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Anderson, Lindsay (1923-1994)

Director, Producer, Writer, Critic

Main image of Anderson, Lindsay (1923-1994)

Born in Bangalore, India, on 17 April 1923, younger son of a Scottish army officer stationed there, Anderson was named for Australian poet, Adam Lindsay Gordon, much admired by his mother. Educated at Cheltenham College, he announced there his intention to 'rebel' and spent the rest of his life carrying out this aim. At Cheltenham, he began a life-long friendship with writer-to-be, Gavin Lambert, drawn together by their love of American films; sixty years later, Lambert would write an elegant account of Anderson's (and his own) life and work.

Following World War 2 service as a cryptographer with the Army's Intelligence Corps, he read Classics at Wadham College, Oxford. Here, very significantly, he co-founded (with Lambert) the short-lived but influential critical journal, Sequence, in which he set down his passionately held views on such filmmakers as his heroes John Ford and Humphrey Jennings, on Hollywood musicals - and, with almost uniform severity - on the British cinema of the day, which he saw as irredeemably middle-brow and middle-class. In Sequence he indulged the luxury of 'saying exactly what [he] liked', and maintained the habit, sometimes to his own cost, for the rest of his life. He was not a man who changed his mind, and the passions of those early years informed the rest of his life.

Sequence ran to fourteen polemical issues, after which Anderson continued to write for such journals, including Sight and Sound and The New Statesman, as would publish his often irascible views. He wanted film to be much more socially and morally aware than British cinema of the time characteristically seemed to him. In the late '40s he began making short documentary films, consciously focusing on aspects of British life largely neglected by Britain's feature film industry. The most famous of these early films is Thursday's Child (1953), an Oscar-winning documentary about teaching deaf children, photographed by Walter Lassally, subsequently a frequent collaborator of Anderson's and of other film-makers now associated with the term 'Free Cinema'. Not really a 'movement', the latter was the umbrella name given to several National Film Theatre programmes of films made by Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and others. Anderson's poetic film about the old Covent Garden stall-holders, Every Day Except Christmas (1957), was one of the best-known Free Cinema titles; these were essentially films which the makers were happy to 'sign', as personal statements.

Anderson was the last Free Cinema director to make his feature debut, but he arguably outstripped them all. Based on David Storey's novel, This Sporting Life (1963, produced by Reisz) is an excoriating account of an emotionally inarticulate footballer, whose aggression serves him well on the rugby field but not in dealing with the deeply inhibited woman he loves. The film was set around Wakefield, Yorkshire, where Anderson had shot his first four documentaries, and its surface realism, on sporting-field, in locker-rooom, street and pub, is impeccable; but it is the rendering of the man's bruising inner life that is most remarkable. Masterly as this film is, it is his next feature - If... (1968) - with which his name is inextricably associated.

Before If..., there were two curious, little-seen short films: The White Bus (1966), which was one of a planned triptych of art films that never came to pass and was released alone as a short, and the Polish documentary, The Singing Lesson/Raz, Dra, Trzy (1967). But If... proved the one indisputable commercial success of Anderson's fitful screen career. Filmed at his old school, Cheltenham, which was not made privy to the full nature of its iconoclasm, If... struck a very resonant chord in the year of student uprisings in several continents. Its image of the rebellious public schoolboy, Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), armed to the teeth on the chapel roof, became a treasured icon for disaffected youth. The film railed against the debilitating class system which was Anderson's recurring bĂȘte noire, and, winding its exhilarating way between black-and-white and colour sequences, it exposed hypocrisy in school, church and the military. It remains Anderson's key denunciation of the ills of British society as he persistently saw them. He retained Travis/McDowell as the protagonist of two further 'state-of-the-nation' films: the picaresque Brechtian satirical fable, O Lucky Man! (1973), with Travis as a Candide-like coffee-salesman, and Britannia Hospital (1982), with Travis a reporter and the nation now, metaphorically, an ill-run hospital, rather than public school. Neither was much liked on release - his curmudgeonly socialism was out of step with the times - but hindsight may teach us to value them better.

His only other feature films were the fine, cinematically fluent 1974 adaptation of his friend David Storey's play, In Celebration, which Anderson had directed at the Royal Court Theatre, and, US-made, the final, elegiac The Whales of August (1987), which did honour to two of the screen's greatest stars, Lillian Gish and Bette Davis. Anderson never found it easy to bring his projects to screen fruition, partly because he acquired a reputation for being difficult and uncompromising, but he survived on his own terms and there is no trash in his oeuvre. Joining the English Stage Company at the Royal Court in 1957, he was also a noted director of plays, classical (e.g., a fine production of The Cherry Orchard, 1983) and - groundbreakingly - modern (e.g., Storey's Home, 1970); he directed the savage Canadian miniseries, Glory! Glory! (1989) which dealt swingeing blows at TV evangelism, acted in several films, including Chariots of Fire (1981), and wrote two valuable books about film, The Making of a Film: the Story of 'Secret People' (1952) and About John Ford (1981). His last screen work was to provide an angry, very recognisable voice on the telephone in Mark Herman's Blame It on the Bellboy (1992).

In British cinema's history, he is a lonely but strangely heroic figure. He died in PĂ©rigueux, France, on 30 August, 1994.

Is That All There Is? (BBC documentary, 1994)
Hedling, Erik, Lindsay Anderson: Maverick Film-Maker (1998)
Lambert, Gavin, Mainly About Lindsay Anderson (London: Faber, 2000)
Sussex, Elizabeth, Lindsay Anderson (London: Studio Vista, 1969)

Brian McFarlane, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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