The personal and the political

Lindsay Anderson was very familiar with the social world represented in If…. He had been born into a military family in colonial India in 1923: his father was an army captain stationed with the Royal Engineers, and his mother was also British, but had been born in South Africa. He attended a private preparatory school in England, and then Cheltenham College, the elite public school in which If…. was later filmed. He won a scholarship to study Classics at Oxford, and after several years of army service returned there to complete his degree in English Literature. During the 1950s, supported by a small private income, he worked as a film critic, making several short documentary films and becoming a key player in the short-lived ‘Free Cinema’ movement. It was not until 1963 that he had the opportunity to make his first feature film, This Sporting Life. Throughout his life, he enjoyed considerable success as a theatre director, working at the Royal Court, the Old Vic and eventually the National Theatre in London, as well as in off-Broadway theatres in New York.

Anderson was very much a child of the British ‘establishment’, but he also saw himself as an outsider – ‘at odds with the tradition of my class and my country’, as he put it in his diaries. He seems to have enjoyed (and indeed cultivated) a reputation as a dissident and a non-conformist. In his critical writing and in interviews, he comes across as combative, prickly and opinionated. He rails vehemently against what he sees as mediocrity, triviality and sentimentality. Understatement and subtlety are not his strongest points. On a personal level, he was very supportive of those who submitted to become his disciples, but he was often dismissive and caustic in his criticism of others. Appropriately, ‘Never Apologise’ was his chosen title for a collection of his writing, after a line spoken by John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, one of his favourite films: ‘never apologise, it’s a sign of weakness’. Anderson appears to have been a celibate (not to say repressed) homosexual, who had fiery relations with some of his male stars – most notably Richard Harris, who won several awards as the lead in This Sporting Life.

Anderson saw himself not only as a ‘fighter’ against all and sundry, but also as a lone, heroic artist. In his film work, he constantly presented himself as an auteur, in the tradition of European art cinema – although for a man who at various times in his career resorted to making episodes of Robin Hood for television and commercials for breakfast cereal and kitchen foil – and who later directed the documentary Wham! In China (1985) about the eponymous pop group – this was not always an easy stance to sustain. Yet among those whom he did not offend, Anderson seems to have inspired wide-eyed adulation and loyalty.

While some of the reviews of If…. might imply that he was some kind of radical left-wing revolutionary, the tone of Anderson’s writing more often resembles that of an irascible aristocrat. In the words of Ian Rakoff, one of the editors of If…., he was essentially a ‘bourgeois non-conformist’. He challenged some traditional values, but also what he saw as fashionable liberal orthodoxies. He apparently read the right-wing Daily Telegraph, and believed in capital punishment. As we shall see, this curmudgeonly stance became more marked in his later work, culminating in the misanthropic Britannia Hospital.


School days

If…. was Anderson’s second feature film. As I’ve noted, the original script was written by David Sherwin and John Howlett, and it was partly based on their own experiences as pupils at Tonbridge – a minor public school that Sherwin later referred to as a ‘Nazi camp’. Anderson’s views of Cheltenham seem to have been much more positive, however. Although he had to bamboozle the headmaster in order to gain access to film there, he was excited at the prospect of revisiting his alma mater. There is little evidence that Anderson himself had been a rebel while at school: in fact, he was a prefect. Several elements of the revised script seem to derive from his experiences at Cheltenham, including the characters of the headmaster, the housemaster’s wife, and the chaplain. While some critics complained that the film was anachronistic or exaggerated, the ethos and atmosphere of the school seems to have been captured in remarkable detail. As Anderson said in 1969, ‘I put a lot of myself into If…. It is largely autobiographical.’ If…. may appear to be a political film, but it was also a highly personal one.

