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…

Marathon man Leo and his epic running times

Look at that face, isn’t it gorgeous? How could you not want to shoot that, frame it and and swoon over it in the editing suite? Why wouldn’t you want that glorious, meaty, filled-out visage on your set each and every day? It’s a work of art. A feisty, Mount Rushmore masterpiece fit for one of the finest actors of our generation.

And that’s the problem directors have had over ‘shooting’ Leonardo DiCaprio; they can’t take their eyes off him, hence the ridiculous running times for most of King Leo’s Hollywood epics.

The list of his two-hour plus, binge cinema is endless: Titanic, The Aviator, Django Unchained, Catch Me If You Can, Gangs of New York, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Departed, Inception, The Great Gatsby, Shutter Island, Blood Diamond, J Edgar, The Man in the Iron Mask and Body of Lies.

In fact, if we take his last his 13 films (from current squeeze Wolf all the way back to Gangs of New York in 2002), they are all on the cusp of two hours or, most of the time, closer to three. I don’t know if that’s value for money or Hollywood indulgence, either way long-distance Leo is laughing (and gasping) all the way to the bank.

An early indicator of this trend might have come in his breakthrough films like This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape which are both more than 100 minutes long. That puppy-ish golden brown face and those dancing eyes were obviously too much for the director’s concerned and that why we have the slightly bloated, if intermittently interesting, pictures we have today.

Which brings us to nicely to Martin Scorsese (and his five long pictures with Leo DC). Once upon a time he had another ‘great’ actor to work with, Robert De Niro. Were those films just as long? Some were, like Goodfellas, New York New York and Casino (and there were others like Godfather II, 1900 and The Deer Hunter which were just as deadly) but for sheer, fatigue-inducing screen sickness, DiCaprio wins hands down, simply because he’s really gone to town in this decade. Add up all the screen time in his last dozen movies and it’s mammoth; a monstrous back-to-back Hollywood nightmare.

But some of the films are good, you say? They are but there’s no excuse for the directors face fetish of a fine actor who’s better at idealism than authority. They obviously know what brings in the Hollywood dough; a beautiful face with talent to burn and stamina to match. It’s no contest. Leo DC’s a marathon man who can go a distance – and knock us out of the ring in the process. He’s the capital of Hollywoodland. A license to print money – and do some extra takes. It’s a win-win situation but maybe not for us.

Pryor’s blue collar bruises a gateway to comic gold

Almost nine years after his death, Richard Pryor’s life is about to given a stage and screen adaptation as film director Lee Daniels (The Butler) and comedian Lenny Henry give their own respective versions of a stupendous, brutal talent.

All I’d say is: good luck with that. A wayward genius like Pryor would probably say: You MF’s are crazy! Obviously I’d never use such profanities, but Pryor’s harrowing, humdinger of a life feels almost unfilmable because anything that tries to get close to the spirit of the man will naturally be distilled, diluted and sanitised, and therefore, not a true reflection of his nature.

His autobiography Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences certainly gives that impression. It’s like being on that rodeo horse with Gene Wilder in Stir Crazy in that you’re getting your backside jolted repeatedly by shocking interludes. The book wants to throw you off at regular intervals with graphic descriptions of the abuse he suffered as a kid, his drug abuse, his pathological quest for fame, his repeated us of the ‘n’ word – but then it calms down again into its breezy, bitesize style to give the kind of emotion and insight difficult to find elsewhere. There are more golden nuggets in this short, rampaging volume than there are in books three times the size.

In one way, Pryor seems to share a similar, aspirational mindset with that other American superstar Sammy Davis Jr – in that they both suffered tremendous hardship but also craved tremendous success. There was nothing in between. An all or nothing uber capitalism that propelled them into the big league; fast and furious but with dollops of fun.

But this fun didn’t come in the movies for Pryor as he points out his disappointment with the Hollywood films he appeared in over the years. There isn’t one film he’s really satisfied with – he thinks he can do better. Perhaps they were too gentle for him? Although when he appears with Eddie Murphy in Harlem Nights (when he already had symptoms of MS) he does feel Murphy’s comedy is ‘mean’ which makes you think whether Pryor’s own comedy was so offensive after all, at least in his own mind.

I do not think Pryor’s comedy was offensive. It was painful, authentic and groundbreaking. It was based on a shocking, semi-absurd background where adults took so much but gave back so little. Of course, that happens to many of us – but only a few of us can dig up such a devastating mine of diamonds and deliver them with such searing honesty.

And this is where any fictional treatment of Pryor’s life might hit a roadblock. How do you capture that background, that sensibility and that wild, intoxicating personality? You don’t, you just do your best.

Which is what Daniels and Henry will be doing.

It may not be enough.

But nothing ever was for Mister Richard Pryor.