Lindsay Anderson Archive, University of Stirling
Show Hide image

Why was this film about George Michael never released?

The bizarre collaboration of maverick filmmaker Lindsay Anderson and Wham! in China ended in a fallout and a forgotten documentary.

Though there were no film acting roles on George Michael’s CV, the late singer could still claim to have worked with Lindsay Anderson, the legendary Free Cinema pioneer and director of the influential and incendiary 1968 film If... (not to mention former film critic of this parish).

Both men’s obituary writers tended to overlook this unlikely collaboration but then that’s scarcely surprising given that it never really saw the light of day – at least not in the form that Anderson intended.

He was at an odd stage of his career in the early 1980s. He had been on both sides of the critical divide, having made a rare acting appearance in 1981 in the widely-adored, Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire before then facing critical opprobrium and public indifference in 1982 for his savage state-of-the-nation satire Britannia Hospital, which used the ailing institution of the title as a metaphor for the country.

He turned down another acting role, as the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, and was having his usual difficulty getting a movie off the ground when he was offered the chance to return to his documentary roots by shooting a film about the first western pop group to play in China. That group was Wham!

Anderson, who was then almost 62-years-old, was reluctant at first, as he so often was. “Have I the energy? The curiosity? The conviction?” he wrote in his diary after being offered the job in March 1985. “How on earth have two (lower) middle class boys from Watford managed to transform themselves into these vibrant figures of pop myth…? It’s a complete mystery.”

Still, he pressed on, and had lunch with George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. “I have really nothing to say to them: confident, bright, uninteresting, respectable, of the Eighties . . . I get the impression they will be reasonably cooperative. Certainly not inspiring.”

The trip was not, all things considered, a huge success. Anderson suffered some medical setbacks. He had rheumatism so severe that he had to use the fingers on his left hand to prise open the ones on his right. Then he tore a ligament while shooting at the Great Wall of China.

He learned that Michael didn’t like being photographed and so the film became more of a portrait of the Chinese people and the gentle culture clash that occurred with Wham! in their midst.

In 1986, Anderson admitted that he had accepted the commission “in a spirit of curiosity. Curiosity about China and curiosity about the odd confrontation of China and Wham! – and even a certain curiosity, not very great, about the phenomenon of Wham! itself.”

But during shooting it dawned on him that he was “not engaged to direct a film of Wham! in China – I was engaged to occupy the position of director.”

A rough cut, titled If You Were There, was viewed by the band’s managers, Simon Napier-Bell and Jazz Summers, in October 1985. Though it was incomplete, suggestions and criticisms were put to Anderson, who responded by writing personally to Michael:

“[Y]ou know that when people who don’t really understand the creative process – whether it is film or music – start formulating criticisms and making demands on a work in progress, it is only too easy for the whole enterprise to founder . . . Jazz and Simon both seem terrified of you – which may be useful sometimes but at other times can be dangerous. I certainly have enough respect for your creative verve and intelligence not to be scared to show you the work, and of course, to be interested in your feelings about it.”

Michael never replied to the letter (though he did see Wham! in China!, as it was now called, at a screening which Anderson said “went extremely well”). The director heard in November that the film was being taken off him and recut.

The finished film moved Wham! to the forefront and China to the background. In the course of researching a Radio 4 documentary about Anderson in 2008, the journalist John Harris saw Anderson’s cut and called it, “a rich, poetic, panoramic portrait of China’s strangeness to the eyes of outsiders…”

Its defining flaw, according to Michael, was that it hadn’t felt “modern” enough.

Anderson died in 1994. His archive is at the University of Stirling and letters held there reveal his fury at the butchering of his film. He called Michael, “a shivering aspirant plucked out of the street, who turns almost overnight into a tyrant of fabulous wealth, whose every command his minions must dash to execute” and “a young millionaire with an inflated ego . . . [whose] vision only extends to the top 10 . . . It’ll be interesting to see if there’s any limit to his reckless autocracy.”

Michael apparently blocked a proposed screening at Stirling of Anderson’s version. Andy Stephens, the singer’s then-manager called it “a dreadful film”. But Anderson told his diary: “I do think that between them the Whammies have destroyed, or suppressed, an enjoyable, informative, entertaining and at times even beautiful film.”