Indeed, despite its ending, the film’s presentation of the school is remarkably ambivalent. Anderson clearly felt a degree of nostalgia about his own school days, and a continuing affiliation to the elite public school system. In an Observer article published for the film’s release, he wrote: ‘For me, as I suppose for most of the public school educated, the world of school remains one of extraordinary, significant vividness; a world of reality and symbol; of mingled affection and reserve.’ Perhaps in contrast to Sherwin, Anderson did not conceive of If…. as an act of revenge: as they worked together on the script, he urged Sherwin to adopt ‘a more poetic, less axe-grinding and I think less sentimental attitude to the subject’. In a ‘self-interview’ at the time (in which he asked himself the questions), he was keen to distinguish between his film and ‘the public school novel of the thirties, when sensitive young middle-class writers who had suffered at school, wrote novels to tell everyone how awful it was – it’s not that kind of picture at all. I think there’s quite a lot of affection in this film.’ As Malcolm MacDowell later put it, ‘only a man who loved his school could have made that film’.

If…. observes the school system with an almost anthropological eye: as Anderson wrote in a letter to Sherwin, he wanted to create ‘the image of a world: a strange sub-world with its own peculiar laws, distortions, brutalities, loves… with its special relationship to a perhaps outdated conception of British society… its subjection of young minds to disciplines hardly related to the contemporary world; and to the domination of often freakish or deformed or simply inadequate “masters”’. The opening scenes of the film use the characteristic device of following the new boy as a means of introducing us to some of these customs and rituals – dormitory inspections, ‘fagging’, the house system, medical examinations – as well as inducting us into the school’s specialized terminology and arcane rules. As Mark Sinker suggests, If…. stands in a long tradition of British school stories, dating back to Thomas Hughes’s 1857 novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays. The film says a great deal, not just about the eccentric rituals and personalities, but also about the operation of power in schools. It observes how control and freedom are afforded in different spaces – not only classrooms, but also corridors and dormitories, and pupils’ private spaces; and it also shows the nuances of relationships among the boys of different ages and levels of authority, and between them and the teachers.

The film also reflects the partial modernization of the system, especially through the figure of the headmaster, who represents a more commercialized, ‘bourgeois’ perspective. At one point, the headmaster mentions that he will be teaching ‘business management’ to the lower sixth, and in another scene (with the army cadets marching past) he delivers a lengthy speech about how the school is responding to the opportunities of modern consumer culture. ‘Britain today,’ he argues, is a power-house of ideas, experiments, imagination, on everything from pop music to pig breeding, from atom power stations to mini-skirts, and that’s the challenge we’ve got to meet’. According to him, the large part of the population is in the process of ‘becoming middle-class’, and it has much to learn from the middle-class moral values and customs of the public schools. (These quotations were apparently taken directly from a book by a former Eton headmaster, although they would not seem out of place in a speech by Tony Blair…)

The head is also liberal in his attitudes towards rule-breaking and punishment: ‘I take this very seriously’, he says in beginning to admonish the three rebels for their attack on the chaplain, ‘but you mustn’t think I don’t understand. It is a natural characteristic of adolescents to want to proclaim individuality.’ Bizarrely, he then opens the bookcase drawer, the chaplain sits up, and the head requires the boys to apologise and shake hands with their victim. There is clearly a contrast between the headmaster’s seemingly modern approach and the ancient, aristocratic settings in which such lines are delivered; and the man himself is shown to be unctuous, complacent and somewhat ludicrous. Indeed, there are some indications in his writings that Anderson himself regretted this apparent modernization of the system; and it’s possible to read the headmaster’s ultimate demise – the café waitress shoots him in the forehead as he pleads for them to listen to reason – as a manifestation of this.

Of course, alongside the absurdity and surrealism, there is also brutality, hypocrisy and repression. The school is undoubtedly hierarchical and authoritarian: while the teachers may appear eccentric or ineffectual, or even vaguely liberal, they depend upon the absolute – and often apparently arbitrary – power of the whips. On one level, the school operates a regime of total regulation, in which power is delegated throughout the system. Nevertheless, the film takes an almost affectionate view of the kinds of freedom that it can afford. The boys have their own common rooms and private spaces, which they enthusiastically decorate with collages of images (including pin-ups of naked women, and posters of Che Guevara and Chairman Mao). In one small but indicative instance, we see one of the boys, Markland, lovingly unwrapping a couple of peaches that he carefully stores in his desk.

