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.

The Reckoning (1970) ****

Fans of Succession will love the boardroom battles and fans of Get Carter (1971) the gritty violence. Michael Marler (Nicol Williamson) is a thug whichever way you cut it. He’s a business hard-ass, at his nicest he’s obnoxious, at this worst brutal. He drives like a demon. Even in love, he’s fueled by hate, sex with wife Rosemary (Ann Bell) infernal. And all of this made acceptable, according to the left-wing tenets that underwrite the film, because he is a working-class man battling upper-class hypocrisy, never mind that his upper-class wife was hardly foisted upon him, nor that he was forced to live in luxury.

Unexpectedly, the film also explores other themes which have contemporary significance. Computers play a pivotal role and so does honor killing. The picture’s original title – A Matter of Honor – was ironic given that in the upper-class worlds in which Marler moved, courtesy of job and marriage, he is considered to have little in the way of chivalry. But in the working-class world he has escaped he must exact revenge according to a code of honor steeped in violence.   

This advert dates from October 1968, which gives an indication of how long the film’s release was delayed, not appearing until January 1970. Interestingly, the advert appeared in the U.S. trade magazine Box Office (October 28, 1968), suggesting Columbia had high hopes for the British production. The title here suggest a different approach to the movie.

The sudden death of his father sends Marler back to Liverpool where he discovers the old man was killed in a pub brawl. But the local doctor and the police, uninterested in complicating what must be a regular occurrence, view his death as accidental. So Marler takes it upon himself to uncover the culprits and wreak revenge, any kind of revenge on any kind of culprit, regardless of the fact that from the outset it is clear they will hardly be gangsters.  While contemplating violence, he strikes up a sexual relationship with the married Joyce (Rachel Roberts).

The story jumps between the back-stabbing corporate world to a scarcely less violent working class environment. The combination of charm and brute energy holds a certain appeal for Rosemary (Ann Bell) and helps keep him in the good books of his boss, but he is otherwise a bully, targeting the weak spots of anyone who stands in his way on his climb to the top, and while heading up the sales division of a company in trouble blaming everyone else for his own failings. And while scorning his wife’s upper-class friends is quite happy to enjoy the benefits of her lifestyle, the flashy car might be the result of his endeavors but not the huge posh house. Marler stitches up another associate with the assistance of another lover, secretary Hilda (Zena Walker), and his long-suffering wife finally takes umbrage at his venomous manner.

Marler hides his hypocrisy behind the façade of a left-wing class-struggle. John McGrath’s screenplay clearly intends Marler’s working-class background to provide him with a get-out-of-jail-free card as well as to launch an attack on upper classes seen as namby-pamby except when it comes to putting the poor in their place. The anti-class polemic has somewhat eroded over time but in its place can be found an accurate portrait of the social mores of ordinary people for whom, alcohol, the drug du jour, plays a massive part.  The going-home element is populated by endless terraced houses without a single parked car, vast caverns of pubs which host wrestling matches and are a tinder spark away from erupting in a brawl. This is in stark contrast to the high-living life Marler enjoys in London.

He has no desire to go back home, hasn’t visited in five years, escaping from there deemed a sign of success, and mostly returns metaphorically to draw on memories with which to scourge the upper-class and excuse his own behavior. 

Nicol Williamson (Inadmissable Evidence, 1968) delivers a tour de force, his screen presence never so vibrant, exhibiting the same raw appeal as Caine in Get Carter. At this point in his career, with a critically-acclaimed Hamlet on stage, he was perceived as the natural successor to Laurence Olivier and Columbia held up the release of The Reckoning to allow the Tony Richardson film of that stage production to pick up critical momentum. Oddly enough Rachel Roberts had not capitalized on her Oscar-nominated role in This Sporting Life (1963), this only her second movie in seven years. Initially coming across as brassy caricature, she soon softens into a surprisingly wistful character. Both Ann Bell and Zena Walker bring greater dimension to their characters rather than as adoring doormats. You can catch Paul Rogers (Three Into Two Won’t Go, 1969) and Tom Kempinski in supporting roles.

Director Jack Gold, who had worked with both Williamson and McGrath on his movie debut The Bofors Gun (based on the writer’s play), does a great job of capturing a particular period of British social history as well as allowing Williamson to stomp around in his pomp.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) ***

Minus an understanding of the context and setting aside the compelling charm of Albert Finney in his debut, it would be hard to find any sympathy for as unlikeable character as Arthur Seaton.

He belonged to what was called the “Angry Young Men” who sprang up as figments of the collective imagination of a new group of writers like Alan Sillitoe, who wrote this novel, David Storey (This Sporting Life), Keith Waterhouse (Billy Liar) and John Osborne (Look Back in Anger).  They were angry at circumstance, at growing up in a time when the working classes knew their place, and were consistently reminded of it, and work was generally a hard, monotonous grind.

It is hard to see what Seaton is angry about. He has sex on tap with an older married woman, a girl his own age on the side, enough money to spend on his own pleasures which mostly consist of drinking and sex, gets his dinner put on the table the minute he comes through the door and even though the teapot is sitting next to his hand still will call on his mother to pour it out. He is an inveterate liar, a bully, injures one woman and frightens the life out of another, and refuses to face up to his responsibilities. He does not want promotion, despises those who do, and equally holds in contempt fellow workers organised into a union.

What he does actually want is never made clear. He just doesn’t want the life on which he is set.

One of the curiosities of the movies made out of these books and plays was that the writers came from that working-class background they described so well while the directors belonged to the privileged classes. Writers and directors alike subscribed to the notion that the working man was exploited by the bosses and that everyone who used their own money to invest in a company and provide employment was a rotter. This was a Britain on the verge of a cultural revolution that would explode a few years later in fashion, music and politics. 

That said, the film is an excellent portrayal of the period, the first time a proper working factory was depicted on screen, where employees were paid by piecemeal, i.e. remunerated for what they individually produced rather than whether they produced anything or not, rewarded for their own endeavors rather than as a collective. The bicycle was the chief means of locomotion and life consisted of meals in cramped kitchens, living with your parents, trying (mostly vainly) to get sex and drinking so hard you were apt to fall down the stairs.

In a star-making turn, Finney is superb, charisma oozing from the screen, a manly, brawny fellow, unlike the bulk of British actors, and speaking with his own accent, unlike the bulk of British actors.   Likewise, Rachel Roberts as his mistress, is equally good and Shirley Anne Field makes a strong impression as his girlfriend. The women are all particularly good in a world where no matter how forward-thinking they might be their role will inevitably be long-suffering to the males who inevitably get away with murder. It’s an assured debut from Czech director Karel Reisz.

A rare interview with Albert Finney will appear on July 19, 2020.

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