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Lester, Richard (1932-)

Director, Producer

Main image of Lester, Richard (1932-)

If any single director can encapsulate the popular image of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, then it is probably Richard Lester. With his use of flamboyant cinematic devices and liking for zany humour, he captured the vitality, and sometimes the triviality, of the period more vividly than any other director. This has been somewhat to the detriment of his later work which, whilst more conventional in style, has qualities which have been overshadowed by his fashionable earlier output.

Lester was born in Philadelphia, USA, on 19 January 1932. After graduating in clinical psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, he began his career in American television as a stagehand, rising to become a director at just 20. He left for Europe in 1954, settling in Britain in 1956.

His sympathy for anarchic comedy made him an ideal director for the television series A Show Called Fred (ITV, 1956), where he worked with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. He teamed up with them again for the eleven-minute short The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film (1959). Shot in under two days, for a mere £70, the film captures the playful surrealism of the two performers in a way which few of their other screen appearances managed.

An affinity with Britain's emerging youth culture is already apparent in his debut feature It's Trad, Dad! (1962), which is moderately successful in capturing the buoyant mood of the British jazz revival. The whimsical The Mouse on the Moon (1963) was an inconsequential commercial chore, but A Hard Day's Night (1964) made Lester's name. This first film vehicle for The Beatles manages to connect the grittiness of the New Wave to the frivolity of the emergent Swinging London scene, with its combination of semi-documentary observation and its brash fantasy sequences. The film does justice to the group's youthful energy and conveys a gently anti-establishment insolence, as well as providing a stylistic model for many later pop videos.

His second Beatles vehicle, Help! (1965), builds on skills developed by Lester in advertising, with its rapid-fire succession of gags, inventive visuals and colourful design. However, without the grounding in reality which gave A Hard Day's Night its sense of insight into the band's lifestyle, the film is little more than a loosely connected sequence of music promos. Accusations of superficiality appeared again with the release of The Knack...and How to Get It (1965), which obscures its rather conventional romantic plot behind a barrage of cinematic techniques, from silent movie captions to a Greek chorus of disapproving adults. There are unquestionably moments of considerable visual flair, and the film conveys the innocent exuberance of the moment, but its experimentation with form is never more than decoration and quickly irritates.

Lester next applied his style to Stephen Sondheim's stage musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), playing it as broad farce and pushing the action along at a typically frenetic pace. A strong cast, including Buster Keaton and Phil Silvers, often struggle to register above the noise.

A darker, satirical tone begins to emerge in Lester's work with How I Won the War (1967). The generalised irreverence of his earlier films has hardened into a focused attack on the equal absurdities of war and the British class system. His desire to make more personal critical statements is taken further in The Bed Sitting Room (1969), adapted from the play by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus. This apocalyptic vision of a future world devastated by nuclear war, where the survivors transmute into items of household furniture, gets closer to the bleak, surreal heart of Milligan's humour, where the absurdist comedy reflects a pessimistic vision of human failure. Between these films Lester made his American debut with Petulia (1968), a portrait of '60s values which confirmed his increasingly misanthropic viewpoint.

The commercial failure of The Bed Sitting Room, combined with the crisis in British film production following the withdrawal of American funding in the late '60s, pushed Lester away from experimentation and social comment into more mainstream commercial productions (he even returned to directing television commercials for a period). He brings a genuine zest, and irreverence, to Dumas' classic in The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), originally shot as one film, but released as two. The amiable cast, including Oliver Reed and Richard Chamberlain, play along with the air of pastiche. He returned to the formula again with The Return of the Musketeers (1989), a rather tired reprise marred by the accidental death during production of Roy Kinnear, and in Royal Flash (1975), based on George Macdonald Fraser's Flashman novels.

His ability to bring an appropriately light touch to genre subjects was confirmed by Juggernaut (1974), an efficient addition to the disaster movie genre of the '70s set aboard a transatlantic liner, and by the commercial success of two American projects, Superman II (1980) and Superman III (1983). In his other American films, The Ritz (1976), Cuba (1979) and Finders Keepers (1984), he is less assured, and these films seem anaemic in comparison with his earlier work.

A vein of nostalgia is apparent in the best of his later films, the elegiac Robin and Marian (1976), featuring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn as the legendary figures now in the autumn of their years. Despite its sentimentality, the film conveys a longing for a time when real heroes bestrode the land. Something of the same mood underlies his less successful American film Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1979) and even his last film, Get Back (1991), a record of a Paul McCartney tour. Perhaps, for Lester, there really is no way to recapture that '60s heyday when he was so attuned to the zeitgeist.

Armes, Roy, A Critical History of British Cinema (London: Secker and Warburg, 1978)
Murphy, Robert, Sixties British Cinema (London: BFI, 1992)
Rosenfeldt, Diane, Richard Lester: A Guide to References and Resources (Boston: G.K.Hall and Co., 1978)
Sinyard, Neil, The Films of Richard Lester (London: Croom Helm, 1985)
Walker, Alexander, Hollywood, England (London: Harrap, 1986)

Robert Shail, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Hard Day's Night, A (1964)Hard Day's Night, A (1964)

The Beatles star in one of the defining films of the Swinging Sixties

Thumbnail image of Knack ...and How to Get It, The (1965)Knack ...and How to Get It, The (1965)

Archetypal Swinging London film which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes

Thumbnail image of Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film, The (1960)Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film, The (1960)

Surreal, dreamlike comedy from Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan

Thumbnail image of Now and Then: Richard Lester (1967)Now and Then: Richard Lester (1967)

Bernard Braden interviews the American-born director

Thumbnail image of Show Called Fred, A / Son of Fred (1956)Show Called Fred, A / Son of Fred (1956)

Groundbreaking post-Goons outing for Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan

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