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The BFI Southbank’s Lindsay Anderson Retrospective in May

  • May 20, 2024
  • 11 min read
The BFI Southbank’s Lindsay Anderson Retrospective in May

This month the BFI are reappraising almost every film ever made by a former Royal Court Theatre Director, the late Lindsay Anderson. A noted early Oscar winning documentary maker with Thursday’s Children, a short that he made in 1954. During the late 1950’s Anderson was ‘the angry young man’ of post war film journalism, spearheading Britain’s ‘Free Cinema’ movement. A task undertaken in conjunction with fellow filmmakers Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson – husband of Vanessa Redgrave. This collaboration continued into the 1960’s with Anderson’s first feature film, This Sporting Life, shot in 1963. It was written by the Royal Court’s esteemed playwright David Storey as a chunk of northern ‘social realism’ and shot in monochrome. It was produced by Karel Reisz. The film came about through Anderson’s early association with Woodfall Films. This collaboration continued with a surrealistic take on ‘social realism’ via a short drama, The White Bus, and shot in 1966 in monochrome. It was written by Taste of Honey’s screenwriter, Shelagh Delaney. At the end of the 1960’s Anderson was working in association with Memorial Enterprises, which had been formed in 1965 by actors-turned-producers, Michael Medwin and Albert Finney, If. (1969) and O’Lucky Man (1973) were both produced through Memorial Enterprises

Throughout May, the BFI are programming almost everything Anderson made for TV and Cinema. This retrospective is a journey back through Britain’s post war years up until 1994, the year of Anderson’s passing. This season is also a ticket back to my own particular past.

A line echoes from a former Film School associate who worked as a freelance Clapper boy on 1980’s British Pop Promos. His acerbic Yorkshire wit enquired, “You know that lefty. That bloke who made If….? The director yer always going on about? I worked with him on Carmel’s new Promo song, Sally (1986). Anderson came up to me, and said, ‘Do you think we deserve to live? Well! Do we? Answer me?!'” The Clapper boy apparently just shrugged with a reticent indifference. It could’ve been a scene straight out of any one of Anderson’s three collaborations with screenwriter David Sherwin. His ‘Mick Travis Trilogy’, namely, If…. (1969) O’ Lucky Man (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982).

Meanwhile, Anderson later refuted any claims that he had ever been a “Lefty” or a “Socialist” and told Malcolm McDowall, “I’m an Anarchist!” Albeit an intellectual one!

‘If….’

The Opener – ‘The School Song’
♪ And when these days of school are past ♪
♪ Though we’ll be near or far ♪
♪ We’ll stand again for College ♪
♪ Who made us what we are ♪♪♪

Personal Memories

In 1986 on the frosty autumn morning, I found myself appearing to be like David Sherwin’s ‘Biles’ character. This happened while working as Production Unit Runner on the Michael Caine ‘Spy Thriller’, The Whistleblower. At sunrise on an icy November morning, the film’s crew gathered on a frosted grass lawn, facing the chapel of Cheltenham College. Everyone assembled on the very same spot where the opening sequence of Anderson’s film If…. began some eighteen years earlier. The Unit Photographer, Tom, framed his camera to match that very scene. We stood in silence. Almost collectively hearing those anthemic opening bars of the School’s Pipe Organ. The resounding score from the film’s title sequence.

A trip back to that heady summer of 1968. The year of International metropolitan protests, race riots, and student revolt.

Standing by Cheltenham College in 1986 I could almost hear the words to the aforementioned School Song. I drifted off into yet another memory. Back to my very own school days. A day when I’d bunked-off class. I’d changed out of my school uniform, which I’d packed into a sports bag that contained my out-of-school clothes. I headed off to an afternoon screening of If…. at the Edinburgh International Film Festival at the Cameo Cinema. Framed within the context of a Bertolt Brecht Season, organised by one Lynda Miles. My own school, George Watson’s College, had much in common with the one seen in Anderson’s, If.…; we too had an Assembly Hall, with a stage that our Headmaster would appear on each morning. Accompanied by live organ music. He’d wear a black gown like Dracula’s. My disdain for sanctimonious authoritarianism began there.

