Dear Mr Chekhov…

Following his appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives to discuss the life and work of the film director Lindsay Anderson with the actor Brian Cox our University Archivist Karl Magee picks a personal selection of his favourite letters in the Lindsay Anderson Archive.

Letter from Gene Kelly to Lindsay Anderson, 7 March 1950 (LA/4/1/5/18)

While best known as a filmmaker Lindsay Anderson began his career as a critic. Along with a group of fellow students he founded the influential film magazine Sequence at Oxford University in 1946. The magazine took a new approach to writing about cinema, challenging the prevailing uncritical view of British film and championing new work coming from Hollywood and Europe.

The impact of the magazine can be seen in the correspondence files held in the archive which contain letters from its subscribers. The files include many letters bearing the unmistakable letterheads of the major Hollywood studios sent by actors, writers and directors. In March 1950 the actor and dancer Gene Kelly wrote to Anderson praising the magazine and asking the young critic for his views on his new film On the Town. Anderson duly replied with his thoughts on the film and while Anderson’s letter is not present in the archive a follow up letter from Kelly in October 1950 thanks him for his comments while also providing an update on the filming of An American in Paris.

Examples of letterheads from Hollywood Studios in the Lindsay Anderson Archive

Letter from John Ford to Lindsay Anderson, 6 May 1952 (LA/5/1/2/13/2)

A visit to the cinema to see My Darling Clementine in 1946 began Anderson’s life-long admiration for the films of John Ford. He championed Ford’s work in the pages of Sequence magazine and travelled to Ireland to meet the director in 1950, the first of several meetings over the next thirty years. In 1947 Ford wrote to Anderson thanking the young critic for praising for his work. In the letter Ford apologises for typing noting “I am as yet unable to write long hand, due to a bathing accident at Omaha Beach” – a reference to Ford’s participation in the D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944. By the time Ford wrote in May 1952 he had recovered from his wartime injuries, sending a handwritten note of thanks for Anderson’s review of The Quiet Man.

Letter from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to Lindsay Anderson, 17 August 1973 (LA/5/1/1/4)

When cataloguing collections, opening boxes for the first time, you’re never quite sure what you will find. One day while unpacking the contents of the archive I got rather excited when I came across what appeared to be an Oscar. However, on closer inspection it turned out to be a plastic imitation. In 1954 Anderson co-directed the film Thursday’s Children, a documentary about a school for deaf children in the English seaside town of Margate. The film won an Academy Award with its production company (World Wide Pictures) rather than its directors receiving the statuette.

Archives often slowly reveal their stories, a series of individual documents and items combining to reveal the bigger picture. Several weeks after discovering the plastic Oscar I came across a letter written by Anderson’s secretary to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1973 requesting his award for Thursday’s Children. The Academy’s reply was also present, informing Anderson that they were unable to provide him with an Academy Award as “no duplicate statuettes can be issued.” The plastic imitation would have to do…

Letter from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and plastic Oscar.

Letter from Andrej Wajda to Lindsay Anderson, 4 December 1983 (LA/1/9/3/16/62)

In 1982 Anderson directed the film Britannia Hospital, the final part of a trilogy of films about Britain with If…. and O Lucky Man! The film pulled no punches in its criticism of British society – right and left, rich and poor, royalty and unions. Anderson always liked to provoke a reaction from both critics and audiences but he was unprepared for the critical mauling the film received. Released during the Falklands War it faced an audience who were not as receptive to criticisms of Britain as they may normally have been. In December 1983 Anderson received a more sympathetic appraisal of the film in a long letter from the Polish director Andrej Wajda who wrote:

Dear Lindsay… I saw Britannia Hospital in Paris. It is the most Polish film produced anywhere in the world in recent years. Being Polish, I completely understand the way you are using the facts of contemporary life and putting them on the scree. This really is Britain – the only one that truly exists.

As in every Polish masterpiece, there is twice as much material in it as there ought to be. It’s as if you were anticipating censorship and counting on it to shape your film by cutting it. Perhaps it’s a pity you’ve no censorship in England.”

Extract from letter from Andrej Wajda to Lindsay Anderson, 4 December 1983
Press cuttings for Britannia Hospital collected by Lindsay Anderson.

Letter from British Sky Broadcasting to Lindsay Anderson, 2 October 1991 (LA/5/4/14/12)

Following the critical mauling and commercial failure of Britannia Hospital Anderson found it increasingly difficult to make films. The archive includes a series of files relating to various unmade projects including a proposed sequel to If…. (his most successful film).

An accomplished theatre director Anderson attempted to raise finance for a film version of the classic play The Cherry Orchard in the early 1990s, having directed stage productions in 1966 and 1983. The archive documents various attempts to develop this project, including the many letters of rejection received. One can only imagine Anderson’s reaction to this reply from BSkyB:

Dear Mr Chekhov

Thank you for your recent correspondence regarding the proposal proposal entitled The Cherry Orchard.

We have now had the opportunity to consider your concept and unfortunately cannot proceed with it owing to the fact that we are operating under financial restrictions at the present moment.

Extract from letter from British Sky Broadcasting to Lindsay Anderson, 2 October 1991
Promotional material for Lindsay Anderson’s production of The Cherry Orchard, Chichester Festival Theatre, July 1966.
archives Written by: