This Sporting Life: Richard Harris throws the kitchen sink at it

Harris demonstrates his sporting prowess in Lindsay Anderson’s debut feature as director

Richard Harris in This Sporting Life (1963)

Richard Harris in This Sporting Life (1963)

 

Casting Richard Harris as Frank Machin, the bitter, brutish, lovelorn malcontent in the 1963 film This Sporting Life not alone recognised his burgeoning talent as an actor – it was his first lead role – but a physical and athletic suitability to the role.

At the kernel of David Storey’s novel, first published in 1960 – he also wrote the screenplay – is rugby league, a sport the author had played at professional level with Leeds during the 1950s to help pay his fees for London’s Slade School of Fine Art.

Harris boasted the athletic bona fides. An accomplished rugby union player, he won a couple of Munster Schools Seniors Cups with Crescent College and a Munster Senior Cup with Garryowen before tuberculosis brought down the curtain on something he loved most in life.

When Munster reached the 2000 Heineken Cup final against Northampton Saints at Twickenham, Harris, in the company of his great friend and drinking buddy Peter O’Toole, removed his jacket and jumper to reveal a Munster jersey from a schools interprovincial in which he played against Connacht, complete with what he claimed was an original mud stain. He added: “I intend to be buried in it.”

In keeping with the sense of theatre O’Toole tackled his fellow thespian to the ground, the pair roaring with laughter as they disentangled. In 2002, about five months before he died, Harris wrote a first-person piece in the Daily Telegraph ahead of Munster’s European Cup final against the Leicester Tigers.

He concluded the article thus: “I would give up all the accolades – people have occasionally written and said nice things – of my showbiz career to play just once for the senior Munster team. I will never win an Oscar now but even if I did I would swap it instantly for one sip of champagne from the Heineken Cup. Good luck boys.”

Richard Harris in This Sporting Life (1963)
Richard Harris in This Sporting Life (1963)

The film is set in Wakefield, Yorkshire and the match scenes are filmed at the local team’s Belle Vue ground and also Halifax’s Thrum Hall, now a supermarket. The opening sequence depicts a game that includes several Wakefield Trinity players including Derek Turner, Neil Fox, Brian Briggs and Jack Wilkinson. Harris blends in seamlessly, from the way he looks to the way he plays, something of a rarity for an actor surrounded by professional sportspeople.

The Irish man earned respect on the first day of shooting. Storey recalled in an interview in Robert Sellers’s book Hellraisers: “[Harris] was spending ages on his make-up, with his false nose, his dark eye lenses to make him look more mysterious and his mascara and when he [emerged from his trailer], the players, standing at the other end of the pitch going, ‘Oh Jesus, look at this flower,’ he just took one look and ran down the whole pitch towards them.”

“And as he ran he got faster and faster until they suddenly realised with horror that he was going to run right into them, which he did. It was the initial gesture of total physical commitment, almost indifference and carelessness that caught the players’ admiration and they really took to him in a major way.”

Falling out with Brando

It was a first feature film for Lindsay Anderson, an Oscar winner for best documentary short for Thursday’s Children (1954) and a director at the forefront of British New Wave cinema; he wanted Harris in the lead role and travelled to Tahiti, where Harris was shooting Mutiny on the Bounty alongside Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard.

Harris revered Brando prior to their meeting in the flesh, stating that he would “lick the deck of the Bounty for the chance to appear opposite him”, but the relationship soured on set. Although the American attempted a rapprochement towards the end of filming, Harris refused the olive branch and the two didn’t speak again for 25 years.

Storey said: “We chose Richard because of his emotional volatility. He was very accessible emotionally and had none of those traits of a conventional actor or even a conventional leading actor. His enthusiasm was total, he was completely committed – verging on the edge of insanity in some respects and that became infused in the film itself.”

If the choice of Harris as Frank Machin was inspired, then casting Rachel Roberts as Margaret Hammond, the widowed mother of two children with whom he lodges and the object of his infatuation, was a master stroke.

The Welsh actor is mesmerising as the embittered Margaret, who is abrasive, at times cruel, determined to keep Frank at arm’s length in trying to enshrine a memory of her late husband, who is purported to have died by suicide.

