Tony Richardson's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner BFI DVD release 2009
Finally, after years of waiting, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is in print again. Arguably the best-acted and most atmospherically shot of all the sixties New Wave films, it is a searing look at class and institutional dynamics as experienced by Colin, a Borstal boy with a gift for running. This restoration from the BFI is beautiful, with extremely crisp picture and sound, and includes some fantastic extras. There is a fascinating commentary by film historian Robert Murphy, Tom Courtenay, and Alan Sillitoe (who wrote the short story on which the film is based), Tony Richardson's famous short film Momma Don't Allow, an essay booklet with stills from the film, and an interesting documentary by the film's photographer Walter Lassally. Loneliness has at last received the treatment it deserves.
The short story itself was written in Majorca, where Sillitoe was convalescing from TB. As he explains in the commentary, his reading at the time included Sartre, Camus's The Outsider, and American writers such as Salinger and Styron. However, the story was also built up from memories of cousins and friends in Nottingham who had been to Borstal, and informed by books on criminology. All these influences worked at a subconscious level until the story came to Sillitoe in a complete form, needing no rewriting. Crucially, however, Sillitoe did not intend the story to be a piece of social realist observation, but an allegory of the writer's struggle: just as Colin rebels in order to maintain his own integrity, so the writer must rebel against society's expectations of him.
The nature of the source material explains why this great film is also deeply flawed. The transformation of the source material from artistic allegory into social realist narrative is problematic. The original story is hazy on detail, particularly on character development, precisely because it is an allegory. In developing Colin's character for the film, Richardson and Sillitoe added a union-leader father, whose death is one of Colin's chief traumas, and a girlfriend, beautifully played by the little-known Topsy Jane, in a performance that combines anxiety and affection in equal measure. By thus making the protagonist softer and more sympathetic than the Colin in the story, the scriptwriters created an inconsistent protagonist whose pragmatism and attachment to his girlfriend make it difficult to grasp why he would deliberately self-destruct. The psychological drama of the race, with flashbacks to the traumas in Colin's life, does not quite convince the viewer of his decision.
Nevertheless, the film is remarkable in numerous ways, not least for its acting. In his commentary Robert Murphy remarks on the vulnerability that Michael Redgrave brings to his role as the Governor, turning him into a man whose faith and good intentions have been frustrated by the same system that is wrecking Colin's life. There are two tragic figures in this film, not just one, and part of the tragedy is their failure to understand one another, the product of the class divide but also (to some extent) willed on Colin's part: Murphy perceptively comments that the film is "partly about the cruelty of youth." If Colin is ultimately a prisoner of his class, so, in a less serious way, is the Governor; he desperately tries to inculcate school spirit among the boys by organising a sports day with a local public school, an idea which now seems perverse, but was of a piece with similar well-meaning contemporary experiments in social harmony.
Though Courtenay was excellent in the later Billy Liar, his debut here is extraordinarily brilliant, displaying tremendous emotional range. In the commentary he acknowledges that he did not relate to the class-struggle aspect of Loneliness at all, seeing it instead as a romantic story about a gifted boy who has ambition, and relating to it that way (a reminder that the class-war template does not allow for the variations of individual temperaments: the young Courtenay was highly aware, reading the Uses of Literacy and inwardly reacting to Dirk Bogarde's snobbish jibe about his 'fishwife' mother, but he was not angry). Murphy says perceptively that Courtenay "has honesty and integrity stamped through him like a stick of Blackpool rock," and his performance in Loneliness combines innocence and gentleness with a barely-repressed rage and anguish, making the very best of the inconsistent characterisation. The film is also notable for the debut of two other major actors, James Fox and John Thaw, as a public schoolboy and a tough Liverpudlian respectively.
