This Sporting Life (1963)

Oddly, despite being a Doctor Who fan for 25 years, it’s taken me until today to actually watch the film that got William Hartnell the job. Now that I’ve seen it, I wonder what convinced Verity Lambert that the 50-something fellow playing this northern football scout of perhaps quietly dubious sexuality was the right man to play a grandfatherly time travelling alien as well. Still, this isn’t Bill’s show, it’s Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts all the way. As a debut feature, this is pretty damn astonishing; Lindsay Anderson had a stack of documentary shorts to his credit, but his only work with actors had been a few TV episodes. There’s no sign of any inexperience here, though, as he deals with a somewhat complex flashback structure taken from the source novel that must’ve been hard to translate for film, but which works well. Harris is the miner who feels he deserves more from life than a load of coal dust, and turns to football to try and gain the respect of others in his pissy Yorkshire town. What he really wants, though, is the love of his landlady, a youngish woman left widowed by her husband’s rather horrible suicide. Roberts has a difficult job making this woman a sympathetic figure, but manages somehow. Similarly, Harris has to project Frank Machin as both the “ape on the football field” and also as the basically good man, whose concern and love for Margaret is genuine but, being what he is, he speaks violence better than anything else. Easy to see why both were Oscar-nominated. Held up as some sort of culmination of the “kitchen sink” tendency, Anderson was firm that it shouldn’t be seen as one of those films and he probably had a point, but audiences seem to have treated it as one and reacted against it accordingly. Tremendous film, but alas it only lead to a film career full of frustrations for him…

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