March 17, 2008

Lindsay Anderson: 1923 – 1994

Lindsay Anderson (1923 - 1994)

He was the most thoughtful film-maker Britain has ever had. He wanted to think through, in private, in public, in print, on film, what films we should be making and how. Today there is a lot of talk about the need for "good" films. "Good" means those that make money; films that make money are "good": there is no place for thought.
I miss Lindsay. I miss the old bastard. We need him now. Mamoun Hassan

YouTube Extract from 'If'. Cafe scene expressing the interiority desire & imagination set against the realism of a transport caf. a fine example of Anderson's surrealistic tendencies


In many ways the enormous contribution of Lindsay Anderson to British Cinema is critically underwritten yet two of his feature films are present in the top 100 most popular British films . 'If' (1968) also won a Palme d'or in 1969. Anderson's contributions to cinema started as early as 1947 when he became a founder member of Sequence a critical film magazine based at Oxford University.  Anderson was also a key figure in the Free Cinema movement and again a key figure in the British New Wave of Social Realism which emerged at the end of the 1950s and continued until 1963. His film This Sporting Life (1963) is a memorable one from this period and like 'If' also figures in the British top 100 British films. Anderson also did a lot of work in the theatre and in TV which explains why his output of feature films is quite low. The key point is that his significance goes far beyond the films which he made although those were ones which most people would be proud of. 

Anderson behind a Camera

Anderson Where Art meets Cinema 

I'm always disappointed when critics complain about Anderson's Oh Dreamland (1953) as ' attack on the leisure habits' of the working class (Hedling, 1997 directors such as Malle p 180). It is clearly an attack upon those who exploit the desires of the British working classes in the name of 'popular', it needs to be compared with the surrealism of Humphrey Jennings who was a key inspiration for Anderson, indeed Anderson was to describe Jennings as the only poet British cinema had had up until that point. When Jennings features a British Kazoo band on a Sunday he is noting the surreality inherent in popular culture that is genuinely popular in a Gramscian sense of being developed by and for the people. Anderson's Oh Dreamland in an excoriating approach to the massification, expropriation and exploitation inherent within a commercialising postwar society which is industrialising 'popular culture'. 

Anderson was one of the founding members of Sequence an Oxford based film criticism magazine which ran between 1947 - 1951. Anderson, please note, was involved in writing film criticism before the worthies of Cahiers du Cinema. Anderson's Oh Dreamland was also prior to the work of the swelling of works leading to the French New Wave by directors such as Malle and Vadim. Britain played its role in the developments of European post-war cinema leading to many 'New Waves'. After Sequence ended Anderson continued with his critical role writing for Sight & Sound writing an important article on Humphrey Jennings for Example: Only Connect: some aspects of the work of Humphrey Jennings.

After playing an important role in the development of the Free Cinema Movement Anderson was integrally involved with the British New wave of social realist filmmaking. Some like Hedling (ibid) saw This Sporting Life as something of a shift towards a Griersonian educational realist approach, but there was too much dramatic intensity and a representation of the interiority of the miner turned rugby league star to be a purely naturalistic account. The narrative structure which was dependent upon flashbacks also was antipathetic to British documentarism of a Griersonian ilk. 

It wasn't until 1968 with 'If' that Anderson was to repeat and exceed his success with This Sporting Life. This was the first and most successful of his loose trilogy of films which included Oh Lucky Man (1973) and then Britannia Hospital (1982). These last films were never so popular as 'If' although all to some extent were films of their times as Gavin Lambert pointed out in his book Mainly About Lindsay Anderson (2000). Hassan's review article comments on this:

Maybe Lambert is right that the hostility to both films is due to Anderson holding up "a devastating mirror-image to Britain". But there is a problem with "the way it is said". The Brechtian alienating device adopted to make the audience "think" is difficult enough (how many films in that style have succeeded?) but the internal rhythm is not consistently dynamic. Swiftness of attack was called for. The dash, so evident in This Sporting Life , is not always there. (Hassan THES)

Although Hassan has noted the Brechtian approach which ensures that the viewer is distanciated rather than alienated ( abetter translation of verfremdungseffekt) somehow the mood of the country had changed. The long boom had ended, sixties optimism and radicalisation, which 'if' represented so brilliantly, was on the wane. The Conservative Party under moderniser Ted Heath had regained power between 1970-1974. The period was marked by increasing inflation and economic unrest including two miner's strikes culminating in the three-day week. 

Hedling points out that the critical mood of film studies represented by the work around Screen had also changed. It was strongly Althusserian / Lacanian emphasising a structuralist-Marxist approach which was antithetical to Anderson's more humanist approach as well as being critical of Brechtianism wanting more of a critical engagement with 'popular' cinema. Across the board then Anderson was losing his audience. Britannia Hospital was made into the teeth of a Thatcherite storm which saw the Falklands War start in March 1982. As a film of the left Britannia Hospital was never going to get a look in in the mainstream.

His last two films as a director Foreign Skies (1986) & The Whales of August  (US 1987) appear to have sunk into critical abyss.

Andrson's contributions have still continued throught the tradition of the British art film for both Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway have paid tribute to Anderson. But Anderson's strength when at his best was the ability to bridge the gap between the "Art Film" and popular film which appealed to wider audiences. He both contributed to and was influenced by the overlaps of art cinema and the popular which also had a critical edge. Britain in the 1960s perhaps led the way in this with Films like: The Servant; A Hard Days Night; Morgan a Suitable Case for Treatment; The Charge of the Light Brigade all being a part of this wider movement.   

Theatrical Work

This section isn't intended to be complete but included as an indicator of Anderson's versatility. Anderson was involved with producing many of the most radical of the British plays being writtenin the late 1950s and and early 1960s, such as: Willis Hall's The Long the Short and the Tall; John Arden's Sergeant Musgrave's Dance; Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar. This last play was of course turned into the last of the social realist films of the British New Wave by John Schlesinger. Its content brilliantly representing Britain on the cusp of changing from the tale end of austerity Britain to London of the 'Swinging Sixties' and the mood shift in the population marked by the return of the Labour Government of Harold Wilson in 1964. 

In Celebration

In Celebration, by David Storey
(Andrew) 22.iv.69, Royal Court Theatre, London
directed by Lindsay Anderson
American Film Theatre film, 1975, directed by Lindsay Anderson



The Lindsay Andrson Archive @ Stirling University. This is an excellent site and should be a very early port of call for anybody interested in Lindsay Anderson. 

Lindsay Anderson on Humphrey Jennings: Sight & Sound, Spring 1954

BFI Feature. Lindsay Anderson interviews Satyajit Ray at the NFT 1969 or 1970

Free Cinema Movement  

Screenonline Biography of Lindsay Anderson  from Brian MacFarlane 

Screenonline Credits for Lindsay Anderson  

Lindsay Very useful website developing knowledge and connectivity about Anderson 

Never Apologize (2007)  Directed by Mike Kaplan, whose friendship with McDowell began on Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and who produced Anderson’s last feature film, The Whales of August  (Cannes, 1987)

Mamoun Hassan in The Times Higher Education: The virgin queen and his progeny


Hedling, Erik. 1997. 'Lindsay Anderson and the Development of British Art Cinema'. In Murphy, Robert. 1997. The British Cinema Book. London: BFI

Hedling, Erik. 2003.  'Sequence and the rise of Auteurism in 1950s Britain'.  MacKillop Ian & Sinyard Neil. British Cinema in the 1950s: A celebration. Manchester: Manchester University Press

Lambert, Gavin. 2000. Mainly About Lindsay Anderson: a Memoir. London: Faber
and Faber,

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