By Tony Williams.
Leeds-born Chris Wade is one those unique talents thankfully outside the existing psychologically dysfunctional terrain of higher education. A highly creative and prolific artist, filmmaker and musician, he has distinguished himself in so many areas. His name came to my attention when reading one of my favorite Facebook pages Talking Pictures Discussion Group devoted to a British cable TV station programming classic films and television long consigned to the wasteland by broadcast and other companies with controllers eager to dismiss the achievements of the past that once frequently appeared in the pre-cable area. Learning of his documentary about a creative director whose significance and works appeared consigned to the same oblivion that has allowed reality TV, soaps, and home construction series to reign unchallenged in a once stimulating, but now dumbed-down, televisual landscape, I immediately contacted Chris and gained access to his documentary. It is one of many since he has also produced others on Chaplin, the late jazz musician George Melly, Ken Russell and Orson Welles. His Web Site, to which I direct anyone interested, speaks eloquently for itself. (1)
Running approximately fifty minutes, Memories of Lindsay Anderson is a modest, low-budget film whose structure parallels those British Free Cinema 1950s documentaries to which Anderson contributed. It articulates one of the director’s key phrases derived from E.M. Forster, “Only Connect.” Wade wishes to do likewise in a film about one of Britain’s less prolific, but arguably important, cinematic talents in the hope of connecting with a new generation of viewers so his legacy will continue.
Opening with David Wood’s well-thumbed copy of the original If… screenplay, generally regarded as Anderson’s best achievement, Wade chooses to interview three figures who knew the director well. Wood plays one of the trio in If… while Stephen Frears and Brian Pettifer worked with Anderson on more than one occasion to complete the triangle of those interviewed. Fifty years later, Wood appears to resemble Anderson in his later years. The first clip of Anderson, taken from one of the many interviews conducted with him during his lifetime (most of which are available on YouTube), appears in color but later interviews, as well as still frames illustrating his formative years, appear in monochrome paralleling the deliberate alternation between different styles that characterized his 1969 film. Furthermore, the images often appear in reduced frame reproducing the old Academy ratio format of Anderson’s Free Cinema documentaries. In later years Anderson championed this movement in British film that seemed to be in danger of becoming forgotten even by those sporadic celebrations of British Cinema such as 1985’s British Film Year dominated by establishment talents such as Richard Attenborough and David Putnam (otherwise known as “Bunter” and “Putters” to their close circle of friends). However, like his stage production of In Celebration (1969) fortunately preserved on film in 1975, Anderson proposed a celebration of a completely different film tradition in danger of being forgotten, as was the memory of its inspiring father Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950).
Wade furnishes his own particular version of a celebration using a succession of modest, but revealing cinematic, techniques aiming to evoke the memory of this important director whom Malcolm McDowell acclaims as a genius in his introduction to Anderson’s diaries. (2) In an opening comment, Wade mentions, “In an age of blockbusters and super-heroes, Lindsay’s films are in danger of being forgotten.” He then follows with one of Anderson’s justifiably caustic comments from a past interview that is as applicable to America as it is to England when he originally uttered it. “We are now in a conformist society and a success society. England is philistine and conformist.” He also echoes ideals of a past era, ones as equally relevant to those of us who entered higher education at a time when we all hoped we would make a difference. Nevertheless, we all found those illusions cruelly shattered as the late Robin Wood, “your (dis) obedient servant” (to paraphrase one of Orson Welles’s well-known radio signatures!), and Christopher Sharrett all discovered.” Enthusiasm” is what enticed us to our different, but “common pursuit” (to quote the title of one of F.R. Leavis’s collection of essays. (3) Wade alternates his modest, but complementary, coherent use of interviews with three chosen subjects. He presents an appealing portrait of a director who, if often difficult in nature, had a deep sense of idealism and sincerity in his work that most of his successors lack today. Anderson knew fully well that in his type of cinema,” to be critical is not popular”. Wade creatively varies his chosen technique. He employs David Sherwin’s voice concerning the development of Crusaders into If… and films one interview segment with Pettifer in full frame monochrome rather than reducing the image Academy ratio as he does with other black-and-white images. Pettifer exists today while Anderson does not but the alternation of color here stylistically identifies him with his previous role in If… many decades ago.
However, within the reduced limits of the Academy frame, Anderson speaks to us today especially when a past interview articulates values that are eternal but in danger of becoming forgotten. He remarks that people are not idealistic today, whether in the 70s, 80s, or 90s. “People are out for success but what matters is not the subject but the feeling you bring to it.” Creators and audiences should question what goes on, whether in the media or everyday life. This is also true of higher education with its conformist faculty and increasing employment of hideous, uncreative, metric methods of evaluating classes that have nothing to do with either creativity or inspiration. The latter evoke Graham Crowden’s future “Genesis Project” at the end of Britannia Hospital (1982).
