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Class war: The making of Lindsay Anderson’s revolutionary film ‘If…’
05.21.2014
08:07 am

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Movies

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Malcolm McDowell
Lindsay Anderson
David Sherwin

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David Sherwin was eighteen years old when he co-wrote a script about two schoolboys (Mick Travis and Johnny Knightly) returning from the freedom of the summer holidays to endure the horror and torture inflicted in them by their public school teachers and elders—floggings, beatings, buggery. The story concluded with Travis being expelled for having a relationship with one of the younger pupils. Called Crusaders Sherwin and his writing partner John Howlett, touted the screenplay around different agencies where it was considered promising, but more suitable as material for a documentary than a feature film. Sherwin disagreed and kept faith with the adventures of Mick & co.

Eventually he met with director Lindsay Anderson, who encouraged Sherwin and Howlett to turn Crusaders into something far more extraordinary. Sometimes however this encouragement was often to dismiss the script as “drivel” and “rubbish,” but Anderson believed the screenplay had great ambition and merit and offered something more intelligent to the kind of movies being made at the time.

A chance meeting with Albert Finney brought on board actor Michael Medwin as producer. Medwin was best known as a character actor with a long list of films and hit TV series to his name. He was then producing Finney’s movie Charlie Bubbles. The partnership of Anderson and Medwin made it easier to win financial backing from Paramount Pictures—who had little idea what sort of film they had commissioned.

The casting was painstaking and according to Sherwin Malcolm McDowell improvised “the best audition in the world” with a scene with actress Christine Noonan set in a cafeteria. McDowell was an unknown and hadn’t learnt his lines. It didn’t matter as McDowell and Noonan were soon rolling around the floor of the rehearsal room behaving like wild animals. This scene was later recreated in the film.

Filming started in January 1968 with a “terrified” Anderson uncertain where he would point the camera. It was just first night nerves as Anderson held everything together delivering the complete film in November of that year, as Sherwin recorded in his diary:

Lindsay has completed his final cut of If… Paramount are so shocked by what they think is madness that they try to sell it to an American art-house chain. The art-house chain think it is madness too. If… will never be shown.

 

 
He shouldn’t have worried as If… opened in London on December 19th 1968. Most critics were harsh, disgusted and horrified by the film and by Anderson’s reputation as a Marxist. This was 1968, the year of the Paris riots, Vietnam, Mao’s cultural revolution and social unrest across Europe. The film was seen as a threat against the values of the establishment, and as promoting violent and bloody revolution.
 
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In an interview in 2012, McDowell explained some of the background to these fears:

“After the Second World War in England, the establishment thought they could just carry on like they did before the war. Young people were fed up. So, slowly, they started to rebel. There was not a revolution in streets like there was in Paris. It started in its own way; it started in 1956 with the play Look Back in Anger – which was a beautifully written and violently anti-establishment play. Its main character was very compassionate, very robust, very intelligent. It sent shockwaves which spread everywhere [and influenced] painting, poetry, music,” McDowell told me in explaining the social context of Lindsay Anderson’s film.

“It showed the schools that have been there for a thousand years – and they were incredible schools. In Britain, aristocrats sent their children there to educate them, to send them out to rule the empire. And so the revolution takes place in one of these schools. That sent shockwaves. In England – oh, God! – it was like heresy. And If… was the end result of this period.”

In a question-and-answer interview written by Anderson in 1968, the director gave his own view about the meaning and significance of the film:

The work is not a propagandist one. It does not preach. It never makes any kind of explicit case. It gives you a situation and shows what happens in this particular instance when certain forces on one side are set against certain forces on the other, without any mutual understanding. The aim of the picture is not to incite but to help people to understand the resulting conflict….

It is about responsibility against irresponsibility, and consequently well within a strong puritan tradition. Its hero, Mick, is a hero in the good honorable, old-fashioned sense of the word. He is someone who arrives at his own beliefs and stands up for those beliefs, if necessarily against the world. The film is, I think, deeply anarchistic. People persistently misunderstand the term anarchistic, and think it just means wildly chucking bombs about, but anarchy is a social and political philosophy which puts the highest possible value on responsibility. The notion of someone who wants to change the world is not the notion of an irresponsible person.

The critics may have sniffed but the public loved it, and If… went onto win the Palme D’Or for Best Film at Cannes in 1969.

