Interview with Lindsay Anderson – Director of “This Sporting Life” (1963)

At the age of 19 while working on the “Glasgow University Magazine”  I managed to gain an audience with director Lindsay Anderson just after the release of “O Lucky Man!”in 1973. That was at the same time as I did an interview with Albert Finney (previously printed in the Blog). While Finney graciously agreed to a sit-down interview in a nearby café, Anderson was not quite so obliging and the interview was more of a guerrilla affair as I kept on ambushing him while he was working on a new play by David Storey at the Royal Court Theatre in London. To consider Anderson as a film director first and foremost that would be to ignore his exceptional work on the stage – at that time he had completed three full-length feature films compared to five times as many stage productions. This article was published in the October 1973 edition of “Glasgow University Magazine” and runs here in an edited version.

“AROUND LINDSAY ANDERSON: LIVE AT THE ROYAL COURT”

Lindsay Anderson, one of Britain’s foremost film directors, co-founder of the short-lived film magazine Sequence, pioneer of the “Free Cinema” movement, maker of Corn Flakes commercials, was back at work in the theatre – where for over a decade he has established a notable reputation – working on The Farm, the fifth David Storey play to be under his direction.

“When Lindsay Anderson comes to the Royal Court, it’s an event,” says his assistant Hugh Thomas, who had roles in If.. and O Lucky Man!. “He makes everyone work three times as hard. He’s an impossible perfectionist, but he’s very fair.”

Many times during the day you will hear Anderson asking the rehearsing staff: “Why can’t it be better?” and demanding of the photographer John Haines, who is taking the photographs for the official press release, if he is satisfied with the lighting. And if the photographs are okay, how okay is that? Anderson demands precision, concision, honesty, loyalty, total commitment. If you don’t possess these, then don’t go near him. Garrulousness is not tolerated; once a conversation has been milked of its essence, Anderson will cut it short, turning his attention to something else. That is not to say he is not capable of carrying on two or three conversations at once.

If you are clumsy or nervous, Anderson’s attitude will exacerbate your condition. Hugh Thomas is nervous: there is a little dance when they are talking a few feet away from each other – when Thomas speaks he moves quickly, a couple of steps forward; when he stops, he jumps back. There is not, however, any bowing. When he questions you there can be no dishonesty. He will shoot a question at you without warning, demanding an answer which will satisfy him. When Thomas told Anderson I had seen the actor’s performance in Diary of a Madman at the Close Theatre in Glasgow), the director asked if I like it. I said I thought it was good. What did that mean, Anderson demanded. Okay? No, I said, I enjoyed it. Good, was it? Quite good, yes.

Later he demanded to know of me who Rosa Luxemborg was (there is a reference to her in the Storey play). Can you say, yes, I know, and hope that you will not be pursued? Or do you say no, realising that he brooks no lie. And even though he is mildly contemptuous that as a student I am unaware of this personality, he is willing to explain to me her importance. (She was a socialist revolutionary and economist).

Anderson is a great general: he has lunch while working, refusing to let any minor details slip past him. If his army is not good, he will make it so. If it is good, he demands better. He chases after production staff to ensure all the cast get tea. The production is midway through its run so his work today is tightening up various aspects. The previous night had seen a couple of calamities. First was a delay in an actor changing costume. Anderson demanded to see the dresser but was informed that she was not present that afternoon because she was not paid to work until evening. Anderson berated the management. “If they wish to put on plays of the calibre with this cast, they have to pay for it. A change of costume is as important as anything else,” he said. At the previous night’s performance, the man whose task was to  raise the theatre curtain had fallen asleep at his post. Anderson told me that had the curtain not been raised in time he would have gone on stage and apologised to the audience.

“I’m very pernickety about detail on the stage. I think it draws the audience out to you.” A David Storey play usually requires a great deal of detail. For The Contractor (1969), Anderson painstakingly rehearsed his cast in the erection of a tent that was the basis of the action. Home (1970) was more austere, but a completeness, because the details had been filled in. The Changing Room (1971), set in the dressing room of a rugby league team, was a masterpiece of naturalism.

Born in Bangalore, India, 1923, son of a British officer, but three-quarters Scottish – to which he attributes his moral intransigence and refusal to compromise. In the magazine Sequence he lashed out at the British cinema and swore blind by John Ford (he would later write a book on the director). He won an Oscar for the documentary short Thursday’s Children. In 1956 he organised a season at the National Film Theatre (the precursor of the BFI) in London to show the work of new film makers, incurring a great deal of hostility in the process.

But initial acclaim came from the stage. His second production (the play) The Long and the Short and the Tall (by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse) at the Royal Court (in 1959) was a major success and he remained there for the next few years, directing plays like Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance (by John Arden, 1959) and an adaptation of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman (1963).

With the commercial success of Tony Richardson’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), the commercial cinema was ready to accept his powerful film This Sporting Life (1963) from a screenplay by David Storey based on his own novel. Although the rugby background to the film was rough and hard, Anderson was up to it, producing a movie about the ambiguity of Frank Machin (superbly played by Richard Harris) who has a tortured impossible affair with his landlady – as bleak as the puritan frustrated north in which it is set.

Anderson continued working in the theatre, in television commercials, venturing into cinema only when he found it possible to do so without losing artistic freedom. He emerged with two short films, The White Bus, from a Shelagh Delaney screenplay, and The Singing Lesson, made in Poland, by which period he was already work of the script of If… with David Sherwin. He was originally attracted to the script’s original title The Crusaders with its overtones of “idealism, struggle and the world well lost.” He also had the guiding lights of John Ford, Jean Vigo and Bertolt Brecht. “When I worked on the original script with David Sherwin,” he said, “we divided it into chapters. I think we felt from the beginning that If… would be an epic film in the Brechtian sense of the word.”

