One of the most dissident and individual voices in British film and theater, Lindsay Anderson was born in Bangalore, India, where his father, a Scottish Major-General was posted. He was educated at Cheltenham College (the setting of IF…), Wadham College, Oxford (where he was a classical scholar) and served in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps during World War 2.
His interest in film began in the late ’40s when he became an editor of the iconoclastic and influential film magazine, Sequence, while frequently contributing to England’s major publications. With his friends Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, he founded the FREE CINEMA movement which asserted that audiences and critics had to provide a personal response to film – then a revolutionary idea. The essays he wrote during this period established him as a trenchant, authoritative figure and throughout his life, he continued to speak his mind on many issues, making his opinions both feared and esteemed.
Through a chance meeting with Lois Sutcliffe, a film society enthusiast who became a lifelong friend, he was offered his first opportunity to make films. Her husband was an industrialist in Wakefield, Yorkshire, who wanted an intelligent documentary made about his company. Meet the Pioneers led to Thursday’s Children, a gentle study of the education of deaf children, winning Anderson an Academy Award in the Short Subject category, and Every Day Except Christmas, his portrait of the Covent Garden Market, won the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival.
His first feature film, This Sporting Life, from the novel by David Storey, was the most passionate of the British “New Wave – Kitchen Sink” dramas that were dominating the international film scene. Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts received Best Acting Oscar nominations for their emotionally complex performances and the film began a remarkable collaboration between Anderson and Storey with his staging of nine Storey plays, including the award-winning Home, The Contractor and The Changing Room.
Anderson had established himself as “a man of the theater” as an associate director at the adventurous Royal Court Theatre, where the most interesting and controversial plays were presented (Beckett, John Osborne, John Arden, Christopher Logue)– and where Anderson’s productions featured Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay in their first leading roles…(The Long, The Short and The Tall; Billy Liar; Sgt. Musgrave’s Dance).
1968 was a year of worldwide political upheaval. IF…, Anderson’s satiric/sardonic drama set at a traditional public school was a microcosm of the British class system. Written by David Sherwin, it became part of the zeitgeist, won the Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and firmly established Anderson as a director of international prominence. IF… also introduced Malcolm McDowell to film audiences, became Anderson’s most commercial film and began the “Mick Travis” trilogy about British culture.
O Lucky Man!, based on McDowell’s idea, was the second film in the trilogy, with “Mick” emerging as a Candide-like figure encountering perils and politicis on the road of life. The three-hour epic had a profound effect on many audiences. Ralph Richardson, Helen Mirren and Rachel Roberts costarred along with a stunning song score by Alan Price. McDowell played “Mick Travis” for the last time in Britannia Hospital, where Britain’s follies took the form of a chaotic hospital. The metaphor was ingenious; the response incendiary, as the film bucked the patriotism surrounding the Falklands War.
Anderson continued with: In Celebration, his film of the David Storey play with Alan Bates, Brian Cox and the original cast; The Bed Before Yesterday, a romantic farce by Ben Travers which alternated with The Seagull in an Anderson formed repertory company; another controversy with The Old Crowd, by Alan Bennett; Is That All There Is?, his autobiographical documentary, and Encountering John Ford, his analysis of his favorite director and arguably the best book written by one filmmaker about another.
His final and first American-based film, The Whales of August, by David Berry, brought all of his movie knowledge to bear in a poignant elegy, with a legendary cast headed by Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Vincent Price, Harry Carey, Jr. and Ann Sothern, and shot near John Ford’s Maine birthplace. Like all of his films, it premiered in Cannes, this time before the Prince and Princess of Wales. In Tokyo, it played for a year and a half.
Too original to be a favorite of fashion; too outspoken to be universally liked, Lindsay Anderson’s brilliance manifested itself in an imperious, demanding, difficult, caring, concerned, compassionate man. His wide circle of friends saw both sides and in his double memoir, Mainly About Lindsay Anderson, Gavin Lambert wrote perceptively of that duality. Clive Donner said he was the oldest “enfant terrible.” Jocelyn Herbert, his close associate and the most important production designer in Britain, would have numerous rows during their many collaborations. Often she would leave, vowing never to return – but she did, and when asked why, simply said, “Lindsay is a great artist.”