Lindsay Anderson, 1923-94: master of two art forms

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The Independent Culture
THE FILM-MAKER

David Thomson

Lindsay Anderson is not just irreplaceable; with his going, we can no longer take for granted the perpetuity of that place. By example and by his dry, despairing eloquence - to say nothing of his history - Lindsay Anderson represented the idea of something like a culture of film in Britain, the principle that film-makers had a right and a duty to stand up and be counted among those who challenged, taught, nagged and inspired this foolish, half- asleep, half-dreaming country. It will be easier to sleep now that he is dead, and people may even begin to remember him as an 'eccentric', rather than a passionate presence.

In his time, he was called an iconoclast, a leftist and an anarchist. He wore all those badges with honour, but he also understood the traditions he railed against. He was the son of a major-general, a Scot, who was serving in India when Lindsay was born. When he made If . . ., in 1968, there was no doubting his grasp of all the humbug behind the officer class, the legend of Empire and the public school ethos. If . . . is not satire; it's revolutionary and ecstatic in its sense of a necessary, cleansing violence. But it knew the world it deplored (Anderson had been at Cheltenham), and it had a wry compassion for the old order that had to be blown up. There was no bitterness in Anderson's anger (none of that creeping socialist resentment). He reckoned that privilege, power and pomp had honorably earned their dose of gunpowder.

He was never just a film director - who can be, in Britain? Yet whereas some directors simply linger and languish between projects, Anderson carried on the rich life that was always more important to him than movies. All his adult life, he was a writer. When he went back to Wadham College, Oxford, after war service as an infantry officer, he was the leading spirit in a group that founded the film magazine Sequence. The group included Gavin Lambert, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, who noted in his autobiography how Sequence 'concentrated on the poetic and humane life of movies, a central tradition which today is pathetically ignored by most of the film schools'.

In the Fifties, Anderson made documentaries, and was very important in the Free Cinema movement which was too simplistically called 'socialist'. Anderson's best films - O Dreamland and Thursday's Children (about deafness, and an Oscar winner) - were poetic journeys into private experience and a surreal view of society. Anderson's masters were Jean Vigo (Zero de conduite and L'Atalante) and even Luis Bunuel. Like them, within the blaze of anarchy he delighted in the beauty of flames.

He had an 18th-century look, and a Scots articulateness. He had a fierce jaw, an eagle's nose, a trap of a mouth and interrogatory, merry eyes. He was in many ways a loner, yet he was a valued thorn in many sides, beloved for his witty advice, his warming wrath and his steadfast urging that people stay alert. In 1958, Sight and Sound ran a discussion on the state of film criticism. Anderson was the only one who sounded awake. He was a man who could hardly speak without delivering credos and his words then are as true as ever - and more urgent now that he is gone: 'What we need is something at once more edgy and personal . . . The criticism we desperately need should be enthusiastic, violent and responsible, all at the same time.'

THE STAGE DIRECTOR

Irving Wardle

Lindsay Anderson was a founder member of the quarrelsome little family who remade the English theatre in the 1950s. Of the improbable revolutionaries who joined George Devine's Royal Court, he was the unlikeliest to mount the barricades: a demotic elitist; a radical with the manner of a Guards officer; and a man born to lead who found himself in a subordinate role. His strengths were his Orwellian clarity of mind, the fierce devotion he gave his chosen authors (John Arden, David Storey) and a series of landmark productions (directed mainly in his thirties) of incomparable sensitivity and precision.

It was his production of Serjeant Musgrave's Dance in 1961 that first released Arden as a front-line political playwright; and for which Anderson waged a vigorous campaign against the critics (the Sunday Times had called the play 'another dreadful ordeal'). But his central achievement was with a succession of Storey plays all of which broke new ground in different ways. The Changing Room, set before and after a rugger match, launched the Court's rediscovery of naturalism. Home, with Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, was an exquisitely nuanced dialogue in 'dead time', creating the maximum impact with the minimum means. Anderson could tamper with texts: he co-opted Max Frisch into the CND by ending Biedermann and the Fire-raisers with a nuclear strike (for which, he claimed, Olivier's National Theatre would never employ him again). But when he directed the smash-hit premiere of Ben Travers's The Bed Before Yesterday, I remember the ancient author, in tears of gratitude, saying that Anderson had treated him as if he were Chekhov. More than anyone else, he fulfilled the Court's policy of making classics look like new plays, and new plays look like classics.

Later, as his theatrical world contracted, he remained wedded to the actors and designer (Jocelyn Herbert) of his Sloane Square days: a monastic perfectionist, glad to be out of step with a his radical successors. He had a reputation for being cantankerous. But there seems rather less ground for hope now that Lindsay is no longer there to tell us that Britain is all washed up.

(Photograph omitted)

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