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.

Lindsay thought more subtle approaches were timid (and, of course, ‘English’). At the start of my career I might have agreed, but even when I was in Beyond the Fringe (which I’m sure he didn’t much care for) it seemed to me that laughter had to come into the equation. And however manfully Gavin Lambert defends him, it very seldom did: so much of Britannia Hospital, for instance, just isn’t funny.

One reason Lindsay persistently underestimated the sophistication of his audience was that he didn’t watch much television. He never appreciated the regular diet of not always mild subversion and social criticism that was still the staple of television drama; police brutality or municipal corruption were taken for granted by a TV audience (or were certainly nothing fresh) so they were not easy to shock as Lindsay wanted to shock them. But it wasn’t because they were jaded, just more discriminating than he gave them credit for. He thought he was saying something bold and new in Britannia Hospital but even in 1982 he wasn’t – not in England anyway. One of his Polish friends said: ‘It’s the best Polish film I’ve seen in a long time.’

Of course his films provoked and when Britannia Hospital was shown at the Cannes Festival during the Falklands War the British delegation staged a walk-out. But quite over what it would be hard to say. There’s a scene in the film where, during a strike of hospital workers, an ambulance is allowed through the picket lines but hospital porters insist on taking their tea break at that point, thus condemning the patient to die in the lobby. ‘Oh it couldn’t happen,’ one is meant to say (and some critics no doubt did say). But Lindsay could show you chapter and verse in a news item culled by his scriptwriter, David Sherwin.

Still, that wasn’t quite the point. One felt bullied, lectured, remonstrated with, as I’m sure some people felt bullied by the (altogether sillier) Old Crowd. And had Lindsay been lecturing and bullying on behalf of the poor and underprivileged some critics would have given him credit for that, as they give credit to Ken Loach. But in Lindsay’s view class wasn’t the issue but humanity in general.

He affected to despise the press, whatever its complexion, his daily paper generally the Telegraph. But, as Tony Richardson said, ‘he was a sublime and sometimes pugnacious publicist’ and could never resist an interview or an opportunity to sound off, particularly when common sense dictated otherwise. During The Old Crowd, for instance, he was shadowed by Tom Sutcliffe of the Guardian, to whom he held forth on what he saw as the significance of the piece and the shortcomings of television. One article in the lead-up to the showing was entitled ‘The Master at Work’. Had I been a disinterested reader it would certainly have put my back up; as it was, it just filled me with foreboding. Of course, Dennis Potter did the same but he was more skilful at it than Lindsay. So after the pretentious pre-publicity the howls of outrage that greeted The Old Crowd were predictable, though Lindsay wasn’t at all contrite, blaming affronted national pride: ‘The English like to think they like to laugh at themselves. This may have been true once when there was no apprehension that the Sun might one day Set. But it is not true today. The good ship Britannia is waterlogged in a shark-infested sea. Don’t rock the boat’.

I think now, as I thought then, that this was well over the top, even though the play had the bad luck to be screened during the so-called winter of discontent. Still, it was a much better piece than was generally allowed (Clive James and Richard Ingrams making particular fools of themselves) but it wasn’t what viewers had come to expect from me and so was unfamiliar, or too unfamiliar anyway, a little unfamiliarity often an ingredient of success at any rate with critics, as it enables them to buff up on their role as guides to the less discerning public.

None of this, though, takes into account his sheer fun and his pleasure in (and exasperation with) actors. In The Old Crowd the middle-class couple are determined to hold their house-warming party, come what may. Their furniture has been delayed in transit so dinner has to be eaten off an old trestle table. Without warning the actors, Lindsay had the table jacked up 18 inches on the actual take so that Rachel Roberts, Jill Bennett and Co found themselves trying to behave normally although the dining-table was practically under their chins.

On the other hand, as with the Royal Family, it did have to be his fun. He had no time for the occasional giggles and private jokes that occur when a group of actors are working together for any length of time. Then he was the schoolmaster, once even clambering onto the stage during a performance to stop some silliness of which he disapproved.

