Ken Russell, who exposed naked nuns being extremely naughty with a crucifix in “The Devils,” told me he was a staunch Catholic when I interviewed him for The New York Times in 1972. Why did I have a slight problem believing him?

Who says you can’t turn Johann Sebastian Bach into Groucho Marx? Certainly not Ken Russell, the daring British director who promises to perform that very miracle in his next film. But that’s not the film that M-G-M has paid his fare from London to talk about; they’d settle for a puffy discussion of “Savage Messiah,” which is to open shortly in New York.

"Savage Messiah,” starring Dorothy Tutin and Scott Anthony, centers on the stormy but sexless love affair between Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, the gifted French sculptor who was killed, at the age of 23, in World War I, and Sophie Brzeska, the neurotic Polish writer who was more than double his age. And anyone who has ever been shock-treated by “The Music Lovers,” Russell’s bold and frenzied movie dealing with the wretched wedded life of the homosexual Tchaikovsky and his nymphomaniac Nina, or his television portrait of a degenerate, Hitler-happy Richard Strauss, or of his equally disturbing TV account of a booze-soaked, drug-ridden Isadora Duncan, knows better than to expect a stuffy, text-book approach to the problems of Henri and Sophie.

Discretion has never been the better part of Russell’s directorial style. If you’re going to show a corpse, you may as well show maggots picnicking in its eye sockets – as Russell did in “The Devils.” And if you’re going to show a nymphomaniac in a mangy mental institution, you may as well show her spread-eagled over an open grate, while lustful lunatics thrust their filthy hands up under her dress – as in “The Music Lovers.” This disdain for cinematic decorum, coupled with an alleged distortion of fact in his film biographies, has won Russell the wrath of most American critics.

“There should be fewer critics and more artists,” says the chubby, 46-year old director, pouring milk into his tea at the Pierre. He’s dressed in black mod, his long white hair is all aswirl, and his blue eyes flash impishly from his fleshy face. “I’m including these lines in my next film: ‘Critics buried Mozart in a pauper’s grave, and Hugo Wolf took so much of their excrement that he died raving in a madhouse, eating his own.’ One remembers and loves these men; their critical murderers have justly been forgotten.”

Among the critics who wouldn’t mind burying Russell are those who fell wildly in love with “Women in Love,” starring Alan Bates and Oliver Reed at right, his first major movie back in 1970. “Well, ‘Women in Love’ was easier for them. It had just the right amount of violence and erotic things in it. But I don’t think it was as good as the others.”

“Oh, it was a beautiful movie!” says a sparkling-eyed woman with soft, dark hair who is passing through the room. “You know it was a beautiful movie!” She’s Shirley Russell, the costume designer for all of her husband’s films and the mother of his five children.

But it was a rare movie critic who found beauty in “The Music Lovers.” In fact, one of our most indefatigable fault-finders deemed it an ugly lie, from beginning to end.

"Listen, I wish you’d put this into your story,” fumes Russell. “Just how much did that cow read about Tchaikovsky? Did she go to Russia and see where he fell into the canal? Did she study his life for a whole year? Well I did! I’ll tell you where she picked up her information about Tchaikovsky: she went to a bloody cocktail party, belted down a few drinks, talked to some expert and then went home and batted out her review. She probably liked Dmitri Tiomkin’s movie about Tchaikovsky!

“Besides, ‘The Music Lovers’ was not so much the story of Tchaikovsky as it was a black comedy about the decadence of romanticism,” Russell says, pressing the mushroom-sized ring on his pinky to his cheek. “That scene in the country – the scene with everybody running about in the lush green grass – that was made up of images from cigarette commercials. It was meant to be a huge send-up. The core of the film is the destructive force of dreams, particularly daydreams, on reality. The television ad-man’s trick of passing off his dream world as an attainable and desirable reality is to my mind the great tragedy of our age.”