The more she rebuffs Frank’s advances, the more ardent his pursuit, which leads to some of the film’s darker moments. Little did cinemagoers realise that the melancholy that Roberts portrays on screen would mirror her later life to a tragic degree. Indeed the same could be said in a slightly different way of Harris’s character, Machin.

A poster for Lindsay Anderson’s 1963 drama This Sporting Life. Photograph: Movie Poster Image Art/Getty
A poster for Lindsay Anderson’s 1963 drama This Sporting Life. Photograph: Movie Poster Image Art/Getty

On-screen alchemy

The on-screen alchemy between the principals is utterly captivating. Both were nominated for Oscars, and though unsuccessful, compensation came in other forms. Harris won best actor at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival, Roberts the second Bafta of her career.

A number of ties bound the film’s two protagonists off screen. Harris was married to British socialite Elizabeth Rees-Williams at the time, with whom he had three children, whereas Roberts was married to Rex Harrison, her second husband. Both marriages ended in divorce, but further down the matrimonial road, Harrison made Rees-Williams his fifth wife, something Roberts never came to terms with, despite the fact that she and Harrison both drank heavily and engaged in public fights.

Roberts was known for her eccentricity. Her party piece when drunk was to impersonate a Welsh Corgi, getting down on all fours and barking. Arguably the most extreme example was at a party thrown by Harris in Hollywood, when she crawled under a table around which Robert Mitchum was holding court, proceeded to chew on his trouser leg and then tried to sink her teeth into the skin. His response was to pat her on the head, muttering “there, there”.

Her descent into a fug of depression and alcoholism was exacerbated by her divorce from Harrison in 1971. She later pursued reconciliation but at that stage he had moved on to his sixth wife, Mercia Tinker. On November 26th, 1980, Roberts died at her home in Los Angeles, aged 53.

It was eventually ruled as suicide after secret journals she had kept for three years were discovered. It contained a list of substances, as revealed in a New York Times review of her diaries, with which she tried to anaesthetise her unhappiness: vodka, wine, brandy, the barbiturate Seconal, tequila, port, aspirin, Supporenyl, gin, the barbiturate Nembutal, Scotch, Fernet Branca, the benzodiazepine Mogadan, beer, whisky, champagne, Antabuse and Valium.

Richard Harris and Colin Blakely in This Sporting Life (1963)
Richard Harris and Colin Blakely in This Sporting Life (1963)

The posthumously published No Bells on Sunday: The Rachel Roberts Journals, offered a window into her mental torment. In one excerpt she posted: “I must learn to forgive myself. I’ve drowned for days and nights in the seas of my past. I don’t believe that any human being, not just alcoholics, feels really part of things. The hope that I can write is an intoxication. Please God, I can. That would save my life.”

In another she elaborated on her marriage to Harrison: “I’m the one who made a huge mistake, I chose Rex over my craft. Not much of a sin but I suffer for it dreadfully. I gave away my birthright. Therefore I cannot survive. He was and is the champagne of my life.”

Famous faces

This Sporting Life owes everything to the performances of Harris and Roberts but there is the occasional distraction of noting some other famous faces. Leonard Rossiter (Rising Damp, The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin) plays a sports reporter; Arthur Lowe (Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army) the secretary of the rugby league club; William Hartnell (the original Doctor Who) plays “Dad”, the scout who gets Machin a trial at the club; and there are uncredited cameos for Glenda Jackson and Edward Fox.

Suggesting that the film is about rugby league would be akin to declaring Moby Dick to be about deep-sea angling. The British class structure, money, celebrity, love, grief and guilt are just a selection of the themes that permeate the film.

On first release the film was panned by critics and audiences in Britain. John Davis, the chairman of the Rank Organisation, said he would not pursue further “kitchen sink” film projects nor would his company make such a “squalid” film again. It would subsequently come to be regarded as a classic, and in some quarters the best-ever British sport film.

In the US it was favourably received. Variety praised its “gutsy vitality” and director Anderson, who it summarised, “brings the keen, observant eye of a documentary man to many vivid episodes without sacrificing the story line”.

Harris and Roberts went on to have garlanded and celebrated careers on stage, screen and in the Irish man’s case musicals (Camelot) and music (MacArthur Park), but no matter how those achievements are measured or categorised, This Sporting Life continues to offer a wonderful homage to their talent.

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