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The Future Is In Your Hands, Mr Travis: 45 Years Of O Lucky Man!
The Quietus , November 3rd, 2018 10:25

Ahead of its screening at Brighton's Cine City Festival, writer and actor Graham Duff looks back over 45 years of Lindsay Anderson's brilliant O Lucky Man!

If there was one motion picture which truly captured the insurrectionist spirit of May 1968, it was If….. Written by David Sherwin, directed by Lindsay Anderson and starring a youthful Malcolm McDowell in his cinematic debut, it told the tale of a revolution in a British public school. But the film was no simple 'call to arms'. With its repeated changes of film stock, from colour to black and white to sepia, and its surrealistic interludes If…. suggested that its audience question not only authority, but also the coded nature of reality itself.

If…. was an early example of an art house film that crossed over into mainstream consciousness. Indeed, it went on to win the Palme D’or at Cannes. It was official: Anderson, Sherwin and McDowell had created a masterpiece. And yet, following on from the film’s success, Anderson had focused on theatre work, directing award-winning productions, such as David Storey’s In Celebratio and Home. Sherwin however, had foundered, doing an uncredited rewrite on John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, whilst developing numerous scripts and ideas of his own which promptly died on the vine.

Meanwhile, McDowell’s meteoric rise continued. By 1972 he had had starring roles in Joseph Losey’s Figures in a Landscape and Bryan Forbes’s The Raging Moon. Most recently and most spectacularly, he had played Alex in Stanley Kubrick’s infamous A Clockwork Orange. The 29 year old actor was at the peak of his powers and consequently one of the hottest properties in British cinema. He could take his pick of a number of lucrative mainstream projects.

But McDowell had his own ideas. Since 1969, he had been working on a script idea based on his early experiences as a travelling coffee salesman called Coffee Man. He showed his ideas to Anderson, who was encouraging but, as ever, direct in his criticism. He suggested McDowell ask Sherwin to develop the script. Sherwin duly took the actor’s original ideas and expanded on them considerably, turning what initially seems like a naturalistic story, through a series of evolutions and convolutions into a dark, surreal and unsentimental satire. Unfortunately, during the writing process, Sherwin was going through some domestic turmoil, causing Anderson to step in and write a handful of scenes himself. Therefore, the finished text, finally retitled O Lucky Man!, can be seen as a true collaboration between all three men.

To call O Lucky Man! the sequel to If…. both sets up unrealistic expectations, whilst simultaneously underselling the project. It is in fact the second part of a trilogy. As he did in If…., McDowell plays Michael Travis. However, whereas in the previous film, Travis had been a free-thinking revolutionary, seemingly wise beyond his years, the Travis of O Lucky Man! appears to have morphed into a naive money driven careerist, on the bottom rung of the ladder, but determined to make it to the top.

A three hour picaresque journey, the film shows Travis’ travails in almost every sector of society – the rich, the poor, the left, the right, the liberals, big business, small business, the prison system, the church, the science industry, the entertainment industry, the military, the catering industry, the hospitality industry, the tourist industry, the sex industry, the music business, the motion picture industry, the Salvation Army, the old boy network and the homeless. Everywhere he goes, Travis encounters self-interest and corruption.

Despite this, the film has a light touch and a playful tone. Anderson and Sherwin delighted in mixing genres, so whilst O Lucky Man! is often laugh out loud funny, it also contains elements of both social realism and surrealism, not to mention at least one moment of unforgettable horror.

Anderson was famously an actor’s director, securing admiration and loyalty from almost everyone he worked with. Consequently, the film’s cast is graced by some of Britain’s finest character actors. Rachel Roberts, Arthur Lowe, Ralph Richardson, Mona Washbourne, Graham Crowden, Peter Jeffrey, Dandy Nichols and Warren Clarke all give outstanding performances. Interestingly, all the above actors also play multiple roles, with most essaying three different characters, a gesture that amplifies the farcical tone which surfaces throughout the film.

If the sight of Arthur Lowe blacked up to play an African dictator might raise a few contemporary eyebrows, it should be noted that his performance in the role of Dr. Munda is subtle and nuanced, without a hint of racial stereotyping. Graham Crowden in particular, shines in three very different roles. But he is especially powerful as Professor Millar, a brilliant scientist with a God complex, who would move centre stage for the final installment of Anderson and Sherwin’s Michael Travis trilogy, the deliciously caustic Britannia Hospital (1982).

Another notable thing about O Lucky Man! is it’s a musical. And yet, like Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, which was released the same year, it’s a musical that doesn’t feel like a musical. Alan Price and his band feature prominently throughout the film, playing numbers in a rehearsal studio. The lyrics comment on the unfolding narrative, sometimes ironically, sometimes with acidic judgment. Price’s soundtrack works extremely well, even when shorn of the visuals, with songs such as ‘Sell, Sell’, ‘Changes’ and the instantly recognisable title song representing the best work he ever wrote and recorded.

Anderson frequently acknowledged the influence of Bertold Brecht and it would seem Price’s songs were intended as one of a number of Brechtian touches within the film. Although another possible influence is Jean-Luc Godard’s One Plus One (1968) which intercuts its narrative with sequences of The Rolling Stones spending days in a recording studio working on ‘Sympathy For the Devil’. Yet the major difference in O Lucky Man!, is the musicians themselves eventually become characters within the narrative and interact with Travis.

Yet the production was not without its problems. The crucial role of Patricia was originally given to Fiona Lewis who had previously had small roles in films such as Roman Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers and Robert Fuest’s Dr. Phibes Rises Again. However, after some initial shooting, Anderson elected to recast, with the role being taken by the 27 year old Helen Mirren.

This was clearly a smart move, as Mirren, who had appeared in Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah the previous year, plays the part of Patricia, the it girl turned bad girl, with a winning mix of assurance and vulnerability. Yet, for all the starry cast, it is McDowell who carries the film, appearing in 99% of the scenes. Travis, at least in the first two thirds of the story, is an eager to please optimist and it’s a role that could have easily been reduced to a bland cipher by a lesser actor. Yet McDowell, cherubically handsome and effortlessly charismatic, ensures that Travis comes across as both believable and engaging.

O Lucky Man! is without doubt a political work, yet it is one that does not toe any party line. Sherwin’s script is smart, funny, unpredictable and crammed with quotable lines. And for all its satirical exaggerations, surreal detours and Buñuel style collisions, the film has at least one foot planted very firmly in reality. Mark E. Smith of The Fall was a huge fan of the film and once said “If you want to know what Britain was like in 1973, watch O Lucky Man!"

O Lucky Man! will screen at Cine City Film Festival, Brighton, introduced by Graham Duff