During his leaner days, Russell himself had been reduced to directing TV commercials, but, oddly enough, the remembrance of that putrid past inspired him to set to work on his still unfinished screenplay about Bach and other abused biggies of the music world, past and present. In one section of the film, Bach will be depicted as a figure forced by money miseries to make artistic compromises; in another section, his modern-day counterpart will be observed committing similar sins.

“The hero is a serious artist doing a pop musical called ‘Jesus on Venus.’ Very far out, you know, with Christ doing a striptease to Bach’s ‘Air on the G String.’ To support himself, he also has to do the music for canned lamb commercials. Then one day something happens to the composer – something similar to what happened to me one day when I was doing a commercial showing a little girl eating canned beans. But in my movie the girl will be made to eat canned lamb on toast, while in the background a baroque orchestra will play Bach’s ‘Sheep May Safely Graze.’

“As the girl picks out pieces of lamb to put on her toast, she becomes upset to her stomach and throws up on the plate, whereupon the make-up man runs in to clean her up and her mother dashes in and says, ‘Try it again, dear,’ and so once again she tries it and once again she throws up. ‘Try it again, dear,’ her mother repeats, and suddenly the composer grabs the child up in his arms and runs out of the building – directly in front of a car. The child is thrown clear, and when the composer wakes up, somebody is asking, ‘Why did you run in front of my horse and carriage?’ And there we are, back in the time of Bach.”

A certain music-loving lady critic isn’t going to buy that. “I know what I’m up against; my making Bach funny will send some people into a rage. But it’s like the ‘Pastorale’ symphony – there are 800 possible interpretations, from Toscanini’s to Furtwangler’s. If I do a film in which Bach is like Groucho Marx, it doesn’t matter – so long as the statement I make is true to the spirit of Bach.

“The movie will really be about the things you have to do for money, from writing music for mad dukes to writing music for canned lamb. The artist has always been at the mercy of the commercial, or of somebody who will butcher his work.”

Speaking of butchers, Russell has on occasion felt the blade of the censor, most bloodily with “The Devils,” his 1971 movie starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave (at left) and based on the true story of Father Urbain Grandier, a 17th-century French priest who scorned the vow of celibacy and was burned at the stake on the strength of false testimony given by sexually repressed nuns. The censorship began abroad.

“In England, they killed the key scene in the movie, the scene in which the nuns, naked and hysterical, pull down the life-sized crucifix and fall upon it sexually. It was meant to be the rape of the church, the rape of Christ.”

So the offending scene was scissored – and stolen from the Pinewood Studios in London. Not that “The Devils” fared much better on this side of the Atlantic. “They said Mayor Daley of Chicago would get mad if we didn’t cut certain things, but I could never see where he fitted in. Then a sales rep from Warners said to me, ‘Look here, Ken baby, I’ve made it with every broad from San Francisco to Timbuktu, but I’m telling you there were things you did in that movie that I wouldn’t do to my own mother. We’ve got to start by cutting out all that pubic hair. Pubic hairs get you an automatic X.’ ‘That’s very unfortunate,’ I said, ‘because if we take out all the pubic hair, there won’t be much left to the movie, will there?’ In the end, my editor made the cuts, and the hairs were strewn all over the studio. And we still got an X-rating!

“I’m truly surprised that my films shock people, and I’m astonished that not everyone could see that ‘The Devils’ was a religious film. There aren’t many Catholics in England, but I’m sure that if a Catholic censor had been shown the scene of the nuns and the crucifix, he would have understood what was being said and he would have passed it. Atheist censors are always the ones to be most appalled.”

It’s true there aren’t many Catholics in England, but Ken and Shirley Russell, both of whom were converted before their marriage 15 years ago, can be counted among the congregation. “When I was young, I didn’t really know where I was going,” Russell says, “but as soon as I came into the faith, my work, my philosophy, gained direction. Except for ‘The Boyfriend’ – a pathetic event - all my films have been Catholic films, films about love, faith, sin, guilt, forgiveness, redemption. Films that could only have been made by a Catholic.”

