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McDowell's homage to his mentor says just as much about its impish narrator

<strong>Never Apologi

In 1957, the film-maker Lindsay Anderson was sacked from his reviewing job on this very magazine, this very page. The contretemps arose after he devoted his column to Andrzej Wajda rather than the big British release of the day. Of course, it's all water under The Bridge on the River Kwai now. But can I just say that I always considered Wajda to be overrated, and that any film featuring a whistled rendition of the "Colonel Bogey March" is fine by me.

Anyway, it's good to have this tenacious and passionate man back in these pages as the subject of Never Apologise: a Personal Visit With Lindsay Anderson. The film is an unfussy record of Malcolm McDowell's 2004 one-man show paying tribute to his mentor. It was Anderson who gave the actor his big break, casting him in 1967 as the rebellious public schoolboy Mick Travis in If . . . , a role he reprised in the absurdist O Lucky Man! and the barbed satire Britannia Hospital. McDowell unpacks his memories of Anderson; he impersonates him wonderfully, along with Rachel Roberts, John Gielgud, Alan Price and his own cocksure younger self.

Best of all, McDowell captures the collision of cruelty, wit and warmth that shone through in Anderson's films as well as his personality. His disdain for the namby-pamby and the equivocal was evoked brilliantly by Alan Bennett: "Lindsay's preferred ending to Three Sisters: 'We're going to Moscow and there's no perhaps about it!'" But, as McDowell demonstrates when he reflects on Anderson's tenderness towards the suicidal Roberts, he could provide a shoulder to cry on, a kick up the backside and a reason for soldiering on, all in one.

McDowell oscillates between his own reminiscences and readings from Anderson's diaries and letters. The director, Mike Kaplan, hasn't made the piece especially cinematic - as, say, Jonathan Demme did with Spalding Gray's monologue Swimming to Cambodia. But he does pull off an editing coup when he cuts from McDowell's elated memory of the audition for If . . . to the actor reading the screenwriter David Sherwin's first impressions of him ("Obviously too smooth . . . no chance, poor chap") and then to an excerpt from the audition scene as it appeared in the finished film.

Never Apologise concerns Anderson's struggle to realise his vision without compromising, but it says as much about its narrator as its subject. Although McDowell was 63 when the picture was shot (eight years younger than Anderson was when he died in 1994), he exudes a youthful impishness. With his wiry silver hair, white eyebrows and bulging, icicle-blue eyes, like a photogenic gargoyle, there is some physical overlap with the hawk-like Anderson. But the most obvious similarity lies in their careers, neither of which quite fulfilled its potential.

Anderson's films, from his Free Cinema days through This Sporting Life, the Mick Travis trilogy and on to the parting documentary Is That All There Is?, commented abrasively on an England going to seed, though these were never hopeless visions. The real trouble is that there weren't enough of them. McDowell, too, didn't build sufficiently on the unshakeable foundations of his roles in If . . . and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, as well he knows. "I thought I'd just wing it," he recalls of that early audition. "It's pretty much the way my whole career's gone."

It is true that McDowell could earn himself residency in Private Eye's "Luvvies" column - he didn't meet anyone who wasn't adorable and delightful. But his knack for self-deprecation, combined with the acidic tang of any anecdote involving Anderson, helps rein in the showbiz cosiness. What the picture left me with was incredulity that Anderson isn't better known, sadness that no one today would attempt a film as foolhardy as O Lucky Man! - and regret that he didn't live to indict Tony Blair, David Cameron and anyone else whose mere existence makes If . . . , with its wistful dream of class war, feel like front-line reportage.

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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.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq uncovered