Lambert’s book is a memoir of Lindsay, not a full-scale biography, and doesn’t, for instance, go into Lindsay’s finances. I have always understood that he enjoyed an income from one of his aunts, a Miss Bell of Bell’s Whisky (and I sometimes bought it on that account). Certainly there must have been money beyond what he earned in films and the theatre, which (certainly in today’s terms) amounted to very little. Not that he enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle. His flat was comfortable but plain, overcrowded and shabby. He wasn’t interested in clothes or possessions and meals out consisted in popping down the road to the Cosmo on the Finchley Road. ‘This is good,’ Lindsay would say, tucking into some leathery veal. ‘Nothing fancy about it’.

Where the money went was on supporting a resident cast of lame ducks. Sandy, his schizophrenic nephew; Patsy Healey, who had acted in his short film The White Bus and been depressed ever since. There was his mother and, for a while, his brother’s wife, and he was always on call to counsel and very often to subsidise needy friends and actors who had lost their way. I have had some credit because I gave room in my garden to one social inadequate. Lindsay played host to half a dozen with no credit at all, nor, I imagine, much thanks. And he made nothing of it. He was a good, compassionate man presenting to the public a face that was scornful and reproving and hungry for publicity while doing untold acts of private goodness. And if this shows nothing else it proves he can’t have much liked being alone, as he seldom was – how he worked on his scripts in the middle of such domestic chaos is a mystery.

‘I imagine,’ I begin, but ‘I imagine’, ‘I suppose’, ‘possibly’, ‘slightly’ and the kind of qualification that peppers (or unpeppers) everything I write Lindsay would want struck out. Bold, clear statement was his chosen mode, which perhaps (sic) explains his failure with Chekhov; Lindsay’s preferred ending to Three Sisters: ‘We’re going to Moscow and there’s no perhaps about it!’

Still, David Storey’s Home is nothing if not tentative and he did that superbly. Home is so nebulous on the page that at the time I couldn’t see how Gielgud in particular would ever manage to learn the lines (or the half lines). But it was a wonderful production, as were all Lindsay’s collaborations with Storey, Home, The Contractor, The Changing Room and Life Class still not accorded their due; though the ease with which Storey seemed to write his plays filled me at the time, I remember, with envy and despair.

As he disliked tentativeness and ambiguity so Lindsay also had no time for irony, which he saw as compromise, a means of having it both ways and thus dear to the English heart. And maybe we do overdose on it, but with more irony (or even some) Britannia Hospital would have seemed less crass and been easier to swallow. (A voice from a French lakeside: ‘But, my dear Alan, why should it be easy to swallow? I didn’t want it to be “easy to swallow” as you put it.’)

There are odd surprises in Lambert’s book. That Lindsay should have had a stab at transcendental meditation and even been given a mantra is understandable because it was done to please Frank Grimes, whom he loved, but that he not only experimented with but appears to have relied on the I Ching seems unlike the man I knew.

Lambert reveals that at Oxford he himself had a fling with Peter Brook whom I had thought a model of heterosexuality but who seduced Lambert via a silk dressing-gown and Chopin nocturnes on the gramophone. It’s something to be remembered nowadays when the sage of dthe modern theatre is taking himself too seriously (i.e. quite often), though one can see how turning his back on such fripperies might lead, as with Wittgenstein, to a life of punishing rigour ending up, as it did with Brook and the Mahabharata, literally in the desert. Lambert also reminds us that Barbara Cartland, that calcified gay icon (and dead this very day), did not in the 1950s think pink, and in between writing one novel per fortnight, found time to be a harrier of deviants or, as she called them, ‘ghouls of perverted sex’.

Lambert was urged to write this book by Jocelyn Herbert and Anthony Page, even though he misdates Page’s production of Ben Travers’s A Cuckoo in the Nest to 1974 and calls it a success. It was actually done in 1964 and a disaster. I know as I acted in it, lured by the distinction of a cast that included Beatrix Lehmann, Arthur Lowe, Nicol Williamson and John Osborne. Nicol Williamson, who played the lead, was no farceur and seldom wrung a laugh from the audience, whom he chose to intimidate rather than entertain. Very shaky on the words he would pause lengthily, snarl ‘Yes?’ and stare malevolently at the stalls until the prompt came.

I suppose Lindsay must have seen it (Arthur Lowe was one of his favourite actors) but it would have been with a good deal of heavy sighing, looks of despair to his neighbours and even groans, a visit to the theatre with Lindsay generally something of a pantomime.