To convey a realistic sense of place, Richardson used location filming rather than studio sets, ably assisted by Lassally's naturalistic camera-work. (His Loneliness photography was influenced by the French New Wave, but also influenced it in turn through the pioneering use of fast film stocks). The Skegness beach scenes (actually filmed at Camber Sands) are a painterly exercise in shining wet sand and big sky, while the dark, cramped Borstal is juxtaposed with the moments of freedom that Colin experiences on his cross-country runs: sunlight sparkles on puddles and gleams through the branches in idyllic scenes masterfully captured by Lassally and soundtracked to a buoyant trad jazz score. The whole soundtrack is interesting: Jerusalem is used in the famous, harrowing scene that intercuts a Borstal concert with the physical abuse of a runaway, making the hymn bitterly reproachful, and also as a mournful dirge at the beginning of the film, recurring during sad scenes from Colin's pre-Borstal life. This use of the Labour party anthem as a commentary on the welfare state's failures is perhaps heavy-handed, but it is interesting to contrast the ironic use of Jerusalem here with the cathartic triumph that it gives to Chariots of Fire's final scenes.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner showcases not only the tremendous acting talent of its cast, but also Richardson's sensitive direction. Where Reisz's films are more linear and straightforwardly polemical, and therefore more satisfying from the narrative point of view, Richardson's work displays greater complexity both in its structure and in its approach to the intricacies of human relationships in a class-based society. His rebels are more complicated than the hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: the performances that he coaxes from his actors, whether in Loneliness, The Entertainer or A Taste of Honey, capture the vulnerability and anxiety, not merely the defiance, of the individual against the system.--Isabel Taylor
Richard Lester's The Bed Sitting Room (1969; BFI Flipside 2009)
Following a nuclear war, the few remaining survivors do their best to cope. That is essentially the plot of this hectic, heartless film in which the characters continually 'keep moving' in an attempt to avoid fall-out mutation. Zany absurdism lavished on such a premise seems out of place, to put it mildly, though others clearly find the central conceit appealing; The Bed Sitting Room has been a cult film for decades. The BFI's new series Flipside is intended to showcase the quirky, and this film certainly fits the bill. Director Richard Lester was seen as a good investment at the time the film was made, after his successes with A Hard Day's Night, Help! and The Knack...And How to Get It, but The Bed Sitting Room flopped so badly on release that it set him back for four years thereafter.
In the film's strange new post-apocalyptic world, there are mountains of boots and seas of broken crockery. The only electricity supply is generated by one man on a bicycle, and Ralph Richardson's character, a 'Lord Fortnum of Alamein' discomfited by the prospect of turning into a bed-sitting room in a prole location (at £3 ten a week!) is desperately searching for Belgravia. It is astonishing who was persuaded to appear in the film --not only Richardson, but also Mona Washbourne, Michael Hordern and Rita Tushingham, along with more usual suspects such as Marty Feldman (in drag, as a rather unconvincing nurse), Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and of course Spike Milligan, who co-wrote the screenplay with John Antrobus. The brilliance of the cast (listed in the credits in order of height) is explained by the fact that The Bed Sitting Room had been a highly successful stage play; Milligan and Antrobus were not altogether pleased with the film version. In this incarnation the actors do not have a great deal to do except wander across a desert lit by an angry red glow, past the dome of St Paul's half-submerged in the sand, in a state of melancholy bafflement ("Who was the enemy?")
Milligan and Antrobus's Goonish script does have its amusing moments: "What class of person are you?" enquires Lord Fortnum officiously. "I am Top Lord, to put it mildly." Some of the more surreal jokes are also not bad ("Show me a 22-inch inside leg and I'll show you a future prime minister") but the script does not contain the inspired puns that we would expect of Milligan. There is plenty of nonsensical wordplay --a doctor advises his patients to "stay out of overdrafts" --but as this example demonstrates, it is often quite weak. In general, the frantic zaniness wears a bit thin over time.
The film's major strength is its highly creative set design and art direction, giving a Lear-esque look to the landscapes. Mona Washbourne is the acting highlight, touching (as usual) even when she meaninglessly turns into a cupboard. (The only mutation that seems to have any satirical point is Lord Fortnum`s transformation into a grotty and prejudiced Paddington bed-sit. When it coughs, a doorknob falls off.) The BFI has poured its customary dedication into this release, both where the print and the extras are concerned. The latter include a very nice, thick booklet containing a contemporary review of the film and a bio of Lester, and a number of rare, never broadcast Bernard Braden interviews with Milligan, Lester, and Peter Cook. The Milligan interview lasts for forty minutes and is, well, Spikey, containing offbeat observations about all major issues under the sun, in that tiresome encyclopaedic sixties manner. (Jesus and Socrates would have hit it off, apparently.)
The film is, of course, an important piece of cultural history, a fabled missing link between the Goons and Monty Python. Through the hysteria of its humour, it captures the contemporary fear of nuclear holocaust that coloured everyday life during the sixties, and seems to also express a more general malaise, the decline of national confidence following the collapse of Empire. The major problem with the film, as critics noted at the time, is that post-nuclear fall-out mutation simply is not funny. Whatever droll things the scriptwriters turn their characters into (a cupboard, a parrot, a bed-sitting room), this fundamental truth cannot be escaped. While the film is an interesting example of a classic English humorous reflex in response to fear, it is not one of Lester's more successful works.--Isabel Taylor