Richard Lester

Presented by Professor Frank Sanderson

Honorable Pro-Chancellor, I have pleasure in presenting Richard Lester for the award of an Honorary Fellowship from Liverpool John Moores University.

Richard Lester, one of the most innovative, versatile and imaginative directors in the history of cinema, gained international fame through the films he made with the Beatles. 

These films have become the measure of excellence by which every subsequent popular musical has been judged. The mock documentary A Hard Day's Night (1964) was described by Village Voice as 'the Citizen Kane of the jukebox musicals', and critic Roger Ebert described the film as "one of the great life-affirming landmarks of the movies", adding:

"Today when we watch TV and see quick cutting, hand-held cameras, interviews conducted on the run with moving targets, quickly inter-cut snatches of dialogue, music under documentary action and all the other trademarks of the modern style, we are looking at the children of A Hard Day's Night".  

According to Jason Ankeny, with this film and his next Beatles' film Help, Richard "captured the spirit of the times with an energy and vitality unmatched by any of his contemporaries; a peerless and highly sophisticated visual humorist, his films brilliantly tapped the essence of the fledgling youth movement, and remain definitive portraits of their era."  

But there is more to Richard Lester than being the definitive chronicler of Beatlemania. He is widely admired by his peers and by actors who've worked with him, a true test of a great director. His film Petulia, one of the truly great films from and about the 1960s, prompted an unprecedented fan letter from David Lean who described the film as one that made him proud of his profession. 

And Buster Keaton who in his last film starred in Richard Lester's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, was full of admiration for the director. The feeling was mutual as Richard was equally in awe of Buster Keaton. And Kim Cattrall who received a fellowship on Monday, described working with Richard in The Return of the Muskateers as a real highlight of her career. 

Born the son of a Philadelphia teacher, Richard Lester was a child prodigy who finished high school at 15, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Clinical Psychology when he was 19.

Drawn to music and the theatre, he taught himself several musical instruments, wrote songs and scripts, and did some acting. He then took a job as a stagehand at a Philadelphia television station where he quickly rose through the ranks to become a director, managing more than a dozen live broadcasts each week.  

Intent on seeing the world, he moved to Europe, earning money as a reporter and by playing jazz piano in coffee bars. His impressive CV brought him to the attention of the developing television industry in London, and in 1955 he directed Downbeat, the first jazz series on commercial television. In the same year came The Dick Lester Show, inspired by the radio series The Goon Show. The programme was short-lived but nevertheless made such an impression on Peter Sellers that Richard was soon working with him on comedy films: Idiot's Weekly, A Show Called Fred and its sequel, Son Of Fred won him plaudits, and are often cited as blueprints for the Monty Python routines to come. 

He was soon one of the busiest directors on British Television. A short film made with Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and other friends over the course of a weekend, "The Running, Jumping And Standing Still Film", was a surprising success and was nominated for an Oscar as Best Short. This led him into cinema. His first two movies: "It's Trad, Dad" and "Mouse On The Moon", were well received, but it was his third film which put his talent for zany and offbeat comedy to greatest effect. "A Hard Day's Night" was an absolute sensation.   

His next film The Knack, a witty and visually stunning portrayal of London on the verge of the Swinging Sixties, won the coveted Golden Palm at Cannes. The film starred Rita Tushingham, Fellow of LJMU, who is present today to see her favourite director honoured. In 1967, he teamed up again with John Lennon for the anti-war cult movie How I Won the War, described by one reviewer as one of the most original, bizarre and imaginative war films ever made. He went on to direct the afore-mentioned Petulia starring Julie Christie, followed by the surreal satire, The Bed Sitting Room, in which London is in ruins after a nuclear World War Three. Next came The Three Musketeers, the most inventive and wildly enjoyable film version of the Dumas story, followed a year later by the more dramatic sequel The Four Musketeers, and 14 years on, The Return of the Musketeers

Other movies of the 1970s included the gripping suspense of Juggernaut and the tender tragedy of Marian and Robin with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn in the title roles. Notable films of the 1980s included the much-praised box-office hit Superman II, it grossed over $108 million in the States, and one of the highest grossing films of 1983, Superman III.  

His last film, Get Back, released in 1991, was a documentary of Paul McCartney's world concert tour of 1990. Now retired from directing and living in Sussex, Richard may be absent from the industry, but there is no doubt that he is remains hugely admired by his peers and that he continues to inspire new generations of directors.  

I'll conclude with a quote from Professor Neil Sinyard who has written extensively about the careers of many film legends. He praises in particular the spontaneity and sparkle of Richard Lestor's Beatles' films: 

"In the history of pop music, no group has loomed larger in terms of talent than the Beatles; and in the history of the cinema, no pop personalities have ever been better served by their director. These films alone should make Lestor an honorary Liverpudlian; and it would be fitting to extend that honour to include the whole career of a quite exceptional and gifted director whose work has enlarged the boundaries of cinema as well as providing provocative popular entertainment. To achieve even one of those ends requires talent; to achieve both looks unmistakably like brilliance" 

Thus I have great pleasure in presenting the brilliant Richard Lester, this most distinguished honorary Liverpudlian, for admission to our highest honour of Fellow of Liverpool John Moores University.