By Tony Williams.
Anderson vehemently reacted against the class and establishment rigidities of his own era, constantly searching for a different type of existence and artistic expression that his own nation stodgily refused to consider.”
When interviewing Chris Wade and reviewing his remarkable documentary Memories of Lindsay Anderson recently shown on the UK cable station Talking Pictures, we both expressed concern about a very important British talent in danger of being forgotten despite his distinctive, if relatively sparse, cinematic legacy. Lindsay Anderson (1923-1994) was a remarkable talent well versed in many fields outside of narrative cinema that included theater, television, documentary, and occasional acting roles that revealed a diverse, hard to define creativity that could not easily be inserted in any particular category. His personality was difficult, often cantankerous, alienating many but also capable of inspiring those he worked with to develop latent talents lurking inside them eagerly awaiting artistic expression under the right encouragement and guidance. It could be said of him that he did not suffer fools gladly, a particular trait alienating mediocre conformists within any institution, whether that of education or entertainment.
All these contradictions are understandable. I fondly remember telling Michael Powell in Zoetrope Film Studios in 1981, how difficult I often found a touring group I briefly worked for in York. He smiled and replied, “Of course, they’re `difficult’. They’re creative!” And they were. Yet, if not an “appalling talent,” as film critic Dilys Powell (1901-1995) once described Ken Russell (1927-2011), Anderson was definitely a unique, creatively eccentric talent, exhibiting humanism and iconoclasm in the best possible sense, struggling against changing social forces in his historical era, but remaining defiant to the end, a friend to those colleagues tragically in need such as Jill Bennet (1931-1990) and Rachel Roberts (1927-1980) as well as to others fortunately still with us, like Malcolm McDowell. McDowell knows how to negotiate his way through the shark-infested waters of the entertainment industry, but he is now typically associated with five films, three of which Anderson directed, despite the fact that he made others, many of which are forgettable. Posterity is an artificial construct that is often unfair to many deserving talents either aiming at their erasure from memory or stereotyping others derogatorily as it has done to McDowell.
Perhaps the most dominant association concerning Anderson is the set of three films he made with McDowell loosely termed “The Mick Travis Trilogy.” However, Travis does not play a major role in the last film, but rather gets disposed of in the same way that Anderson’s memory has today. This trilogy is comprised of If…. (1968), O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982). If…., made in that revolutionary year associated with the May `68 riots in France, brought young McDowell to Stanley Kubrick’s attention, which lead to his permanent association with A Clockwork Orange (1971). Although it may appear marginal, an intentional difference appears between the use of the dash following the title of Rudyard Kipling’s 1895 poem, “If—,” and the four dots following the title of Anderson’s 1968 film. It is almost as if hesitation exists between the revolutionary potential haunting the film, like that spectre haunting Europe in Marx and Engels’s 1848 Communist Manifesto, and the stubborn survival of those establishment attitudes expressed in Kipling’s original poem. By the time of their last film together, both talents experienced a decline that owed nothing to their creative abilities that still remained resilient and strong. Fame is fickle. Anderson had not made a film for nine years and McDowell began his inevitable decline; McDowell’s role in Britannia Hospital echoed his fallen status as a box-office star. Yet, McDowell continues working to this day and not all his later films are as bad as his detractors condescendingly assume.
