O Lucky Man!, revisiting Lindsay Anderson’s anarchic 1970s trip down the rabbit hole

Sending Malcolm McDowell on a surreal odyssey through northern England, O Lucky Man! is the mother of all sprawling state-of-the-nation comic satires, from Southland Tales to The Sweet East.

14 May 2024

By Stephen Dalton

O Lucky Man! (1973)

An anarchic joyride through the tragicomic horrorscape of early 1970s Britain, Lindsay Anderson’s maximalist musical satire O Lucky Man! has lost little of its disturbing, lurid, carnivalesque power in the half century since it was released. Part bawdy farce, part picaresque road movie, part sprawling state-of-the-nation sermon, this boldly experimental three-hour pageant stars Malcolm McDowell alongside a stellar ensemble cast of British screen stalwarts. Arthur Lowe, Ralph Richardson, Rachel Roberts, Graham Crowden and a young Helen Mirren co-star, each playing multiple roles. The action is punctuated by sardonic songs written and performed by former Animals keyboard player Alan Price. 

A heady cocktail of Brecht and Buñuel, Lewis Carroll and Monty Python, Jean-Luc Godard and Ken Russell, O Lucky Man! still contains plenty to delight, shock and disgust 21st century audiences. Admittedly some elements have dated exceptionally badly, especially the Carry On-style depiction of women as pliant nymphomaniacs, and the jarring spectacle of beloved Dad’s Army star Arthur Lowe in full blackface (a decision that would have been unremarkable in 1973, when The Black and White Minstrel Show was still a high-rating BBC fixture). Despite this, the film’s rich combination of cynicism and romanticism, jaunty music and bitingly absurd humour, can still feel fresh and spiky today, with its proto-punk contempt for bourgeois good taste.

O Lucky Man! reunited Anderson and McDowell with screenwriter David Sherwin following their triumphant debut collaboration on If…. (1968), an inflammatory class-war allegory about teenage revolutionaries staging an armed insurrection against the oppressive authorities at a venerable English boarding school. This instant cult classic scored critical and commercial success, even winning the Palme d’Or in Cannes. 

If.... (1968)

Playing a skewed version of his Mick Travis character from If…., McDowell’s demonic cherub face dominates O Lucky Man! A Candide-style innocent with a Jagger-ish moptop and sarcastically cheery grin, Travis is an ambitious young coffee salesman sent to conquer a lawless north of England, where he encounters corrupt police officers, sex-crazed landladies and small-town orgies. The freewheeling plot then veers from caustic satire into full-blown surrealism as Travis is mistaken for an enemy spy on a secret military base, caught up in apocalyptic war games, and almost recruited for a grotesque body-horror transplant experiment. A chance encounter with a touring rock band then leads him back to London. Mirren appears in this scene, channelling Marianne Faithfull as a bohemian It girl and rock-star muse. 

In London, Travis unwisely goes to work for a crooked tycoon involved with selling lethal chemical weapons to a brutal African dictator. Framed by his bosses, Travis is sent to jail, where he converts from ambitious young careerist to idealistic social activist, trading one naive world-view for another. The film ends with a Brechtian blurring of fact and fiction, as McDowell plays a version of his real self, an aspiring actor auditioning for a role in an unnamed film directed by Anderson, which may or may not be If….

O Lucky Man! was conceived soon after If…., when McDowell pitched an autobiographical story to Anderson based on his brief spell as a coffee salesman in Yorkshire in the mid 1960s. Initially titled Coffee Man, it chronicled the antics of a travelling salesman who becomes an aspiring pop singer in London, but Anderson dismissed an initial draft as too “mini” and conventional. Enlisting Sherwin as co-writer, the director pushed the pair to be more ambitious, citing Voltaire’s Candide, Kafka’s Amerika, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Thornton Wilder’s Heaven’s My Destination and more as inspirational examples. “O Lucky Man! was conceived as an epic,” Anderson recalled in a 1994 interview with Paul Ryan, later published in the posthumous anthology Never Apologise (2004). “Not an epic in the sense of Ben-Hur but in the classical, poetic sense of the term.”

As Sherwin documented in his hilariously frank diaries, Going Mad in Hollywood – and Life with Lindsay Anderson (1996), the film’s gestation was slow and chaotic. The highly strung, sexually repressed Anderson frequently lost patience with his partners, threatening to cancel the project several times. Trapped in a torrid love triangle with his wife and mistress, Sherwin had spells of suicidal depression, obliterating himself with barley wine and barbiturates. In late 1971, he had a short spell in a mental health clinic. 

In the midst of this tortuous backstage drama, McDowell left to shoot A Clockwork Orange (1971). If O Lucky Man! feels at times like a musical remake of Kubrick’s dystopian future-shock thriller, that is not too surprising. Warner Brothers backed both films, which had various cast and crew members in common – indeed, Kubrick cast McDowell as Beethoven-loving hooligan sociopath Alex on the strength of his magnetic performance in If….

