Richard Lester was in the right place at the right time just too many times for it to purely down to his luck. He was a bright kid, graduating from college at 19. Within a year of becoming a stage hand at a Philadelphia TV station he was directing live shows. That sounds like the fast track but television was a new thing, the whole operation still seat-of-the-pants. If you said you could direct then you got to have a go, if you didn’t screw up then you got the job. In 1953, still only 21, he moved to the UK where his US experience & his ability to talk a good fight found him work with the new commercial station. Lester has said that he wanted to direct films so that he could shoot a second take. Whatever, the films he made in the 1960s retain the spontaneity & vivacity of someone with a liking for pointing a camera & seeing what happens.
The Goons were THE deal in 1950s British comedy. “Goonery” was a tangle of surreal wordplay, Army barrack room disregard for authority & the iconoclastic genius of Spike Milligan. The trio (Milligan, Peter Sellers & Harry Secombe) were looking to move from radio to TV & cinema. Richard Lester was the American, the outsider, with a developed & perverse visual sense who helped to do that. You know how Monty Python had Terry Gilliam…exactly like that. There were a couple of small British films, one for Walter Shenson who was to produce a film that the world & their teenage daughter was waiting for. John Lennon was a major fan of the Goons, he knew who Richard Lester was. The director was in the best place at the best time & got the job of his life.
“A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) had to be a lot of things to a lot of people. United Artists may have wanted a cheap, quickly made film to cash-in on this temporary Beatlemania. Fans & their money were easily parted but there was a fascination with the personalities of 4 young Liverpudlians who made the almost irresistible music. Lester’s film contributed to the Mop Top iconography, presenting sanitized characterisations of each Beatle. It did a whole lot more & did it in the correct style. “A Hard Day’s Night” is a Day In The Life mockumentary, black & white, expeditious. There are nods to the French New Wave, the music video is invented before our very eyes for the best music around. The humour is gentle & knowing whether from the Fab Four or the excellent support cast of comedy actors. Oh & Paul’s Grandad (the incomparable Wilfred Brambell) is “very clean”. The film was a great success. I loved it as a young boy & over 50 years later it still rates 99% over at Rotten Tomatoes.
So England was swinging like a pendulum do & Richard Lester was helping out because we were so busy. Before he directed “Help”, the Beatles as an international phenomenon, in colour, on location & a little too zany, he won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival with “The Knack…& How to Get It”, a satire on the new sexual morality since the death of Queen Victoria in 1960 (© Spike Milligan). “The Knack”, though dated, is the quintessential British Mod movie. It’s stylish & energetic without making too much sense & stars Rita Tushingham, our kitchen sink princess. “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1966) was a little too busy, a musical-comedy that could use more of both. Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers &, in his final appearance, Buster Keaton are three good reasons to see the film.
In 1966 John Lennon gave some of his time & more of his hair to play Musketeer Gripweed in “How I Won the War”, an anti-war movie made with sharp wit & fast pace. “Petulia” (1968) with Julie Christie was made in the US & is very highly rated. It’s so long since I’ve seen this film…I’ll get back to you on this.
“The Bed Sitting Room” (1969) is, according to the Wiki, an absurdist, post-apocalyptic, satirical comedy…it’s even better than that sounds ! Adapted from the play by Spike Milligan & John Antrobus, the 20 British survivors of a blink & what just happened nuclear war attempt to preserve a degree of the old ways on the giant rubbish tip they are left with while dealing with unlikely & surprising mutations. The script is hilarious, the filming inventive & the cast is perfect. There are classical actors, Ralph Richardson, in the title role, Michael Hordern (I saw his King Lear that very year) & Mona Washbourne, a couple of Goons, stalwart comedy character actors including Arthur Lowe & Roy Kinnear & there’s Rita Tushingham. The show is almost stolen by Marty Feldman (Nurse Arthur) while Peter Cook & Dudley Moore were never funnier on film than they are here. “The Bed Sitting Room” is the bridge between the Goons & Monty Python, thought-provoking, very silly & from the top rank of British comedy movies. God Save Mrs Ethel Shroake !
In the next decade Lester’s budgets got bigger. “The Three Musketeers” (1973) became a bit too much of a comedy-action epic & was eventually released as 2 separate films. The starry cast were surprised by “The 4 Musketeers” (1974) as they had only been paid for the one movie ! “Juggernaut”, a shipboard disaster movie, didn’t really cut it & the following year’s “Royal Flash”, starring Malcolm McDowell, so disappointed writer George MacDonald Fraser that he blocked any further cinematic adaptations of his character.Richard going to Hollywood was inevitable but while these films were accomplished & entertaining, the individuality & vibrancy of his earlier work was diluted. By 1976 he was back on it & his next 2 releases are certainly a return to form.
In “Robin & Marion” (1976), our outlaw hero returns to England wearied by 20 years of full-on crusading. The Sheriff of Nottingham is still set in his evil ways & the verdant venturer is not about to walk away from a fight. Then, of course, the love of his life, Maid Marion, is still hanging out with the forest folk. Post-James Bond Sean Connery chose his film roles well & his gnarled knight schools Costner, Crowe or any of the other men in tights. The final showdown between Connery & Robert Shaw (the Sheriff), tough guys going at it right, is classy mid-70s cinema. Such a masculine Robin Hood needs a worthy Marion. The film’s coup was to persuade a great star to return to the movies after almost a decade away. Audrey Hepburn was no longer Holly Golightly but the camera still loved her. Her strong, beautiful even luminous Maid completes a lovely, mature, romantic film. I saw it again last week & absolutely enjoyed it just as much as 40 years ago.
OK, that’s three very good films so no room here for “The Ritz” (1976), an update on the screwball that gets it right. It’s a 1970s American comedy from the same top shelf as Woody Allen, Mel Brooks & Neil Simon. Lester had a continuing relationship with the producers of the musketeer movies who had moved on to the “Superman” franchise. The first film, starring Christopher Reeve, was a major success & when director Richard Donner was unavailable to complete the follow-up Lester re-shot “Superman II” (1980) & directed “…III” (the one with Richard Pryor). This was big box office stuff but there was not much more to come. The Musketeers were reunited for “The Return of…” (1989) which went straight to cable in the US & the Beatle connection got him the gig for “Get Back” (1991), a McCartney concert film.
Richard Lester’s films have not always aged well but they retain the energy & imagination of the 1960s. He worked with some major talents & made a major contribution to transferring their abilities on to the big screen. The 3 films I have highlighted here are of the highest quality. The others are pretty much a blast too.