Anderson pointed out in his 1985 Free Cinema documentary contribution to British Film Year that the Free Cinema movement he belonged to attempted to show that Britain had the potential to develop an indigenous film tradition free from artifice, commercialism, and the interminable acceptance of the class system as opposed to “Bunter” Attenborough and “Putters” who saw box-office profits and submission to Hollywood dominance as the norm. (1)
Anderson’s British feature films, as well as those of his contemporaries, attempted to display a mirror for England, but not in the sense of Raymond Durgnat’s 1970 treatise. (2) Anderson’s mirror did not emphasize realism at the expense of other artistic and critical influences, but employed aspects of absurdity, grotesque caricature, and surrealism to comment on the historical circumstances within which each film appeared. Although Anderson emphasizes realism in the first part of his Free Cinema documentary, it was never a one-dimensional structure but a composite element comprising many influences interwoven together in such a manner that style would not dominate substance. Implications within each scene appear in an accessible, coherent manner, each element operating in a unified fashion. “The Mick Travis” trilogy presents its main character as a contemporary everyman experiencing England during different historical periods: the contradictory potential for change in If…. set in 1968; the dissolution of hope in Oh, Lucky Man! with its problematic final “enlightenment”; and the collapse of Britain in Britannia Hospital. I often found the last film too nihilistic and scathing to deal with, but now, with conditions far worse in England than they were in 1982, it is more prophetic than anything else. In that film, along with others, Anderson employed many diverse styles in his own version of critical realism derived from his earlier Free Cinema involvement, a movement he continued to champion to the very end. Grotesque caricatured stereotypes, as if derived from the commedia dell’arte, abound, featuring superb cameos from the great and sadly underused Vivian Pickles, Arthur Lowe, Jill Bennet, Robin Askwith, Leonard Rossiter, Graham Crowden, Joan Plowright, Alan Bates, Dandy Nichols, Malcolm McDowell and many others. They all contain a complex balance between reality and eccentricity, leading the viewer to interrogate their place in Britannia Hospital. Since Mick Travis has now gone to live in America, in Arkansas of all places, his demise in this film is understandable. This Sporting Life (1963) may be the most “realistic” of the group, but its raw depiction of tragic human emotions made it unacceptable for Rank’s John Davis, the nemesis of The Archers a decade earlier, who announced immediately that Rank would abandon “squalid stories” to concentrate on the middle-class family entertainment that future Thatcherite supporter Bryan Forbes (1926-2013) also championed.
Free Cinema was never a rigid documentary realist mode but one with complex associations and influences, so it is no accident that Anderson begins his 1985 documentary with a clip from Humphrey Jennings’ Spare Time (1939). Not only was Jennings (1907-1950) a key influence on the later Free Cinema movement, but someone who Anderson constantly championed as “the only real poet that British cinema has ever produced”. (3) He also presented non-condescending images of working-class life without obtrusive editorial control and superior observations by a commentator. This is something that flaws Karel Reisz’s We are The Lambeth Boys (1959) but not Anderson’s Every Day Except Christmas (1957), which presents images of working-class life in a humanistic and sympathetic manner, showing life as it is lived in the poetic manner associated with Jennings’s well-known 40s documentaries. Jennings was a creative artist who had associations with the British surrealistic movement that must have jarred John Grierson’s rigid sensibilities. (4) Anderson recognized the association and in 1967, he directed and co-wrote a short film with Shelagh Delaneycalled The White Bus, using predominantly Manchester landscapes, mixing realism and fantasy in a surrealistic manner with a cast headed by Patricia Healey and featuring others he would work with again such as Arthur Lowe, as well as Anthony Hopkins in his first film appearance as the “Brechtian.” The White Bus would anticipate the techniques used in his second feature, If….
Lacking synchronized sound equipment for Every Day Except Christmas, Anderson used dubbed voices impressionistically, almost like music. One appreciates the non-stereotyped images of working-class people who are treated with dignity and not as fodder for upper middle-class disdain. As Anderson states, “Our films were humanist, not sentimental” anticipating a particular treatment of drama, moving towards feature films of the type represented by Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1961), A Taste of Honey (1961), directed by leading figures in Free Cinema such as Tony Richardson (1928-1991) and, Karel Reisz (1926-2002), featuring the work of new talents such as Alan Sillitoe (1928-2010) and Shelagh Delaney (1938-2011) all designed to attack that omnipresent, culturally-imposed, life-denying tradition of “stiff-upper lip” middle class representations of the time. Like John Ford (whose picture prominently appears in Anderson’s apartment during his 1985 treatise), a director whom he also wrote about in the British journal Sequence, later collected in About John Ford (1983), Anderson often worked in discrete ways, weaving his influences together within a comprehensible narrative structure that invited avenues to discerning viewers to explore deeper contexts and meanings.
