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.

Interview: Albert Finney

Albert Finney notoriously gave very few interviews. This one dates back to November 1973 when, as a student at Glasgow University, I was the joint editor of Moving Review, a revamped monthly version of the university’s more traditional arts magazine.  At the time, Finney was appearing in David Storey’s play Cromwell directed by Lindsay Anderson at the Royal Court in London.

By the early 1970s a more powerful British artistic triumvirate than Finney-Anderson-Storey would be hard to find.  Lindsay Anderson had directed This Sporting Life (1963) starring Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts (both of whom were Oscar-nominated) from a novel by Storey as well as the Cannes award-winner If…(1968) and the more recent O Lucky Man! (1973), both starring Malcolm McDowell. Storey had moved from award-winning novelist and screenwriter to award-winning playwright. Home (1970) starring theatrical giants Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud and directed by Anderson had taken Tony Awards for writing, acting and directing. Anderson had also directed the plays  In Celebration (1969) and The Changing Room (1971).  

Born in 1936, the son of a Salford bookmaker, Finney had rocketed to prominence on the back of Karel Reisz’s rebellious Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and Tony Richardson’s ebullient Oscar-winning romp Tom Jones (1963) for which Finney, in the first of five Oscar nods,  lost out on the Best Actor statuette to Sidney Poitier (Lilies of the Field). Finney had turned down the title role in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) because he did not wish to be tied to a long-term contract with Sam Spiegel. Freedom was a consideration which Finney appeared to value above all else including the financial security that would have come from cashing in on his fame and box office cachet post-Tom Jones. He turned down Hawaii (1966) and the opportunity of working with Brigitte Bardot in Don’t Go Away I Might Fall (never made).

In the decade after Tom Jones, he only made seven films, and not always good choices. After a small part in Carl Foreman’s directorial debut The Victors (1963) – a flop – and the leading role in Karel Reisz’s remake of Night Must Fall (1964) – another flop – he took a three-year sabbatical from the movies, returning in Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road co-starring Audrey Hepburn which made a $2 million loss on its $5 million budget.  The Picasso Summer (1969) was shelved and went straight to television in America, and if Ronald Neame’s musical Scrooge (1970) was an ill-advised choice, and no big box-office earner either, Finney did collect a Golden Globe for his performance.

That those years were not a career write-off, (“of the films I’ve made,” he told me, “ I’ve not made enough good ones, ones that are pertinent”) despite the financial failures of virtually all these picture, was primarily due to a pair of iconic performances – the title roles of Charlie Bubbles (1968), which he also directed, and the affectionate homage to the private eye picture Gumshoe (1971) which marked the directorial debut of Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Launderette, 1985; The Queen, 2006). Both pictures had been produced by Memorial Enterprises, in which Finney was a partner, at a time when the British film industry was in freefall.  

But far from being on the edge of oblivion as far as the movies were concerned, Finney was on the cusp of a major comeback. At that point in 1973, his next projects were intended to be the film adaptation of the Peter Nichols play Chez Nous and The Girl in Melanie Klein based on the 1969 novel by Ronnie Harwood (who later wrote The Dresser in which Finney starred). Instead, he transformed his career by essaying Hercule Poirot and headlining an all-star cast in Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974).

(Here follows the original article, based on the  interview in 1973)

Albert Finney has class, maturity, as they say, when the wrinkles begin to show. He is not a superstar of the Sean Connery/Clint Eastwood mould, but he has certainly amassed a following in both the cinema and the theater. Not one to pursue the eternal round of chat-shows and interviews, Finney seems more at home in the comparatively intimate atmosphere of the Royal Court Theatre in London where I met him on the last night of his most recent performance in David Storey’s Cromwell. We arranged to meet again at the theatre during the day where we found an empty office. He is immediately relaxed, leaning back in a chair, making friendly chat while I fix up the tape recorder. His voice is mellow, not harsh, and he makes words work for him, rolling them in his mouth before letting them go.

I asked him first about the film which had established him with cinema audiences, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), based on Alan Sillitoe’s novel published earlier that year, in which he played factory worker Arthur Seaton. Along with Look Back in Anger (1959) and Room at the Top (1959), it helped established the British New Wave. Although many people regarded the film as a significant breakthrough in terms of British cinematic realism, Finney is not so sure, citing a north-south class divide that took different views of the film.

