The Guillotine: Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last No 37: Tony Richardson

One infallible sign that an artist's career is in terminal disarray is his belated, chastened return to the scene of his greatest triumph. The highlight of Tony Richardson's filmography was his roisterous and risque adaptation of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones in 1963. Thirteen years later, following an uninterrupted series of floundering failures, he filmed an even saucier version of the same author's Joseph Andrews. Almost everyone of a certain age has seen the former. Does anyone even remember the latter?

Such still tends to be the orthodox view of Richardson's work: good up to and including Tom Jones, execrable afterwards. Yet it's posterity, not any studio mogul, which has what in the trade is termed the "final cut", and the new century is likelier to concur with David Thomson's unforgiving judgement (aired in his Biographical Dictionary of Film) that Richardson was a "wretched" film-maker, all of whose films, before, after and including Tom Jones, were "abject".

Harsh words, but just. In the 1960s Richardson was in the vanguard of what our national critics affected to call the British "New Wave". Yet even as the French were revolutionising the cinema's traditional codes and practices, he took no chances, complacently preserving on film one literary or theatrical success after another: Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. Tom Jones itself was a travesty of one of the masterpieces of English literature, its battery of visual tics (jump cuts, iris dissolves, slow and speeded-up motion) calculated to impress only those ignorant of the work of Truffaut, Godard and Malle from which they had been shamelessly filched. As for his subsequent output - the excruciating Mademoiselle (from Genet), the risible Sailor From Gibraltar (from Duras), The Loved One (a catastrophically inept adaptation of Waugh's mini-masterpiece) - even Richardson's admirers, should there continue to be many or any such, would be content to draw seven veils over it.

The subjects of these Guillotines have been selected on a variety of bases: that they were too intimately associated with a single decade, that they epitomised an obsolete aesthetic trend, that they devoted their professional lives to a medium (ballet, for example, or television) incompatible with posterity, etc. Until today, however, I've excluded by far the most common reason for an artist's posthumous oblivion: that his work was just plain bad.

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