The original cut is available to view privately at Stirling. Whether Michael’s death means that it will now be made more widely available (as with, say, Stanley Kubrick and A Clockwork Orange) is another matter. For now it will have to carry on being the answer to a pub quiz question as well as a jigsaw piece, out-of-reach if not exactly missing, for completists of singer and filmmaker alike.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

BBC
Show Hide image

No More Girls and Boys shows the small things that shape children

The BBC2 TV series is validating and dispiriting at the same time. 

Here’s a story we like to tell ourselves. Once upon a time, we were sexist, but then feminism happened and now we’re not sexist anymore. But boys and girls carry on being different because they are different. Male brains are systematising and female brains are empathising, says Simon Baron-Cohen. Boys like blue and girls like pink, say the toy aisles. Men have a “drive for status”, and women have “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” says that bloody Google engineer in his ten-page evo-psych anti-diversity manifesto. And if we are going to live happily ever after, we just have to learn to accept it.

Here are some other stories. “I think boys are cleverer than girls… because they get into president easily don’t they?” “I would describe a girl as being pretty, lipstick, dresses, lovehearts. If a woman has a child, the men have to go to work and earn some money.” “Men are better at being in charge.” “Men are better because they’re stronger and they’ve got more jobs.” All these are things said by year three pupils at Lanesend primary school in the Isle of Wight, both girls and boys, who by the age of seven have thoroughly imbibed the idea that their sex is their fate. All of them are about to take part in an experiment designed to unpick that belief.

That experiment is actually a BBC 2 documentary called No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? Presenter Dr Javid Abdelmoneim finds that the boys are more likely to overestimate their abilities; the girls, to underestimate theirs. Girls are underscoring on confidence; boys, on empathy. Abdelmoneim isn’t buying that this is all down to hormones or different physiques. At seven, boys and girls are evenly matched for strength, and will be until the testosterone surge of puberty has boys building muscle mass. There are no fixed differences in their developing brains. Genitals aside, they’re simply kids. He wants to see whether teaching the kids differently will lead to them thinking differently.

First, the classroom environment has to change so sex is no longer the first division. Signs are put up affirming that boys and girls are sensitive, girls and boys are strong. The “girls’ cupboard” and “boys’ cupboard” where the children put their coats are repainted as one big gender-neutral wardrobe. Stereotyped books are swapped out for ones about adventurous girls and kind boys. The children have their career expectations shaken up by meeting a male ballet dancer, a female mechanic. And their likeable teacher, Mr Andre, has to change too: he’s trained out of his habitual reference to the girls as “love” and the boys as “mate”, and introduced to a lottery system to break his habit of picking boys first.

It’s the smallness of these things that’s really telling of the hugeness of the problem. Individually, they seem so trivial as to barely seem worth fixing, and so ingrained that trying to fix them takes constant vigilance (Mr Andre’s slips into “love” and “mate” are recorded on a wall chart). No wonder sexism seems to be one of those things that everyone’s against but no one sees as their problem to fix. The head, for example, speaks regretfully of “quite biased views about what boys are expected to do and what girls are expected to do.” But somehow this has never translated into the kind of interventions Abdelmoneim is trying.

Does it work? That’s the cliffhanger for episode two, but the first part suggests some pretty dramatic results. When the children take part in a test-your-strength contest, the difference between expectation and performance lead to tears: a girl who happily cries “I didn’t think I could do it!” about her maximum score, and a boy who predicted himself a 10 but throws himself down on the ground in an angry tantrum when he fails to get a single point. How much stronger might girls be if they didn’t absorb the myth of their own weakness and opt out of physical activity early? How much more resilient would boys be if they weren’t holding themselves up to an unrealistic standard?

We won’t know the answer to that unless adults are able to stop telling the same dull old gender stories to children. In one scene, the documentary reenacts the famous Baby X experiments, showing how adults direct infant play down strictly sex-stereotyped lines, pressing dolls on the baby in pink, and robots and shape sorters on the one in blue. But given the opportunity to be themselves first rather than their sex, the children of Laneseed seem to thrive. In fact, the only reform they chafe at are gender neutral toilets. (“The girls were like, ‘Oh they [the boys] come out with their bits dangling out and they don’t wash their hands,’” Abdelmoneim told the Mail.)

Watching No More Boys and Girls is a strange experience, validating and dispiriting at the same time. Yes, you see the evidence of sexism in action that’s usually hidden in plain sight. You also see that there’s so much of it, it’s hard to know where to begin in countering it. Maybe we should start like this: stop insulting children by pretending their understanding of gender is hardwired at birth, and take some adult responsibility for the world we’ve put them in. 

No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? starts on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.