 “The book was a big success first,” he said. “It just so happened at that time that British Lion were able to do it. They had energy, especially with Tony Richardson and John Osborne having done Look Back and The Entertainer (1959). Saturday Night was Woodfall’s third film and it was made by that kind of new wave. The success of the book helped to get finance. The budget was something like £240,000 which is still a lot of money even now (1973). I kind of feel, though we shot in the spring of 1960, that the hero is a fifties boy.

“There are still boys with the frustration of Arthur Seaton. I mean the way he’s looked at, the way he’s shown to you, is in the fifties style of rebellion and inarticulacy, in the time before someone in that position was able to mention causes like Vietnam. There was no tradition of looking at the working-class boy seriously. The so-called New Wave actors were always of our class. There were guys like these before, but they were never able to play leading parts. I saw the film in the North (of England) and they seemed to view Arthur Seaton very differently from what they did in the South – many people in the south could directly associate with Arthur in a factory, stuck there for forty years and getting a gold watch at the end of it.

“But Arthur, by and large – this is a generalisation – seemed more dangerous to a southern audience. In the north they thought he was a smashing character, they didn’t find him as dangerous as the more socially-conscious people in the Arts. They thought he was a bit of a lad, gets away with murder, you know, and rather enviable in that way. So I’m a bit sceptical about whether this revolutionary thing was actually revolutionary. In Manchester they still see it in film fantasy terms.”

This element of fantasy, taken up by Finney in theatre (he had the title role in the original stage production of Billy Liar in 1960 – Tom Courtenay who won the film role was his understudy) and cinema (Gumshoe) dates back to a Hollywood-influenced childhood in Salford during the period of futility after the Second World War.

“I would probably argue that Gumshoe, the Bogart fantasy,” he said, “is connected with the same part of me as the Billy Liar fantasies. I was very much a daydreamer as an adolescent. The movies encouraged us to fantasise to an extent and to think beyond and outside our own environment. When I read Billy Liar (the play was co-written by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, based on Waterhouse’s novel) I identified clearly and strongly with the hopelessness of this dreamer.

“The reason I think Neville Smith wrote the screenplay for Gumshoe is that he wanted to tip his hat, as it were, to those movies of the forties which I suppose he saw as a young kid and which used to take him out of his reality living in Liverpool.”

The films of Hollywood in the forties influenced Finney because they seemed to taking place in an American society where money was obviously important but not your method of speech whereas British films of the period reminded him that he did not speak properly. New York seemed an exuberant placed to be when sailors disembarking could walk down Broadway singing as in Stanley Donen’s On the Town (1949) starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, a film that had such a resonance with the young Finney that he jumped at the chance to be in the director’s Two for the Road

Gumshoe is a thriller in its own right as well as being a Bogart fantasy.  Nightclub bingo caller Eddie Ginley plays out his private eye fantasy after putting an advert in the local paper. In due course he comes into contact with a fat man, drugs and weapon smuggling. Soon he finds being a private eye is more dangerous than acting as one. If, with a brilliant script, the film suffered from any flaw it was the attempts at Liverpudlian accents. Finney explained that attempting to appeal to an American audience limited verisimilitude in the accent department.

“I didn’t talk like dat, really down the nose and hair like dat, but he’s got a sort of Northern Lancashire sound with just occasionally a little extra hardness.”  Although he responded to the script and the opportunity to play a fantasy role, Finney felt Gumshoe was not a complete success since it fell between the two stools of being a homage and a thriller.

His most commercial project in decade following Tom Jones was the musical Scrooge. “I hadn’t done anything for a while. I was kind of fluffing about at home. The producer Bob Solo rented an office in the Memorial Enterprises premises and he was at the early stage of producing Scrooge. Richard Harris (Camelot, 1967) was going to do it. Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady, 1964) was going to do it. But one day Bob walked into my office and talked to me about it. I said I’d meet the director Ronnie Neame (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1969) and I thought well why not, I’ll have a go. I knew it would turn out a kind of pantomime and that was all right. I saw it very much in those terms. I don’t think of it as my finest success.” 

