John Schlesinger was the son of a pediatrician and an accomplished violinist. Three of his grandparents were immigrants from Germany. One of his grandmothers was born in Manchester. Before going to St. Edmund’s, a preparatory school in Surrey, he attended the Hall School in London. After St. Edmund’s he spent five years at Uppingham in Rutland.
Let’s start at the beginning. Your first memory of theater or film.
The first theater I ever saw was of two famous magicians, called Maskelyne and Devant. My father took me to see them, and I became fascinated by magic. There were big stage illusions which in one way or another have continued to be popular with magicians ever since, probably using the same principles. I loved the show and thought that one of the things, apart from a cinema organist, that I would like to be was a stage magician, and I took it up very keenly.
A cinema organist?
Yes, the image of a purple spotlight on the cinema organist, as he waves and then sinks with his organ down into the bowels of the earth, was always rather special. When I was eleven, I read in a magazine about the Paris Exhibition, and there was an organ which played colored waterfalls—you know, waterspouts. My father took me to Paris to see it. I went to the restaurant where you could play this organ and see the colored fountains. It was all terribly glamorous. I was really quite serious about learning to play the organ and indeed did so at the West London Synagogue. I had lessons, and at boarding school—my prep school—I used to play the organ in chapel.
It was only a two-manual organ, not more complicated than that, and I can’t say that I listen avidly now to organ recitals, but it started me off being interested in music, which became a very important part of my life.
I suppose the organ, particularly in a church, though perhaps not in the West London Synagogue so much, was also part of the drama of religion. Was that part of the attraction? Was there a magical quality about being in a chapel, the chanting and so on?
Maybe. My first sexual experience was linked to my playing the organ at school. We were changing to go horse riding one day, and another boy beckoned me over to the cubicle he was changing in. And I suppose one could say that we fiddled—not much more than that. That night I was playing the organ in chapel and when I pulled out the stops to start playing whatever hymn it was, there was a terrible kind of subterranean noise, which went like eeeeeeeer, and I thought, What on earth is this? and pushed all the stops in to try and stop it, and then they announced the hymn ancient and modern number, and I pulled the stops out again—eeeeeeeer. I thought, Oh, my God! This is a visitation, this is because of something terribly wrong that I have done, and I’m being punished for it. Anyhow, it was a rather embarrassing service, because I couldn’t stop this noise. In the end I realized that it was a pure accident. My cassock had got caught on one of the pedals, which caused this noise to happen, and guilt vanished—forever, I think—as a result of that.
How old were you when this happened?
Eleven, I suppose.
Apart from cinema organs and magic shows, what other theater did you see as a child?
I can remember going to Peter Pan. We saw Charles Laughton playing the parts of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. And Jean Forbes-Robertson was the perennial Peter—she was said to have gin hidden in her wig box. But it was wonderful. These were special occasions, on my grandmothers’ birthdays and in the Christmas holidays. The first opera I ever saw was Hansel and Gretel, which is still musically one of my favorite pieces. I didn’t get to work in the opera—and never thought I would—until very much later. But I remember my parents saying good night to us when they were off to the opera in full evening dress—tailcoat, et cetera.
You see, there was a glamour to the theater. I always remember wondering what was behind the curtain in the days they had curtains in the theater. They don’t so often now. You know, you see a dimly lit set when you walk into the theater. I sometimes think that’s rather a pity—I like the surprise of the curtain going up, revealing what’s behind it.
The magic . . .
When did you start doing your own shows?
Quite early on. We used to celebrate birthdays and that kind of thing by doing our own shows. My parents—your grandparents—were very encouraging about our doing things for ourselves, making things for ourselves. Anything we made was considered important—including our own entertainment. And so it became a custom to put on shows for my grandmothers’ birthdays and other such occasions. We usually imitated them and were probably very rude about everybody, but the family shows became a great standby, and we were allowed to make a total mess of the dining room—putting up dust sheets for curtains and all that kind of thing, because I was always interested in presentation. If I was having a film show, I always had colored lights on the screen, got hold of a dimmer of some sort, and could present something as a performance. I’ve always been interested in that.
And the movies? What was the first film you saw?
I remember being taken to the Tatler cinema, which used to exist on Tottenham Court Road, and seeing a full-length documentary about the war between China and Japan. It was called China and Japan, but I can’t remember the details of it.
Later on, I saw films at my prep school, St. Edmund’s, in Surrey. This was in the thirties, when there was a great deal of publicity about Germany and the growing Nazi influence, and German expressionistic films were the fashion. So one of the first films I remember seeing was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. We had a wonderful schoolmaster, who was very keen on German expressionism and arranged for us to see the films he considered important and we didn’t really appreciate.
How old were you then?
Between nine and thirteen. I remember The Last Laugh being shown, and we didn’t appreciate it at all.
Did you see M?
I didn’t see M. It was considered to be too strong for us.
This was after you got your first camera?
I was about nine when I got my first camera, I think, from my grandmother. She didn’t want for a quarter of tea, since my grandfather was a very successful stockbroker. They lived in a big house on Fitzjohns Avenue, which was nicknamed Fitzjews Avenue in those days. I was at the Hall, Hampstead, as a day boy and used to go and visit her quite often from school. My grandfather, who had been a very active man, was suffering badly from Parkinson’s disease and dribbled terribly, so he had a sort of bib permanently on and could only speak in a whisper, which was terrifying to me.
I first used my camera for “granny in the back garden” kind of films. But I did make a film of our prep school, which began with an invisible hand opening the front gate, as if by magic. There was a sequence in this film of the school being taken away to the seaside for the day and rather intimate shots of the headmaster, Mr. Bully, changing under his towel. This was considered infra dig, so they tried to prevent me from including it in the film.
