Obituary: Lindsay Anderson

Adrian Turner
Wednesday 31 August 1994 23:02

Lindsay Gordon Anderson, film, television and stage director, critic and actor: born Bangalore, India 17 April 1923; editor, Sequence 1947-52; Associate Artistic Director, Royal Court Theatre 1969-75; governor, British Film Institute 1969-70; author of Making a Film 1952, About John Ford 1981; died near Angouleme, France 30 August 1994.

LINDSAY ANDERSON's tragedy was that his combative temperament, allied with a total refusal to compromise, resulted in so many battles and so few films. His natural domain was the moral high ground, from which he looked down at everyone else with the arrogance of a cultural laird. Ask anyone who knew Anderson or had dealings with him and one word tends to spring to mind - 'prickly'. He was a difficult man, but intensely likeable and invigorating to be with; and he may well have been the single most important individual in the post-war British cinema.

Anderson was Scottish, the son of a major-general, and was born in Bangalore in 1923. But the colonial life was not for him. He was educated at Cheltenham College and Wadham College, Oxford. While at Oxford he co-founded a quarterly film magazine, Sequence, which ran for 14 issues from 1947 to 1952 and espoused the aesthetic and social values on which Anderson would later base his own films. As a critic, Anderson was both eloquent and vicious - he dismissed the American films of Hitchcock; he adored the films of the documentarist Humphrey Jennings and those of John Ford (about whom he published a marvellous book in 1981), and loathed the traditional British commercial cinema as represented by, say, David Lean.

As Sequence folded, its contributors migrated towards the then moribund British Film Institute magazine Sight and Sound. Anderson's 1957 article (or manifesto) for Sight and Sound, called 'Stand Up] Stand Up]', which called for a cinema of political commitment, is unquestionably the single most influential piece of British film criticism ever written.

By this time, Anderson had established himself as a documentarist: with Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz and others, he formed a group called Free Cinema, which had financial support from the BFI and whose programmes were shown at the National Film Theatre. While these documentaries are easy to sneer at nowadays for the way that the upper classes observed the working classes and found poetry in manual labour and economic hardship, they survive as invaluable relics and as a fertile training ground for the feature films which would follow.

The key figure in this movement, though, was Tony Richardson, who led the way out of documentaries and into features with his film version of John Osborne's play Look Back In Anger (1959). Anderson's own feature debut was delayed until 1963, with This Sporting Life, which effectively marked the end and the ultimate expression of British social realism, or 'kitchen sink drama' as the popular press described it. Produced by Karel Reisz for the Rank Organisation, which detested it, This Sporting Life starred Richard Harris as a brutal, ill-educated rugby player and Rachel Roberts as his widowed landlady. Their emotional and often violent relationship still makes for exceptionally intense and harrowing viewing. Despite admiring reviews, the film was a commercial flop: in 1963 the British cinema was already into escapism with the James Bond films and Swinging London was about to wash away the last vestiges of realism and the sort of sexual repression that Anderson was dealing with.

Rather than sell out and make commercial films (Richardson and Reisz had all but 'gone Hollywood'), Anderson immersed himself in the Royal Court Theatre, in London, and did not release another film for five years. By sheer coincidence, if . . . . (1968) was released when students were at the barricades and 'revolt' seemed to be in the air. Consequently, this story of an English public school and an armed revolution led by one of the students, Mick Travis, played by Malcolm McDowell, was adopted as a talisman by young audiences everywhere. Derived in part from Jean Vigo's Zero de Conduite (1933), if . . . . is a vigorous, Swiftian satire, by turns funny and vitriolic, and ends with a battle on the quad in which the pillars of the Establishment are gunned down.

O Lucky Man] (1973) was in part a sequel to if . . . . , a three-hour epic fable in which Mick Travis is a modern Everyman whose tour of Britain enables Anderson to pillory medical science (a surreal episode in which a young man is grafted on to the body of a calf), Foreign Office collusion with African despots, local councillors at strip clubs, the prison service and any other target that Private Eye might have set their sights on. There were musical interludes by Alan Price, Fordian lyricism in the rural sequences and, at the end, scenes of urban desolation as many of the characters end up homeless and living in cardboard boxes on the South Bank. Critics at the time accused Anderson of hysteria and exaggeration: much of O Lucky Man] now looks like a documentary that could have been shot yesterday.

In a typically bilious ITV documentary on the British cinema in which he lectured the camera for an hour (before being hilariously harangued by an irate Dickie Attenborough), Anderson described Britannia Hospital (1982) as the 'last Free Cinema film'. Released during the post-Falklands- war euphoria, its dyspeptic view of Britain made it a total failure and, indeed, it is a coarse effort, that uses a hospital as a microcosm of the nation's ills. There are doubtless elements which were unusually prescient - notably the privatisation of the Health Service - but Anderson's technique, a grab- bag of television sit-com, Carry On smut and Python-style surrealism, resulted in a remarkably - and possibly deliberately - ugly film.

After the failure of Britannia Hospital, Anderson was content to pontificate when required and relax a little with his last films. He turned increasingly to television, having already made some Robin Hood episodes in the Fifties and a notorious version of Alan Bennett's The Old Crowd in 1979, in which the experimental technique enraged purist critics. For American television he made The Whales of August (1987), primarily to work with Lillian Gish and Bette Davis, and it is a loving tribute to their talents and their careers. Glory] Glory] (1989) was an unexpected mini-series about a television evangelist which was spiky by the standards of American television.

He acted a little - he played an Oxford don in Chariots of Fire (1981) and was even in the dire comedy Blame it on the Bellboy (1992) as a curmudgeonly voice on the telephone. In 1992 he completed Is That All There Is?, a documentary self-portrait in which he revels in his reputation as scourge of the British cinema. In a 1990 interview he said, 'I don't exist any more as a British film-maker. I have never had a nomination, not that I give a damn, from the British Film Academy. That is perfectly OK because I know what I do is not to the English taste - fuck 'em.' Anderson probably died, as he lived, an Angry Old Man.

(Photograph omitted)

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