In direct contrast to bigger-budgeted pictures like Scrooge, Two for the Road (1967) and The Victors, the average Finney vehicle had less financial backing, Night Must Fall (1964), a classic example.

“We were going to do a film about Ned Kelly for which David Storey had written a screenplay and then it fell through. So Karel Reisz and I were in a sort of vacuum. I went off to Glasgow to act in Pirandello’s Henry IV and planned to direct. While I was there Karel phoned and said what about the idea of a remake of the thriller Night Must Fall.” The original, based on the Emlyn Williams play, had been turned into a Hollywood film in 1937 starring an Oscar-nominated Robert Montgomery. but the new version did not gel on screen and failed to find an audience.

Outside of Gumshoe, Finney’s biggest artistic success was Charlie Bubbles. Produced by Memorial (also responsible for If…, O Lucky Man! and Mike Leigh’s 1971 debut Bleak Moments) with a screenplay by Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey), it charted the disillusionment of a successful writer who wants to get closer to his son and wife, from whom he is separated. He fails but finds momentary uplift by taking a balloon flight at the end.

“I was told by a mutual friend that she was writing an outline for a film. She sent it over to me and I rather liked the feeling of it. We talked about it and began to work on it. I was just starting with the National Theatre in London where I spent about fifteen months then I planned to do Two for the Road which would take another four months.

“So we were working on it spending afternoons every week, with Shelagh going away and doing stuff on her own, and coming back with more stuff in a month and the same process would go on. When you make a film from an idea, not a book, you’re digging into yourself. It’s an emotional progression, rather than a narrative one. You start out with a feeling and it’s very difficult in the discussions to sort out what you really want. In order to end up with all the things that are right, you have to go through an awful lot of things that are wrong. It was a long, very enjoyable, but laborious job.

“It was possible to direct and act in that film because the movie is showing you the world from Charlie’s point of view. Charlie didn’t have to develop his personality, didn’t have any great dialogue. I usually had to fit in with a certain mood that went along with how the camera saw it. We got an actor, who was playing a minor role, to be my stand-in while I fixed up the camera shots with the director of photography. He was quite happy to do this because it meant he got a lot of experience in a relatively short period of time.

“Watching rushes was very peculiar. When I came on screen, it wasn’t me, it was just this man playing this part. I was totally objective about myself as an actor. If I’m just an actor in a film I watch rushes to see if what I’ve been trying to get over worked.”

In retrospect, the movie stands up very well, (and Finney repeated the experience of directing for the TV movie The Biko Inquest in 1984), but for the casual moviegoer it holds significance in that it heralded the debut of Liza Minnelli, Oscar-nominated the following year for The Sterile Cuckoo and Oscar-winner in 1972 for Cabaret.

“Stephen Frears, my assistant who later directed Gumshoe, met Liza in Paris and thought she was extraordinary. Originally, the part (of Eliza) was going to be English but we changed it to an American girl because we thought an English girl from the south would provoke class comment and what I wanted was romance and naivety rather than somebody snobby. We saw all the Canadian and American Equity members and none seemed quite right. I went over to Los Angeles for a day to hold auditions. But Liza was the best and that’s how she got the part. She was naturally very eccentric, very bright and a bit…coming from a funny angle without any effort.”

Finney had a different perspective on the movies than many other actors in the business.

“When I was a young actor, people said the theatre was where you worked seriously and the cinema was where you made money and it was always viewed very much in those terms. But the cinema has always seemed to me to be an opportunity for serious work.” 

Under the banner of Memorial Enterprises, which he formed with actor Michael Medwin, Finney made his contribution to serious cinema.

“We wanted to have the freedom to do what we liked. A production company like ours has six possibilities a year which boils down to one because in two of them the writer goes out of his mind and you go off the other three.” 

The company was involved in Peter Watkins pop star drama Privilege (1967) with Manfred Mann vocalist Paul Jones and model Jean Shrimpton, If…, Spring and Port Wine (1970), the Tom Stoppard-scripted The Engagement (1970), and gave directorial debuts to Tony Scott (Top Gun) and Mike Leigh. The Engagement, starring David Warner, was made for American television but actually made its money back because it also went out as a supporting feature.

