O Lindsay!

The name of film director Lindsay Anderson came upon my radar due to his film This Sporting Life, which starred Richard Harris as the tough and uncompromising rugby league player Frank Machin and Rachel Roberts, as his landlady.  It’s fair to say Anderson’s style made quite an impression on me in my formative film viewing days.

He was a visionary film director who has left an indelible mark on British cinema. A maverick with a unique and uncompromising artistic vision, Anderson challenged the conventions of storytelling, pushing boundaries and provoking thought. Throughout his career, he tackled social issues and explored the human condition, all showcased in his own unique directorial style. 

Born on April 17, 1923, in Bangalore, India, Lindsay Gordon Anderson grew up in a family of Scottish descent. Those formative years out in India exposed him to a diverse range of cultures and shaped his world view. Anderson’s passion for theatre and film blossomed during his studies at, first, Cheltenham College and later at Oxford University. He became deeply influenced by the works of playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht and Anton Chekhov, as well as the neo-realist films of directors like Vittorio De Sica, with these influences later finding their way into Anderson’s own filmmaking style.

In the 1950s, he emerged as a prominent figure in the British film industry, notably as one of the founders of the Free Cinema movement, who were funded by the British Film Institute. This collective aimed to challenge the prevailing commercialism in British cinema and create a platform for personal and independent filmmaking. He, alongside fellow filmmakers Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, sought to capture the raw realities of working-class life in their documentaries.

His most renowned contribution to the movement was his 1953 film O Dreamland. Through his unflinching camera lens, he explored the seaside resort of Margate, capturing both the mundane and the surreal, revealing the contrasts within society and sparked a new wave of creativity and paved the way for the British New Wave in the 1960s.

He also wrote articles for Sight and Sound, the magazine of the BFI and his piece from 1957 called ‘Stand Up, Stand Up’ which called for more political commitment in UK cinema, has been called the single most influential work of British film criticism ever.

His breakthrough came with the aforementioned 1963 film This Sporting Life . Richard Harris as Frank Machin turned in a career-defining performance, as the film delved into the gritty and often brutal world of rugby league. Anderson’s direction showcased his penchant for social realism, capturing that brutality, plus the despair of the working-class protagonist. The film earned him some critical acclaim, though it did poorly at the box office. But it marked Anderson’s ascent as a prominent director, and in truth he was never overly concerned with commercial success.

He went on to direct a few notable films that showcased his artistic prowess. If….  in 1968 was a scathing critique of British public school life and coincidentally, captured the prevailing ‘vive la revolution’ fever that was in the air in that particular year. Starring Malcolm McDowell as Mick Travis, it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and solidified Anderson’s reputation. O Lucky Man!  from 1973 and later the frankly strange Britannia Hospital in 1982, further demonstrated his biting satire and commentary on contemporary society.

His overall impact extended beyond his film directorial work and he served as the director of the Royal Court Theatre, nurturing emerging talent and pushing boundaries in the UK theatre world.

Lindsay Anderson’s films dared to be different and invited audiences to question the status quo and confront uncomfortable truths. His distinct directorial style focused on social issues, and that exploration of the human condition left an indelible mark on British cinema. He was a true maverick in every sense of the word, unafraid to challenge conventions and bring thought-provoking narratives to the screen.

As might be suspected, his personal reputation was one of being somewhat ‘prickly’ and this resulted in many battles in the filmmaking world, which resulted in him not making as many films as perhaps he should, as he succinctly declared in 1990.

‘I don’t exist anymore as a British film-maker. I have never had a nomination, not that I give a damn, from the British Film Academy. That is perfectly ok because I know what I do is not to the English taste – fuck ’em.’ 

Lindsay Anderson died in 1994, in Angouleme, France aged 71.


The Mumper of SE5

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