Coming four years after The Servant (1963), Accident was the second collaboration between director Joseph Losey and playwright Harold Pinter. Following the infatuation of two Oxford lecturers with a female student, it’s a stark drama about the abuse of intellectual and social power.
Released on 6 February 1967, at the height of the sexual revolution, Losey’s film critiques chauvinistic attitudes of the time, showing how men’s embrace of sexual equality became twisted for their own selfish ends. Pinter’s work already foretold exactly how the patriarchy would react to the sexual revolution, hinting at the morphing of public attitudes the year before Accident in his play (and later in the film version of) The Homecoming (1966).
Yet Accident captures much else besides the darkness under the surface of acceptable society. It details perfectly a kind of golden triangle of middle-class settings, moving between London, Oxford University and a country house in the home counties. Because of this, the film’s locations tell a great deal about the social questions at the heart of the film, all of which arose like ghosts when revisiting them.
Though far from the seemingly idyllic summer setting of the film, the weather on my visit to Oxford was bright and surprisingly warm for a January midwinter’s day. The portrayal of Oxford in the film is almost fantastical, with the virtually perfect lives of almost all of the main characters in the film contrasted with the grim scenario of the car crash that bookends the drama.
I began my trip with a walk to St John’s College, the main university building where both Stephen (Dirk Bogarde) and Charley (Stanley Baker) are lecturers. Much of the outside of the building is featured in Losey’s portrayal of the typical day-to-day work of university life. Stephen and his student, William (Michael York), are shown numerous times to be walking around the quadrant rooms and the college.
The most interesting part of this building’s relation to the film comes in several shots from inside one of the rooms. Stephen’s office is here, overlooking the grassy pasture of one of the quadrants, and it’s here where we catch a surreal glimpse of the college goat through the window, and, later, the pair discussing the girl at the heart of the film’s tragedy, Anna (Jacqueline Sassard), as she wanders over the grass. There is actually no historical tradition of the college having a goat, and it seems to be an in-joke played by Pinter about the absurd nature of some of the more brazen of Oxbridge traditions. Today, the building has barely changed, though Anna would be lucky to wander on the grassy pasture without a polite ear-clipping from one of the college’s wardens.
Next, I meandered behind St John’s College and on to Parks Road, where a minor but important scene of the film takes place. After the chaos of the accident, Stephen secretly drops Anna back at her halls early in the morning. The road and wall she climbs over are found here, though it took a while to realise that Stephen in fact drives onto what is now the pavement. The bench Anna uses as a step-up over the wall has now gone, replaced unusually by a variety of posters for local concerts. The building behind the wall that Anna breaks back into (an act I was not going to attempt to recreate on the busy street) is actually Rhodes House, famous for alumni Bill Clinton and Naomi Wolf among others.
Heading south and down through the busy Oxford streets, I made my way to Merton Field behind Merton College. This is the college sports field, which is used in the film for the typically English game of cricket. The scene is tense with feelings bubbling and brewing underneath, playing in contrast to the relaxing game taking place. This is clearly Pinter’s invention, the emphasis on the game undoubtedly coming from his own obsession with the sport. The winter weather made this location seem rather moodier than Losey’s depiction of it, heightened further by the fact that it was currently set up and being used for football rather than leather-upon-willow.
Further west, following the River Cherwell, I ventured into Magdalen College to find some very particular locations used in the film’s famous river boating sequences. Walking through the empty cloister of the college (used in the filming of several Harry Potter films), I wandered over the bridge, crossing the Holywell Mill stream to Addison’s Walk, where Losey took several shots of the enjoyably awkward (if lecherous) punting. The leaves from the trees were still floating by, reminding me of that wonderful shot where Anna almost caresses the passing water with her hand, Stephen watching on helplessly – Bogarde gives a subtly powerful performance of lust and temptation.
My final Oxford stop was parallel to Merton Fields in Christchurch Meadows, so I made my way back past the Botanical Gardens and to the entrance of the college where Losey sets a handful of scenes just after Stephen has fallen in the water. This avenue of trees is directly opposite the college, with Losey showing the three characters walking along it before Anna breaks away to sit on a bench and studiously begins to read. The bench has been moved a few trees down, and the winter weather meant that it looked a far emptier space than in the film. I thought of how luscious the avenue and the rest of the locations must feel in summer and promised myself a return visit in warmer months to see if Losey’s vision rung true.
London plays a strange role in Accident. It’s where Stephen both fails at getting a TV job and succumbs to infidelity. The city comes to the fore when Stephen visits BBC Television Centre, following up a potential job as an academic talking head on a show. The segment is famous for an excellent cameo from Pinter and Freddie Jones as BBC commissioning executives, filmed in the (since demolished) TVC offices. Luckily, I had a snap or two of the building from when it was open for Ben Rivers’ last installation there with Artangel in 2015. Accident now stands as a time-capsule of the vibrant creative atmosphere in one of our most important cultural buildings, its loss being one of the worst board-approved examples of cultural vandalism so far this century.
Once Stephen has failed at getting anywhere with his TV spot, he visits an old flame played by Delphine Seyrig: Francesca, the university provost’s daughter. Francesca’s house is in Bloomsbury, specifically 40 Bedford Square. The square is littered with various plaques, Francesca’s house actually being next door to where the novelist, Anthony Hope, most famous for writing The Prisoner of Zenda, lived.
Stephen takes Francesca to a restaurant, infamous for its shockingly sexist choice of posters (“Have your meals here and keep the wife as a pet!”). The restaurant is actually a pub near the King’s Road called the Admiral Codrington, and, though its windows are now different to the plain glass that allowed Losey’s camera detailed access into his characters’ awkward conversations, the doors and the rest of the pub are little changed.
Finding the house at the heart of Accident proved rather a mystery. The mansion where the film’s violent game of football takes place, Syon House in Brentford, had already proved impossible to visit due to being closed over the winter, and so access to the main house was essential to make up for it.
After much research, it appeared that the house and road where Losey had filmed was now heavily gated off and private. Following a paper trail of local businesses, I eventually found the owner, who agreed my visit with the current tenants of the house. I made my way to Oxshott in Surrey and walked several miles passed many gated estates to the Esher bypass and the private land of the film at Norwood Farm Hall. Passing through two security gates, I first found myself at the very scene of the accident: that strangely beautiful scrap of land that is the centre of the film’s moment of calamity.
The postbox that Stephen visits has now been replaced by a direction sign, and the huge oak tree that hung over it has since gone. Another quarter of a mile and I found myself being let in through the final gate to the house by the gardener. I didn’t quite recognise it at first as the walls and pillars that are so essential to the framing of the shot have since been removed. Instead of the toy car that sits in the drive in the final shot of the film, a Range Rover and a BMW now stand, though the house and gardens are absolutely intact.
Bumping into one of the current tenants, she was delighted to find out about the house and how it was used in Britain’s 1967 entry for Cannes. Unprepared to have such access, I was let into the hallway, framed beautifully in the film where Anna sits in shock after the horrific advantage taken of her by Stephen after the crash. A glimpse into the living room revealed it to be equally preserved.
I was then given access to the driveway where a once rustic old gate had stood – the framing location of several different scenes for the extended lunch visit by all of the main characters – and the tennis court. The latter recalled the awkwardness of the scene – Stanley Baker’s character being laddish in his mucking about during the game but all the while taking full advantage of the genuine difference in character between himself and Bogarde in real life. The pair, it is safe to say, did not get on.
Leaving the property, I was almost trapped behind one of the security gates, only being able to leave due to a car from the estate having a pass key. Crossing back over the accident spot, the scene felt a million miles from the summery vista of Losey’s film, where people broke violently and emotionally against one another. I stood on the private flyover overlooking the A3, 1967 feeling far away in some distant past, morally and topographically, as the cars below sped by, avoiding the crash.
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