In the light of Lindsay’s unrequited affections I wanted to know if he liked the look of himself. Lambert doesn’t say, though it’s probably in Lindsay’s diary from which he only sparingly quotes. I would guess that he didn’t, and so not expecting anyone else to either. The great loves of his life map out his career: Richard Harris (This Sporting Life), Albert Finney (Billy Liar), Malcolm McDowell (If ...) and Frank Grimes. None of them seems to have come across (if that, indeed, was what he wanted). They were all incorrigibly male and not all were over-blessed with imagination. Frank Grimes, around whom Lindsay built much of his later life and career, seems to have put these attentions down entirely to his perceived abilities. It was quite late in the day that he asked David Storey, ‘very disingenuously’ in Storey’s opinion, if he thought Lindsay was homosexual.

Reading this, to me, overwhelmingly sad memoir, I was grateful for Gavin Lambert’s parallel (and much happier) experiences which thread through it. Without them the frustrations of Lindsay’s life would have been unbearable to read. He was like Rattigan’s schoolmaster Crocker-Harris, armoured against feeling and taken to be so by many of his associates but underneath emotionally raw and a lifetime romantic, ‘Can this be love?’ a recurring question. He never seems to have become inured to passion or grown a thicker skin, his last love for Grimes as strong and compulsive (and futile) as his first for Serge Reggiani. Love, as he said to himself, was not feasible. Sex might have made it easier, but there’s some doubt if there was much of that. The theatre ought to have made it easier, too. It’s a good production in my experience when people start to fall for one another, director included, but Lindsay tended to fall in love first then do the film or play afterwards, which is rather different.

The fact that all the men Lindsay fell for were straight should have been less of a problem in the supposedly permissive 1960s, and 1970s,[†] but it would have been a remarkable young man who could have got past the sarcasm and the banter and the picking you up on every word to dare to lay a hand on him. A remarkable young man or, of course, rent, which was still possible in the 1970s and, pre-Aids and pre-Murdoch, quite safe, prostitution still a respectable profession and not, as it became in the 1980s, a subsidiary of tabloid journalism. But with Lindsay such an inveterate romantic it was no more feasible than love, though one could write the scene – his pretended indifference and verbal sparring met with professional incomprehension, his reserve gradually breaking down as the master becomes pupil.

That was one way his life might have been better, or at any rate different; the loss of his private income would have been another, if only because the security it offered allowed him to be too choosy. There are theatre and TV directors who do productions on the cab-rank principle, taking whatever turns up next and without making too much of a fuss about it. Lindsay emphatically wasn’t such a director, though some of his later choices, William Douglas Home’s The Kingfisher, for instance, might suggest otherwise. Playwrights, for their part, like to think of their plays as events and, if not looming as large in the lives and careers of their directors as in their own, nevertheless constituting more than just a job of work or a way of bringing home the bacon. The plays and films that Lindsay directed were never just jobs, often, as with the productions of Hamlet that he did with Frank Grimes, they were outcrops of his inner life. Even The Old Crowd he made part of his own story by casting old friends like Rachel Roberts and Jill Bennett, and by expanding the script to give more scope to Frank Grimes – none of which was to its detriment.

Still, it’s hard not to feel that had he been directing in the 1940s, say, or under the studio system in Hollywood, he would have had to make two or three films a year, perhaps one of which might have been good. Instead, so much of his life was spent waiting around for films to be set up, working on futile development deals, with years wasted in the process. Had he been making films in the 1940s, too, they might have been war movies, which he revelled in. Das Boot, the submarine epic, he liked very much (‘no shit about it’), and it was one of the videos that lined the shelves in his flat which he was always ready to take down and play, often with a running commentary. MacArthur’s departure in They Were Expendable I got once after asking what ‘epic’ meant.

He wasn’t magnanimous. He was often unwilling to recognise the talents of others, particularly if they were recognised already, and especially if they were English. But he was always wonderfully, uncompromisingly himself. Gavin Lambert ends this sad, loving book with some afterwords, one of which is from Karel Reisz:

One day a man came up to Lindsay and myself in the street and congratulated us on This Sporting Life. He praised it effusively and called it the most important British film in years etc etc. We thanked him, and then he said, ‘But there’s a scene near the end that I don’t think –’ and got no further. ‘Fuck off!’ Lindsay said, and walked on.

[*] 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’.