Murray Melvin is a genuine legend of the stage and screen. Born in 1932, Murray made his name at the Theatre Workshop with Joan Littlewood, and became widely known for his role as Geoffrey in Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey, firstly on the stage, then in the film version, for which he won the Prix de Cannes Best Actor Award. Murray then went on to appear in a string of Ken Russell films, like Diary of A Nobody, Isadora Duncan and, in 1971, The Devils. Cast as Father Mignon, Murray makes a startling impression throughout the film. Here he speaks of his time working on The Devils, one of the most controversial and thrilling movies of the last fifty years.
You'd worked with Ken before The Devils hadn't you?
I had worked with Ken on two productions before the Devils. They were both during his Monitor period for the BBC at Elstree Studios; in 1963 on The Diary of a Nobody, I played the son Lupin. And I had a small part in Isadora Duncan, at the end of the story as a reporter.
Do you recall how you got the part in The Devils?
On all three occasions, the script arrived in the post, asking: “I would like you to play the part of…” I preface all this by... 1963. I was playing at the Wyndhams Theatre in town. The Joan Littlewood production of the First World War musical Oh What a Lovely War, in which I had a variety of parts; Singing, dancing, comedy and drama. Ken, I learnt later, had been to see the production. So an audition for the director was not necessary as he had seen it all on stage.
What are your memories of the first day on set?
I recall the costume fitting with the glorious Shirley Russell. She had got the most wonderful Slub Silk to make my Soutane and some ancient Brussels Lace for my ‘saying the Mass’ outfit. I had agreed to Ken’s request to have a pudding basin haircut, on the condition I had a good wig to go home in. It was good. Nobody knew, everyone assumed the ‘Pudding Basin’ was the wig! That was also fitted on that day. The first day on set, I am sorry, lost in the midst of time. It was 1972!
Did you feel you were making a special film? Did you have any idea it would be shocking or cause a stir?
I do not believe any member of Ken’s company would have used the word ‘shocking’, that was a word for the ignorant critic or member of the public. We would have agreed with ‘controversial’, yes. But that’s what made him the film genius he was.
Can you compare Ken with any other director you've worked with at all? Most people who worked for him say no...
Oh, I cannot compare Ken to any other film director I have worked with. Who else has thrown such amazing, imaginative, mind boggling images up onto the Silver Screen? No, Mr Russell was unique.
What are some of the over riding memories of working with Ken Russell on that remarkable film?
There were many if I had time to dig deep enough. One that comes to mind was the fact that Father Mignon in the script, performs the whole of the Offertory of the Mass. That was in his church whilst all the flagellation was going on. (Good counterpoint!) Not knowing any, I had to learn the Latin, this was happening prior to shooting, then I was assigned to an inmate from a local Seminary to instruct me on the alter choreography, when to bend the knee and turn the page. He was very impressed by me at the shooting. Even asked if I had considered entering the Church! He got his fingers rapped when I explained that I was already in the church. i.e. the Theatre. The filming took a whole day and more. When I saw the film, so typical of filming, and something one painfully gets used to, Ken had cut it ALL except for the final line. “Ite, missa est.” The Dismissal. The end. As I commented at the time. For me it hadn’t begun.
The Devils' cult is building over the years for sure. Do you feel he is getting the credit he deserves yet?
No. Ken has definitely not, as yet, had the credit he deserves. Perhaps the Establishment still view him as dangerous? But then you must remember he was English and we have that old cliché about the prophet. That one of the Geniuses of Twentieth Century Film has not as yet had a great retrospective is outrageous. Had his name been Russollini...
What are your lasting memories of Ken and the Devils?
I was at the showing of his near completed Director's Cut of The Devils at the Barbican which Ken attended, along with his wife Lisi and other members of his company. He was by then in a wheelchair and I had the great privilege of pushing him around the Barbican. We were all doing a Q & A before the screening. I was amazed when I got him into the auditorium at the lack of grey hairs in the audience. The place was full, mostly with people under thirty. They had not been born when we had made the film. It had not been shown for years. How did they know? It was then I realised a Cult of Ken was alive and well and it was not just the Russell Repertory Company Members, as we used to call ourselves, who were aware all those years ago that he was special. When the film ended the prolonged ovation and cheers for Ken had us all in floods of tears. It was a very special evening. He died not long after, and he is missed.