O dreamlands: why Lindsay Anderson was never the realist he claimed to be

From gothic elements to surreal satire and unexplained weirdness, the films of Lindsay Anderson were never only about getting “ordinary life” on screen.

17 April 2024

By Henry K Miller

Lindsay Anderson's swinging 60s-era film The White Bus (1967), which blends realism, drama and poetry

“Print the legend.” The meaning of this famous line from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), uttered by a newspaper editor, is that some untruths are necessary. Lindsay Anderson, a critic before he became the director of films including This Sporting Life (1963) and If…. (1968), called it “both a cynical and a poetic statement”, and put it into practice in relation to his own past. His aim was to identify his films with a ‘realist’ tradition in British cinema, and in this he won an overwhelming success. But as in Ford’s characteristically elegiac film, something was lost in the winning.

The most prominent instance of his mythmaking is his “essay on film” Free Cinema: 1956 – ?, broadcast during primetime on ITV in 1986, in which Anderson, addressing us from his VHS-lined study, recounts the origins of the British New Wave – of which This Sporting Life, his first feature, was a late-breaking instance – in “the documentary work which a group of young filmmakers had started producing in the mid-1950s”.

The group was “Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson, and myself”, and Free Cinema was the name of the programme in which their works were shown together at the BFI’s National Film Theatre in February 1956. According to Anderson, “what we wanted to do was to get ordinary, uncelebrated life on the screen”, and this becomes the credo that binds together not only their early films – he shows clips from Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and Richardson’s A Taste of Honey (1961) – but everything they did later.

O Dreamland (1953)

Thankfully it’s nonsense, not only regarding Anderson’s features, but even the film he showed that winter’s day in 1956, O Dreamland. Filmed at the eponymous amusement park in Margate, this left Sunday Times critic Dilys Powell “startled” by its “savagery” – it wasn’t celebrating anything, and it is only arguably a documentary. The self-bowdlerising continues with his discussion of If…., O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982), very different films, but all with markedly fantastic, even gothic elements.

To take a single shot in the picaresque O Lucky Man!, guileless travelling salesman Travis (Malcolm McDowell), having escaped torture in an MoD facility, emerges from an inferno that consumes the landscape to find a sun-dappled babbling brook, feet away from the flames, that he can splash his face in, before lying down to rest, inferno entirely forgotten. In the scene that follows, in a nearby country church, Travis is apparently breastfed by the vicar’s wife before strolling out into a bucolic idyll with her children.

State-of-the-nation film it may be, but O Lucky Man! is many things before it is ‘realist’ in a sense anyone understands. The gothic strain in the three films begins towards the end of If…., when Travis and friends find a baby in a jar in the attic of their boarding school – never explained. In O Lucky Man! we have our first encounter with Professor Millar (Graham Crowden), a proto-transhumanist medical research scientist who intends to “improve” Travis in undisclosed, probably transplant-based ways. And in Britannia Hospital, in which the baby-in-a-jar has a cameo, Millar goes full Frankenstein.

Britannia Hospital (1982)

In this last of Anderson’s attempts to put ordinary life on screen, Millar presides over a gleaming sci-fi laboratory attached to the decaying Victorian hospital of the title, using his library of refrigerated body parts to produce “the human of the future”, a big brain-like thing with wires coming out of it. It is quite a long way from the admittedly gritty This Sporting Life, the tale of a rugby league professional’s tortured relationship with his widowed landlady; but even This Sporting Life, for all its kitchen-sink trappings, is highly subjective in the telling, being done in flashback from the point of view of a man under sedation or drunk.

If.... (1968)

Realism is, of course, a slippery term, and it is possible to make it embrace these films if one has the intellectual agility and the time. Delve into Anderson’s writings, and he can be found arguing of If…. that “‘realism’ implies a concern with essences rather than with surfaces”. But the question is: why did Anderson go to all that effort? For Mark Sinker, in his book on If…. in the BFI Classics series, the aim of the 1986 film “was to rescue ideals and intentions from the spite of fashion and the wreck of facts”, but as well as making Anderson’s own films sound less interesting than they really are, this reinvention was at some cost to the original Free Cinema idea and its practitioners.

“The third film in that first Free Cinema programme”, says Anderson, five minutes after naming the three key players, rather as an afterthought, “was not a documentary, nor was it directed by one of our group”. In fact, Lorenza Mazzetti’s Together was the main event, both in terms of length and of critical acclaim. Anderson had known Richardson (same Oxford college) and Reisz (Cambridge man) for longer, but he had far more to do with Together than with their films, since he helped edit it. Together was the core of Free Cinema, not an outlier. Moreover, it was far more in the line of what Anderson had gone on to do than he implied.

Lorenza Mazzetti’s Together (1956), on which Lindsay Anderson was supervising editor

This was recognised at the time of If…. by Guardian critic Richard Roud, who argued that Anderson’s film, “something of a masterpiece”, “is both like and unlike what one remembers the Free Cinema to have been”. Whereas “in most people’s minds Free Cinema meant realistic documentary”, Roud continued, Mazzetti had “pointed the way to that kind of mingling of reality and fantasy” that Anderson achieved with If….

In fact Anderson had already achieved it three years earlier. Based on a story by Shelagh Delaney, The White Bus, shot in 1965, follows a mute young woman’s meanderings through Manchester and Salford, just as Together follows two deaf-mute young men around east London. In both of them muteness is a metaphor for alienation, and the real cityscapes – bomb-damaged, bulldozed – are also states of mind. Like Together, The White Bus’s sub-one-hour length ruled out a ‘normal’ cinema release, but it is among Anderson’s best films – and his most Mazzetti-esque.

The White Bus is available on the BFI Blu-ray/DVD Red, White and Zero.

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