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.

Behind the Scenes – “This Sporting Life” (1963)

Star Albert Finney and director Karel Reisz of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) turned it down. Director Lindsay Anderson, screenwriter David Storey, author of the novel on which the film was based, and star Rachel Roberts all suffered from massive doubt in their own abilities.

Anderson was the last of a generation that included Reisz and Tony Richardson (Tom Jones, 1963) to make a movie. He was better known as film critic and theatre director. As far as the screen went, he had got only as far as five episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood for television, and some documentaries and shorts. If he was going to make a movie it almost certainly depended on finance from British production outfit Woodfall which had backed Reisz and Richardson. However, Woodfall was outbid for the rights to This Sporting Life and Anderson only came into the frame when Reisz rejected the idea of directing the movie in favor of turning producer and giving Anderson his opportunity.

Cover of the Danish program.

“I was not sure I was up to it,” confessed Anderson. Theoretically a tale of a rugby footballer Frank Machin’s (name changed from the Arthur Machin of the book) rise and fall, Anderson wanted to explore the novel’s “dark poetry” and the ambiguities of the a central character who was by turn overbearing and sensitive and involved in a “tortured, impossible relationship.”

However, Storey, also making his movie debut, struggled with the script. Until the sudden success of This Sporting Life, the aspiring artist had lived a debt-ridden life as a supply teacher (17 schools in three-and-a-half years) in poverty-stricken London boroughs, writing his novels on train journeys north to fulfill his contract to play professional rugby. Reprinted prior to publication This Sporting Life, his debut novel, received excellent reviews and won the inaugural U.S. MacMillan Award worth $7,500.

When the film industry came sniffing Storey took tea with Stanley Baker at the Dorchester Hotel, lunched with Tony Richardson at the Trocadero and was wooed by director Joseph Losey at his Knightsbridge flat. Initial expectations were that the rights would go for £3,000, but a bidding war between Woodfall and Rank sent the bill up to £10,000 with the latter emerging victorious. Karel Reisz agreed to become producer on condition he could choose director, writer and cast. He introduced Storey to Anderson and to an initially interested Albert Finney.

Cover of the first edition of the British hardback.

Storey, a working-class son of a coal miner, and Anderson stood at different ends of British class divide. Initially suspicious of each other, they had opposite temperaments. “Lindsay was an optimist,” explained Storey,” I was a reclusive, and when in doubt, morbid.” Even after Storey completed a treatment and the pair went north to scout locations, the project remained in doubt, in part because Anderson did not understand the book and had a “curious lack of confidence” and in part because Storey resisted reshaping the material into something “new.” In fact, Anderson’s lack of confidence was so deep it took several months before he actually signed his contract.   

Storey, too, suffered from revisiting the area where he had grown up. The death of a sibling  cast a devastating shadow over the rest of his life, the Wakefield rugby ground in fact “scarcely a stone’s throw “from the child’s grave. “Wakefield was being opened up to me in a way I had never known before,” explained Storey, referring to the grand houses visited as possible locations whose exteriors he had glimpsed while working as a marquee laborer.  

Despite “exhaustive consultations” with Anderson and Reisz, the script failed to gell. “I felt the authority I wanted was not there,” commented Anderson. Although actors are often decried for interfering with the script, in this case it was star Richard Harris who arrived at the solution.

British paperback film tie-in.

Anderson had been attracted to Harris from seeing him in the stage adaptation of J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man.  The director flew off to Tahiti where Harris was filming Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) to be met at the airport at five in the morning by the actor, “ his 18th century seaman’s hair down to his shoulders, bursting to tell me what he thought of the script we had sent him.”

Anderson recalled, “Within ten minutes we were at it…we talked and argued right through the day. I quickly realized he was right…we had lost what was most unique and brilliant in the novel…it was Richard, who, with passionate intransigence, brought us back to the book…in the evening after his shooting on the Bounty we sat in his bungalow going through the script and his own heavily-annotated copy of the novel…and slowly a conception emerged which began to satisfy us.”

Storey agreed with the new look which basically followed a subjective point-of-view rather than being cluttered by the novel’s flashbacks. “With an unequivocal endorsement of the book and the rejection of a script which had wearied me more than I’d imagined, I found rewriting the script in the manner in which the book had been written, from the inside looking out rather than the outside looking in, a surprisingly exhilarating task…Once Richard Harris had become identified with the part …the material was no longer a problem.”

Retaining that subjectivity was Anderson’s biggest issue  An Oxford scholar, he had little innate understanding of Frank Machin’s world and in consequence “was liable to slip into an objective view of scenes that needed to be presented through Machin’s own temperament.” Harris proved instrumental in keeping the director on course.

Rachel Roberts twice turned down the role – Mary Ure (Look Back in Anger, 1959) was also in the frame with four other actresses – and failed to turn up for a screen test. Karel Reisz once commented how odd it was that “the two films that made this great-hearted flamboyant woman best-known (the other being Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) were ones in which she played withdrawn, bleak, ungiving women. Rachel’s great talent was to sink her personality into the part without losing access to her own sensuality. You felt the tension.”

Of This Sporting Life, Reisz added, “She had great doubts about her ability to play Mrs Hammond because she’s a very held back, undemonstrative woman. A passionate person, certainly, but someone who’s turned puritanical through so much constant repression of her feelings. Rachel was afraid of this: she didn’t know out of which part of herself to play the role.”

Lindsay Anderson was as unsure as Roberts: “She didn’t appear to me to be the Mrs Hammond character…Rachel was anything but repressed.” Actress Sybil Williams remembered finding a whole sheaf of notes in Rachel’s script about “the Mrs Hammond character she appeared to be playing so intuitively.” Said Anderson, “Richard Harris was bit awed by Rachel. She could acquit herself with a first-rate reading in just a couple of takes. Richard took a few more to feel he had got it right. Rachel’s security as an actress made him feelmore respectful towards her.”

