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If You Were There: Wham! in China

In April 1985 Wham! became the first western pop group to perform in China. The band’s management hired Lindsay Anderson to direct a documentary recording this historic event. Unfortunately this was an ill-fated project with Anderson being removed from the film in October 1985. His portrayal of the Chinese tour did not meet with the approval of the band or their management. A new director was brought in and a shorter film, very different from Anderson’s documentary, was produced. This article draws on Anderson’s correspondence and diaries to provide the story behind the directors ‘lost’ film.

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Lindsay Anderson accepted the invitation to record Wham!’s visit to China at a time when he was finding it increasingly difficult to get his own films made. In 1982 he released the film Britannia Hospital, a biting satire set in a hospital preparing for a royal visit to celebrate its 500th anniversary. It was a critical and commercial flop, its prospects not helped by the film appearing to be ‘unpatriotic’ at a time when Britain was fighting the Falklands War.

Britannia Hospital had failed to repeat the success of Anderson’s earlier films. In the years following its release he turned to the stage, where he always found it easier to work, and directed a number of productions in London and the US. At the start of 1985 he had just returned from Washington DC where he had directed a troubled production of Hamlet which was plagued with problems and closed after a short run.

Anderson rarely worked as a ‘director for hire’, preferring to have total control over the films he made. However he was tempted by the offer of returning to his documentary roots. Anderson had begun his filmmaking career in the 1950s making documentaries. Indeed he won an Oscar for a short documentary, Thursday’s Children (a film about a school for deaf children) in 1954. In a letter to a friend written in January 1986 he explained that he undertook the Wham! project “in a spirit of curiosity. Curiosity about China and curiosity about the odd confrontation of China and Wham! – and even a certain curiosity, not very great, about the phenomenon of Wham! itself.” (Ref. LA 1/10/3/8).

Lindsay Anderson and Wham! in China.

Lindsay Anderson and Wham! in China.

Anderson travelled to China with Wham! in April 1985. The tour began with two concerts in Hong Kong and then moved to China where Wham! performed in Beijing and Canton. During the tour Anderson suffered a fall and spent much of his time in a wheelchair. His diaries also reveal that he was suffering from arthritis in his legs and hands (something he hoped Chinese medicine might cure).

The summer and autumn of 1985 were spent editing the footage shot in China. In October 1985 Anderson screened his film for Wham! and their management. The film was far from being a straight pop promo as it looked away from the band and spent some time examining China and its people. It also stripped the glamour away from the event, showing the tedium of touring. A few days after the screening Anderson was informed that he was being removed from the project because his film was not what was expected or required. Before he left Anderson’s made a copy of his version of the film, which he called If You Were There and it is this tape which is part of the Anderson Archive.

Lindsay Anderson on location in China.

Lindsay Anderson on location in China.

Following Anderson’s removal a new director was brought in and additional concert footage was shot in London at great expense. A new version of the film entitled Foreign Skies was screened at Wham!’s farewell concert at Wembley Stadium on 28 June 1986. This film was 20 minutes shorter than Anderson’s, added far more concert footage of Wham! and removed most of Anderson’s documentary footage of China.

In If You Were There Anderson attempted to do far more than just produce a pop promo. The visit of Wham! to China came at a time of great change as consumerism, pop music and western tastes and fashions began to be absorbed by the old communist state. Anderson captured a society on the cusp of change. As with his award-winning documentary films of 1950s Anderson treated his subjects with warmth and compassion. The people the camera encounters are full of life, friendly and enthusiastic, and Anderson captures the vibrant atmosphere of street life in Beijing and Canton.

He does not forget, however, that this is a film about Wham! and their historic visit to China, live performances of the band in Beijing and Canton forming the climax of the film. While George Michael and Andrew Ridgley sometimes seem bemused by the welcome extended by their Chinese hosts (there are only so many members of the Communist Party you can shake hands with) Anderson manages to catch some unguarded moments of fun and laughter where the excitement of being performers at the peak of their popularity shines through.