Espousing Free Cinema as a movement that makes “films out of contemporary reality,” Anderson contributed seventeen documentaries between 1948-1967, all composed of different treatments within an accessible narrative, but often containing subversive elements as in O Dreamland (1958), which critiques disturbing aspects of mass culture that the better classes would sneer at. The movement also contains the premise of his last work significantly titled Is That All There Is? (1992) where Anderson dismantles and deconstructs the traditional premise of a documentary in what would now be termed a “mockumentary” style, staging scenes that had happened long before filming and featuring himself as a quasi-Brechtian chorus following a script that he had written. Ironically, his last television feature, The Old Crowd (1979), drew protests from parochial “Little England” executives and viewers oblivious to the Brechtian devices deployed in the production. Apart from an American television production of Look Back in Anger (1980) featuring Malcolm McDowell valiantly struggling to resurrect John Osborne’s original “Angry Young Man” several decades later, Anderson was effectively banned from British television (with the exception of Free Cinema) in the same way that Britannia Hospital became his own version of Heaven’s Gate (1980). The latter film exiled him from British cinema, as the 1987 The Whales of August ironically being his cinematic swansong filmed in America. Yet his Canadian- shot TV movie Glory! Glory! (1989), with its satirical view of televangelism and its theatrical finale involving all participants (including a crucified Christ!) descending from the Cross and joining others in an irreverent chorus line evoking the climax of O Lucky Man! reveals that the old master had not lost his touch. Had he been capable of making the same type of compromises that McDowell made with changing times, he could have completed more work, but then he would not be the Lindsay Anderson we remember fondly today.
The legacy of Free Cinema was always with Anderson and he speaks in the documentary of the movement’s reaction to post-war paralysis and exhaustion, along with the recognition that the Suez Crisis and the failed Hungarian Revolution sounded the death knell both for British Empire illusions and the stagnation of traditional Marxist conceptions that Stalinism polluted. Although a prolific contributor to Free Cinema, Anderson often helped others such as young Italian Loretta Mazetti (1927-2020) on Together (1956), which deals with the plight of two deaf-mute dockworkers, one of whom is played by Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005), a key founder of British Pop Art and an important influence on the journals Ambit and New Worlds in the 1960s. (5)Anderson describes the film as revealing the “reality of the everyday,” yet it is a complex and unusual reality far removed from contemporary stagnant British documentaries, then and now.
Anderson also helped two young Swiss filmmakers Claude Goretta (1929-2015) and Alain Tanner (1929) for their first film Nice Time (1957), an ironic title in Free Cinema terms, since one of the sequences juxtaposes night scenes outside of a cinema in Piccadilly Circus with off-screen dialogue and sound effects of a Hollywood cinema as tawdry as the entertainment offered in O Dreamland.
Anderson also directed for the stage, predominantly Royal Court productions that were on the cutting edge of British drama at the time. Unfortunately, visual recordings were not made with the exception of David Storey’s In Celebration (1974), which was restaged for an American Film Institute production with the original cast including Alan Bates (1934-2003), James Bolam (1935- ), and Brian Cox (1946- ), also featuring an astounding performance by veteran film and television actor Bill Owen (1914-1999).
Anderson was also a critic and his diaries often cast interesting perspectives on his very complex personality, one that revealed his conceptions of the real potentials of cinema and not suffering fools gladly, as his comments about Pauline Kael illustrate. Like George Orwell, Anderson’s writings are often penetrating examinations of the English character, but more critical in nature concerning the still dominating force of class and the philistine elements that often emerged in reviewing any new work. “Avowed feeling is suspect; lost altogether is the authority of passion.” (6) Discussing This Sporting Life in 1963, he emphasizes the essential unity of art and politics. “All works of art have political implications but they have political implications because they are works of art, not vice versa….The artist must always bite the hand that feeds him. He must always aim beyond the limits of tolerance. His duty is to be a monster.” (7) Honesty and integrity characterized his roles as critic and filmmaker. As he states in a 1959 unpublished article for a Russian journal:
Freedom and responsibility are not contradictory conceptions. They are complementary. Art must be both free and responsible: but before they can be truly responsible, they must be free. Of course, the innovator, the original creator will seem irresponsible to many people. Nor will all artists ever agree about the best way of creating, the best way of defending man and mankind, progress and peace’. If we are honest, we will often have to admit: we do not like each other’s films.” (8)
He ends another of his earlier articles dealing with critics and criticism with a concluding paragraph still relevant today in this era of stagnant conformity and academic bullying –
Fighting means commitment, means believing what you say, and saying what you believe. It will also mean being called sentimental, irresponsible, self-righteous, extremist, and out-of-date by those who equate maturity with skepticism, art with amusement, and responsibility with romantic excess. And it must mean a new kind of intellectual and artist, who is not frightened or scornful of his fellows; who does not see himself as threatened by, and in natural opposition to, the philistine mass; who is eager to make his contribution, and ready to use the mass media to do so. By his nature, the artist will always be in conflict with the false, the narrow-minded and the reactionary: there will always be people who do not understand the relevance of what he is doing: he will always have to fight for his values. But one thing is certain: in the values of humanism, and in their determined application to our society, lies the future. All we have to do is believe in them.” (9)
He also wrote incisively on other directors such as John Ford (1894-1973) seeing him as an artistic ally in his championship of a poetic cinema that the very different British Cinema celebrated in 1985 has no understanding of. In Ford’s better films appear the spirit of “one of the last Romantics.”