Scott was backed to make the drama Loving Memory (1971) and Leigh’s initial foray was Bleak Moments (1971). Memorial put up £14,000 rising to £18,000 for Bleak Moments.

“I’ve always felt that when we’re in a position to finance a young film-maker, we should do so. At that time we happened to have some profits so we put some money into it and the British Film Institute put up some. You know with a film like that you’re going to get your money back unless it’s a freak.” The low-budget picture soon honed its artistic credentials with first prize at the Locarno Film Festival and made the rounds of the arthouses.

Despite working cinematically with two of the main driving forces behind the British New Wave in Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz, somehow Finney had avoided onscreen work with Lindsay Anderson, though they had crossed swords in the theatre. He first met Anderson when he left Birmingham Rep after playing Macbeth there (“at the age of 21 – I only say that to excuse the performance,” said Finney, somewhat self-deprecatingly since the performance drew tremendous acclaim) to work in London in John Arden’s play The Party directed by Charles Laughton.

“During the run of this, Lindsay was asked to do The Long, The Short and the Tall by Willis Hall. I’d known Willis as a radio playwright and I’d done one or two of his works with the Rep on Birmingham radio. I met Lindsay and was ready to do the part and I rehearsed it but then my appendix burst and Peter O’Toole took over – the rest is history.

“So I had the experience of working with Lindsay because I was involved in the auditioning of the other actors and we got on very well. At that time I found him interesting, for he seemed to be always trying to find the honest answer, rather than the convenient one, and had a kind of directness about his approach. And the following year I did a play with him again, after I’d been to Stratford, a  musical called The Lily White Boys by Christopher Logue, which I’d kept being told was Brechtian and I didn’t quite know what that meant.

“Lindsay and I didn’t get on. I found him very, very charming and fascist. And we kind of rubbed each other up the wrong way a bit, but just as animals. I thought he’s too sort of tart for me. You know, the work’s difficult enough without these sorts of neuroses getting in the way. And then I didn’t work with him again until Billy Liar (in the theatre in 1960) which was eight months later.

“I liked the play very much so Lindsay and I had a long meeting to see if we would get on all right. Course we did do it, and it was quite right that we should, and we got on rather well. But he’s a very – I’ve not worked with him for a long time – demanding. He was in those days and I’m sure he still is very good to work with but demanding. But you’ve always felt there was good reason for it. He had a good sense of what’s going on under the text, interested in digging and not going for what may hit you on the page, turning it over and over. The proportion of directors who do that is very small.” 

Although technically he was directed once by Anderson for the screen, it was the small screen, in 1960, for the BBC series Theatre Night which consisted of 45-minute excerpts of current plays running in London, of which Billy Liar was one.

Even at this stage in his career, as the run of Cromwell came to a close in 1973, there was a wistfulness about Finney.

“In the last ten years I feel very much that I’ve meandered a lot and my work’s revealed this in the restless and lack of direction. When I was 27, I’d just finished a run of Luther by John Osborne in New York, which I did just after Tom Jones. When I left New York I travelled by myself for eleven months around the world. Since I’d left drama school, I’d had a degree of success, but I’d never been introspective, always been busy, and I wanted to get away. I still very much feel that it’s one’s life that it’s about and one’s got a lifetime to do it.”

Postscript 2019: When Albert Finney’s life came to an end, aged 82, in February 2019, he had carved out for himself a career of some distinction. He had been nominated for five Oscars, four for Leading Actor, in Tom Jones followed by Murder on the Orient Express, The Dresser (1983) and Under the Volcano (1984) plus a Supporting Actor nod for Erin Brockovich (2000). He won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in TV movie The Gathering Storm (2002). Apart from an Academy Fellowship in 2001, the top prize in the leading acting categories at the Baftas also eluded him despite being nominated six times. Even as he lost his box office cachet as a star who could pull in the audiences, he still delivered dynamic performances in supporting roles in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) and in his final part as Kincade in Skyfall (2012).

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