Russell’s memories of his middle-class, non-Catholic boyhood are not overwhelmingly joyous. “I lived on a long, lonely street where there were no other children, except for my brother, who was 5 years younger than I. So, quite early, I retreated into a fantasy world. During the war, we moved to Southampton, where there were no bombs and the only school was one where they taught you to be a clerk.”

In 1941, when he was 15, Russell became a cadet at the Royal Naval College at Pangbourne. “I spent three years breaking bounds to see Betty Grable and Dorothy Lamour movies, for which I was caned unmercifully upon my return. The shows the cadets put on were mostly dull affairs, but when I directed a show, it was lively, because I dressed them all up in drag and made Carmen Miranda out of them.”

As the war drew to an end, the 17-year-old Russell put out to sea under a commander who made Captain Bligh look like Captain Andy. When his painful tour of duty was over, some perverse impulse propelled him smack into the R.A.F., and another three years down the drain. Then came several sweaty seasons as a budding ballet dancer, climaxed by an extended engagement in the chorus line of the tackiest production of “Annie Get Your Gun” ever staged.

A desperate plunge into photography led the resilient but aging boy wonder toward the documentary film and, ultimately, to the B.B.C., where he tarried for 10 years, reaping equal portions of applause and abuse for his unorthodox portraits of such sacred cows as Sir Edward Elgar, Claude Debussy, Bela Bartok, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Frederick Delius, Henri Rousseau, Richard Strauss and Isadora Duncan.

He also tackled two routine movie assignments – “French Dressing” and “Billion Dollar Brain – but it was not until “Women In Love,” in 1970, that he demonstrated his dazzling cinematic flair by transferring D.H. Lawrence’s ambiguous tale of sexual torment to the screen in breathtakingly visual terms. Today Russell is one of the world’s most prolific moviemakers, despite those critics and censors who continue to carp about his brazen excesses.

He is so prolific, in fact, that he does not have the time to see the movies of other new directors. Nor does he have the inclination. “I’ve already stolen enough to do me very nicely. My favorite directors are Vigo, Welles, Cocteau and Lang. I hate Godard; he’s boring and self-indulgent, and his films are too obviously propaganda. I used to like Eisenstein, but I saw some of his films recently and was very disappointed. He didn’t do those films for the people; he did them for the propaganda. Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ is far better than anything Eisenstein ever did, far better than anything any of the Russians ever did. The Russians approach things too reverentially.”

Nobody ever accused Russell of excessive reverence. On the other hand, he comes surprisingly close to venerating some of Britain’s younger actors and would very much like to work again with his three “Women In Love” stars – Alan Bates, Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson. “Though I do think Glenda was a bit ungracious when she accepted her Oscar. I mean, I didn’t expect her to thank me, but she certainly could have thanked the cameraman. He lighted her in a way she had never been lit before or since. But not a word of thanks from Glenda. Oh, no, she did it all by herself.”

It’s tempting to speculate on the off-duty conduct of the cinema’s number one middle-aged enfant terrible. No doubt his nights are glutted with delicious jet-set debaucheries? “We live so quietly. The last party we went to was about 15 years ago. We read, and we listen to music. And every Sunday, we have the ritual of Yorkshire beef and pudding, with all the family assembled. I’m very big on ritual.”

If the real Ken Russell is such a stick-in-the-mud, how does he explain his reputation for flamboyant tomfoolery? What about the rumor that during the shooting of “The Boyfriend” he donned a comic-opera sailor suit and pounced furiously onto the set, wielding a cane and scaring poor Twiggy, at right, out of her wits?

“Oh, the sailor suit!” he says, disappearing into the other room. In a flash he is back, sporting a gleaming white sailor jacket and cap and a maniacal grin, and executing a devilish dance step that would turn Twiggy green with envy.

“Da-daaaaah!” he screeches, before coming to a quick halt. “Is that what you expected?”

Groucho Marx couldn’t have done it better.