Was this kind of thing encouraged at school? I had always heard you were a very unhappy schoolboy.
I didn’t like games. I wasn’t good at it, and that was one of my problems at school. I never felt I was appreciated for the positive things I could do. I was very good at drawing and designing posters for the school play, but games were considered to be important above everything else. And I was always scared of physical things. My father had been at the same public school—Uppingham—and when I went there, aged thirteen, I was haunted by the image of him in a school photograph of the rugby team or whatever it was. My brother, who was junior to me when he came to school, was also very good at games. He was more in the mold of my father. I always felt that I was never going to do that well because of this discrepancy. My parents knew I was not happy at school and that I was bullied, but they just thought, you know, you’ve got to rise above this and endure whatever happens and stick at school. I was always wanting to run away.
This is important, since many of your films are about people who are dreamers or outsiders or failures of one kind or another.
I knew I didn’t fit in, and I regretted that terribly, and it probably informed everything in my life.
So that’s a good thing, really, with hindsight. You might never have made films if you’d been a good sportsman.
Well, I don’t know about that, but I wouldn’t have harped to such an extent on the idea of failing in the eyes of other people. I’ve been dogged by that all my life. I’m very conscious now, years later, of being a product of a family that was acutely sensitive about this. I think that comes from my mother’s side. My father was very optimistic and bullish and gung ho, and his motto, “Never take no for an answer,” was something that I personally adopted and felt strongly about, but my mother was much more concerned about other people’s opinions—what they thought of her. I remember when we were living in Berkshire during the war. She was a great gardener, and she wore what she considered very unattractive working clothes. One day she had to drive me to the station, which was a tiny place, and the only person she was likely to run into would be Lionel, the porter. She insisted on changing her clothes. I’d ask her why on earth she had to
do that, and she said: “Well, I can’t go in these gardening clothes, I must get out of them,” and I said, “Who are you dressing for?” and she said, “Well, Lionel might see me.”
Do you think that being from a family of immigrants made her more self-conscious?
I think it was entirely to do with her personality. I don’t think it was anything that was premeditated. I remember being rather reluctant to perform at some impromptu concert at school. I was not a bad pianist, but I was told off for making too much fuss in refusing to appear because I didn’t think I was good enough. They—not my parents but the school—said that was a form of boastfulness. So I never was quite sure how to play any form of success. I certainly played up failure, and I always have. Even when I’ve had good notices, I would say: “Oh yes, but this didn’t work and that didn’t work” and look on the negative side of things. That’s been very much part of our family inheritance.
I still wonder whether there is not more to this than individual personality. I think it always comes back to the “Lionel” problem. As long as one has the feeling, even slightly, of being outsiders in a society, there is that nagging pressure to succeed a little bit better than other people in order to be appreciated. No?
Yes, yes. Particularly if one was not succeeding at something that was accepted as being the norm.
Being Jewish was never the issue?
I did know that being Jewish was in some ways a disadvantage, particularly if you were bullied as a result of it—and I was.
Yet the family was not very Jewish in its habits or customs.
I had a very strange religious upbringing. My father was rather egalitarian, in the sense that he thought any place of worship was as good as another. We used to go to the Liberal Jewish Synagogue—which we nicknamed “Cinemagogue”—on Saturdays. I remember one rather dramatic morning, when the rabbi, a much revered figure named Mattock, whom I used to call Dramattock, got up to preach and was stopped by a man who was clearly trying to interrupt the service. He probably had something to do with Oswald Mosley, the famous fascist at the time. This man wasn’t allowed to continue and was escorted out. It was all very dramatic, and a sort of cloud came over the congregation. This realization that something out of the ordinary had happened was something that stayed with me. I tried to use this in the synagogue scene in Sunday Bloody Sunday. But it didn’t
really fit—a good idea which didn’t work. But I can remember it as the first fascistic gesture I experienced.
You went every Saturday?
Not every Saturday, but we went during the school holidays quite often and certainly on high holidays. I’m the only member of the family that still retains, as it were, my Jewishness. I like my association with the Liberal Jewish Synagogue. I still go on high holidays.
Yet you never had a Bar Mitzvah?
No. I did not.
Because my parents didn’t think it was so important, I suppose. After all, any place of worship is as good as another. I’ve rather regretted it. I rather wish I’d had a more Jewish upbringing.
Was there an element of snobbery in your upbringing, in the sense that middle-class Anglo-Jews, especially of German-Jewish descent, were a cut above religious Jews from Russia and Poland—people who were less assimilated? Was it not considered slightly bad form to be too obviously Jewish?
I didn’t think of it in that way at the time. I suppose there were occasions when one was embarrassed by unattractive Jewish qualities in other people. I remember a school friend, with whom I used to give film performances, after which we would ask people to contribute for a charity at the end. This friend of mine, whose name was John Lazarus, always used to say, in a rather thick Jewish accent: “Thank you for coming, and there’s a box at the door.” “There’s a box at the door” became a sort of running gag.
I’m thinking more of your parents. My grandmother, especially, seemed to be hyperconscious of certain kinds of Jews, as she would put it, “giving Jews a bad name.”
Well, one was certainly conscious of Jews getting a bad name, yes. Although I didn’t think of it in those terms. I mean, it was much more personal to me. It was why they were chasing me at school. You know: “Let’s chase Schlesinger!”
To turn back a little, what happened to the boy in the cubicle at school, with whom you had your first sexual experience? Was that ever repeated?
Excerpted from Conversations with John Schlesinger by Ian Buruma. Copyright © 2006 by Ian Buruma. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.