The film’s view of sexuality is particularly interesting in this context. Mick and his friends’ fantasies about the world beyond the school are partly to do with sexuality: at one point, Mick responds to an image of a semi-naked model in a magazine by imagining how they will ‘make love’ once and then wander into the sea and die, while Wallace then proceeds to lick the picture. When Mick and Johnny escape from the school, and Mick apparently has sex with the café waitress (who is routinely described simply as ‘The Girl’ in published accounts), it appears that this fantasy has been broadly fulfilled. While the use of black-and-white film was partly a matter of convenience, as I’ve described, it is notable that this scene – like others on this theme – is partly shot in black-and-white.

Sexual repression is apparent, not just among the boys, but also among the women in the school (the matron and the masters’ wives). Little remains of a scene in which the matron was apparently shown drifting into a sexual reverie, fantasizing about the boys. However, the housemaster’s wife, Mrs. Kemp, is the target of some suggestive comments on the part of the three rebels, and is later shown in a bizarre scene, sitting up in bed accompanying her husband’s reading of a poem on a recorder. Most notably, she is also shown wandering entirely naked (and in black-and-white) in the school corridor and the dormitory, while the boys and their teachers are outside engaging in ferocious military exercises.

Meanwhile, homosexual desire is shown in quite ambivalent terms. On the one hand, we see the whips casually discussing the appeal of their younger servants: one of them, Denson, protests against what he sees as immature ‘homosexual flirtatiousness’, yet in response the lead whip Rowntree tempts him by assigning him the pretty boy Bobby Phillips to be his ‘scum’. The chaplain is even more predatory, viciously tweaking the nipple of the new boy in his maths class, and is later shown listening with lubricious desire as one of the boys confesses to impure thoughts. Sinker even identifies elements of sado-masochistic eroticism in the flogging scene, which is perhaps a step too far. Nevertheless, there is a definite eroticism in the relationship between Wallace, one of the rebels, and the younger Phillips. In one notable scene, Phillips is shown admiring Wallace’s acrobatic skills on the parallel bars, while in a later shot, they are shown peacefully asleep in bed together (again, both scenes are in black-and-white). The contrast between this almost romantic view and the perversity of the chaplain and the whips may well reflect Anderson’s own ambivalence – although it’s notable that Mick himself has to be identified as entirely heterosexual.

In interviews and writings both at the time and subsequently, Anderson rejected the view that the film was ‘a hatchet job on the public school system’, as the film journal Sight and Sound had proposed. Rather, he insisted that the school was a metaphor for wider issues – for addressing tensions, as he put it, ‘between hierarchy and anarchy, independence and tradition, liberty and law’. Elsewhere he argued that the school should be regarded as a ‘microcosm’ of the wider society – an approach that he felt was particularly relevant in England, ‘where the educational system is such an exact image of the social system’. The film persistently makes connections between the school itself and the power of the wider British establishment, and indeed of British imperialism. This is perhaps most strongly embodied not in the figure of the headmaster, but in the chaplain, whose sermons rail against sin and corruption, and who leads the Combined Cadet Force on their military exercises mounted on horseback. ‘Jesus Christ,’ he tells the boys, ‘is our commanding officer’. (It’s worth noting that, even today, these remain key elements of the English public school system: the Combined Cadet Forces, for example, are represented in more than 300 schools.)

The ‘soft’, seemingly liberal power of the headmaster is supported not just by the brutality of the whips, but also, in the climactic Founder’s Day scenes, by the military might of the army. General Denson, the old boy who addresses the congregation, offers a much more traditional view of the role of the school, based on privilege, tradition, discipline, obedience and national pride. While the world may be changing, he insists, these things – and England more broadly – have not. There may be some – ‘modern psychiatrists, priests, pundits of all sorts’ – who scorn the old order, and there may be a good deal of talk about freedom. But freedom, the General argues, is part of ‘the heritage of every Englishman’: ‘we won’t stay free,’ he tells the congregation, ‘unless we are ready to fight’. By this point, the school has clearly come to stand for something much broader: the armed rebellion of Mick and his cohorts represents one potential outcome of the broader social changes that are afoot – although, as I will suggest, their actions are not necessarily ones that the film is seeking to celebrate.


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