When my uncle John Schlesinger was preparing the script for his film Sunday, Bloody Sunday in 1970, he went for a walk with his father. My grandfather, by then a retired pediatrician, asked John what his new film was about. John explained that it was about a gay Jewish doctor (Peter Finch) who loved a young man (Murray Head) who also loved a woman (Glenda Jackson).
My grandfather thought this over carefully, and said: “But John, did you really have to make him Jewish as well?” This is the kind of family we come from: loving, tolerant, encouraging, and very keen to be British, without drawing unnecessary attention to our non-British roots. The Schlesingers did their best to fit in. A shared love of Wagner’s operas (handed down by my great-grandfather, an Orthodox Jew; the other great-grandfather was a sec-ular man; he liked Brahms) is just about all that remains of our German-Jewish background. My grandparents were British in the way their parents were German, that is, very, but without ever taking it for granted.
John never fitted in, and that is partly what made him an artist. His earliest ambition was to be a cinema organist. He was mesmerized, as a child, by those glamorous figures, bathed in light, who would slowly descend into the orchestra pit when the main entertainment began. To be entertaining was an imperative with John. My earliest memories of him are of his doing conjuring tricks for us, or imitating sinister German accents, or impersonating the Queen of Holland. One also felt, from a very early age, that to arrest his attention one had to amuse him in return, which was not always easy. This extended to his professional life. He was a superb director of actors—Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Dustin Hoffman, and the list goes on—but could be hard on them too.
No good at sports, John was deeply unhappy at his private boarding school, which, like most such institutions, saw sportsmanship as the highest masculine virtue. His father hoped that school would make a man of him. Perhaps in a way it did. John once told me that his homosexual inclinations were the one thing that put him in the mainstream of school life.
John ran away from school once or twice, and felt a failure. What kept him going was the prospect of the holidays, when he would cast his brothers, sisters, and cousins in elaborate plays, performed for the whole family. He took this very seriously. Rehearsal schedules and costume designs were meticulously prepared. The other bright spot in his schooldays, apart from music, which he loved, was the gift of a 9.5 mm movie camera from his grandmother. An early work—heard about, but never seen by me—shows the school’s headmaster changing into his bathing costume.
John’s first proper film, The Black Legend, shot in 16 mm while he was a student at Oxford, and financed by his doting grandmother, was also a family affair. Made near the family home…
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