The day I met Ken Russell I got thrown out of the Westbury Hotel in London. These events were not coincidental. Just before, we had done an interview in Wheeler's fish restaurant. I don't remember what we ate, just that it was fish of some kind with no accompaniments. Except three bottles of champagne, that is.
The interview was fascinating. I didn't want it to end and Ken Russell had never met a bottle of champagne he wanted to end, so we were there for hours, talking about his films, the different actors he'd worked with, the current Hollywood gossip. He told me many of the stories he told all the journalists and some he didn't and was funny, sweet and entertaining in equal measures.
I've never thought fish was a suitable basis for embarking on a drinking marathon, particularly a single unadorned fillet. (Ken R was on a diet and I wouldn't have dreamt of eating more than my companion.) Later he said that I had suggested the third bottle of champagne, which was no doubt true. It was one of the few times when I couldn't have cared less how much I was running up in the way of expenses.
After the interview I was meeting John Sandilands, a great writer whose speciality for some years, by his own admission, had been the perfection of writer's block. He was something of a mentor to me at the beginning of my career, me and five other writers whom he wanted to make famous. I don't remember who four of them were, but he succeeded with Craig Brown at least.
I'm not sure how I found my way to the Westbury, but I do remember clutching the inevitable placcie bag with my notebook and tape recorder in it.It was surprisingly difficult to negotiate my way through the tables of polite ladies drinking tea; it was difficult just staying upright. As I emerged triumphant and was about to head for the bar, I was stopped by the poshest person in the place, the maitre d', who asked me who I was looking for. He steered me by the arm towards Sandilands. 'Would you please escort this lady from the premises?' he said.
My mortification was unbounded but Sandilands just looked wistful. 'I wish I still had the ability to get as drunk as that,' he sighed.
It turned out that my own poor tolerance for alcohol was matched only by that of Ken Russell. He headed back towards his flat, where his then wife Vivian (the second of four) was waiting for him to go out to a glittering showbiz party. It was Liza Minelli's birthday and Vivian was pretty excited, had spent ages getting ready. Ken R walked into the flat, then collapsed headlong on to the floor.
There was further catastrophic fallout from our interview for the great director. He had mentioned the sexual swinging that went on in the small town where he lived in the Lake District. The dentist and the butcher's wife (or whichever permutation of the local citizenry he'd outed) were furious and threatened to take him to court for libel. The row ran and ran in the Daily Mail, though I don't think it ever made it to court. There's only so much faking a pair of swingers can do.
It was a privilege to meet such a great artist, even if it was a somewhat rollicking encounter. There are not many film directors who can go from the lurid to the intensely spiritual as he did and I still think The Music Lovers is one of the most moving films I've ever seen.Just a shame poor Liza with a Z had to miss out on his birthday congratulations that year.