Rich in phrasing, simple in structure, it is a style which expresses a sure, affirmative response to life – the equivalent to that Biblical prose which today, it takes greatness of spirit to sustain.” (10)
Reviewing Mary Pat Kelly’s 1992 biography on Martin Scorsese, Anderson acclaims the director’s developing stylistic and technical abilities but also states – “it still seems questionable whether Scorsese’s work has the range and the depth which would probably carry him beyond celebrity to `greatness’”. (11)
Even in 1958 where commercialism and technological developments threatened to eliminate the “poetry, imagination, and intelligence” of creative cinema, Anderson applauded those who fought against overwhelming odds to realize their own distinctive visions of visual integrity as seen in the early films of Claude Chabrol and Andrzej Wajda, especially with the latter’s Kanal (1957), whose integrity and significance he eloquently acclaims.
The style again is poetic, at times almost expressionistic, so that these dank, interminable corridors, in which lights flicker and echo, filled with the wandering and the lost, become the symbol of a world where confusion reigns and disaster at the end overtake the most courageous spirit.” (12)
In his 1957 discussion of Japanese Cinema, Anderson reveals his knowledge of Zen in a manner not only suggesting the final revelation Mick Travis receives at the end of O Lucky Man! where Anderson himself appears in a cameo role playing himself brutally moving his young star to some form of awakening (satori), but also a particular form of cinematic experience he aimed at in most of his films.
However hard its artists have tried, the cinema has never seemed satisfactory as an intellectual medium. Perhaps Zen Buddhism, anti-conceptual, and as unhesitating in its acceptance of the world as it is basically anti-materialist, has a particular relevance to film-making.” (13)
Ending this article by quoting D.T. Suzuki’s definition of enlightenment as similar to everyday experience except in being “two feet off the ground,” Anderson sees implications in these films by Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, and Ozu that all contain certain elements that go well beyond the screen. Perhaps they involve that particular type of cinema Anderson intuitively tried to develop: neither mundane realism or fantastic escapism (as seen today in our special effects ridden blockbusters), but rather a style rooted in everyday life with poetic and surrealistic elements offering us both aesthetic pleasure as well as cognitively opening our eyes and ears to other potentials of action and experience never too far from everyday life.
Anderson’s diaries are also surprising examples of remarkable discernment. An undated 1984 entry reveals he saw the humor in a then-vilified film by Tobe Hooper that very few of his peers noted. Despite the fact that he never went to the cinema much, he applauds This is Spinal Tap’s humor, describing it as “the only American picture, in fact I’ve really enjoyed since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” (14) On 22 May 1970, he managed to see the first of Sergio Leone’s trilogy and half of its successor. “Cold, calculated – almost abstracted fantasies. But I see the power: Leone has his own obsessive vision.” (15) Five days later, he visits the BBC Television Centre to see his former Free Cinema colleague Robert Vas’s documentary on Humphrey Jennings in which Anderson appears as the disturbing, radical heavy” amidst a group of English un-analytical adorers,” confirming his earlier thesis “of the twin-blooded Englishman given a miraculous transfusion of vitality by the war, then lapsing again into frustrated dilettantism when that influence was removed….” (16)
Though coming from a privileged background, Anderson vehemently reacted against the class and establishment rigidities of his own era, constantly searching for a different type of existence and artistic expression that his own nation stodgily refused to consider. As he defined it in his 31 May 1970 diary entry, it comprised “a whole fashionable, accepted bourgeois cultural ethos – in an atmosphere where lack of any commitment is excused as `impartiality’, and where glibness and pretension are accepted by the ignorant as betokening expertise and authority.” (17)
Hollywood was little better as Anderson discovered when he visited HBO to discuss what would become Glory! Glory! His 23 March 1988 diary entry could also apply to contemporary university campuses with their administrator’s “pet schemes” of designer piazzas and condominium residences that barely conceal the intellectual poverty that lies beneath.