Frears comments on the director’s modest living surroundings also seen in his posthumously screened creative autobiographical documentary Is That All There Is? (1992), a film deserving better knowledge and re-discovery, especially in its creative merging of opposite styles of filmmaking also common to If…. and O Lucky Man! (1973).*(4) Frears compares it to a student’s home. Then follows one of Anderson’s most revealing comments – “That’s what it was like after the war.” This suggests that Anderson still adhered to “The Spirit of ’45. (5) He may have held true to such ideals even after witnessing post-war betrayal and displaying later caustic attitudes towards both left and right. Although Wade’s documentary supplies no evidence that Anderson knew the essays of George Orwell, the director’s modest living appears to echo the writer’s recognition that the introduction of real socialism would necessitate a drop in the accepted British definition of the standard of living. This was dependent on contemporary imperial exploitation. (6) Frears also remarked that Anderson’s home often became a “refuge for people whose lives had been wrecked” and the film features stills showing two such victims who later committed suicide: Jill Bennett (1931-1990) and Rachel Roberts (1927-1980). Fortunately, Patricia Healey (1936- ), who appeared in Anderson’s The White Bus (1967), mentioned in the Diaries as being a frequent guest due to depressive feelings, appears to have been one of Anderson’s more fortunate beneficiaries of compassion, though this part of her life receives no mention in the documentary.
Of the three interviewees, Frears appears more pessimistic about Anderson’s legacy to British cinema stating bluntly, “No legacy.” However, this may be more to Frears’s continuing survival in the challenging worlds of film and television and exhibition of qualities that ensure productivity to the present day than anything else. It is a ruthless industry perspective from the inside, one that has some validity, but not entirely 100% assurance that this will actually happen. Now and then, creativity will emerge. It may not be enduring but the remaining works of Lindsay Anderson have the possibility of stimulating future generations either within or outside the industry. Chris Wade clearly belongs to the outside at this present moment. However, the industry occasionally welcomes the outsider who has the power of making that very essential creative difference. This stimulating documentary already reveals a key component of a difference that may flourish under appropriate circumstances.
I’ve accessed your website and note your other documentaries on George Melly (who I met in Bury during 1980) and Orson Welles. What stimulated you to making this documentary?
Well I have always been a big fan of Anderson’s films. I saw them at a young age, mid teens, but I didn’t fully grasp what they were really about until a few years later. My dad showed me If…. and I remember getting a VHS of O Lucky Man! and being absolutely stunned by it. So my love for his work has been going on for a while now. As for the documentary, it was just another idea I had. I had already done three little documentaries, the first one on Melly being a real labour of love. So Anderson was someone I would naturally be drawn to making a film on. His anti authoritarian/anti establishment stance has influenced me definitely. But I didn’t want to make a cartoonish portrait of him as this awkward anarchist. I wanted to speak to people who would hopefully share their memories of him, to kind of preserve them on film. I did it first because I am a fan and was just interested. Every project I do begins because I get so fascinated with someone I want to explore their world as much as possible. Making documentaries on them is a way of combining my creativity with my almost obsessive interest in the subjects.
Speaking from the USA where I’ve been since 1984, I’ve taught classes on British Cinema in times of better enrollment, I know of Anderson‘s work from films, TV productions of plays, and writings about him as well as his Diaries. What is his current status in the UK now?
No one I ever meet has ever heard of him, save for older people, my dad of course, or film buffs. People in the British film industry, critics and filmmakers, I know some revere him, but on the whole I feel he is overlooked and sort of disappearing into time. His name doesn’t pop up very much does it
He acted in the BBC TV production of David Mercer’s The Parachute with John Osborne, Alan Badel, and Jill Bennett. I’ve recently seen Glory! Glory! Do you think he could have continued his career on television?
He did some great TV stuff, especially the 70s plays, one of which he did with Stephen Frears, but I think he was too stubborn for TV, for that whole world. In some ways I think he’d have seen it as selling out. Stephen Frears says in the film that he came in and was awkward on purpose. I obviously never met him, but I just get the feeling he would have found it hard to work within the TV system.
Why did you decide to interview just these three subjects for your documentary?
Because I wanted to spend more time with them on camera. I think too many documentaries flit from person to person so fast you only get 30 seconds of each interviewee, not enough time for them to express their humanity. I wanted people’s accounts to put you right there. Like with David Wood, one of the leads from if…., I loved his stories and his vivid recollections of meeting Lindsay and the making of the film. So I let him just speak and kept quite a bit in. I feel each person provided me with enough insights to make it interesting.
Did you contact anyone else such as Malcolm McDowell?
I contacted other people, some ignored me, others turned it down and others said yes but I decided to go ahead with the three people I had. I just liked how it flowed and thought it came out as a small, personal little film about him, which is just how I wanted it to be.
I admire the techniques you used such as alternating between b/w and color obviously influenced by IF…. that by common agreement those interviewed regard as his best film.
Yes, I definitely wanted to do that as an homage. It probably is his best film, definitely his most punchy as well as his most famous work. I always loved O Lucky Man!, but that’s just a personal thing. Technically if…. is much more successful.
Why did you decide to concentrate on the Mick Travis trilogy rather than covering his interesting Free Cinema work such as Every Day Except Christmas and O Dreamland?
