Lindsay Anderson’s Disunited Kingdom – A School, a Hospital and a Lucky Man

Wasn’t it ever thus? Most of us in Britain moan about the state of the two former things while a lucky man nabs the spoils to leave he rest us of us gasping and gawping for the economic scraps in a supposed land of plenty.

In 2017’s summer of discontent, we have a female prime minister and there isn’t much luck around. You may choose to describe the situation in stronger terms but the point Lindsay Anderson makes in his Mick Travis trilogy – with a vigorous, unquenchable Malcolm McDowell in the lead – was that the country’s system is broken and needs an overhaul.

In the nicest social satirical terms, of course.

In If, McDowell makes one of the greatest cinematic introductions ever: hat, long coat, face veil – and from here on in, you know the director means business and he proves it by ending the film in a brutal, iconic scene when the pupils turn their guns on their masters.

It’s a film that captured the spirit of its times because of its searing indictment of our public school system – but I still prefer Anderson’s next odyssey, even though it’s generally seen as inferior because of its overblown narrative and epic running time.

O Lucky Man is a freewheeling masterpiece, a glorious, raging mosaic that says everything but gives nothing to the viewer in terms of a linear story arc or a set of characters we can genuinely trust or follow.

It could be seen as a musical (with Alan Price continually popping up with his laconic lyricism) or it could be seen be seen as a companion piece to Pilgrim’s Progress or Kafka’s America – with its tale of one man’s journey’s wanderings becoming strangely intoxicating and illuminated at every turn.

And then there’s the scathing, bitterly farcical Britannia Hospital. An early 80s time bandit that boots you up the backside, gives the Royals a good kicking and has protesters being whacked by brutal coppers as God Save The Queen plays in the background. Oh, and there’s Leonard Rossiter in the lead – one of Britain’s finest comic actors – so what’s not to like?

A lot, according to critics, who savaged its presumed lack of patriotism during the Falklands War and beyond. Anderson never truly recovered from this mauling, although he did go to Hollywood to make the sweet, underrated Whales of August.

But ultimately, it comes back to Britain – and with Lindsay Anderson it always does. He felt we could do better – and more often than not – he was right.

As he proved with a searing adaptation of David Storey’s This Sporting Life, which perhaps in the period with If, was his honeymoon period in terms of praise, adulation and admiration.

But he preferred scorn. And with the Mick Travis trilogy, the running time is dripping with it.

And we’re the better for it because he tells a deeper truth about our islands.

Scorn is right up there with wit, flippancy, humiliation and a few other ingredients that box up our daily narrative, across the airwaves, on the streets and in our bus stations.

We love it – but does it really lead to lasting change? That was the question Anderson was really asking.

Judging by the state of our schools, the hospitals and (perhaps) the next lucky man, probably not…

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