A talent for barking orders

The diary of a screenwriting life paints an unlovely portrait of Lindsay Anderson. By Christopher Bray; Going Mad in Hollywood, by David Sherwin, Deutsch, pounds 17.99
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I hate all the bullshit of film-making," Lindsay Anderson once told David Sherwin. "What I'd really like to do is set up a hotel and give food and lodging and good advice. I'd be very good at it." Sherwin - who wrote If..., 0, Lucky Man and Britannia Hospital for Anderson - offers lots of evidence for Anderson's hospitality in this book. But he has little that backs up Anderson's belief in his talents as a counsellor. Anderson didn't offer advice so much as bark orders.

Anderson was fond of saying that authority isn't necessary, yet he never spoke without sounding like he was swatting a fly. Any director needs his share of bombast, but Anderson was as dictatorial off-set as he was on. He gave his actors enormous freedoms. In return they worshipped him. They thought he was loosening up their artistry but really he was just groping at what he wanted. Malcolm McDowell got his part in If.... because when he auditioned he hadn't read the script and was forced to scrabble for effects.

With its waxily numb performances and its switches between colour and monochrome, If... was commonly held to be a Brechtian snook cocked at bourgeois narrative form. Anderson called the movie an insult to a nation that deserved insulting. In fact, lack of money was behind the changes in film stock, and the feeling that the actors were just cruising was down to weak scripting. Beaky and cawing, Anderson was a genius at bringing out the worst in others. David Sherwin seems pleasant enough until he and Anderson meet up. Walking around a seaside town, Anderson spots one cafe selling egg and chips for 65p and one for 75p. Why, he wonders, doesn't everyone go to the cheaper cafe? Because, the two decide, men and women are stupid.

When Malcolm McDowell drones in If.... that "war is the last possible creative act", the movie is in no doubt he is right. The film only really sparks when it starts killing "stupid" people off. Sherman wrote the movie when he was a teenager, so he has an excuse for this nihilistic posturing. But Anderson was in his mid-forties when he directed If.... It takes a life of rare privilege for a man that age to have a child's brutal naivety.

A cobbled-together diary of Sherwin's life since the early Sixties, Going Mad in Hollywood is a chaotic whorl of memoranda. Its title refers to a period of manic depression Sherwin suffered. Fortunately, there has always been some woman or other on hand to look after him. Like Anderson, Sherwin is a pre-feminist thinker. Women are there to serve and be serviced. The only character to be given a Brechtian nomenclature in If... is that sexist cut-out "The Girl". This book, on the other hand, is studded with incisive cameos. But like Sherwin's movies, it lacks drive. It flits between Hollywood and Britain, but only in the pages dealing with Anderson does it ever blush with life. Even its title is inapposite. "Life with Lindsay Anderson" would have been more accurate, as well as more commercial. But as Sherwin admits, he has no flair for salesmanship.

Aside from John Schlesinger's Sunday, Bloody Sunday, few of Sherwin's scripts have worked on have made the screen. Perhaps that is a good thing. Venom ("Jaws on dry land") and Jon Voight's Robin Hood (with Bob Dylan down to play Alan A' Dale) hardly sound the stuff on which reputations are made. Yet they show that for all his firebrand anger, Sherwin would easily sell out to Tinseltown's trivia. Lindsay Anderson spent his time insulting the world, but at least he never insulted himself.

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