O Lucky Man! (1973)Image preserved by the BFI National Archive

Alan Price’s BAFTA-winning soundtrack is deeply woven into the fabric of O Lucky Man! Performing live on screen in semi-detached chorus scenes, the Geordie singer-songwriter provides a running commentary on our antihero’s exploits in wry ballads like ‘Poor People’, ‘My Home Town’ and ‘Changes’. Anderson thought of Price’s musical persona as a kind of Zen mentor to Travis, passing on worldly wisdom, stripping away illusion. The director worked in tandem with Price, giving him broad themes for each song. “Alan’s music has the right combination of irony and lyricism that the film demanded,” Anderson told Paul Ryan in 1994.

Price had worked with Anderson before, composing music for a 1970 stage production of David Storey’s Home. The director then toyed with making a tour documentary about Price and Georgie Fame, but licensing rights proved far too expensive. In 1971, he and Sherwin briefly joined Price’s band on tour in Lancashire, a research trip for O Lucky Man! which inspired the duo to give the musicians more than just a choral role. Hence the scene in which the band rescue Travis and drive him back to London. The orgy episode was also based on one of Price’s touring anecdotes, when a hotel manager invited him to a seedy sex party in a shed. Sherwin and Anderson reworked this scenario to give it a comically wholesome respectability, “like a vicarage jumble sale”.

Lindsay Anderson directing Malcolm McDowell in O Lucky Man! (1973)Image preserved by the BFI National Archive

Politically, O Lucky Man! is a much more ambivalent statement than If…., perhaps because it arrived just as the revolutionary idealism of the 1960s was souring, fading and giving way to Thatcherite individualism. Formerly identified with left-leaning movements, including the Free Cinema group and kitchen-sink social realism, filmmakers like Anderson began to express less radical views in the 1970s. Other British films around this period caught a similar mood of post-hippie disillusionment, from The Magic Christian (1969) to Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs (1974), Stardust (1974) and Tommy (1975).

O Lucky Man! crackles with scattershot satirical critique of colonialism, capitalism, police corruption and ruling-class arrogance. But it also mocks liberal do-gooders, leftist radicals and the urban poor, who are depicted as a hopeless Dickensian underclass. During the final act, Travis walks past a scrawled slogan on an east London wall: “Revolution is the opium of the intellectuals.” 

Speaking to The Times in 1973, Anderson insisted O Lucky Man! has an “open-ended” political message. “What I like about the film is it has irony,” he explained. “It hasn’t just got the simple irony of being nasty about rich people. It’s nasty about poor people as well. It’s nasty about people.”  All the same, he confessed he was expecting leftist critics to denounce the film as reactionary. “I’ve never been a socialist,” the director later confirmed in his 1994 exchange with Paul Ryan. “I’ve never understood how people think that socialism could work because I’ve always believed in original sin.” 

Arguably, it is this very lack of dogma in O Lucky Man! that has helped keep it fresh and biting for half a century. Anderson saw the story more as a Zen Buddhist parable than as an overtly political sermon. Especially the climactic scene, where his fictionalised self slaps McDowell across the face with a script, jolting him into a smile of shocked enlightenment. “The end is a sort of ironic evocation, I suppose, of the Zen attitude to living,” Anderson told The Times, “which is to love life and accept it and to smile the right kind of smile and to not ask why.” 

The Polish poster for O Lucky Man! (1973)Designer: Eryk Lipinski. Preserved by the BFI National Archive

O Lucky Man! did not repeat the huge success of If…., but it earned generally positive reviews and a healthy cinema run, winning two BAFTA awards including best music for Alan Price. It also laid the groundwork for other mould-breaking musicals with ambitious social-commentary intentions. Grand follies and eccentric auteur projects like Derek Jarman’s Jubilee (1978), Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983), Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners (1986), Jack Bond’s bizarre Pet Shops Boys vehicle It Couldn’t Happen Here (1987) and Richard Kelly’s infamous career-killing misfire Southland Tales (2006) all share some DNA with Anderson’s overcooked music-hall farce.

Perhaps inevitably, the film also became a cult favourite with musicians. In 1985, when pop duo Wham! were seeking a director to document their historic China shows, they hired Anderson partly based on his track record of music-friendly features. Inevitably, he failed to deliver the bland promotional film the band wanted, and his cut was shelved. In 1992, The Shamen sampled McDowell’s line “a great philosopher once wrote” from the film’s closing scenes in their druggy rave-pop chart-topper ‘Ebeneezer Goode’. The Fall singer Mark E. Smith was also a fan of Anderson’s acidic satire, likening it to Shakespeare. “If you want to know what Britain was like in 1973, watch O Lucky Man!” Smith claimed in a 2015 interview.

McDowell, Anderson and Sherwin reunited one more time, to make Britannia Hospital (1982), the final chapter in their Mick Travis trilogy. The film was a critical and commercial disaster, but did not stain the memory of their earlier work. A symphony of gleeful iconoclasm, O Lucky Man! remains McDowell’s personal favourite in his filmography. He calls it “one of the great subversive English films” and still regards Anderson, who died in 1994, as a father figure. In a 2021 interview, McDowell recalls he once asked the notoriously irascible director whether his political sympathies leaned right or left, Labour or Conservative. “I’m an anarchist,” Anderson replied. “I want to rip it all up!”

Other things to explore