Lindsay Anderson - Director
Created | Updated Apr 19, 2011
Lindsay Anderson was born in India on 17 April, 1923, in Bangalore, and came from what he has described as 'an impeccable upper middle class background'. The son of a Scottish Major-general in the British army, he went to England and was educated at Cheltenham College. He then went on to Oxford University to read classics, which was interrupted by war service during World War II.
After the war, he went back to his studies, returning to Wadham College, Oxford, to complete a degree in English. At this time in his life, although he had done a little acting at school and some at Oxford (where he described the atmosphere as 'unpleasantly competitive' and 'pseudo-professional') there was little to suggest that this student would go on to become one of the best creative forces in British cinema. However, while at Oxford his passion for cinema was realizsed and, in 1947, along with Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz, he co-founded and became one of the editors of Sequence, which began life as a magazine for the Oxford University Film Society.
He continued with Sequence throughout the years, until it eventually became a larger, very influential publication. The staff subsequently moved the magazine to London.
When publication ceased in 1952, Anderson went on to become co-editor with Karel Reisz. After Sequence, he also worked for Sight and Sound (the highly acclaimed magazine of the British Film Institute) and the London Times.
When Anderson was in his last year at Oxford, he was asked by Lois Sutcliffe to make a film. The wife of a Yorkshire conveyor belt manufacturer, she had met him at a meeting of the Federation of Film Societies held by the Oxford Society. They established an instant rapport based on a common interest in American films, notably those of John Ford. Lois's husband, Desmond Sutcliffe, wanted a documentary made about his company, but one that reflected the particular character of his company, as well as the manufacturing processes. Lois immediately suggested Anderson for the project. But on being presented with the assignment, he told her that she must be mad, as he knew nothing whatsoever about filmmaking. Nevertheless, he agreed to do it.
Before going up to Sutcliffes in Wakefield, Yorkshire, he bought a second hand camera, which had been adapted for use by the Royal Air Force. To make matters worse, the mechanism regularly jammed during shooting. But Lindsay wasn't alone in his first film project, as his assistant, Edward Brenton, had previous film experience. As for the cameraman, he was a local school master. That the film was completed at all says much for Anderson's tenacity, which has continued throughout his career. The whole process of editing and recording (one method used for recording the music was to use gramaphone records) had to be learnt by him on the spot. The finished film was called Meet the Pioneers. The Sutcliffes were very impressed with the finished short, and commissioned him to do three further films.
The First Films
His project with the Sutcliffes started him off in the right direction. Anderson went on to make a total of 15 documentary films between 1948 and 1957. These included a series of four shorts, each of about 5 minutes, for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), and three of similar length for the National Fuel Efficiency Service.
Anderson won an Oscar in 1953 for Thursday's Children, a touching documentary about deaf children. His first feature film, This Sporting Life (1963), told the story of a disturbed rugby champion with low-key dramatics. In 1967, he also made Raz Dwa Trzy (The Singing Lesson) for the Warsaw Documentary Studios in Poland. Many of these documentaries were commissions, including one he was commissioned to make for the 100th anniversary of the local newspaper, The Wakefield Express.
In 1952, one of Anderson's friends from Oxford, Guy Brenton, approached him to co-direct a 20-minute film about the Royal School for the Deaf in Margate, Kent, in south eastern England. The film was to be a documentary on how the children at this school were taught.
At first, they had trouble finding funding, and were resigned to financing the production costs themselves. But they eventually managed to get funding from World Wide Pictures.
The result was remarkable, a truly touching and moving film. By using some excellent camera close-ups, we are able to witness the intimate relationship between teacher and child, and are also able to watch as the children begin to be aware of what sound is, before they are even able to articulate words themselves. As a third party, we are enveloped into their joy of discovery. Richard Burton was asked to narrate, which he did without payment. Anderson asked Burton because he wanted someone 'who wouldn't sound like an actor'; someone who sounded as though they cared, and wasn't just narrating a story about any old school. The film went on to win an Oscar, but unfortunately it got only a very limited cinema release.
While in Margate, Anderson saw the opportunity to do another short. He had found a large amusement park called Dreamland that gave him the idea for a 10-minute film, O Dreamland. Following his collaboration with Guy Brenton on Thursday's Children, this became the second film that was entirely Anderson's own. But there could hardly be a greater contrast between the two films. However, what emerges is the strong and sometimes conflicting strands of Lindsay Anderson's psyche.
In Lindsay's films there is a close and compassionate observation of people, a theme that constantly recurs from his earliest films like Meet the Pioneers and Thursday's Children, right through to his first feature film, This Sporting Life, through to The Whales of August. There is also a recurring sense of his belief in the traditional ways of life, provided that those traditions are purposeful and maintain a strong sense of community, but allow the individual their own identity... something that can also be seen in the work of Ken Loach.
Now, the other side of Anderson's nature, the anarchic and satirical side, is also a very dominating theme throughout his work. His satire found expression in O Dreamland, but it is more apparent in his feature films. This is perhaps best seen in Britannia Hospital. What we see in O Dreamland though is a bleak expression of the poverty of people's lives, especially as these people are supposedly engaged in the fun of the fair. There is also a great deal more anger than compassion in this film, which can be highlighted by his characters or even the music used, such as the song 'Justice' in O Lucky Man.
In 1956, Lindsay Anderson's friends from Sequence, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, had just completed a short film called Momma Don't Allow and, like Anderson, who had never had a public screening for O Dreamland, they were anxious and eager to find an audience.
Reisz, who at the time was working as a programmer at the National Film Theatre in London, agreed to do a programme of short films. Anderson invented a title for the series, Free Cinema. The title was arresting and memorable, and Free Cinema became a movement in its own right. To this day, Free Cinema is still remembered. However, today it is remembered more for its right-on title, and not for the films it advertised.
In his written work for Sight and Sound and The Times (as well as Sequence), Anderson regularly advocated a greater emphasis on social consciousness in filmmaking. His writings along these lines contributed greatly to the Free Cinema movement. The Free Cinema movement promoted a universalist subject matter and showed a general disdain for Hollywood-type commercial products. Although one of his heroes was the director John Ford, about whom he wrote a book in 1981.
The Mick Travis Trilogy
If... (1968), the first of the Mick Travis trilogy, marked a fierce revisionist departure from the values of This Sporting Life. In this icy ode to rites of passage, Anderson paints a scathing portrait of the English private school system, using it as a thinly disguised metaphor for society in Britain as a whole. O Lucky Man! (1972), the second in the trilogy, starts with Travis taking on a new job as a coffee salesman. This job eventually leads Travis into a series of encounters with the military and medical establishments, the industrial hierarchy and, finally, the media in the shape of a director (played by Anderson himself), looking for a star for the film we have just been watching. The final part of Mick's journey, Britannia Hospital, is a nightmarishly comic indictment of the British medical system of the 1980s, whose decay is again representative of society as a whole. One theme which runs throughout these films is the vision of Mick as he cavorts and lurches through a modern England, characterised by absurdity and decay.
Lindsay Anderson is best known for the above trilogy, but he would also peruse other projects, such as directing TV commercials and directing theatre productions, many starring his close friend and earlier protégé Malcolm McDowell. The most notable of the stage productions is John Osborne's Look Back in Anger (1980), in which McDowell plays Jimmy, a frustrated and self-loathing sweetshop owner and musician. This wonderfully constructed play is carried by an excellent cast, and did well to make Anderson's name well known on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Whales of August, considered by many to be one of Lindsay's finest films, arrived in 1987. The film is an elegy to old age that pairs legendary actresses Lillian Gish and Bette Davis as housebound sisters on the Maine coast of the USA. This film is different from other works because of the fact that it displays neither the lyrical realism of Anderson's early career, nor the abrasive satire of his later films.
His made-for-cable-TV film, Glory! Glory! (1989), sent up the televangelist phenomenon in a more typical, unreserved Anderson style. He was back on form. But to his critics, the director's iconoclasm had in recent years seemed to yield to an awareness of the intractability of the problems he himself once railed against.
Lindsay Anderson was also an accomplished actor, most notably taking such roles as Master of Caius in Chariots of Fire, and enjoying success in his own film Is that All there Is? as himself.
Lindsay Anderson once commented:
No film can be too personal. The image speaks. Sound amplifies and comments. Size is irrelevant. Perfection is not an aim. An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude. Implicit in our attitude is a belief in freedom, in the importance of people and in the significance of the every day.
But Anderson had difficulty communicating his point of view to most of the British cinema 'elite'. Here was a man with strong opinions on social issues, and who made films with these issues very prominent; but because he was so achingly close to the truth, not just with Britain at the time, but even with British cinema, he might as well have been blacklisted. Such was the mentality of his critics. And, sadly, things haven't changed much.
It's unfortunate that such an advocate for Britain was best loved abroad, while his native country, for the most part, shunned his work. Take his most famous films, If... and O Lucky Man!; these two films, well respected in their own right by his fellow film-makers, failed to make a significant mark on British cinema, despite critical acclaim from all over the world, a Cannes Golden Palm for If..., and two BAFTA awards for O Lucky Man!. However, these films also brought together the writer David Sherwin (whose screenplay Crusaders was adapted for If...) and introduced the excellent Malcolm McDowell into the film world. Malcolm's initial friendship with the film maker would develop into a deep bond between the two until Anderson's death.
Lindsay Anderson died of a heart attack on 30 August, 1994, in Angouléme, France.
Everyone who knew Lindsay Anderson had a story about him. In England such stories would often be related to confirm how 'difficult' he was. To this, if he was aware of it, Anderson would certainly have said 'How typically English'. He always felt, with some justification, that he was better understood and regarded overseas.
In the memorial celebration at the Royal Court Theatre, in November 1994, David Storey recalled Anderson's best characteristics vividly in a moving address from the stage:
He was a man of vivid contradictions. Authoritarian, some would say; autocrat - and yet a liberal. A stoic - and yet, undeniably sentimental. An atheist; a vigorously self-confessed atheist - and yet imbued with what could only be described as a religious spirit. A teacher; and yet, in my experience, always solicitous of instruction. A classicist - and yet a romantic. An intellectual, and yet an artist. He was cantankerous, vituperative, obdurate and acerbic, yet incorrigibly loyal and unfailingly generous. He was in many respects, human nature turned inside out; what normally might have been contained, if not constrained on the inside, he wore vividly - and explicitly - on the outside. He loved what he hated and hated what he loved in a seamless circle of retributory affections. He was a large, expansive, celebratory - liberating spirit.
It seemed that everyone who had ever worked with Lindsay Anderson was at the celebration. There were speeches from actors, such as Albert Finney, Malcolm McDowell and Richard Harris; from writers like Arnold Wesker and Alan Bennett; and many more. But David Storey's words perhaps expressed best the common feeling of all those present.