RED, WHITE, ZERO: THE WHITE BUS
Patricia Healey, Arthur Lowe, Stephen Moore, John Sharp, Julie Perry, Anthony Hopkins, Victor Henry, Fanny Carby, John Savident, Malcolm Taylor, Allan O’Keefe, Jeanne Watts, Eddie King, Barry Evans, Penny Ryder / From the short story by Shelagh Delaney / Editor Kevin Brownlow / Music Score Misha Donat / Cinematography Miroslav Ondricek / Producer & Director Lindsay Anderson
Emerging from the Trümmerfilm rubble of a still scarred postwar British North, wanders Patricia Healey, a suicidal brunette with angelic, ethereal eyes deeper than a well. More a ghost, than a fully fledged character, she radiates a sense of disconnection, fascinated by those around her, cut from the same cloth, yet at a passive distance. Her purpose is to represents us, both as moving camera, and the objective gaze of the viewer, allowing us to study our own world with anonymity.
To some extent this wandering angel is familiar, from both the Beatnik culture of the day, and the wandering, somnambulist characters of French New Wave Cinema (Jeanne Moreau’s midnight stroll in ‘Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud’, and in ‘Cléo de 5 à 7’, Corinne Marchand’s endless lilting wander, from Parisian Doctor’s office, to boutique, to cafe). Here though, we have some degree of order, travelling the city with a Civic Bus Tour, pointing out what we should be interested in, establishing some degree of direction upon our meandering nomad, providing a beginning, a middle and a clear end to proceedings. The Documentary maker as tour guide.
What does predominate within the heart of ‘The White Bus’, is this sense of the secret insider.. since both the Director Lindsay Anderson, (born in British India), and the author Shelagh Delaney, (born in Lancashire, though of distinctly Irish heritage), express a love and a sense of belonging to English culture and the landscape, but perhaps unintentionally bring an unbiased objectivity too. Along with the film’s author and Director, the sense of a fresh eye, is further given by it’s Czech Cinematographer, Miroslav Ondricek, adding elements of the Czech New Wave to his angles and treatment of the cityscapes.. bringing a sense of ethereal Prague, to the British landscape. Ondricek eventually answered the call to Hollywood, and went on to shine ever brighter behind the camera on such notable pieces as ‘The World According to Garp’, ‘Silkwood’, and ‘Amadeus’.
Lindsay Anderson initially hit his stride with some remarkably poignant Public Service style ‘kitchen sink’ documentaries made during the 1940’s & 50’s, centering his keen focus upon the ordinary inhabitants of schools and society’s working institutions.. Covent Garden Market.. Dreamland’s amusements.. a school for the deaf.. an anti-nuclear march.. all served up in a thought provoking and accessible form. From here, Anderson advanced to full length films, though continuing to concentrate on familiar ground. With ‘This Sporting Life’, the violence of a rugby player boils over into life beyond the confines of the field.. and in the iconic ‘If..’, a Public School erupts into chaos, as the students murderously ‘take over the asylum’. ‘The White Bus’ is no less subversive a piece, but by keeping it’s central character mute for much of film, the audience is carried along for the ride with the same sense of disconnection as it’s protagonist. The result is one of fascination with society ‘from without’, neutral and scientific, rather than overtly critical. Both we, and our central character are but a ghost in the machine. Neither affecting, nor affected by the world, merely observing, or offering a bemused smile.
‘The White Bus’ was originally intended to be released as part of a trilogy of films, collectively titled ‘Red White Zero’, each adapted from short stories by Shelagh Delaney (‘Sweetly sings the donkey’, published 1963), but neither subsequent film reached production. Delaney’s particular vision of a vibrant, cynical North characterized her literary style, and through her two screenplays for ‘A Taste of Honey’, and ‘Charlie Bubbles’, firmly established the North Country as a key locale in the British New Wave.
