Simon Wells gives an insight into If… (1968), the sixties classic of schoolboy rebellion, and the screen debut of Malcolm McDowell.
“You are listening to the legal free radio station of Czechoslovakia. We appeal to all radio stations…please let the whole world know the truth…”
(Anonymous broadcaster, Radio Free Europe, 1968)
Revolution from the school bed has never been so sweet as it is in Lindsay Anderson’s reading of David Sherwin ‘s classic screenplay If… This is no “Goodbye Mr Chips”; no sentimental swan songs or tear-stained farewells here mate. Anderson and co. literally blast their way through the anachronisms of the jaded English public school system and leave it in tatters on a bloody public school green.
More than thirty years on nothing has topped the film for raw emotion or stark realism of life behind the grand façade of the English Public School.
Writer David Sherwin was one such survivor of the system, but only just. Once emancipated from its grips that had nearly brought him to his knees, he and fellow refugee John Howlett, spilled their pain and years of congested anguish onto paper over three days and nights, revealing a truth that was known by many, but few had dared to reveal. For years the script was too hot to handle, rejected out of hand by many in an industry still held together by the old school tie who were outraged by the suggestion of anyone blasting a hole into the side of the Public School system.
If… charts the tale of a band of public school outlaws who refuse to conform to their masters and ultimately pay a heavy price for their insolence and unconformity to the system. However, pushed too far, the band of outcasts spectacularly turn the tables on their masters, peers and parents and stage an audacious and bloody ending to the college’s end of year speech day. Mick Travis, the band’s natural-born leader, is played by Malcolm Mcdowel in his greatest role; a face twisted halfway between angel and devil. His three cohorts in their own way are too, refugees from a system that demanded success from its unwilling participants, and an adherence to a code that requires that round pegs fit in round holes, however weak or belligerent the child happens to be.
Woven into the tale are surreal scenes that at times border on madness; teachers inspecting pupils genitals, Headmaster’s wives wandering around dormitories naked; the college Verger being pulled out of a chest of drawers.
To Anderson and Sherwin however, both heavily steeped in the European film school of surrealism, this was the poetry of the film. At one point, and for no apparent reason, the film shifts from colour to black-and-white. Although there has been some spirited debate on whether this was a further dash of surrealism into the pot, it has since transpired that due to budgetary restrictions it was going to be impossible to light some of the cavernous interiors of the college. Rather than risk expanding upon the film’s minuscule budget, Anderson simply decided that the sequences be developed in monochrome.
Filming took place at Anderson’s old Alma matter, Cheltenham College, some 200 miles from London. Replete with all the trappings of a traditional Public school it was ideal for the canvas of the picture to develop. Lindsay literally charmed his way into letting him use the location for the film, helped ironically by the fact that he was a celebrated pupil in his time there. However, it became more than obvious to all who were working on the picture in pre-production, that if the powers that be at Cheltenham saw a copy of the finished script with it’s portrayal of beatings, tales of masturbation, homosexuality, and (not least), ultimate armed insurrection, permission would be hastily withdrawn. To reassure and divert delicate sensitivities at the school, a hastily compiled “Dummy” (alternate) script was produced which omitted many of the contentious sequences. At one point during filming the Headmaster twigged and called Lindsay into his office to tell him that he knew “what’s going on”. But somehow he let the filming continue. Once the film was released however, the mood of the school was rather more sombre.
If…exploded onto the world’s screens in 1969, against a global backdrop of student riots, rebellion, and Russian invasion. The critics loved it crowning Anderson as the savour of progressive British cinema. Ultimately If…’s appeal to this day is that is articulates the cry of the young individual wanting to be heard and accepted in whatever circle of society it happens to find itself in. Nothing breeds more resentment and frustration than the confines of the “English Public School” system and If…expresses it more succinctly than any other movie. Thirty years on and nothing has surpassed it for power, poetry and passion.
One “old-boy”, If..’s writer David Sherwin, maintains it was the genius of Lindsay Anderson that has ensured the film of its classic status for over thirty years.
“I would say Lindsay understood my original vision to 200% perfection. There’s not one single piece of decor, of painting of corridors, of atmosphere, or any part of term I hadn’t experienced. All was straight from my school. The horror of the beating…I can still smell the bleach they used to clean the concrete floors and the lino in my schoolhouse, the biggest and the most horrible in Tonbridge. He realised it totally.”
Somewhere now perhaps, a boy is dreaming.