England's radical poet

Lindsay Anderson

June 19, 1998

Lindsay Anderson's If... didn't just touch a chord. The effect was like trumpets and the walls of Jericho, so accurate did its picture of public-school life seem to me in early 1969, nine years after I left one myself. But, of course, the film was never remotely documentary in intention. Its pleasure was the way it let the imagination run, powered by a sort of brilliantly authentic schoolboy humour and feeling. It was truthful about "the system" and its frustrations and absurdities. What it depicted related to real-world politics and everyday modern life as one was facing them. But If... was not a Shavian lesson in comfortable analysis. It was essentially open-ended, inconclusive, untidy, delightfully theatrical, in the way live performance by its very nature must be, but films until recently have seldom admitted to being.

Erik Hedling's study of the "maverick film-maker" is totally sympathetic to the theatrical qualities in Anderson's satirical films. Not a large body of work, but Hedling puts the case firmly for its historical importance. The works are the documentary O Dreamland, the short Shelagh Delaney adaptation (The White Bus), the three famous feature films about Mick Travis (If..., O Lucky Man!, and Britannia Hospital), the collaboration with Alan Bennett for television (The Old Crowd), and Anderson's final autobiographical short for television (Is That All There Is?).

The humanity and individuality of Anderson's other work is not in question. There are characteristic elements in This Sporting Life, The Whales of August, In Celebration and Glory! Glory! that are briefly dealt with, as well as in the early documentaries, advertising films and pop videos Anderson made. There are lists of his theatre productions, too - though Hedling is heavily dependent on reviews for hints of what Anderson did in the theatre. Had he seen What the Butler Saw he would have recognised in it the same deadpan absurdism that distinguishes If... - such as the scene of apology to the school chaplain in the drawer in the headmaster's secretaire, the man having been "shot dead" in the previous scene. Anderson's work on David Storey's plays employed an almost documentary purity and directness. But his theatre work had as much "poetic" ambition as his films, "poetic" meaning that which prompted the audience's mind rather than dictated what was to be thought. Whether in theatre or cinema, Anderson wanted an organic engagement between audience and material. So by different means of signifying intention and editing responses did those directors he specially admired, to whom he paid homage, and whom he loved to quote cinematically: Vigo, Renoir, Ford, Bu$uel.

Anderson would have raised an eyebrow or two and curled a lip over Hedling's "film- studies" language. How many times need one use the word Verfremdungseffekt, because Brecht is fashionably, and culturally, OK? Jargon words such as taxonomy, hypertextuality, diegetic, foreground (used as a verb) and intertextuality do not occur in Anderson's own beautifully crisp and clear critical writing. The extent to which live acting performances should admit to having inverted commas round the realistic emotions portrayed is a quite different issue from the audience's inevitable consciousness - when "reading" or seeing a film - that its effects and hyper-naturalism are essentially artificial and enjoyably demonstrative. Film purports to be a realistic visual and human language. But the presence of the camera is usually far more distancing than the hypnotic intensity and close focus of great acting or singing.

Hedling quotes Anderson excoriating the film-studies type of film criticism. But his book is intended for film-studies students who want to contextualise Anderson's work with all sorts of possible (though sometimes vainly remote) sources and influences. Hedling has accurately observed a lot of the detail and wicked wit in Anderson's set-ups. But Hedling's response to Anderson's poetic intentions suffers from the alienation of his not being in the culture for which and out of which Anderson was creating his films. He sometimes identifies as ridiculously absurdist memorably irreverent episodes in If... which are almost documentary.

This is the first study on Anderson to appear since his death four years ago. There is plenty of related material in the pipeline. In October Plexus is publishing a compendium of Anderson's critical writings and a year later Faber and Faber should give us Gavin Lambert's highly personal biographical memoir. Going Mad in Hollywood, the diaries of Anderson's principal collaborator, the scriptwriter David Sherwin, came out in 1996.

Anderson stirred bitter debate throughout his career in the worlds of film and theatre. As Hedling usefully documents, the reception of his film work was characterised in Britain by strong resistance in certain quarters both to his method and to his message. Anderson's poetic and imaginative discursiveness and his ironical humour, Celtic qualities, were considered disorganised, pretentious, imitative and unjustified by his detractors. Because Anderson enjoyed quoting and alluding to great masters there were plenty of critics ready to doubt his originality, or to question whether he was not just giving himself artistic airs by using such means, by being satirical or surrealistic - though the cinema is naturally as blithely derivative as the theatrical culture on which it is based.

Moreover, being the focus and initiator of debate, Anderson presented a moving anarchic target. His politics and taste were non-conformist and personal. His films did not do the job that "England expects" of film-makers. The best of them have internationally acquired a cult brilliance. Only now he is dead can reflected glory from that worldwide reputation start to filter through to a properly balanced assessment of his achievement in his home country. Anderson's films are not slick. But they are marvellously wrought with charm and wit and a fierce, passionate commitment to humanity and truth. Hedling's book certainly provides students with the groundwork.

Tom Sutcliffe, opera critic of the Evening Standard, is editing the correspondence of Lindsay Anderson.

Lindsay Anderson: Maverick Film-Maker

Author - Erik Hedling
ISBN - 0 304 33606 8 and 33605 X
Publisher - Cassell
Price - £45.00 and £16.99
Pages - 246

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