The basic tensions between hierarchy and anarchy, independence and tradition, liberty and law were highlighted in that semi-autobiographical account of a public school and the three rebels, old-fashioned heroes without being aware of it – who spout “we must be free or die” – who arrive at their own beliefs and stand up for them against the world, if necessary. There are symbolic instances of love and war before the final action set against the ritual of the (school’s annual) Crusaders Day. Mick (played by Malcolm MacDowell) and friends are fighting with their backs against the wall when the Establishment counter-attacks. It is one of the most liberating sequences ever shot, this defeat.

The decision to shoot some of the sequences in monochrome was partly a financial one since the director of photography Miroslav Ondriceck felt he could not guarantee on his lighting budget to produce an overall colour scheme. Anderson incorporated this into the artistic structure of the film, creating the necessary atmosphere of poetic licence while preserving a classic shooting style. Anderson believes it is his job to create the film, his prerogative as an artist. He refuses to go along with modern ideas that the audience creates a film for itself. What interests him most are the qualities of rhythm, balance and composition with a simple technique.

With a Cannes Grand prix for If… Anderson returned to the theatre of David Storey. “We have a very easy relationship and a very good one. I don’t work with him on the writing of his plays and we make very few changes. The first of his plays I did (In Celebration, 1969) was cut a great deal and Home was cut in rehearsal. But David knew that was necessary and we did it with the actors. On a production like The Farm, he comes to the rehearsals and attends the auditions and he enjoys that and if I ever need to refer to him I do. Sometimes he has suggestions to make which are very good and actually he can cut corners for us, certain things he understands better and can explain to us more quickly. There are other things he doesn’t particularly understand because he writes intuitively, too, and we just have to work them out.”

In Celebration and The Farm are plays about families and very obviously about Storey’s own family. Anderson commented: “I remember when we were doing In Celebration it was most painful. On the evening when his parents came to see it David was very worried. I went to Constance Chapman who was playing the mother sand said ‘play her nice.’ How much is from real life I wouldn’t like to guess. Jesus Iscariot, the first novel by his brother (Anthony Storey, also a rugby player), is a cruder form of In Celebration with the child that died at birth etc.”

After lunch the cast comes in to be given notes on the previous evening’s performance. Anderson is very thorough. He told me: “It’s very difficult to tell people they’re good. It’s a director’s failing.” A couple of minutes later, he added, “I think the beginning of Act Three was very good – there you are.” As the actors go away to get changed, Anderson does comment on Bernard Lee who plays the working-class father. “I think he’s brilliant. Bill Owen (who played a similar role in The Contractor and In Celebration) wasn’t convincing enough. It’s hard to cast this (kind of) part because all the elderly actors in England come from a different class, a pre-war class when the working-class weren’t actors. Larry (Olivier) can put on accents but it’s all acting. But John (Gielgud) is very human, very warm. When he comes on he is the character; when he cries in Home it is John crying.”

He is not too pleased with the treatment meted out by Warner Brothers to O Lucky Man! and there is a sense he is reining himself in. “Since I signed a contract to make a film that was two hours and seven minutes long and delivered one that was three hours long I wasn’t in a very good position. It wasn’t my picture. It belonged to Warner Brothers.” Perhaps he is being a bit unfair. He had a budget of $1.5 million for O Lucky Man! as opposed to the £250,000 from Paramount for If…which arrived 56 hours before shooting was about to begin after Columbia suddenly withdrew their support. Perhaps he had a better time than he supposes.

Like the black leather jacket he has been wearing since If… Anderson works with people he can rely on, with whom he has worked before. Malcolm MacDowell who played Mick in If… plays Mick again in O Lucky Man! this time as a naïve coffee-salesman who strikes it lucky in several veins and each time a prospect collapses shifts to new ground, ending up with a smile that is an acceptance of reality but not necessarily compromise. The faces Mick meets are the same actors playing multiple roles, actors Anderson has used before – Ralph Richardson from Home, Arthur Lowe from If… and This Sporting Life, Rachel Roberts from the latter film. Cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek from The White Bus and If… is also on board.

Much of what Anderson brings to bear in constructing a film bears comparison to his stage work and vice-versa. “When I read a play for the first time, I don’t spend an awful lot of time analysing it. I just read it and receive an impression. I usually choose things instinctively anyway. Naturally, if a play is good it’s worth experiencing a number of times but certainly I hope that anyone coming to see a production for the first time is going to have a clear and full understanding of the play than just by reading it or certainly than I did when I read it for the first time. The process of putting a play on the stage is the process of understanding and interpreting it. That is very different from experience of actually sitting and seeing a play directed and performed in front of you.”

The brusque, short, thick-set man whose teeth you never see is still on the ball as the afternoon draws to a close and, eclectic to the last, starts whistling the theme tune of John Ford’s 1944 war picture They were Expendable.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

4 thoughts on “Interview with Lindsay Anderson – Director of “This Sporting Life” (1963)”

  1. Well, I’ve seen just about everything that Anderson did, so I’ll be coming back here to a slow, thoughtful read of this. He’s absolutely one of my favourite directors, and I’m in awe that you interviewed him.

    I mentioned Rosa Luxemberg in my Scotsman think piece on WALLE, so I guess I’d have passed that test!

    Liked by 1 person

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