O Lucky Man! is, in a sense, a film about how we should live. Mick starts out in the first half of the film in search of status, gain and profit and is sent to prison; then he tries to lead a Good Life and that is equally disastrous. The end is a sort of ironic evocation, I suppose, of the Zen attitude to living, which is to live life and accept it and to smile the right kind of smile but not to ask why. In that way, I suppose, the film is open-ended.(Lindsay Anderson, ‘Commentary’, 1994, in Never Apologise, p128)
Nobody realises what a mess of loneliness and inadequacy I am inside.(Lindsay Anderson, Diary, 17 March 1972)
My own film career has been peculiarly disastrous: even O Lucky Man! was a box-office failure, though I think it’s the kind of film people will come back to twenty years from now.(Helen Mirren, quoted in The Times, 23 October 1975)
Generally, the British film industry has made a poor fist of reflecting Britain back to itself. Lindsay Anderson’s films were an exception. Embodying the contradictions of the director’s personality, they succeeded in marrying his individualistic auteur style with the demands of popular entertainment. O Lucky Man! was one of the most original films of its time. Somehow or other Anderson and producer Michael Medwin secured American finance for a film that resolutely resists the upstairs-downstairs, heritage-industry clichés that our American cousins expect. The Britain it portrays, albeit with the broad brush of satire, is venal and tawdry, populated by bent coppers, mad scientists, ruthless tycoons, flagellant judges and sex-starved landladies. Through it all, wearing a perpetual optimistic grin, is the irrepressible Malcolm McDowell as travelling salesman Mick Travis. Up and down he goes, on a picaresque roller-coaster of a plot. About half way through the film (which clocks in at just under three hours overall), he escapes from Dr Millar’s laboratory and is nearly run down by a minibus. It contains Alan Price’s band returning from a gig in the North, and, buried under a fur coat on the back seat, Helen Mirren. ‘This is Patricia,’ says Alan by way of introduction. ‘She’s very intelligent. She’s making a study of us.’ The well-heeled daughter of immoral financier Sir James Burgess (Ralph Richardson), Patricia swiftly seduces the fresh-faced hero. On a city rooftop they share a champagne breakfast. Patricia dismisses Mick’s success-worship as ‘old-fashioned’ but supplies him with enough tantalising detail of her father’s wealth to inspire Mick to blag his way into the old man’s office and secure himself a job. No less avaricious than her father, Patricia meanwhile dumps Mick to marry the Duke of Belminster. Alan Price has a lyric on the soundtrack that sums up the spirit: ‘It’s around the world in circles turning’. When later we encounter Patricia and her Duke, the wheel of fortune has indeed turned and the once-affluent pair are sheltering on a bomb site among destitutes and meths-drinkers.
Anderson’s diaries have been published and they give a detailed and fascinating account of the troubled making of this film. ‘Patricia’ seems to have caused more grief than other characters, both in writing and casting. On 12 February 1972 screenwriter David Sherwin (who was evidently battling his own demons at the time) talks ‘vaguely and vehemently about how awful were Mick’s scenes with Patricia in the script; how they needed to be rewritten’. On 28 May they are still reworking the rooftop scene: ‘we hammered something out which at least seemed to have the merit of giving Patricia a positive character’. Mirren, we learn from the diaries, was not his first choice for the part. Interviews began on 7 January, when Anderson saw six or seven candidates. ‘Two attractive but rather freakish drop-outs are the most sparky’ but not posh enough for the financier’s daughter. On 2 February he sees more potential Patricias. He’s impressed by Fiona Lewis (‘authentically upper class’), less so by Helen Mirren, whom he finds ‘rather humourless (or seemingly so): prepared to think I find her RSC tradition “absolute shit”.’ Having decided that Mirren was ‘not very charming’ and ‘rather bossy’, he casts Fiona Lewis, although not before seeing some other actresses (an occasion that leaves him ‘sick and loose from the bowels’ on 15 February.) By the time principal shooting begins, he is regretting his decision, as the rooftop scene continues to drag: ‘Fiona is very weak and so makes it difficult – impossible – to build up Patricia into something big. I had a momentary attack of desperation this morning: surely I should have cast Helen Mirren?’ (18 May). But still he doesn’t go straight to her. He now decides he wants Vanessa Redgrave for the part (20 May). The next day he visits Redgrave in her dressing room at the Shaw Theatre and drops off the script. ‘She seemed to be ready to accept it pretty well sight unseen.’ His optimism must have been misplaced, for by 29 May we learn he has recast the part and is rehearsing Mirren as the new Patricia: ‘The scene reads quite well – the first time… well, say the second or third.’
Most actors in the film play two or more parts. Mirren remains in one part, except for a brief cameo as the bespectacled receptionist in the audition scene at the end. (She must also have appeared in the silent montage of the ‘Prologue’. Anderson’s diary on 11 August 1972 refers to her playing the Landowner’s Mistress in a scene presumably omitted from the final cut: ‘good sport, [she] puts on a curly C&A wig! She is not charging for her work this week – which is more than we deserve!’)
It’s instructive to compare the peppery account of working relationships that emerges from Anderson’s diary with the magnanimous verdict that Mirren gives elsewhere. In her book In the Frame she writes:
I had a funny relationship with Lindsay. We seemed to be old friends from the moment we met, able to tease one another and loving each other, or at least I loved him (p132).
In an interview for Venice Magazine in 2006, she elaborated:
Lindsay was very private, and yet intensely loyal to his actors. Very serious, and yet always you felt he was laughing at himself and everything else. He always seemed to be having this very dark internal laugh at the whole thing. He really put his inner being into his movies, I think. He really loved humanity, in a very Platonic way. He didn’t strike me as being very sexual, and he would seem to have this sort of Platonic love for the men he worked with, but also for a number of women. He adored Celia Johnson, for example.
She was one of the contributors to Gavin Lambert’s memoir of his friend. Although she admits to finding Anderson a less ‘gentle’ director in the theatre than on the film set, ‘he was so intelligent and articulate and talented that I longed, like many others, for his approval’. She has a more down-to-earth reason for his reluctance to cast her in O Lucky Man!: ‘He thought I was too fat.’ Once filming was underway, she sensed the writers’ difficulties with the rooftop scene:
It… seemed to go off in too many directions. But Lindsay was enormously patient with me. He made a few simple suggestions while feeding me champagne, and got me quite drunk. I thought I was terrible. But it worked.
From everything I’ve read about this brilliant, maverick figure, I conclude that the key to Anderson’s personality was an inclination to hurt the ones he loved; it was, for him, a sort of test. On this film, production designer Jocelyn Herbert was his chosen punchbag. One of his close circle of regular collaborators, she once got such a tongue-lashing from him that she walked off set. ‘I came to realise that he treated all his favourites that way,’ she told Gavin Lambert later. ‘Abuse was a kind of affection.’
Lindsay Anderson, The Diaries, ed. Paul Sutton (2004)
Lindsay Anderson, Never Apologise: The Collected Writings, ed. Paul Ryan (2004)
Gavin Lambert, Mainly About Lindsay Anderson: A Memoir (2000)
Alex Simon, ‘Helen Mirren: screen queen’, Venice Magazine, April 2006 (available here)