Lindsay Anderson and Gavin Lambert were at school together, at Cheltenham, and then at Oxford where they founded a lively film magazine, called Sequence. It was enough for Lambert to be given the editor's job at Sight & Sound, where Anderson was one of his best, angriest and most loving writers. But Lambert gave up England in the middle 1950s - he would live in Los Angeles and Tangier - while Anderson became maybe our best, most cantankerous, director on stage and screen. He was vitally a part of the Royal Court in its great years, and he never stopped scolding the British film industry for cowardice and gentility.
Well, Anderson died, in 1994, and wise mutual friends guessed that Lambert was the man to write something about him. They have been more than rewarded, for Lambert's new book - Mainly About Lindsay Anderson - is a superb memoir, a portrait of troubled times and a subtle study of different kinds of Englishness. And best of all, it gives me a chance to pay tribute to the touch and uncommon range of Gavin Lambert.
Anderson, born in Bangalore, was a few months the older when they met at Cheltenham, the basis for the public school in Anderson's If ..., that radiant defiance of po-faced English order and corruption. They were both gay, trying to work out that difficult life in an England of vile prosecutions and smug fascination. They never gave up their friendship, even if it depended on occasional meetings, letters and telephone calls, and the visits to England. And so, when Anderson died in 1994, Lambert was his natural biographer.
First of all, this is a compelling memoir of Anderson, a book that puzzles over the brusque authority Anderson exerted and his failure to be fulfilled. If he hadn't been so difficult, so outspoken, or so sick from lack of love, wonders Lambert. Though he missed some of the stage work, Lambert covers the vital things - upbringing, the Royal Court years, the early documentaries, the Aldermaston era, This Sporting Life, the work with David Storey, If ..., O Lucky Man, the disastrous Britannia Hospital, the wayward Whales of August. There is no doubt about the anger and tenderness struggling in Anderson, nor the gregariousness and the loneliness. Lambert has had access to Anderson's diaries, so he can show us the famous man alone in his flat, mixing a tin of mince with a poached egg.
The book is not long, but the brevity and the loose ends are true to the way Anderson was always trying to get projects going, gazing shyly at possible lovers and wanting to rescue such dashed waifs as Rachel Roberts and Jill Bennett.
But Mainly ... is more than that. Lambert took as his model Anderson's own book, About John Ford, which began as critical commentary and turned into a memoir as the two men met and became odd friends. So there are poignant, modest subtexts in this book - Lambert's picking up a wind to escape Britain, and his altogether greater ease as a homosexual. You get it in a scene that comes from Lambert the novelist and screenwriter, with Anderson visiting Lambert in Los Angeles, looking out over the Pacific sunset and wondering why he can't quite feel calm there.
Lambert once described that shore, and its strange impinging on behaviour in a work of fiction, The Slide Area. He did other Hollywood novels, including Inside Daisy Clover, which made an interesting film. Then, long before such things were fashionable, he coaxed George Cukor into a book-length interview. More recently, he has told the lives of Norma Shearer and Alla Nazimova as if he was doing novels. And there have been film scripts, as diverse as The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone and Sons and Lovers. Before this book, that may be the only thing he's written set in Britain.
There's more. When Gavin Lambert first left England to go to Hollywood, it was as apprentice to Nicholas Ray, to help on the film that became Bigger Than Life. They were lovers, too - and this, I think, is the first direct testimony that Nick Ray, the very talented, very self-destructive hero director of the late 1950s, the man who had just done Rebel Without a Cause, a man of several marriages and affairs with women, was also gay, bisexual, or whatever. Lambert paints a touching picture of himself as the silent rewriter, trying to help Ray's cause, and waiting patiently for his weary, casual embraces - as if to say Nick was not really or quite gay. He was, and it's a relief to have it out in the open, helping to explain the tense adoration onscreen of Farley Granger, John Derek and Dean himself.
As an aside, it's fully legitimate, for it helps us see the awkwardness in Lindsay, just as it spells out how in film and theatre, work opportunities are seldom far from romance. Film can be such crushing work, you need to love someone. In talking about Anderson and himself, and a few others, Lambert has gently opened doors and slipped off the covers. That it is done without fanfares or relish testifies to the abiding taste of Gavin Lambert.
'Mainly About Lindsay Anderson' (Faber, £18.99) is out on Friday