Many of my regular readers I know are devotees of the TV channel ‘Talking Pictures.’ It is choc full of old films and documentaries, some of which, when even a bit pony, are still watchable on other levels, i.e. shots of old streets, car, fashions etc.
I caught a documentary on there recently called ‘Terminus.’ I remember reading about, even though I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen it in its entirety before. It was a wonder to behold, beautifully constructed and shot and I was interested to see the name of film director John Schlesinger on the credits, finding out later this was only his second film.
Schlesinger of course went on to make seminal 1960s classic films, such as ‘Billy Liar’ ‘Darling’ and ‘Midnight Cowboy’, and more of those shortly. When I considered that body of work, he soon became an obvious candidate for an AGC Blog.
He was born, John Richard Schlesinger in Hampstead in 1926, coming from good solid middle class Jewish stock, son of Bernard, a physician, and his wife Winifred.
John received his first cine camera aged 11 and made films all through his public school days.
He served in the Second World War with the Royal Engineers, making films whilst on the front line of the action. However, after being taken ill out there, he was transferred to an entertainment unit and did a turn as a magician whilst still in the army.
Upon leaving the services he went on to study English Literature at Oxford, where he soon joins its dramatic society. He also continued to experiment with his now 16 mm cine camera, with filmmaking a real passion by this stage.
Upon leaving the University in the early 1950s, he picked up a succession of acting roles in small British films and TV shows before realising, perhaps he had a better chance of success behind the camera.
He directed a short documentary called ‘Sunday in the Park’ which looked at the day-to-day life in London’s Hyde Park and he then had the call to direct films for the ‘Monitor’ series, under the stewardship of Huw Weldon.
First off the blocks, was ‘Terminus’ in 1961, which I mentioned earlier. The film documents the comings and goings at Waterloo railway station, in a ‘fly on the wall’ style. With lost kids, prisoners being transported to jail and old ladies on the wrong platforms, it is a fascinating snap shot of that era. It later transpired that some of it was ‘staged’ with actors and friends of the director ‘playing’ the parts, but frankly who cares? It still looks fantastic and its no surprise to your correspondent that it picked up a Bafta and the ‘Golden Lion’ at the Venice Film Festival, its highest award.
The acclaim the film received, meant doors then opened for Schlesinger to move into the world of feature films and in 1962 he directed ‘A Kind of Loving’ starring Alan Bates and June Ritchie, which was based on the Stan Barstow novel of the same name from 1960. It is one of the first British New Wave School of films and in it, Bates sleeps with Ritchie and she becomes pregnant, considered scandalous in those times.
They marry, though Bates heart truthfully isn’t in it. The couple live with her domineering mother, played by Thora Hird and it is a disaster from the start. Ritchie then has a miscarriage. The couple consider making he best of it with ‘A Kind of Loving.’ It become a box office hit in the UK and set Bates on his way to film stardom.
Next up, ‘Billy Liar’ from 1963, featuring Tom Courtenay as Billy Fisher caught between two women as he lives out his life in a fantasy world. Each woman has been given the same engagement ring and Billy spends most of his time dodging between the two praying they never meet. And then, Julie Christie turns up as ‘Liz’ (said to be based on the female pop artist Pauline Boty) and she asks him to go to London with her (and we find ourselves pleading for him to go)
He basically ‘bottles’ it and remains to stay in his land of make believe.
1965 sees the film ‘Darling’ released, once again starring Julie Christie, this time in a leading role. She plays Diana Scott who is very much on the up and on the make. Co-starring Dirk Bogarde and Laurence Harvey, it examines the often shallow world of the swinging ‘60s. It won Christie the Best Actress Oscar and picked up many other award nominations at the Golden Globes and Baftas.
Christie and Schlesinger team up again for ‘Far From the Madding Crowd. ‘ This 1967 film also stars Terence Stamp, Peter Finch and Alan Bates in an adaptation of the Thomas Hardy’s novel. The legendary Nic Roeg was the cinematographer as the two main leads attract and ‘Terry Meets Julie every Friday night’ is born….
Schlesinger then leaves Britain behind to make his first international film, and what a film it is. ‘Midnight Cowboy’ from 1969, starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight as two street hustlers operating in the seedy underbelly of New York. It is a tremendous film with a great score by John Barry and it went on to win the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director and deservedly so.
1971 sees Schlesinger return to the UK to make the controversial ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday.’ Murray Head portrays a bisexual who is having a relationship with Glenda Jackson one week and Peter Finch the next with both being aware of the other, among the stifling Hampstead middle classes.
Other major work includes ‘Marathon Man in 1976 starring Dustin Hoffman, Roy Schneider and Sir Laurence Olivier as an ex Nazi war criminal trying to retrieve stolen diamonds in this thriller in which the line ‘is it safe’ and the dental scene have become a cinema legend.
Johns Schlesinger went on to make other well-received films such as ‘Yanks’ in 1979 and ‘Honky Tonk Freeway’ in 1981 as well as continuing to work over the years in theatre, the opera world and TV. ‘I couldn’t bear the idea of not working’ he said.
He was awarded a CBE in 1970 and died in Palm Springs in 2003 aged 77
The Mumper of SE5