Lindsay Anderson’s Olympic Spirit

This week the macrobert is screening Chariots of Fire, the stirring Olympic tale of Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, two British athletes who ran at the 1924 Paris Games. The director Lindsay Anderson, whose papers are held in the University of Stirling Archives, appears in the film playing the Master of Caius college, Cambridge, alongside John Gielgud, who plays Master of Trinity college.

Chariots of Fire was one of the few occasions when Anderson moved from being the director behind the camera to an actor in front of it. In 1953 he appeared in a short film directed by the American artist James Broughton called The Pleasure Garden and played supporting roles in a couple of television adaptations of plays (Inadmissable Evidence and The Parachute) in 1968. His most memorable onscreen performance is probably in his own film O Lucky Man! in 1973 when he plays a director who auditions Malcolm McDowell at the end of the film and proceeds to smack him across the face with a copy of the script.

Ouch! Lindsay Anderson slaps Malcolm McDowell across the face with a copy of the script in a scene from O Lucky Man! (1973)

 The extensive correspondence files that are included in Anderson’s archive provide some interesting insights into his appearance in Chariots of Fire. In April 1980 he wrote to a friend describing his experiences on set:

“I’ve been spending a few days on the other side of the camera you’ll be amused (and amazed?) to hear… Doing a small featured role in a picture being done here about young Olympic sportsmen in the twenties. Playing the snobbish, sentimental, class-bound Head of a Cambridge College – three scenes with John Gielgud, and an address to a hundred and fifty undergraduates… I’m afraid I may have over-strained my technical abilities: but one certainly gets an insight as to how totally actors tend to be victimized, exploited and sabotaged in a film studio. It’s true that the last people anybody thinks of in setting up a scene are the actors. I fear I may have made an awful fool of myself: but at least no one can compel me to see it.” (Ref. LA 5/1/2/7/21)

Anderson had directed John Gielgud on a number of occasions at the Royal Court Theatre and was a close friend (the archive contains a file of correspondence between the two men). In a letter to another friend he summed up his performance as follows:

“About myself I’ll only say that I didn’t seem to be a great deal worse than John Gielgud.” (Ref. LA 5/1/1/69/5)

Following the release of the film Anderson received letters from many friends and colleagues congratulating him on his appearance. In reply to one of these letters he wrote this detailed, entertaining response, which also hints at a different direction his career may have taken:

“Well – without wanting to fall into the category of actors who talk endlessly about themselves – I’m glad that appearance in Chariots of Fire seemed okay to a fellow professional. As you can imagine, it was quite a scary thing to do, particularly acting with Gielgud and learning just how self-centered a real star has to be… Also, the director had never made a feature film before and hardly directed any actors, so I was on my own.

I have to admit that I wasn’t as enthusiastic about the film as you were – but then I did see it under rather peculiar circumstances. At the Royal Command Performance, in fact, seated some half-a-dozen rows back from Her Majesty the Queen Mother. I didn’t rate high enough to get into the presentation line-up with John Gielgud, which I thought was rather unfair (after all, I did have one more scene than he did). I tended to close my eyes when my scenes came up, so I suppose I didn’t really give the film a chance. Anyway, I’m pleased by its success.

I myself am hoping to graduate shortly into the category of elderly director-character actor (eg. John Houston etc.). I was, you’ll be amused to hear, offered a Prince of Evil role (at least I think it was an offer) in the new Star Wars sequel. Unfortunately I couldn’t take it because we’ll still be working on Britannia Hospital. I think I’d have enjoyed that.” (Ref. LA 5/1/2/7/23)

Lindsay Anderson as a cult sci-fi character? This is how close the director if If…. came to having his own action figure!

Portrait of Anderson taken in the 1980s. In 1981 Anderson was offered the role of the Emperor in Return of the Jedi.
archives Written by: