the desert.

Russell-wise, Patrick White’s instincts were right on the mark. He was almost certainly lucky to boot. By the time Russell should have begun to film Voss, the British director had embarked on a series of outrageous and phantasmagorical treatments of such composer figures as Liszt (Lisztomania, 1975, starring Roger Daltrey), Mahler (Mahler, 1972), Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers, 1973, starring Richard Chamberlain) and a convent full of deranged nuns in Loudun (The Devils, 1974). These were not so much movies about famous historical figures (usually composers) and events: these were fictionalised readings very far from history or the truth.

Increasingly, Ken Russell’s interpretations were becoming flamboyant and often provocative, sometimes deliberately so, for the sake of box office and success de scandale. In Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), Richard Strauss is portrayed as a Nazi. This so incensed the Strauss estate (after all, the composer had died only in 1949, barely two decades earlier, at the age of 80) that all music rights were withdrawn and a worldwide ban placed on the film, which remains in effect to this day. Through Russell’s eyes and lens, Mahler was not the composer–conductor Gustav Mahler, but Ken Russell’s Mahler. Not Tchaikovsky, but Ken Russell’s Tchaikovsky.

Around the time of the publication of Voss in 1957, Patrick White described Ludwig Leichhardt, one of the progenital figures that inspired the novel as ‘unusually unpleasant’. White’s fictionalised creature Johann Ulrich Voss was not merely ‘unpleasant’ but ‘mad as well’.

Just how Ken Russell might have treated Johann Ulrich Voss on the silver screen is tantalising. And, perhaps, repellent.