Angered by the rejection of his film Anderson wrote an open letter to the crew who worked with him on the documentary in November 1985. In it he detailed the circumstances surrounding his removal from the project. He also summed up his frustration with the situation in characteristically bullish style (Ref. LA 1/10/3/7). Anderson never had an opportunity to release his version of the film. Such are the complexities of the rights relating to If You Were There that it has never been publicly screened. The story of this most unusual project can, however, be traced in Anderson’s personal and working papers.

Norman McLaren’s Chinese Odyssey

The University Archives holds a collection of material relating to the Stirling-born filmmaker Norman McLaren including over 400 letters he wrote to his parents in Stirling over a 30 year period beginning in 1936. The letters were written on a regular, sometimes weekly, basis and include information on the development of his career, accounts of his travels and discussions of his work, alongside family business and personal information.

In 1949 McLaren was invited by UNESCO to travel to China to teach young Chinese artists how to make animated films as part of a project to improve the health of China’s rural population. McLaren’s adventure started pleasantly enough, travelling from his home in Ottawa, Canada, (where he worked at the National Film Board) west across the Pacific. He stopped off at Honolulu which he described in a letter to his parents as “utterly bewitching, no place for a Scot with a buried Presbyterian conscience to remain!” From the tropical paradise of Hawaii McLaren continued on to Tokyo, a city still struggling to rebuild itself in the aftermath of the Second World War. He kept a detailed journal of his trip and noted the poverty and destruction still clearly visible in Japan’s capital.

Norman McLaren

Photograph of Norman McLaren taken during his trip to China.

From the dust and rubble of Tokyo McLaren continued onwards to the heat and humidity of Hong Kong and into China to the small town of Pehpei in Szechuan province. Unfortunately for McLaren he arrived in China as the conflict between the Nationalists and Communists swept through the country. For several months life continued as normal in the sleepy rural town of Pehpei where McLaren got on with his job of educating his Chinese pupils. In December 1949 the Communist revolution arrived on Pehpei’s doorstep. In an article he wrote for a Canadian magazine on his return McLaren recounted the efforts made by the town’s mayor to prevent the retreating Nationalist forces from ransacking the town by welcoming them, feeding them and providing them with transport to help them on their way. With the Nationalists gone the town prepared a big welcoming show for the advancing communist troops – which had to be quickly cancelled when a further group of Nationalist soldiers appeared on the horizon! After entertaining thousands of retreating nationalist troops the town put up it’s bunting and held its breath for the victorious communist army. However the expected red army didn’t appear and the town was entered by a single truck of slightly bemused soldiers.

The arrival of the communists made McLaren’s departure difficult as the country closed its doors to the outside world. With no way home McLaren was forced to remain in Pehpei and extend the educational project. After the initial upheaval of the Communist take-over life in Pehpei appears to have returned to quiet normality. In a letter written on 22 Jan 1950 McLaren noted “life here is very quiet and simple, with little to do, little to read, and no radio.” A new regime brought new bureaucracy and it took McLaren five months to get a travel permit to leave. In March 1950 he received an official invitation from the Ministry of Culture to visit them in Peking. It was his ticket out of China. He left Pehpei and travelled across the country by train where he witnessed “many evidences of the battlefields of the past twenty years of war”. Following a brief stop-off in the capital he finally reached Hong Kong in May 1950.

Letter

Letter from Norman McLaren to his mother, 26 September 1949.

Despite the conflict he witnessed and the virtual imprisonment he suffered McLaren appears to have enjoyed his time in China and gained a great respect for its people. Reflecting on his experiences he wrote, in a letter to his parents, “Chinese civilisation in many ways is superior to our recent western civilisation. I am sorry in many ways to be leaving it. It is not in its plumbing or mechanical gadgets that China is superior, but in its simple human attitudes.”