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.

Privilege and a conscience can be uneasy bedfellows (though preferable to privilege without a conscience). They may give rise to dislocated feelings of guilt, which can lead to a perverse envy of the deprived – how lucky they are to be free of these feelings of guilt – or a conviction that privilege is, in fact, a form of deprivation, particularly deprivation of ‘real life’. In If ..., the walls of Mick Travis’s study are covered in pictures cut out of magazines, images of naked women but also representations of death in the Third World: starving children, soldiers in Africa, a man pleading for his life beside a car in which a woman has been shot dead. At one point, Travis, played by Malcolm McDowell, passing the vodka to his friends, Johnny and Wallace (David Wood and Richard Warwick), asks: ‘When do we live? That’s what I want to know.’ Elsewhere in the film, when the three of them are fencing together, playing at fighting, Travis gets cut on the hand, and is fascinated by his own blood. ‘Look,’ he says: ‘real blood’ – further evidence that the boys’ experience is predominantly vicarious.

Lambert seems quite happy to have disengaged from these anxieties about ‘real’ life, escaping England and moving to Hollywood at the first opportunity. His understanding of the political issues that enraged Anderson is sketchy: he calls the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston (as it then was; it’s now dropped the reference to research) ‘Britain’s largest nuclear power station’. For Lambert, life imitates art: the main street in Tangier is compared to ‘an exterior set for a 1930s French movie with Jean Gabin’.

Cinema is an obvious metaphor for surrogate experience, not only the audience’s but also that of a character following someone else’s script, constrained by it in the same way that individuals are constrained by social conventions. In a discussion of If ... Anderson told Claude Delmas of Jeune Cinéma that for him, ‘the essential problem today is that of the relation between the individual and the technological society ... capitalist-communist problems are ... out of date.’ In O Dreamland (1953), a ten-minute short about the amusement park in Margate, Anderson draws obvious parallels between the punters and the mechanical puppets and caged animals that serve as their entertainment – and we’re watching them watching the puppets.

Much fun is made in If ... of the anachronistic traditions of the school, and by extension their equivalents throughout English society. ‘Run in the corridor,’ Rowntree, the head of house, shouts at the juniors. ‘Run in the corridor!’ The ‘whips’ are styled to look decidedly Victorian, with their elaborate waistcoats, and haircuts and sideburns more Sergeant Cuff than Sergeant Pepper. The boys are expected to accept without question the absurd and often cruel practices of the institution, as well as its informal traditions: when one of the juniors is stripped of his trousers and tied upside down with his head in a toilet bowl, he is being subjected to a ritual every bit as established as the Founder’s Day ceremony or an interhouse rugby match (‘Kill!’ the matron shouts from the sidelines: ‘Kill, College!’). What happens in the course of If ... is that Mick Travis realises he doesn’t need to follow the script any longer; he can write his own. Or maybe there’s a new script overlaying the old one, but only Travis and his friends are following it.

Throughout his work, Anderson shows an interest in the mechanics of production. A fair chunk of Wakefield Express is taken up with the way the newspaper as an object is created; in The Old Crowd (1978), the film crew repeatedly appears in the frame; and If ...’s self-consciousness of its status as a film is put to intelligent (rather than merely clever) use. There is no attempt at naturalism, and the narrative slips between ‘reality’ and ‘fantasy’ so seamlessly that it is impossible to distinguish between them. In fact, it makes little sense to talk about ‘fantasy’ and ‘reality’ when all in the film is, in the only real sense, fantasy, but there is the question of whose fantasy it is – and as If ... proceeds, it becomes Travis’s. In an early sequence, Travis and Johnny go into town, steal a motorbike and ride out into the country. They stop at a roadside café, where Travis has sex with an anonymous girl, played by Christine Noonan, who is a touchstone for Travis’s fantasy, appearing when he is controlling the script (it’s all very 1960s in a slightly embarrassing, hippy sort of way), a latter-day Marianne, inspiring the overthrow of the old order. At first she is present only when the boys have escaped from school for the day; then, looking through another pupil’s telescope from their dormitory one night, Travis sees her in a window; finally, she appears from nowhere when the boys are clearing out the cellar (a progressive form of punishment from the superficially progressive headmaster) and joins Travis and his friends on the roof-tops for the closing sequence, as they turn machine-guns on the representatives of the establishment, school, church and army, who have gathered to celebrate Founder’s Day.

If ... wasn’t the first film in which Anderson explored the idea of a character challenging the notion of reality as others conceive it: Frank Machin in This Sporting Life (1963) tries (and ultimately fails) to wrest control of his destiny from the forces of the establishment. At one point, in the dressing-room after a rugby match, Machin has a hosepipe turned on him as a joke. His immediate response is to cringe under the icy water, but then he decides to pretend to enjoy it instead. And since reality in the film is, ultimately, pretence, his pretending makes the enjoyment real. At the end of The White Bus (1967), the heroine walks away from the other passengers, who have turned into mannequins, as if she has dissociated herself from their artificial existence. It’s not so much that they have turned into mannequins, as that they always were and she no longer is (in a shadows-and-caves kind of way).

