Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 2000

Mainly About Lindsay Anderson: A Memoir, by Gavin Lambert

reviewed by Ted McFadyen

Lindsay Anderson was a rebel, a natural dissenter. And like many such, his background was impeccably establishment and upper middle class. A gifted film-maker, he reacted vigorously and eloquently against the stuffy, hidebound British cinema of the 1950s, articulating his ideas in the film magazine Sequence, which he edited with his friend and collaborator, Gavin Lambert. Later, when he moved into the theatre world, he championed and directed the plays of avant-garde dramatists such as David Storey and Joe Orton.

The life and work of this complex and talented man is chronicled here, with a certain robust affection, by Gavin Lambert, who himself made no small contribution to the cultural framework of his time, especially in the Hollywood Quartet series of novels and his screenplays, such as his adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone.

But the fact that Gavin Lambert decided to write this biography is especially fortuitous. For they both shared a homosexual orientation, but in radically different ways. Lindsay Anderson was not, sad to say, a happy homosexual; in fact he was tortured throughout his life by repression, anxiety and guilt. It didn’t help that the objects of his infatuations were invariably heterosexual happily-married young men. Gavin Lambert, on the other hand, had no difficulty at all in being gay; his life (he is now in his 70s) seems to have been a relatively smooth series of fulfilling and regarding relationships. One of these, about which he writes candidly, was with the prestigious Hollywood director Nicholas Ray. But this difference in attitude to their orientation means that Lambert can write about his subject with a rare insight.

From initially writing about films, Lindsay Anderson turned to making them, starting with a series of documentaries (still remembered today by film buffs), including such miniature masterpieces as Every Day Except Christmas (about the Covent Garden market), O Dreamland and Thursday’s Children. Shortly after this he was one of six directors who made the 1956 documentary March to Aldermaston, on which he supervised the editing and wrote the commentary. (A personal note: I remember going to see this film with a group of friends, and we were all so moved and enthralled by it that we resolved to go on the next Aldermaston Ban the Bomb march, which we did – and several others after that. Such is the power of art.)

Probably Anderson’s best-known full-length film is If..., a surrealist schooldays fantasy which he filmed at his own alma mater, Cheltenham College. This was a deeply subversive work, vividly expressing his feelings about upper-class privilege, culminating in the violently revolutionary and utterly electrifying scene in which the young Malcolm McDowell and his chums machine-gun the church and army dignitaries assembled for the school Founders Day ceremony. It was no accident that the film was made in 1968, the year which saw students’ and workers’ revolutions breaking out in Paris, Berlin and Rome – even London saw some disturbances.

His next major film was This Sporting Life, based on the novel by David Storey. Anderson responded at once to the north-country gritty realism of the novel, narrated in a series of memory flashbacks by a rugby footballer. David Storey was part of the 1960s movement, in film but more especially in the theatre, which aimed to move the cultural focus away from the south, with what were seen as its trivial, middle-class values, to the north and the midlands where people lived “real” lives.

David Storey then turned his attention to writing plays, and found his natural home, hardly surprisingly, at London’s Royal Court Theatre, where George Devine led a group of talented young directors and actors fiercely committed to the “new” type of theatre. The first of Storey’s plays, In Celebration, opened in 1969 with Lindsay Anderson directing, and this laid the framework for a highly successful working relationship between the two men. Gavin Lambert took the view that “writer and director had contracted a perfect marriage”.

The next Storey play was The Contractor, an “occupational” play in which workmen erect a tent and then dismantle it. This was swiftly followed by The Changing Room, in which David Storey used his own sporting background as a professional rugby player. (When asked what she thought of the male nudity in The Changing Room, Dame Sybil Thorndike is said to have replied, with admirable sang-froid, “Oh, I don’t mind if they want to wave their little bits and pieces about.”)

David Storey’s and Lindsay Anderson’s next collaborative effort was in Home, a departure from Storey’s style in that it chose to deal with a group of old people in a mental home. It is quietly contemplative; nothing very much happens. The Royal Court production was especially memorable for the performances of John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson; the critic Keith Dewhurst wrote at the time: “When we watch Gielgud and Richardson there is something fabulous and extra-theatrical about it, something sad and majestic and frail, like the Indian summer of great athletes.”

Lindsay Anderson died in 1994; his humanism was explicit in his values and his work. In his diaries he wrote: “If you want a continuity of theme, I think this is the one: a mistrust of institutions and an anarchistic belief in the importance of the individual to make his or her decisions about life – rather than simply to accept tradition and the institutional philosophy.”

This book is more than an informed and absorbing study of a crucial period of artistic development in this country; it is also the story of a lasting and affectionate friendship between the writer and his subject. It is a remarkable achievement.

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Created : Sunday, 2000-09-03 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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