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SWIG 2013: Celebrating Lindsay Anderson

On Saturday we had the opportunity to talk about the Lindsay Anderson Archive at a fantastic conference organised by the Scottish Word and Image Group at the University of Dundee. The conference examined the interdisciplinary relationship and crossovers between live performance, film and television and included a special event celebrating the work of Lindsay Anderson at the DCA.

Our paper was a collaboration with Prof. John Izod from our film studies department which looked at how Anderson directed David Storey’s play In Celebration on both stage and screen. Anderson had a long and fruitful working relationship with Storey. They first worked together when Anderson adapted Storey’s novel This Sporting Life for the screen in 1963. Over the next 30 years Anderson directed 9 of Storey’s plays including Home (1970), Early Days (1980) and Stages (1992). In Celebration was the first of Storey’s plays that Anderson directed. It opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London on 22nd April 1969 and proved to be a critical and commercial success. In a terraced northern house a miner Harry Shaw (Bill Owen) and his wife (Constance Chapman) welcome their sons home to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary; but the reunion brings to the surface long-repressed tensions and conflicts which threaten to wreck the event.  The father, last in a family of coal miners, has given everything to ensure that his sons escape the pit.  However, the boys’ educational achievements have pushed them into worlds remote from their parents, and severed them from their roots.  Andrew (Alan Bates), the ungovernable eldest, is a lawyer who has abandoned his profession to paint.  Colin, the second (James Bolam), has risen to join middle management in a car factory.  Meanwhile the youngest, Stephen (Brian Cox), is an introverted writer who, riven by unresolved family tensions, has suppressed his account of their youth.

A scene from the 1969 Royal Court production of David Storey's In Celebration, directed by Lindsay Anderson.

A scene from the 1969 Royal Court production of David Storey’s In Celebration, directed by Lindsay Anderson.

Anderson and Storey returned to the play in 1974 to direct a film version for the American Film Theatre, a company which adapted plays to be shown in cinemas in the United States. In our talk Prof. Izod used Anderson’s production notes, correspondence and diaries to illuminate the process of transforming the theatrical into the cinematic. One of the key elements in the success of the film was Anderson’s insistence on reuniting the original cast of the 1969 Royal Court production for the film. Anderson noted that the actor’s performances had matured, partly because five years on they were closer to their characters’ ages, whereas some had been a little young for their roles in the original production. Their familiarity with the production also contributed to a sense of real family between them.

A photograph of the cast of In Celebration reunited for 1974s film adaptation.

A photograph of the cast of In Celebration reunited for 1974s film adaptation.

Saturday’s conference sessions were followed by a screening of Anderson’s film version of In Celebration at a packed DCA which was introduced by the actor Brian Cox. In Celebration was Cox’s first major film role and in an enlightening and entertaining Q&A session after the film he talked about the importance of the film in his career and his experiences working with Lindsay Anderson. He noted Anderson’s skill in getting the best out of his actors and he was struck, as were the audience, by how well the film stood up almost forty years after its original release. In the small claustrophobic sitting room of the family home the dramatic tension was built by the powerful performances of a cast led by a director who understood both the play and the actors, Cox referring to Anderson as “the best psychological director he’s ever worked with.”

Lindsay Anderson’s Wuthering Heights

This month sees the release of a new adaptation of Wuthering Heights, in which the director Andrea Arnold moves from the contemporary council estates of Glasgow (Red Road) and London (Fish Tank) to the wild countryside of nineteenth century Yorkshire.

In 1964 Lindsay Anderson unsuccessfully attempted to film his own version of the novel. Buoyed by the success of his 1963 film This Sporting Life Anderson developed the project with the film’s writer, David Storey, and star, Richard Harris. Anderson’s experience of directing Harris on This Sporting Life had been an explosive, bruising affair but such was his desire to work with the actor that he noted in his diary his “inability to think concretely of any project – except in terms of Richard Harris”. Anderson saw Harris as the perfect lead for his version of Wuthering Heights, as indeed did the actor. In April 1964 Anderson visited Harris in Mexico City, where he was shooting the western Major Dundee, to discuss the project. After being shown to his room Anderson found a note on his pillow written by Harris – it read “I am Heathcliff”.

Lindsay Anderson and Richard Harris filming This Sporting Life.

Anderson’s papers include some fascinating material relating to this proposed adaptation including correspondence, scripts, progress reports and location photographs. Anderson’s diaries also provide an account of the project’s development. In David Storey’s adaptation the doomed romance at the centre of the story ends in a rather dramatic fashion with Heathcliff stealing Cathy’s body from her coffin and taking her to Wuthering Heights. He is followed by an angry mob that sets fire to the house, Heathcliff dying in a raging inferno with Cathy in his arms. Notes written by Richard Harris in April 1964 commenting on Storey’s script are also present. Harris didn’t like the ending devised by Storey – he instead suggested a more romantic end for Heathcliff and Cathy. The mob burns an empty Wuthering Heights and the following morning, when their anger has subsided, they find Heathcliff lying dead, next to Cathy’s body, on the moors.

By the summer of 1964 Harris began to succumb to the lure of Hollywood and started to show a reluctance to work with Anderson in England. His behaviour increasingly annoyed and frustrated Anderson. In a letter to his agent Sandy Liberson in April 1965 Anderson reflected on the change in his relationship with Harris, noting that “It really seems to me that his ‘success’ of the past eight or nine months has changed Richard. Or shall I say taken him beyond the sphere in which he and I can work together?”

It was around this time that Anderson (reluctantly) came to realise that the projects he was developing for Harris would not come to fruition and gave up on the idea of directing Harris in Wuthering Heights – indeed after months of planning he never even got as far as casting a Cathy to Harris’ Heathcliff. The material relating to Wuthering Heights is part of a fascinating series of files detailing the various unrealised projects which Anderson attempted to produce including historical epics, noir remakes, literary adaptations and a sequel to his 1968 film If…. For those interested in the ‘what ifs’ of cinema history a chapter on Anderson’s unmade films can be found in the book Sights Unseen: Unfinished British Films.