Mockney Rebels

Thomas Jones

  • Mainly about Linsay Anderson by Gavin Lambert
    Faber, 302 pp, £18.99, May 2000, ISBN 0 571 17775 1

In 1793, the scholars of Winchester College revolted, in response to the cancellation of an Easter holiday. They barricaded themselves inside the College quadrangle and, having armed themselves with stolen pistols and stones removed from the buildings, took to the rooftops, where they hoisted the red cap of liberty and bombarded the soldiers who came to put a stop to the rebellion. The authorities finally got them to surrender with some false diplomacy, and the net result was 35 expulsions. Today, the school is quite proud of the ‘Great Rebellion’: the English establishment thrives on tricks of this kind – witness the Shelley memorial at University College, Oxford. The first time I saw If ..., Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 fable of public school rebellion, was at a screening organised by Winchester College’s film society.

One of the documentaries Anderson made in the early 1950s was called Wakefield Express, about the local newspaper which commissioned it. The film derives its structure from the production schedule of the Express, beginning with scenes of a reporter gathering news and ending with footage of the paper being delivered to doorsteps: ‘The paper is out, to show Wakefield its own face’ – the face that has been shown in the course of the film. By and large, it’s a wholesome face, as might be expected from what is essentially an extended advertisement for a local paper (and it’s an unusual paper that runs down its own constituency); even so, Anderson sneaks in a few subversive, or at least thought-provoking, shots – the bodies of rugby players in their after-match bath; the unstifled yawn of a little girl during Pontefract’s coronation parade – that anticipate motifs and ideas in his later work. One of the pleasures of watching Wakefield Express comes from the fact that Anderson couldn’t introduce themes such as homosexuality or republicanism explicitly, but was obliged to hint at them with uncharacteristic obliqueness.

Despite this difference in approach between the later features and the sponsored documentaries of the 1950s (Every Day except Christmas, for example, about Covent Garden market, was paid for by the Ford Motor Company, who stipulated that Anderson wasn’t to show any General Motors lorries), the tension between working for the establishment and resisting it is always present in Anderson’s work; and Anderson himself exemplifies that tension. He was born in Bangalore in 1923, the son of a British Army captain, and sent to Cheltenham College, a public school with close military connections, where he became senior prefect in his house. In 1941 he won a scholarship to Wadham College, Oxford, to read classics; he spent the last year of the war in the Intelligence Corps, working at the Wireless Experimental Centre in Delhi. A child of Empire, then, and beneficiary of all the privileges bestowed by an élite education; his family was wealthy, his mother a South African scion of wool and whisky. But then there was the undertow: his resistance to authority, his sense of not belonging, his homosexuality. Gavin Lambert, a longstanding friend of Anderson’s – they were at Cheltenham together – tells the story of Anderson at his preparatory school writing on a classroom noticeboard ‘I REBEL’.

Lambert quotes Helen Mirren as saying that ‘conservatism was the flip side of Lindsay the rebel – and for a rebel, conservatism becomes an act of rebellion.’ That’s a neat way to resolve the contradiction, but why resolve it at all? A highly polished product of a system he despised, Anderson embodied what he rebelled against. To that extent he was rebelling against himself.

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