So it was with a certain amount of surreal irony when I first witnessed the closing scenes to If.… at the Cameo Cinema. Especially the moment when people exit from an end-of-term School Assembly to be confronted by Malcolm McDowell (Mick Travis) sitting high-up on a rooftop, firing a machine gun at everyone. Just before his girlfriend shoots the headmaster in the forehead. In direct response to this, a woman resembling the character of Hyacinth Bucket (Patricia Routledge) from the BBC TV Sitcom, Keeping Up Appearances, grabs a machine from the school store, yelling back, “Bastards. Bastards”, while firing upwards.

The camera slowly zooms into McDowell’s face of fury. He machine guns everyone in sight. Cut to black. Silence. The words ‘If.…’ in red, mix-in, closing the film. This was a powder keg moment in cinema history. The film won The Palme D’Or at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival. Stanley Kubrick saw the film and immediately cast McDowell to play, Alex, in A Clockwork Orange.

O’ Lucky Man

In 1972 Anderson corralled many of the cast from if…., along with his lead actor Malcolm McDowell to make, O’ Lucky Man’, the second film with McDowell as Mick Travis, written by David Sherwin. This satirical comedy was based on a 20 page story by McDowell called Coffee Man. A story about his days working as a coffee salesman. O’ Lucky Man was reworked massively by David Sherwin. Later described by Anderson as a modern day take on Jonathan Swift’s, Gulliver’s Travels, and John Bunyan’s, Pilgrim’s Progress.

The film’s eclectic mix of social realism, surrealism, and absurdist satire, remains highly amusing. Especially because it’s infused with a spirit of ‘knowing’. These variant aspects of storytelling meld together effortlessly. This is the genius of Lindsay Anderson at work here. A lone voice in British cinema. One unlike any other. O’ Lucky Man still carries quite a punch in 2024, taking us back to a politically incorrect England of 1972.

The film’s take on ‘Deep State Britain’ cleverly foretold Julian Assange. Albeit here as a case of mistaken identity. It also brilliantly sets-up the dalliance between big businessmen-as-establishment billionaires, and their collusion in covert government ‘bung culture’. All by poking their noses into overseas affairs through fraudulent dirty tricks that involve the RAF. Tricks that set-up Mick Travis as their scapegoat for a jail sentence, while absolving themselves of blame. The contemporary parallels will not go amiss with informed viewers. This film remains subtly sharp.

This is aided by the astute witty dialogue. However, McDowall as Mick Travis is far more like Voltaire’s, Candide, this time around. An innocent who always sees the good in people. Ultimately at his own expense. The soundtrack of up-tempo BAFTA award-winning songs was written and sung by Alan Price. This aspect of innovation really drives the film along with gusto. Price provides his narrative commentary upon the series of unfolding events. His band appears on camera throughout every sequence. On screen as a chapter-per-chapter commentator, Price is seen singing his darkly profound lyrics. This imbues the film with a 1970’s take on Brecht & Weill’s, Threepenny Opera. In terms of Cinema this was groundbreaking. Audiences loved the film in 1973. It ran for almost a year when first screened at Warner West End in London’s Leicester Square.

“O Lucky Man! was conceived as an epic. “Not an ‘Epic’ in the sense of Ben-Hur, but in the classical, poetic sense of the term.” Anderson concluded in a 1994 interview with his Diary Chronicler, the late Paul Ryan. Posthumously published by Plexus as Never Apologise in 2004.

Britannia Hospital

In the penultimate scene to Britannia Hospital there is a woman resembling the Mrs Bucket-look-alike seen in If.…. In this instance, however, she is the late Queen Mother’s fictional emissary, Lady Felicity Ramsden, played by a man – John Bett from the 7.84 Theatre Company. Lady Felicity shouted out at striking protestors, “Bastards”. Only to be knocked down by a lobbed Lettuce. The best homage to a previous film that I’ve yet seen. The Cineaste’s term for this is, in fact, ‘intertextuality’. It’s unbelievably resonant; especially now. Not least due to our previous PM’s short tenure, which was coined by The Economist as having, “The shelf life of a lettuce”. Let us remember the lettuce.

