Ken Russell, the film director, died today at the age of 84. During the summer of 1974, Russell filmed his adaptation of the Who’s rock opera Tommy in many locations around Portsmouth and Southsea. I was in my final year of a Geology degree course at Portsmouth Polytechnic and many students were able to get work as extras on the film. £4 a day, a free ticket to an exclusive concert by The Who and all you can eat bacon and sausage barmcakes from the location catering van? What wasn’t to like?
We spent two whole days as extras in the crowd filming the famous Pinball Wizard scene in the Kings Theatre, Southsea. The opening bars of that song are burned into my brain after the many, many takes. Russell’s reputation as a mad genius was enhanced a number of times during the making of this film. During this scene towards the end where the crowd invade the stage, the access steps collapsed and people were getting trampled, but Ken’s cameras kept rolling, with the panic and hysteria lending the scene further credibility.
A few weeks later he filmed some scenes in the ballroom at the end of Southsea pier when a fire broke out. Russell filmed that too and later used the scenes in his film. The pier did not recover and students from the Poly never again got to hear 12 minute drum solos by progressive rock bands at their union gigs on the pier.
I should have been there that day as well but a hangover may have prevented my attendance. A lucky escape for my one pair of purple loon pants as I had been recruited to play the (non-speaking) part of a greencoat at the holiday camp. I had worked in this role a few days earlier at Hilsea Lido in North Portsmouth and secured a £1 daily raise as they asked if I would be Oliver Reed’s stand-in. Not quite as glamorous as you might think as it simply meant that, as I was the same height as Reed, I got to stand about in position while the camera crew lined up the shot, checked the light levels and Ollie slept off the previous nights drinking, in company with Keith Moon no doubt. “You, student type, step aside now please……….Ollie, dahling , we’re ready to shoot now”
In any event they were my five minutes of fame in the world of the Silver Screen. RIP Ken, Ollie and Keith.