Wednesday 29 July 2009

The Old Crowd

Invitation to attend screening of The Old Crowd in Venice, California with ‘Director’s note’ written by Anderson © Lindsay Anderson Collection

I keep thinking about The Old Crowd after watching it again recently, it makes for such uncomfortable viewing and it's such a great piece of work that I feel it deserves to be considered on the same terms as Lindsay Anderson's films. I knew it was based on a play by Alan Bennett but I hadn't realised until cataloguing the correspondence what a collaborative piece of work the television adaptation was.

A little piece of context - Stephen Frears (who was Anderson's assistant director on If....) produced a series of six plays by Alan Bennett for LWT (London Weekend Television). The Old Crowd was the one that most interested Lindsay Anderson when he was asked to direct one of them.

[Plot synopsis – I realised after I posted this that I didn’t really include a plot synopsis as I got carried away talking about what’s in the Archive! Hmmn, not very good for an archivist though, not putting it in context, oops. So, what happens – George and Betty are having a dinner party in the large house they have just moved into with George’s mother. There is no furniture in the house due to a mix-up with the furniture ending up in another city. They are hosting a dinner party and the first people to arrive at the door are ‘the Slaves’, these two servants are Harold and Glyn and they instantly give off a sense of foreboding and menace. The windows in the house are covered in newspaper and whenever one of the guests arrives at the door there is an emphasis made on shutting the door, shutting out the outside world. There is a talk of a virus sweeping the country, of muggers, riots, rampant crime. All the guests arrive, including Totty, a friend they had been talking about who has just been given six months to live. The ‘Old Crowd’ are depicted as self-centred, boorish, bourgeoisie, but the ‘Slaves’ are not portrayed any better, they’re devious, threatening and opportunistic. The crack which appears in a ceiling at the start of the film is representative of the cracks within their own social group, the unlikelihood of their survival, and the cracks in society as a whole. All this is intensified by the glimpses of the camera, crew and edges of the set, making the whole thing much more uncomfortable and ‘real’ in the sense of a possible merging of their world and ours.]

In the correspondence files we have copies of the letter which Anderson originally sent to Alan Bennett, explaining that he would like to direct the play but asking if Bennett would mind if he made some changes. Then follows detailed correspondence between the two of them where they discuss changes to the plot, the script and the characters, it is also noted in Anderson's introduction to the play in The Writer in Disguise, that they met up to collaborate on the script. Every revision seems to make the play more disturbing, more satirical and more surreal. Anderson mentions Bunuel as an influence that came to his mind when reading the script, and also Max Frisch's play The Fire Raisers. I was very pleased to read this as one of my thoughts when I was watching the film was the Slaves, Harold and Glyn (played by Philip Stone and Frank Grimes, both wonderfully threatening and sinister in their roles), were reminiscent of the two intruders in The Fire Raisers. Indeed the overall feel of the play, the sense of foreboding, of events being out of their control, and yet that this lack of control was actually of their own making, their own blindness, is something that I got from both The Fire Raisers and Anderson's adaptation of The Old Crowd. In fact, thinking of it now, maybe the blindness of the piano player at the beginning is meant to be symbolic, I think it's one of those films that reveals more the more you watch it.

Lindsay Anderson, Jill Bennett and Frank Grimes on set ofThe Old Crowd © Lindsay Anderson Collection

Writing to Philip Stone, the actor who played Harold, before the film was aired on ITV, Anderson pre-empted the hostile reception the film would receive -

“I’m afraid it is fearfully sophisticated for a television “play” – in fact I have grown used to calling it an anti-television play. It will be another work I fear a few years advance of its time and one which disastrously will need to be seen more than once. And I don’t need to tell you that television isn’t designed for a product of this kind.” 28/07/1978, LA/2/3/3/4/17

There were a number of positive reviews, most notably by Alexander Walker and Tom Sutcliffe in The Guardian. These were however, overwhelmed by the slightly hysterical nature of the critical reviews, for example, Clive James writing for The Observer (04/02/1979)

"[The Old Crowd] was so unsophisticated in its presentation that it could scarcely be said to exist... People like Lindsay Anderson can never learn what people like Alan Bennett should know in their bones: that common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds".

Well I'm certainly not sure what that last bit is meant to mean but I know that 'common sense' as Clive James put it, is something which Anderson had little patience for in relation to humour. This is illustrated in a letter Anderson wrote to Melvyn Bragg where he asks ""the English tradition of Nonsense. Why have people generally lost their capacity to respond to it, or 'understand' it?" 28/02/1979, LA/2/3/3/3/9

The repeated glimpses, throughout the film, of the camera and crew are intended, in Anderson's own words "not to alienate the audiences from the drama, but rather to focus their attention on its essential - not its superficial or naturalistic - import." (taken from The Writer in Disguise, Alan Bennett, introduction to The Old Crowd by Lindsay Anderson, p164). He highlighted alienate as he didn't like the Brechtian term Alienation for the reasons outlined in the above quote. The critic Herbert Kretzmer, writing for the Daily Mail, said that these devices, intended to alienate, only served "in reassuring frightened viewers that they had nothing to worry about - it's only TV, folks!". Well, for me they did the exact opposite, making the content of the play more aligned with reality and illustrating the disturbing habits which we all have, of enclosing ourselves in our own little reality and ignoring what's going on outside.

There are a large amount of press cuttings for The Old Crowd in the file. A lot of reviews, but also a large number of letters to the editor from viewers who either strongly liked or disliked the film. It seems to have been, and will probably continue to be, a film which divides audiences into these strict camps.

Having all of Anderson’s correspondence relating to the film, all the press cuttings he collected (and was sent), the scripts, on-set photographs, production material and promotional material all together is such a wonderful resource and research tool and even from this preliminary look whilst cataloguing the correspondence, I feel like I’ve gained a much better insight into The Old Crowd. I hope quotes from Anderson’s correspondence and the on-set photographs are providing as much interest to others on here as they do to me whilst cataloguing them!

Lindsay Anderson and Rachel Roberts on set of The Old Crowd
© Lindsay Anderson Collection


  1. It sounds fascinating, as always. Is there anyway for this Yank to get a copy?

    You know, I've been thinking that it would be nice to see a retrospective of Lindsay's career which included the full participation of the stars who stayed with him from project to project---the ones still living, I mean. Whether it be book, TV program, stage production, or whatever the case may be--it would be nice to see how their own recollections combined revealed more about the man himself. As you know, those stars he liked were part of his extended family and made to feel a part.

    Also, is there a way for me to e-mail you directly? I just have some more specific questions regarding the archive that would make for too long of a comment.

  2. Hi Kevin,
    The retrospective is a great idea. There are already a lot of published accounts by actors and film/stage people of working with Lindsay Anderson and something which your idea has made me think of is of developing a web resource detailing all these accounts, including extracts,links etc. We also have some unpublished accounts in the Archive that it would be great to put up but obviously this would involve obtaining copyright clearance. It's definitely given me something to think about for sure!

    If you have more detailed questions about the Archive I'm happy to help and my contact details are on the University website

  3. In regards to the possibility of getting a copy I'm afraid that's pretty hard at the moment, in fact, I could't find anywhere online where it was available! It was made for London Weekend Television (LWT) so the best bet is maybe to try film forums where it might be possible to get a copy that someone tapes off the TV when it was shown. Sorry I can't be of any more help on that one. Our copy here is a VHS that Lindsay Anderson taped off the TV and we can't provide any copies, only the facilities to watch it if someone comes to the Archive. If I find out of anywhere else that has copies I'll let you know.