It is quite tempting to believe that perhaps Lindsay Anderson had Delaney herself in mind when he selected actress Patricia Healey for the lead. There is a decided similarity in look and posture between the two women, and after the success of ‘A Taste of Honey’, Delaney was becoming a notable creative in the public eye. The long dark hair, solemn expression and soulful eyes match almost too well for coincidence.
In addition, Delaney’s short story contains many personal elements, not only in superficial terms of location, schooling and general attitude, but autobiographically, since her father worked for some years during her childhood as a Bus Inspector, and the trip to a state school during the ‘The White Bus’, feels achingly personal. We write about what we know, of course, and Directors take more than mere words from a writer when they set images and ideas to screen, even more so when they share something of the same perspective.
Shot primarily on moody, atmospheric b&w film, ‘The White Bus’ is peppered with short scenes of almost lurid Eastmancolor, which never fail to shock and surprise whenever they appear. Lindsay Anderson used the same effect in his later film ‘If…’, though in reverse, favouring mostly colour film, dropping in sporadic b&w scenes. It’s often assumed that the expensive nature of colour film was the determining factor, causing the majority of scenes in ‘The White Bus’ to be shot on b&w, where funds were unavailable, and limiting the colour filming in ‘If…’. It does seems far too deliberate a choice at times though, especially in ‘The White Bus’, where the use of colour appears more an avant-guarde motif. Fritz Lang faced similar concerns with his 1st Sound film, the ground breaking ‘M’, juxtaposing between Sound film and pure Silent scenes to keep under budget.. but he somehow made these cost cutting necessities part of the German Expressionist style, by focusing on the visuals for chase scenes, and saving his precious Sound film for close-ups. In neither ‘The White Bus’, nor ‘If…’, is there any clear reasoning behind colour or b&w selection, other than artistic or random whim. The overall effect is bold and original, so I suppose the intention, or lack thereof, doesn’t really matter anyway.
As the film progresses the inhabitants of this dream-like landscape seem to become less and less connected to reality, and the sense of documentary intent merges with that of surrealism, bringing to mind aspects of Dali’s ‘Un Chien Andalou’ (1929), and mysterious Maya Deren’s ‘Meshes in the Afternoon’ (1943). Different subjects for documentary are laid out before us, as the Bus Tour shifts from location to location, passing through State School, newly completed blocks of flats, the wheels of industry, anthropological glass cases of stuffed animals on display, and elaborate war reenactments over scrub land.
At one point, in full glorious colour, we have elaborate tableau set out before us in park scenes, as we parade through reconstructions of famous paintings by Goya, Fragonard and Manet, later to be imitated rather beautifully by those clever Guinness adverts in the early 90’s, with a wry Rutger Hauer interrupting the classics.
Ultimately the passengers themselves are reduced to mere dress dummies, as the dream of the Bus Tour loses solidity, and dissipates on the air, leaving only our protagonist to wander off once more. Eventually even she becomes a less and less noticed by those around her, a ghost sat in a chip shop at closing time, while chairs are stacked on tables around her. She and the audience must go home. Turn the lights off please.
IF YOU LIKE ‘THE WHITE BUS’, YOU MAY ALSO LIKE..
Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1958) / À bout de souffle (1960) / A Taste of Honey (1961) / Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962) / Billy Liar (1963) / The Knack, and How To Get it (1965) / Morgan, A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966) / Alice in Wonderland (TV 1966) / Blow-Up! (1966) / Bedazzled (1967) / If… (1968) / The Bed Sitting Room (1969)
LINDSAY ANDERSON : SHORT FILMS
LINDSAY ANDERSON INTERVIEWS & DOCU.
SHELAGH DELANEY (1938-2011)
A Taste of Honey (Pub. 1956)
The Lion in Love (Pub. 1960)
Sweetly Sings the Donkey (Pub. 1963)
The White Bus (Adapt. 1967)
Charlie Bubbles (Screenplay 1967)
Seven Faces of Woman (1974)
The House that Jack Build (TV 1977)
Find me First (TV 1981)
Dance with a Stranger (1985)
Three Days in August (1992)