Oh how Lindsay Anderson would’ve laughed. But I digress.

The title of Britannia Hospital will not be lost on today’s audiences The metaphor is there for all to see. The nation state is filled with nationalists at odds with one another. Where everything is breaking down or in dispute. This fictional hospital has its own dispute with kitchen staff, refusing to serve food from Fortnums’ to the private patients. The array of these private patients consists of a whinging cabbie, Lady Muck, and an exiled African, resembling Uganda’s former President Idi Amin.

Ethnic UK protestors, emanating from the African Dictator’s home country, arrive outside the hospital gates in an open top bus. Meanwhile, earlier scenes also revealed the Hospital kitchen staff preventing ambulances from delivering patients to A & E. The only person allowed in, dies on a stretcher due to three ancillary staff taking a tea break. This is played-out as bleak comedy. All at a time when a Royal visit is expected too.

Where Britannia Hospital wins every time, in every sense, is through each portrayed character. The whole of the British Class System is ridiculed and stripped bare. Nobody is spared and nobody gets off lightly. This is due in part to a sharp script and astute casting, coupled with Anderson’s ability as a Director of Stage, Screen, and TV. Not least from his time spent at the Royal Court Theatre via the Social Realism of the late David Storey’s plays and the camp capers written by the late Joe Orton.

There is also a nod towards the medical Science Fiction Horrors made by Canadian filmmaker, David Cronenberg. Among the more remarkable performers? Scotsman, Graham Crowden, who plays a mad scientist. Reviving his Dr Millar character from O’Lucky Man. The medical Horror scenes with cryogenically frozen body parts, also recall Michael Crichton’s Thriller, Coma, from 1978.

There is a vast list of actors. Many of the extras are, once again, the ensemble players from Anderson’s ‘Travis Trilogy’. 70 characters in total, but with no discernible lead. Chiefly, though, there is still McDowell, star of If…. and O’ Lucky Man. Here again for the third time as, Mick Travis, but in a shorter part. Look out too, for a ‘stoner’ cameo from Star Wars lead, Mark Hamill. Add to that Royal Court players such as Jill Bennett, Joan Plowright, Peter Jeffries, and Brian Glover. These cast members are augmented by 1970’s TV Sitcom actors, such as Fulton MacKay (Porridge), Dandy Nichols (Till Death Us Do Part) and, in particular, Leonard Rossiter (Rising Damp and The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin). Rossiter’s role captures the on-going aspect of trade-offs and wheeler dealing. All so ingrained into the very fabric of British society in 2024.

The dialogue is rapid fire, however, in some instances, the acting is a tad camp as per the Carry On films. Confessions of A Window Cleaner star Robin Askwith, nevertheless, is pitched perfectly as a bribable shop steward. For many, this aspect of casting showed Anderson’s achilles heel. “Caricatures and Stereotypes”, said one critic. Another added, “A thorough waste of great British acting talent!”

In the days when print journalism still had clout, British newspaper readers wholly absorbed the reviews. Consequently, Britannia Hospital closed within three weeks of its opening. The film was then completely withdrawn, vanishing for thirty eight years until 2020 when it was issued on Blu-ray.

There remains an underlying theme of queasiness that echoes when watching Britannia Hospital in 2024. Britain’s past is now very much its present. Things are going terribly wrong. Some 42 years later we have come full circle. Anderson’s overlooked movie has come back to haunt us like a veritable soothsayer. To return to Anderson’s metaphors of absurdist truth, ‘Let us not forget the lettuce!’ The one lobbed at Lady Felicity during the closing scenes. Meanwhile, Britannia Hospital is still available on Blu-ray.

About Author

Henry Scott Irvine

The published author of Procol Harum's hardback Omnibus Press biography, Henry Scott-Irvine's writing began in the script departments of the British film industry. He continued as a Film & TV 'Music & Arts' researcher. He has a long background in published journalism. A radio producer-presenter since 2009 as well as a producer of the award winning documentary film Tales From Tin Pan Alley. He's a successful campaigner for securing listings and preservation for London's music & film heritage sites.

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