Memories of Lindsay Anderson

Alan Bennett

At the drabber moments of my life (swilling some excrement from the area steps, for instance, or rooting with a bent coat-hanger down a blocked sink) thoughts occur like ‘I bet Tom Stoppard doesn’t have to do this’ or ‘There is no doubt David Hare would have deputed this to an underling.’

So I was happy to read in Gavin Lambert’s Mainly about Lindsay Anderson[*] that Lindsay harboured similar thoughts about such self-imposed menialities. On the eve of filming O Lucky Man Lindsay has his ailing mother to stay in his flat in Swiss Cottage. Before she arrives he cleans up the kitchen and bathroom and is just tackling the fireplace in his mother’s room when the doorbell rings and it’s the studio driver.

He confides to his diary:

Thinks: at 48, turning 49, this leading British director on his knees at a dirty grate with a plastic bucket and detergent. Possibly from the outside this looks admirably humble and determinedly individual. To me it feels just a desperate rearguard action. Nobody realises what a mess of loneliness and inadequacy I am inside.

The last sentence apart, those are my sentiments exactly.

I worked with Lindsay only once, when he directed my TV play The Old Crowd for LWT in 1978, some account of which I gave (and Lindsay gave too) in the published version of the play. I hadn’t realised why my script should so readily have appealed to him until I read Lambert’s quote from Lindsay’s contribution to Declaration, an anthology of protest pieces by the so-called Angry Young Men.

Coming back to Britain is, in many respects, like going back to the nursery. The outside world, the dangerous world, is shut away; its sounds muffled. Cretonne curtains are drawn, with a pretty pattern on them of the Queen and her fairytale Prince, riding to Westminster in a golden coach. Nanny lights the fire and sits herself down with a nice cup of tea and yesterday’s Daily Express, but she keeps half an eye on us too, as we bring out our trophies from abroad, the books and pictures we have managed to get past the customs. (Nanny has a pair of scissors handy, to cut out anything it wouldn’t be right for children to see.) The clock ticks on. The servants are all downstairs, watching TV. Mummy and Daddy have gone to the new Noël Coward at the Globe. Sometimes there is a bang from the street outside – backfire, says Nanny. Sometimes there’s a scream from the cellar – Nanny’s lips tighten, but she doesn’t say anything ... Is it to be wondered at that, from time to time, a window is found open, and the family is diminished by one? We hear of him later sometimes, living in a penthouse in New York, or a dacha near Moscow.

This was written in 1958 but when, 20 years later, I worked with Lindsay it was still his view of England, down to the bang in the street outside and the open window, both of which he inserted into the original draft of The Old Crowd.

As soon as we started working on the script it was plain that Lindsay needed a villain. In feature films and for understandable reasons this role was generally played by the producer or ‘the money’ but there were often lesser villains, too, closer at hand and almost haphazardly decided on: for instance, a costume designer and more often a woman than a man. Sometimes, unforgivably (though she forgave him), it was his frequent collaborator, the designer Jocelyn Herbert. The nominal producer of The Old Crowd was Stephen Frears, but in real terms it was LWT and its then head of programmes, Michael Grade. Used as I was to the BBC and to my regular producer, Innes Lloyd, I found LWT entirely well-meaning but awkward to work with only because it wasn’t an organisation geared to producing drama. Michael Grade, though, was unwavering in his support and when Lindsay fell behind on the shooting schedule Grade sanctioned extension after extension; when the studio finally broke it was half past three in the morning.

Inured to the duplicity and stubbornness of the front office, Lindsay, I think, found these accommodations a bit of a disappointment. Cartooned, he would be Old Mother Riley, rolling up her sleeves and with an elaborate display of pugilistics squaring up to an entirely imaginary opponent.

In his films, too, Lindsay believed in confrontation, fetching an audience up short, shocking them into recognition. In Is That All There Is?, a TV film that turned out to be virtually an obituary, he intercuts newsreel shots of starving Somalian children with supermarket shelves and shopping carts laden with food. It’s possible Lindsay wanted to chastise his audience, in which case such juxtapositions are permissible if clichéd. But if his intention was to make an audience think or to touch its conscience the technique is just too crude and more likely to elicit groans than guilt.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] Thomas Jones writes about the book and about Lindsay Anderson’s films on page 19.

[†] When, according to Ms J. Diski, writing in the last issue of the LRB, there was ‘copious fucking’.