Cast and Crew brings together the key individuals involved in the making of If…: producer Michael Medwin, writer David Sherwin, assistant director Stephen Frears, cameraman Miroslaw Ondricek, editor David Gladwell, along with archive footage of Lindsay Anderson. The format of the show (guests interviewed in a studio) is a wee bit cosy, especially for such a revolutionary film, however, there is plenty of fascinating insight into the making of this classic movie.
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Lindsay Anderson: Rarely seen documentary on Free Cinema

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There were 3 of them. Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson. Young film-makers, who together formed the Free Cinema movement in Britain during the 1950s. They had a manifesto, which had been written by Anderson and another young film-maker Lorenza Manzetti, and it declared:

As filmmakers we believe that
No film can be too personal.
The image speaks. Sound amplifies and comments.
Size is irrelevant. Perfection is not an aim.
An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude.

It was published in the magazine Sequence, and Anderson followed it up with a longer declaration, Get Out and Push, published in Encounter magazine, which examined the state of British cinema.

As film-makers, Anderson, Reisz and Richardson wanted “to get ordinary, uncelebrated life on the screen.” Their films were portraits of everyday life - an amusement park or porters at Covent Garden (Anderson’s O, Dreamland, and Every Day Except Christmas), youngsters at a Jazz club (Reisz and Richardson’s Momma Don’t Preach), or the story of 2 deaf-mutes, (Mazzetti’s Together).

As Anderson’s explains in this excellent documentary on Free Cinema, they ‘weren’t interested in technique, except as a means of expression’, their aim was to create:

‘An unobtrusive, precise, camera style. A respect for people as individuals, as well as members of a class or industry. These were the characteristics of Free Cinema. Our films were Humanist, not sentimental. You could feel the inevitable thrust towards drams, towards the feature film.

Richardson went on to win glory and Oscars with his film versions of Saturday Night and Sunday Mornnng and Tom Jones; Reisz was the producer, and he went onto direct Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, Isadora and The Gambler; while Anderson directed This Sporting Life, and then, in collaboration with writer David Sherwin, he made 3 of the most important and seminal films of late 20th century British cinema - If…, O, Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital, which was the last Free Cinema film.

Originally broadcast in 1985, this is Lindsay Anderson’s personal essay on Free Cinema and its influence British film making. Almost thirty years later, the documentary form developed by Anderson and co. has been taken over by television - from award-winning fly-on-the wall series like The Family (1974), to the bastard child of Reality TV. While technology, for better or worse, has made film-makers of anyone who owns a smart ‘phone. Anderson is clear, succinct and an excellent guide to the small film group that changed the British film cinema for the better.
 

 

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Hit the North: Lindsay Anderson’s ‘The White Bus’, 1967

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The year before he made If…, Lindsay Anderson produced and directed The White Bus, a short film adapted by Shelagh Delaney, from her short story “Sweetly Sings the Donkey”.

The White Bus was originally commissioned as one third of a three-part film RED, WHITE & ZERO, to be directed by Anderson and his “Free Cinema” collaborators, Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz. It proved an ill-fated project, and The White Bus was the only part to be finished and given a cinematic release.

Delaney was best known for her play A Taste of Honey, while Anderson had established himself as critic and as a documentary film maker, winning an Oscar for one of his first films, Thursday’s Children in 1954. Anderson was also Britain’s leading theater director.

In 1963, Anderson directed This Sporting Life, starring Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts, and based on a novel by David Storey.

Writers were important to Anderson, and he formed highly successful collaborations with a handful of playwrights and authors. In theater,his work with David Storey produced the acclaimed dramas In Celebration, Home, The Changing Room and Life Class. While his collaboration with David Sherwin led to the Mick Travis trilogy, If…, O, Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital.

The White Bus has many of the hallmarks of Anderson’s later films (most notably O, Lucky Man! ), and suggests that the teamwork of Anderson-Delaney could have led to greater works. One can only wonder how Delaney’s film, Charlie Bubbles would have turned out if Anderson had directed it.

The White Bus stars Patricia Healey, and features Arthur Lowe, Anthony Hopkins, and is the story of a young woman numbed by London life, who returns to Salford in search of her northern roots.

Through the eyes of her disillusioned protagonist, Delaney creates a beautifully warped city symphony about an industrial town vivid with history yet ever-changing.

 

 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment