(Reuters) - Ken Russell, the British director of Women in Love and The Devils, has died at the age of 84, a friend said on Monday.

Norman Lebrecht, the music critic, said the famously provocative film maker died peacefully in his sleep on Sunday.

Russell began his directing career with the BBC and went on to make some of the most controversial and violent films of the 1960s and 70s.

Among many achievements that spring to mind, he made British cinema less insular and self-referential, Lebrecht said in a blog posting on the ArtsJournal website.

He was also a leading creative force in the history of British television. He will be widely mourned.

Women in Love, a 1969 adaptation of D. H. Lawrence's novel, became infamous for its nude wrestling scene between actors Alan Bates and Oliver Reed.

The picture earned Russell an Oscar nomination for best director, and Glenda Jackson won a statuette for best actress.

Russell was criticized for the level of violence in the 1971 religious drama The Devils, while his biggest commercial success came three years later with Tommy, an adaptation of The Who's rock opera.

It starred Roger Daltrey, Elton John, Jack Nicholson, Oliver Reed and a string of other big names in film and music.

He began the 1980s with a foray into science fiction in Altered States, which won over some leading critics who had dismissed his earlier works.

His last Hollywood production was Crimes of Passion starring Kathleen Turner, after which he returned to Europe and took a break from cinema to direct operas.

Russell made a handful more feature films, although by the late 1980s his star had faded and he focused on television productions and documentaries.

In 2007, he joined the reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother, but quit voluntarily after a row with one of the other contestants.

Russell was born in 1927 in the southern English town of Southampton, where he developed an early interest in film through visits to the cinema with his mother.

According to online biographies, he briefly worked as a photographer before moving into television, where he made a series of documentaries about leading musicians.