Each time I come to Hollywood now I find the place more depressing, more shabby under the expensive surfaces, more soulless – or rather with its soul more conclusively sold to the most crass kind of materialism.” (18)
Anderson compares the dumb comments he endures from a studio executive with the more bearable vulgarity of the old-style tycoon that “betrays more the insecurity of the TV Executive scared for his job and with no real confidence in his ability or his sense of audience…a shallowness, an opportunism, a cheapness of sensibility which only makes more nightmarish the well-carpeted, luxuriously appointed pseudo-`tasteful’ huge glass and concrete palaces in which the Devil’s work is conducted.” (19)
Am I alone in seeing connections with today’s higher administrative ghettos and compliant Chairs eagerly grasping for “dumbing down” quick fixes to falling enrollments in the same manner as drowning men supposedly clutch at straws?
Anderson’s diaries, artistic achievements and critical works deserve to be revisited today, especially in his 23 January 1944 entry written under the constraints of Army life in which he utters a cry of anguish that will motivate his later work. Speaking of the soul-destroying material conditions in which he is forced to live, he comments as follows:
The civilized man must be alive; alive mentally as well as physically. Most people go through life like owls in sunlight; they do not realize the possibilities of life – indeed, it is only by a polite fiction that we call them alive at all. The civilized man believes that the mind or the soul is more important than the body, and the arts of mankind are the tangible evidence of great minds, of our own and past ages, and therefore worthy of some attention. He is therefore acutely aware of the spiritual deprivation, as well as the suffering, that war inflicts upon the world and, especially if he is young, hungers more for knowledge and culture than for lemons and bananas. The discomfort is accentuated by the abortion of any creative urge which may possess him.” (20)
Anderson wrote this in the last year of World War II, reacting against arbitrary mental and physical restraints around him. He decided to struggle, and his life and work reflects this, though he may not have been an easy person to get along with. But it is worrying that his achievements are being slowly forgotten today when they still have much relevance in our present era.
2 See Raymond Durgnat, A Mirror for England: British Movies from Austerity to Affluence, London: Faber, 1970.
3. “’Only Connect’ Some Aspects of the work of Humphrey Jennings” (1954), Never Apologise: The Collected Writings Lindsay Anderson. Ed. Paul Ryan. London: Plexus, 2004, p.359.
4. See Humphrey Jennings: Film- maker Painter, Poet. Ed. Mary- Lou Jennings. London: British Film Institute, 1982.
5. See David Brittain, Eduardo Paolozzi at New Words: Science Fiction and Art in the Sixties. Manchester, UK: Savoy Books, 2013.
6. “My Country Right or Wrong? (1988). Never Apologise, p.34.
7.”Sport, Life and Art” Never Apologise, p.98.
8.”The Film Artist – Freedom and Responsibility!” Op. cit. p. 214.
9. “Get Out and Push” (1957) Op. cit. p. 251.
10. “They Were Expendable and John Ford (Sequence, Summer 1950)”. Op. cit. p.463.
11. Op. cit. p. 484.
12. “Three to Cheer For” (1958). Op. cit. p. 567.
13. “Two Inches off the Ground”. (Sight and Sound, Winter, 1957). Op. cit, p.583 .For another interpretation of the Zen associations in O Lucky Man! see David Lavery, O Lucky Man! And the Movie as Koan”, Literature Film Quarterly 8.1, (1980): 35-40.
14. Lindsay Anderson: The Diaries. Edited by Paul Sutton. London: Methuen, 2004, p. 412.In his 17 July 1978 entry, he expresses his enjoyment of The Incredible Hulk TV series. “I must admit, I’d rather have it than Upstairs Downstairs.” Diaries, p. 351.
15. Op. cit. p.224.
16. Op. cit., p.225.
17. Op. cit. p.227.
18. Op. cit. p. 463.
19. Op. cit.
Tony Williams is an independent critic and a Contributing Editor to Film International.
One thought on “An Unsung “Free Cinema”: Celebrating Lindsay Anderson”
Tony, you’ve given us not just a heartfelt, intelligent view of Anderson, an artist and thinker among the many sorely missed, but a condensed history of a movement and epoch that gave us so much. Will it all be forgotten? We live in fear.