Well it kind of just went that way. I didn’t want to try and do a full documentary on every segment of his life. It was basically meant to be straight forward “memories” of Lindsay, as the title says, with three intimate accounts of what it was like to work with him, how they looked back on him and summarized him as an artist and man. I just found myself fulfilled enough talking about the Mick trilogy. Those three movies, If…, O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital, have been among my favourite films for a long time now.
Though the Free Cinema movement is not covered, am I correct in seeing a stylistic influence in your use of low budget and the reduced square frame techniques used for segments of Anderson interviews and stills?
Definitely. I finance and make these films all by myself, so they are very personal, small, low budget and particular to want I personally want to do. No one suggests anything or tells me what to do. They might not be perfect, but they are real. I don’t always enjoy these modern documentaries that have massive budgets, 1000 interviewees, fast cutting and that giddy modern cinematic approach with exciting music playing in the background while someone is saying something really ordinary, that feeling they have as if the viewer will get bored if a the camera stays on one person for more than five seconds. I also associate with that free cinema movement. It was a brief era but I feel it was a shame it didn’t carry on. This is my own take on it in a way, a personal film shot from the heart with passion. I like the tag line of Lindsay‘s Free Cinema manifesto – “perfection is not an aim”. That’s it for me. It’s expression. It’s also amazing to be in a position where I can commit time to these films. As a kid I never dreamed I would be one day sat in Stephen Frears’ living room talking about Lindsay Anderson, a childhood hero of mine. So they are very personal and important to me, these little films.
I notice you use full frame monochrome for one of Brian’s interviews. Why did you not use the same technique for David and Stephen?
I thought doing that too much might be a bit too obvious, so I just did it with Brian. I also liked the look of that building that was at the side of us in black and white.
It is remarkable how much David now resembles Lindsay in your interview.
Yes he does actually, I thought that myself. David was such a warm man, lovely to talk to and the memories just flooded out of him. I love how he remembered Lindsay and the film with such fondness.
I agree that Lindsay is in danger of being forgotten and I hope to write about his significance in a future editorial contribution to a print edition of Film International. However, one recent book has appeared – Lindsay Anderson Revisited: Unknown Aspects of a Film Director, co-edited by Erik Hedling and Christophe Dupon. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). Do you see any changes beyond Lindsay‘s legacy beyond Frears’s pessimistic comments at the end of your documentary.
It’s weird because in my day to day life I don’t interact with many film obsessed people, so not many people I meet, save my dad, partner and closest friend upon whom I have inflicted my movie obsessions for years, have heard of him or any of the filmmakers I love. That book proved a lot of people care about Anderson‘s films, but I never see new directors speak of his influence, or younger people getting into his films much. I met up with David Robinson in March this year for a documentary I did on Chaplin’s childhood, and he spoke very fondly of Lindsay, and I think he wrote a piece for the book you mentioned. But he was an old friend of his. I just don’t know what his name will mean in ten years. But there could be thousands of people out there, I just haven’t come across them. He definitely deserves more credit, that’s for sure, but I am not sure I agree with Frears’ comment about him having no legacy. Then again, Stephen knows a lot more about the film industry than I do. He’s a legend in his own right too.
Maybe the UK cable station Talking Pictures that is doing so much to bring classic British film to a new generation of viewers could be important here.
Yes, definitely. Talking Pictures is an amazing channel. They played my Welles film earlier this year and this month they are putting the Anderson film on. They seem to really care about classic films. They put on a lot of old British films, some silly comedies, but also some really good gems too. They even put Everyday Except Christmas on the other week. They also play American and world films. They played Antonioni’s The Passenger two weeks back, and it was amazing to see it actually on TV. It’s one of the best channels in my view and I still can’t believe they play my films. It’s well worth keeping your eye on their schedule.
- See http://wisdomtwinsbooks.weebly.com/about-chris-wade.html.
- Lindsay Anderson and Paul Sutton, The Diaries of Lindsay Anderson (Diaries, Letters, and Essays). London” Methuen, 2004.
- F.R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit. London: Peregrine, 1963. Though Anderson never mentions Leavis in his critical essays, he often refers to “coherence” as an important structural component of any film. See Lindsay Anderson and Paul Ryan, Never Apologize: The Collected Writings. London: Plexus Publishing, 2005. Significantly, in his introduction to the Diaries McDowell mentions that Anderson acclaimed his performance as the title character in Assassin of the Tsar (1991) but criticized the film for lacking an essential coherence that would have complemented the actor’s brilliant performance. However, Assassin of the Tsar still remains for me the ideal antidote to Downton Abbey and Victoria!
- Another reason to be grateful for the existence of YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Tz492_395s.
- For Ken Loach’s documentary on this subject, see http://filmint.nu/?p=16100.
- George Orwell, “London Letter to Partisan Review. 15(?) August 1945.” The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. Volume 3. As I Please. Eds. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. London: Penguin, 1971, pp. 448-449.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a Contributing Editor to Film International.