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Richardson, Tony (1928-1991)

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Richardson, Tony (1928-1991)

Cecil Antonio Richardson was born on 5 June 1928 in Shipley, Yorkshire, where his family owned a chemist's shop. He was educated at Wadham College, Oxford, and his imaginative staging of student plays led to the offer of a place on a BBC training course.

While gaining experience directing television and live theatre, Richardson became friendly with the critics writing for Sequence magazine, including Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz, with whom he was to spearhead the British 'New Wave'. In 1954-6 he published film criticism in Sight and Sound, including an article on 'The Metteur en Scène' (Oct/Dec. 1954). This he defined as a film-maker who, neither true creator nor faithful interpreter, is preoccupied with superficial style over dramatic content: a description later critics would apply to Richardson himself. Rarely can any director's reputation have been so much at variance between his peers - to whom Richardson was brilliant, passionate, mercurial - and his reviewers, for whom his films rarely cohered as unified wholes.

Richardson's first film credit was Momma Don't Allow (1956), a short documentary co-directed with Karel Reisz, vividly capturing the energy of the Wood Green Jazz Club in North London. The same year, with George Devine and others, he founded the English Stage Company, based at Chelsea's Royal Court Theatre. The company had a commitment to new writing, and after a slow start the third production of its first season, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, proved a sensational success. Richardson continued to direct regularly at the Royal Court until 1964, and with Osborne and the Canadian producer Harry Saltzman was also able to set up a film production company, Woodfall, to make adaptations of his and Osborne's most notable stage successes.

The films of Look Back in Anger (1959) and Osborne's The Entertainer (1960) display a disconcerting clash of styles: naturalist location shooting for the exteriors, theatrical mannerism for the scenes indoors. The experience led Richardson to resolve never to shoot in a studio again. His next two British films benefited from a greater control over performances, but reveal the strengths and weaknesses of his attachment to location filming. A Taste of Honey (1961), a reworking of Shelagh Delaney's play, which Richardson had directed on Broadway, is artistically as well as commercially his most successful early film, despite its over-literal attempts at cinematic lyricism. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), adapted by Alan Sillitoe from his own short story about a working-class rebel, is more radical, but forces its realist observation too heavily into a rhetorical mould.

For his next project, Tom Jones (1963), based on Henry Fielding's picaresque comic novel, Richardson sought backing from United Artists when Michael Balcon's Bryanston balked at the cost of a period costume film to be shot in colour. The film took over $17 million at the US box-office and UA financed all Woodfall's subsequent productions throughout the 1960s. Richardson's uninhibited gusto, the exuberant acting of young British stars Albert Finney and Susannah York, and the brash mixture of realism and stylisation, combine to make Tom Jones Richardson's most enjoyable film.

After his experiences with 20th Century-Fox on the William Faulkner adaptation Sanctuary (US, 1961), Richardson was reluctant to direct another Hollywood studio project. But he relented when MGM promised him creative autonomy on an updated version of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One (US, 1965), written by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood. The film is a mess, distinguished only by Haskell Wexler's high-contrast cinematography and some bizarre celebrity cameos, especially by Liberace.

The next few years saw a variety of troubled international projects. Two of them starred Jeanne Moreau: Mademoiselle (UK/France, 1966), filmed simultaneously in French and English from an original screenplay by Jean Genêt, and The Sailor from Gibraltar (1967), adapted from a Marguerite Duras novel. Red and Blue (1967), a musical featurette, was originally intended to form a portmanteau film with Lindsay Anderson's The White Bus and Peter Brook's Ride of the Valkyrie. Laughter in the Dark(UK/France, 1969) was an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's novel, and Ned Kelly (1970) an Australian Western starring a miscast Mick Jagger. Richardson's career was severely damaged by the films' hostile reception. But Mademoiselle at least is a curiosity worth discovering: an unabashedly overripe art movie, replete with fevered erotic imagery and a soundtrack of amplified natural sounds suggesting its anti-heroine's repressed and perverted sexual drives.

In the middle of this uneven period came Richardson's most lavish and ambitious project, a revisionist account of The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968). Charles Wood's script, which uses a stylised form of period dialogue, offers a waspish satire of the Victorian military Establishment. Richard Williams' witty animated interludes provide their own parallel entertainment, but flaws creep in through the reliance on buffoonish caricatures, and the intrusive romantic subplot involving Vanessa Redgrave, then Richardson's wife.

Richardson continued to alternate stage and film work, and in 1969 he adapted his production of Hamlet, starring Nicol Williamson, Anthony Hopkins and Marianne Faithfull, for the screen. Filmed largely in tight close-up on the bare sets at London's Roundhouse theatre, it shows Richardson at his most disciplined. By contrast, A Delicate Balance (US/UK, 1973) is a flat transcription of Edward Albee's stage play, despite its dazzling cast.

Richardson's last two British films were a flaccid Dick Francis thriller, Dead Cert (1974), and a second Fielding adaptation, Joseph Andrews (1977), which at times is barely distinguishable from a softcore period sex romp. Wisely, he decamped to America. Although he was driven to resign from Berry Gordy's Diana Ross vehicle Mahogany (1975), he made three more theatrical features - The Border (1982), The Hotel New Hampshire (1984), and Blue Sky (1991, released 1994) - which despite their faults show a return to the restless creativity of his early years. Richardson died from AIDS-related causes in Los Angeles on 14 November 1991. The manuscript of his entertaining and illuminating, if unreliable, autobiography was discovered by his actress daughters, Natasha and Joely, on the day of his death, and published posthumously.

Durgnat, Raymond, 'Loved One', Films and Filming, Feb. 1966, pp. 19-23, March 1966, pp. 37-40
Lellis, George, 'Recent Richardson: Cashing the Blank Cheque', Sight and Sound, Summer 1969, pp. 130-133
Richardson, Tony, Long Distance Runner: A Memoir (London: Faber and Faber, 1993)
Welsh, James M., and Tibbetts, John C. (eds), The Cinema of Tony Richardson: Essays and Interviews (New York: State University of New York Press, 1999)

Sheldon Hall, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

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