The scenes between Harris and Roberts were endlessly rehearsed, involving a full 10 days prior to shooting and then during evening and weekends while in production. Roberts was playing a woman “whose feelings, though fierce, are almost continually suppressed: the relationship deepens without self-explanation…through incessant conflict…It called for an actress of exception ‘interior’ quality with real wildness within as well as the capacity for an iron restraint.”

Somewhere in the BBC archive is a programme, never aired, about the making of the film shot for its Monitor arts strand, although Storey was interviewed later on the show by Huw Wheldon, later BBC managing director.

Although Lindsay Anderson only made four more movies, the most memorable being If…(1968), and David Storey never wrote another screenplay, the pair achieved considerable success together when the author turned to writing plays such as Home (1970) and The Changing Room (1971), set in a rugby club.  

If This Sporting Life appears to have two main characters driven by demons, part of the explanation as to how such creatures emerged from David Storey’s imagination can be found in his riveting memoir A Stinging Delight  which traces a core of depression from his earliest days through to the times in later life when he was in and out of mental hospitals. Rachel Roberts also suffered from mental illness and committed suicide in 1980.

SOURCES: Lindsay Anderson, “Sport, Life and Art,” Films & Filming, February 1963, pages 17-20; David Storey, A Stinging Delight (Faber, 2021), pages 217-218, 221-223, 227-231, 233, 240-242; No Bells on Sunday, The Journals of Rachel Roberts, Edited with a documentary biography by Alexander Walker, Pavilion, 1984, pages 37, 55, 56, 58.

This Sporting Life (1963) ****

What began as the last gasp of the British New Wave working class kitchen sink drama has now after a six-decade gap resolved into a struggle over political and sexual ownership. Macho athlete Frank Machin (Richard Harris) jibes against his paymasters at a Yorkshire rugby league club – in similar fashion to Charlton Heston in Number One (1969) –  while trying to hold sway over widowed landlady Margaret (Rachel Roberts). While documenting the class divide over which British writers and directors obsess, Lindsay Anderson’s debut takes a wry look at power.

Machin belongs to the Arthur Seaton (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) class of loudmouth boors, determined to take as much as they can, riding roughshod over anyone who gets in their way, even attacking players of his own team. Although a fan favorite, his position at the club still requires backing from the moneyed directors, support that appears go awry when he rejects overtures from Mrs Weaver (Vanda Godsell), wife of a board director (Alan Badel). While Margaret eventually succumbs, her actions fill her with shame, the presents he buys making her feel like a kept woman.

Both Machin and Margaret are the rawest of creatures, forever appearing ready to topple into some emotional crevasse of their own making. At a time when marriage was the rock of society and women had little independence, a woman could dwindle away in face of scorn from neighbours, while a man lacking emotional intelligence would crumble in the face of his own fears.

The non-linear narrative blurs some aspects of the story. There is no reference to Machin’s background save that he was once a miner and still works somewhere unspecified to supplement his footballer’s income. He rejects the paternalism of ageing scout Johnson (William Hartnell) while appears to be seeking to resolve maternal issues, the widow with two small children at least a decade older, and although he could easily afford better accommodation refuses to move out.

His obsession with Margaret is never properly explained, except by her, who sees him as acting like an owner. Equally, Margaret is the opposite of the women in virtually every movie of the period, for whom marriage is the sole ambition. Whether she still grieves over the loss of her factory worker husband, who may have committed suicide, or loathes Machin’s dominant nature is never explained. It might have been better if they had married for unhappy husbands and wives tend to give each other both barrels, emotions never concealed. Or she could be in the throes of an undiagnosed depression – author David Storey suffered from this all his life – expressed as anger.

Machin is the other side of the British Dream – the assumption that anyone who escapes going down the pits or the mindless grind of the factory will automatically enjoy happiness. While Machin revels in his celebrity, he has no idea how to make his life happier. This is in contrast to the other footballers who either enjoy womanizing and drinking or are married or engaged and accept the unwritten rules of the game rather than fighting everyone.

There is plenty grime on show, and the football field has never been so pitilessly portrayed, and as a social document the movie fits in well to the small sub-genre of films depicting working class life, but the picture’s thrust remains that of two opposites who will clearly never meet except in the delusional head of Machin.

Power is demonstrated in various ways. Weaver has the clout to give Machin a hefty signing-on fee against the wishes of the board, Weaver’s wife takes her pick of the footballers to satisfy her sexual needs, Machin believes he is entitled to berate waiters in an upmarket restaurant, while Margaret is demeaned by accepting his present of a fur coat.

As ever with these films of the early 1960s there is a wealth of acting talent. Both Harris and Roberts were Oscar-nominated. Others making a splash in the cast were Alan Badel (Arabesque, 1966), Colin Blakely (The Vengeance of She, 1968), Jack Watson (The Hill, 1965), and if look closely you will spot double Oscar-winner Glenda Jackson (Women in Love, 1969). Future television stalwarts included William Hartnell (the first Doctor Who), Arthur Lowe (Dad’s Army, 1968-1977), Leonard Rossiter (Rising Damp, 1974-1978), Frank Windsor (Softly, Softly, 1966-1969) and George Sewell (Paul Temple, 1969-1971).

Lindsay Anderson (If… 1969) no doubt believed he was making an excoriating drama about the class struggle, but in fact has delivered a classic thwarted love story. David Storey wrote the screenplay based on his own novel.

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