Lindsay Anderson: Let me tell you about Lindsay

Lindsay Anderson was betrayed by his biographer Gavin Lambert - so says David Sherwin, the writer of If... and Anderson's protégé. He tells Geoffrey Macnab about a new film that aims to put the record straight
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The Independent Culture

Lindsay Anderson would surely have appreciated the irony. Thirty-three years after it first appeared, his masterpiece If... (a film that the British showed no interest in financing) is being re-released by the British Film Institute. In other words, it's now part of the canon. Then again, as a new film planned by Michael Winterbottom hopes to make clear, Anderson was never your typical outsider.

Going Mad in Hollywood, about Anderson's friendship with the writer David Sherwin (who scripted If..., O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital), is based on Sherwin's book of the same name and will star Malcolm McDowell (the actor Anderson discovered) as the famously waspish director.

The latter may have been part of British cinema's New Wave, but that didn't stop him from sometimes behaving as if he was a retired Brigadier. Surprisingly, this scourge of Albion lived for much of his life in a cottage in the heart of the Home Counties. "His favourite paper was The Daily Telegraph," says Sherwin. "He believed in hanging. I think he thought Mrs Thatcher was doing OK. I met some of his communist left-wing colleagues at a film festival in Portugal recently and I loved teasing them, saying he couldn't stand silly old fools like you."

In the eight years since Anderson died, his reputation has undergone several subtle shifts. Many close to him believe he has been very badly served by his biographer, Gavin Lambert, in the book Mainly About Lindsay Anderson. Lambert's thesis – to put it at its crudest – was that Anderson was a repressed homosexual: his penchant for fetishing the male body on camera, whether in a gritty, naturalistic drama like This Sporting Life or against the backcloth of a traditional English public school in If..., with "its naked adolescents in the shower", was rooted in his sexuality. "Lindsay played out his erotic fantasies on screen, not in life," Lambert wrote in a 1995 article entitled "Unrequited Lover" for Sight and Sound.

"Gavin Lambert is totally beyond the pale after that book," Sherwin fulminates. "Lindsay would be turning in his grave if he read that book. It was a total betrayal of friendship. He [Lambert] just outed Lindsay terribly."

Sherwin claims that the California-based Lambert (a former editor of Sight and Sound) was not especially close to Anderson in his latter years and had seen virtually none of his theatre work, which took up as much of his creative energies as his movies.

"The book didn't sell well and so he has rather queered the pitch for every other writer. It was ridiculous. The whole thing was a monstrosity. All I can say was that it wasn't the Lindsay I knew... Gavin's book is basically about Gavin being gay."

Sherwin first met Anderson in 1966 in the Pillars Of Hercules, a pub in Soho. Six years before, he and his friend John Howlett had written the screenplay called Crusaders that would eventually metamorphosize into If.... Nicholas Ray (director of Rebel Without A Cause) was enthusiastic about it, but decided that he was "too American" to make the film himself. The celebrated literary agent Peggy Ramsay took up Sherwin's cause and helped him find a job with an industrial film unit in Peterborough.

Even so, there seemed little prospect of Crusaders ever being financed.The verdict of industry veteran Lord Brabourne (the man behind many of the most stolid British pictures of the Fifties, Sink The Bismarck! among them) appeared to be final. He told the two young screenwriters that their's was "the most evil and perverted screenplay that I've ever read," and warned them that they had no future in the British film industry. Sherwin wasn't expecting much when producer/director Seth Holt set up that first meeting with Anderson. "I hadn't really heard of him," the writer acknowledges. "I met this young gnome with his odd but humorous smile and he seemed incredibly intelligent in spite of his first bantering words. "Well, Crusaders is very bad," he said. "No, it's brilliant," I replied. "Oh is it? Good."

Anderson promptly took Sherwin under his wing, sent him off to see Jean Vigo's Zéro de Conduite, and set him to work re-writing the screenplay. If... was loosely inspired by Sherwin's experiences at Tonbridge Public School, but was eventually shot at Cheltenham, where Anderson had been a pupil (and where Sherwin's father, a Classics Don at Oxford, was one of the Governors).

The film-makers didn't let the school authorities know how the movie was going to end. Sherwin presented them with a dummy script and told them that the battle sequence would be filmed in Lindsay Anderson's "improvising documentary style". He pointedly declined to mention that the schoolboys would be turning their guns on the headmaster

If... (financed by Paramount after every British company had turned it down) won the Palme d'Or in Cannes despite the British Ambassador's demand that it be withdrawn from the festival. (He called it "an insult to the British nation".) It was embraced by audiences everywhere from Communist Czechoslovakia to Fascist Portugal. Back home at Cheltenham, the response was more muted. "They were very upset and a lot of boys were taken out of the school," Sherwin recalls dryly.

Over the next three decades, Sherwin continued to collaborate regularly with Anderson. Meanwhile, he had his own misadventures as a screenwriter in Hollywood. In the mid-Seventies, Jon Voight offered him a job writing a sort of hippy version of Robin Hood. Anderson warned him against it, but Sherwin accepted – and soon wished he hadn't. "He [Voight] was very charming at first, but then I realised he was bonkers as hell."

In 1978, when he was writing a thriller called Venom, Sherwin came down with roughly the same symptoms that afflict Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. "I literally went insane and imagined the FBI, CIA and KGB were after me and were about to kidnap my wife and child," he remembers – hence the book title, Going Mad In Hollywood. In his own spiky way, Anderson was very supportive of his manic depressive protégé. He invited Sherwin to lunch. When Sherwin started recounting the traumatic story of his illness, Anderson barked out: "Not that fisherman's tale. I can't bear it. Come and do the sprouts."

Many testify to Anderson's steadfastness. "He could be remarkably warm and affectionate toward the people he liked," says Andrew Eaton, who will produce the Winterbottom film. "He was a great mentor to a great many people." If anyone close to him was in difficulty, whether a feckless nephew stuck abroad without a passport or an old friend like the suicidally alcoholic actress Rachel Roberts, Anderson would look after them.

This selflessness is also evident in much of his work. In films such as O Dreamland, If..., and Britannia Hopsital, he proved himself one of British cinemas most savage satirists, but as Sherwin points out, many of his other pictures, notably the 1953 documentary Thursday's Child (about the efforts of deaf children to learn how to communicate) or or The Whales Of August (1987) "were incredibly loving and tender. He had two sides to him".

Sherwin and Anderson had their disagreements. The writer was extremely sceptical about the director's plans for making a sequel to If... in the early Nineties. "I'm afraid to use the phrase, but it was Lindsay's wank. It wasn't real. He was my greatest friend and so naturally I decided to do what I could." Even so, the partnership was generally harmonious. Sherwin likens it to that of "an elder brother with a younger brother with whom he speaks with vast affectionate scorn. There wasn't anything schoolmasterly because that would have led to rows. There were only rows with Lindsay – because Lindsay was a bit of a bully – when there was an audience to have rows to."

Sherwin's career dipped in the Eighties, but is blossoming again. He's written the screenplay for Going Mad In Hollywood, in which he'll be played by Paul Bettany. He has a new, French Revolution-set feature called Dr Guillotine in development (Johnny Depp is pencilled in to star.) There is one project, though, that he's had to abandon – a reworking of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado "with brothers Blair, Bush and Bin Laden as the three little girls from school and Ariel Sharon as the Lord High Executioner running the show".

Like his Crusaders screenplay, it's just the kind of satire Lord Brabourne would have hated. Unfortunately, the one director who would have had the courage to make it is no longer around. As Sherwin says plaintively: "I can't do it because I haven't got Lindsay."

'If...' is re-released on 1 March