Another character called Mick Travis, also played by Malcolm McDowell, undergoes a similar revelation in O Lucky Man! (1973). The film is a picaresque fable that follows Travis’s fortunes as he rises from humble coffee salesman to PA to Ralph Richardson’s millionaire businessman, only to be scapegoated by his boss and sent to prison for fraud; from there he emerges a would-be social reformer, and is ripped off, ignored and finally beaten up by the poor he tries to help; he ends up auditioning for a film directed by Lindsay Anderson, posing for the camera with a machine-gun in a manner strikingly reminiscent of the end of If ... The movie is riddled with intertextual jokes: Peter Jeffrey, who plays the headmaster in If ..., is a prison governor; teetering on a windowsill in a failed attempt to talk a working-class woman (Rachel Roberts) out of committing suicide, Travis reads her a poem by Adam Lindsay Gordon, Cheltenham College’s favourite alumnus, after whom Lindsay Gordon Anderson was named by his mother. One of the many anti-naturalistic devices of the movie is that several of the actors play different roles: Ralph Richardson is not only a villainous millionaire businessman who flogs napalm to an African country to secure his investments in the tourist industry, but also an eccentric hotel resident who gives Travis a gold suit; Alan Price, whom we see, in footage intercut with the main narrative, playing songs in a studio as Anderson listens, turns up in a campervan with his band to give Travis a lift to London. So it comes as no surprise when Helen Mirren, who plays Patricia, the millionaire’s daughter, also crops up towards the end as one of a huddle of alcoholics, some of whom beat Travis up. What is surprising is that Travis recognises her as Patricia. It’s as if he’s given up on the conventions of the drama. The other characters may not realise they’re being played by actors who play other characters too, but Travis, at the bottom of his luck, won’t play along with the artifice anymore. This precipitates the finale, in which Anderson gives Travis the lead role in a film, and the whole company dances together as the credits role. O Lucky Man! is a less accomplished film than If ... (overlong and self-indulgent, it has too much in common with late Led Zeppelin); it’s also much less hopeful, with its implication that the only way to escape convention is to write your own script in the most literal sense.

‘The Old Crowd’ – which Alan Bennett writes about in the piece preceding this – is set in the near-future, when law and order are disintegrating; the house, too, is crumbling, with cracks appearing in the ceilings. One of the old crowd, Totty, hasn’t been able to make it to the party because she’s terminally ill. She turns up after dinner, however, to everyone’s delight, before inconveniently dying during a nostalgic slide show. The old order has died with her, and unsure how to behave, having got to the end of their script, the guests make their excuses and peremptorily leave. The new way is represented by the young catering-service waiter played by Frank Grimes, who acts very much according to his own rules, crawling under the table during dinner to cut Jill Bennett’s stocking and suck her toe (later they have sex in a room where the host’s mother impassively watches TV). The waiter’s dinner suit is too small for him, as Jill Bennett’s character observes when she first sees him. This serves to show that he’s outgrown the uniform of the old order; it also makes him look like a punk.

After The Old Crowd, Anderson himself seems to have been following an out-of-date script. The earlier films could be described as historically contingent (they wouldn’t be revolutionary if they weren’t), but Britannia Hospital (1982) just seems dated. Scum, directed by Alan Clarke, was released in 1979, and it can be seen in part as a reappraisal of If ... a decade on (it should be required viewing for anyone who thinks boarding schools are like prisons). Set in a borstal, it follows the fortunes of three boys transferred on the same day, for various reasons, from other institutions. Two of them commit suicide, the first after hearing his wife has died; the second after he is gang-raped, in an agonisingly long scene witnessed by one of the guards. The third, Carlin, played by Ray Winstone, has meanwhile risen to become the Daddy of the wing in a swift and brutal coup. There’s an unofficial relationship between the authorities and the Daddy, as the powers-that-be use him to maintain order in exchange for privileges. Carlin plays by these rules until the second suicide, when, outraged at the injustice of it all, he precipitates a riot. The uprising is promptly quashed (unlike in If ... there’s no ambiguous ending), and Carlin and two other ‘ringleaders’ are last seen being dragged unconscious, their faces beaten to a pulp, into secure cells. The movie is filmed in a relentlessly naturalistic style. That’s not to say Scum is a better or worse film than If ..., just that it was made at a different time, in a different climate; but after Scum, Britannia Hospital seems distinctly unengaged, something satire can’t afford to be.

From his first documentary, Meet the Pioneers (1948), about a Yorkshire company that made conveyor belts for coal mines, Anderson liked to make films about working-class life in Britain. The trouble was, he didn’t have any first-hand experience of it. The script of This Sporting Life may have been adapted by David Storey from his own autobiographical novel, but for the film’s director, Frank Machin was a fantasy: huge Richard Harris playing Anderson’s antithesis – socially disadvantaged but physically perfect and insouciantly heterosexual. Anderson is like the boys in If ... (and like every other public school boy, still, who adopts a mockney accent and goes to work for a few weeks in a factory, or goes up to Oxford with photographs of himself wielding a Kalashnikov in Cambodia) who crave the perceived uncertainty and danger of ‘real life’ which they feel their social privilege denies to them – though that same privilege has instilled in them the feeling that they have an unassailable right to experience ‘real life’, if that is what they want. In other words, they are pickled to the marrow of their rebellion in the spirit of empire. What makes If ... Anderson’s most interesting film is that it brings the fantasising out into the open (in This Sporting Life it’s all behind the scenes) along with the fantasy. And despite the hyperbole and the impossibility, it is his most realistic. With the frustrations and desires of boys at a public school, he is on the solid ground of his own experience.

Anderson never took kindly to negative criticism of his work (who does?), though he wasn’t inclined to check his scorn for the work of others. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, he and Lambert, together with Peter Ericsson, edited the film magazine Sequence, in which, as Lambert writes, they ‘relentlessly knocked’ the ‘ “tasteful” restraint’ of British films such as Brief Encounter or The Winslow Boy. Anderson was later to write of the films attacked in Sequence (many were praised, too) that they ‘hurt us as much as our comments hurt their makers’: a disingenuous sentiment, certainly, and easily appropriated by Anderson’s opponents; but still irresistibly brilliant – not, in fact, so unlike his movies.