How Wham! made Lindsay Anderson see red in China

By Paul Kelbie,Scotland Correspondent
Friday 17 August 2012 03:10

Wham! by contrast were the quintessential good-time band with a repertoire of bubble-gum pop hits and famous for appearing on Top of the Pops with shuttlecocks down their shorts.

Perhaps it is little surprise that the two were to experience an explosive falling out when Anderson, by then in his 60s, was asked to direct a 1985 film about the pop duo, George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, as they became the first Western group to perform in Communist China.

It was a pivotal moment not just in popular music but in cultural relations between the emerging Asian giant and the West. But the Scottish film-maker, whose camera lingered lovingly over the meetings between the band's management and members of the Chinese bureaucracy, was summarily thrown off the project. A new version was made - this time focusing more on the band - and rather less on the politics.

Now an archive of papers, bequeathed to Stirling University by Anderson on his death in 1994, has revealed for the first time the director's fury at his treatment.

He reserves his most stinging criticism for the "inflated ego" of George Michael, the group's lead singer, who he accuses of wrecking his "beautiful" film.

To make matters worse, the official documentary Wham! In China: Foreign Skies was eventually shown to more than 70,000 fans at Wembley Stadium in 1986, setting a record for the largest audience at a film premiere.

Such was the animosity between the two camps that when it emerged a copy of the 90-minute Anderson original entitled If You Were There - once thought to have been destroyed - was being screened at Stirling, Michael and his record label Sony ordered it to be stopped.

In his papers Anderson describes Michael as a "shivering aspirant plucked out of the street, who turns almost overnight into a tyrant of fabulous wealth, whose every command his minions must dash to execute".

He claims the documentary was based on "arbitrary orders from George Michael, who doesn't know what he's talking about ... a young millionaire with an inflated ego. I was struck by his total disinterest in China. His vision only extends to the top 10."

In a letter to his fellow director, Michael Winner, he bemoans: "They [the crew] have to bend to [Michael's] every whim. It'll be interesting to see if there's any limit to his reckless autocracy."

Karl Magee, the Stirling University archivist, said he understood why Wham! were unhappy with the film. "It wasn't a fast-cut MTV-style video but a slow fly-on-the-wall type of film which had probably more about China in it than it did about Wham! In Anderson's version there are only four songs performed by Wham! in China and they happen at the end of the film. After they remade the film there were 12 songs and very little about China."

Andy Stephens, manager for George Michael, claims the film was simply not good enough to be shown in public. "It's a dreadful film," he said. "It's a rogue copy that was supposed to have gone away and we don't want it to be seen in public. It's 20 years old and it's rubbish. Why on earth should we allow it to be shown?"

Mr Magee believes the original film is an important work. "Anderson catches China on that turning point when all the consumerism and Western influences started to make an impact."