Lindsay Anderson Archive, University of Stirling
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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.

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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