“I have no interest in perfect people”: Stephen Sutcliffe on making his Lindsay Anderson mixtape

Artist and filmmaker Stephen Sutcliffe tells us how discovering Lindsay Anderson’s collection of TV video recordings helped inspire his upcoming Experimenta Mixtape at BFI Southbank.

This Sporting Life (1963)

Stephen Sutcliffe is an artist and filmmaker who has frequently drawn on aspects of historic literature, television, film and music. A crate-digger of epic, brilliant, intuitive proportions, Sutcliffe’s films take various shapes and both riff on and subvert the ‘archive’, frequently honing in on the personal lives of British creatives and reflecting notions of failure, humour and even sadness. A deadpan, melancholy Englishness frequently haunts his films, which draw on both his deep knowledge of the worlds that interest him and an innate, intuitive capacity to work with different media.

We were delighted to invite Stephen to compile a special Experimenta Mixtape, on the occasion of the BFI’s season O Dreamland! Lindsay Anderson’s Dark British Cinema, and the result screens at BFI Southbank on 30 May. I talked to him to understand a little more about his process and also his interest in Lindsay Anderson.

– William Fowler

What was your way into Lindsay Anderson’s very particular universe?

Stephen Sutcliffe: As an adolescent I used to walk past Sutcliffe’s rubber factory on my way into Ossett town centre. At the time I didn’t know it was an offshoot of the Horbury factory that Lindsay Anderson made one of his first films about – Meet the Pioneers (1948). 

At school we were given the social realists to read in English. Stan Barstow came from Ossett, Shelagh Delaney from Salford, David Storey from Wakefield and Keith Waterhouse from Leeds. At the time they seemed like local history until Morrissey made them romantic. 

Later in 2000 when I was studying for my MFA in Glasgow I wandered into Scottish Screen looking for funding for a new artwork or film. While waiting in reception I found some folders with lists of video recordings in them. They were tapes from Lindsay’s collection of home recorded television and film. Sometimes he stopped a recording half way through, and a seminal film would fizzle out into the snooker. This suited both my obsession with collage and a taste for the mixing of the poetic and the prosaic, and I kept going in to view them, sometimes fixing broken tapes. 

The archive is now at Stirling University. I helped to curate an exhibition from it with its archivist Karl Magee and the curator Kirsteen Macdonald at the Changing Room Gallery in Stirling. Recently I read a text for a show of mine where Lindsay had been spellchecked as Lindsey. It reminded me of the time I met a curator and compared my film Come to the Edge (2003) with Lindsay’s If…. (1968). “Oh yes,” said the curator, “I love Andie MacDowell.”

If.... (1968)

How did your long-standing interest in Anderson inform your approach to making an Experimenta Mixtape selection?

This mixtape is in no way definitive and could never truly express my admiration of Anderson. Since I started researching him I have spoken to people who loved him and people who hated him. I have no interest in perfect people or even perfect works. I like to think of the best they did and judge them on that. Although his oeuvre was short and often hampered by himself (something I can relate to), I would have been proud to have his legacy, however mixed.

The mixtape experience is supposed to be a surprise, but can you give us some hints or clues about some of the things you’ve included? Will we see some of your own work about him?

I have included my own work into the assemblage as some of it is influenced by, or contains, some of Anderson’s work. For example, Death in Leamington (2003) uses images of Rachel Roberts from This Sporting Life (1963), and Come to the Edge has sound from Lindsay’s interview with poet Christopher Logue, the imagery replacing Anderson’s contention that art cannot always be trusted.

I have also used clips of Lindsay being interviewed, lecturing, lunching and acting alongside works that influenced him, like Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct (1933). But the main focus is Anderson’s work: from Meet the Pioneers, his first work, to O Dreamland (1953) from the start of the Free Cinema movement, through to the Greek chorus-like songs of Alan Price in O Lucky Man! (1973) and his collaboration with Alan Bennett for television, The Old Crowd (1979), which seems relevant now as it takes place during a virus sweeping the country while the governing classes party on regardless. 

The Old Crowd (1979)

His oeuvre ends with Is That All There Is? (1992), a simulated documentary made for television. There is a relatable scene where Lindsay and the scriptwriter David Sherwin discuss projects that where frustrated and never came to fruition. Other frequent collaborations were with David Storey whose 1970 play The Contractor (which Anderson directed for stage) was the subject of my collaged work Twixt Cup and Lip (2016), which also takes in his time at the Royal Court, where he directed – among other things – Billy Liar. While at the Court, as part of the management, some decisions were made with the help of the I Ching. The non-linear structure of the mixtape also reflects this rather random approach.  

Can you tell us something about your film Casting Through (2017), which Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones said should have won the Turner Prize, even though you’d not been shortlisted?

Casting Through and Scenes from Radcliffe, to give it its full title, uses Lindsay’s diaries to reconstruct scenes from his relationship with Richard Harris while making This Sporting Life in Wakefield. I noticed an entry in which they discussed making an adaptation of David Storey’s book Radcliffe, which contains a very similar relationship (unrequited love between a gay middle-class intellectual and an aggressive working-class labourer). My script was adapted from both the diaries and the book.

Casting Through and Scenes from Radcliffe (2017)

How did you approach the sequencing of the selections?

As I approach most of my collaged films, but particularly the longer ones (Twixt Cup and Lip; Despair, 2009; Outwork, 2013): by intuitively looking for what makes a successful collage or montage. Some of the links are quite tenuous, but the rhythm is more important. I used to say I want my work to look like it was just found like that and that it couldn’t be another way.

Can you say something about your interest in collage?

Collage is my favourite medium. I like the juxtaposition of discordant and surprisingly concordant things. I like Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell’s book covers and Joe Brainard’s assemblages, but also collages of style, text and sound. I once met Christopher Logue at his home in Camberwell and we talked about his use of collage in his adaptations of sections of The Iliad, particularly his poem ‘War Music’.

Do you have a favourite Lindsay Anderson film? What else do you think people should see in the season?

They all have different effects on me. As someone who was brought up on television, I’m drawn to Is That All There Is?, The Old Crowd and In Celebration (1975). But the films all have elements that I can appreciate too: This Sporting Life for the social realism, O Lucky Man! for the state of the nation Hogarthianism (is this a word?), If…. for its chutzpah, and Britannia Hospital (1982) for the fabulous cast. The White Bus (1967) somehow stands between realism and surrealism, and it’s possibly the closest to what I would have made. In short, I would recommend people to go and see everything if they can.

Lindsay Anderson Experimenta Mixtape shows at BFI Southbank on 30 May.