b. 17 April 1923, Bangalore, India.
d. 30 August 1994, Angoulême, Charente, France.

If you enjoy L’Eternel Retour, you may enjoy also King Kong, but not Black Narcissus. If you enjoy Black Narcissus you cannot enjoy L’Eternel Retour. (If you think you enjoyed both, you are wrong.)” — Lindsay Anderson, ‘Angles of Approach’, Sequence 2, 1947.1

Lindsay Anderson made sharp distinctions as a critic and confounded them as a filmmaker. Reputedly, he was “not a man to change his mind”2, yet his films reveal that, in the best sense, he never made it up. Emphatic, decisive expressions of their maker’s often-ambivalent, essentially reactive consciousness, their styles are a collision of irreconcilable impulses, not only Brechtian, realist and surrealist by turns, but frequently all three at the same time. While Anderson consistently claimed the inheritance of the British documentary movement and British social realism3, his vision of cinema exposed and abandoned the assumptions on which both were founded. In place of the boosterism of Griersonian documentary, Anderson made personal, lyrical films whose only British precedent was Humphrey Jennings. In place of the intrinsic determinism of social realism, he sought to understand and respect “ordinary people”4 “as ends in themselves”5 6, neither exemplary in their suffering nor typical in their frailties.

Anderson’s small pantheon was rich in internal dissonances. As a critic, his greatest influence had been George Orwell, who regarded surrealism, the Hollywood cinema, and any aesthetic canon other than realism with reactionary distaste. As a filmmaker, his greatest influences were Jennings, Jean Vigo, Luis Buñuel and John Ford: three surrealists and a Hollywood director. Later, when Anderson had begun a parallel career directing in the theatre, Bertolt Brecht indicated a way to translate his polemic, satiric impulses into dramaturgy, informing the style of the trilogy that began with if…. (1968), his best-known film. Just as a viewer may enjoy King Kong, L’Eternel Retour and Black Narcissus, so Anderson was an Orwellian-Brechtian realist surrealist; internal conflicts fuelled his work.

Look at Britain

Anderson began by making industrials for Richard Sutcliffe Ltd., a Wakefield-based conveyor-belt company. Necessarily work-focused, information-dense narrations brought their proportions close to Griersonian norms, but Anderson’s sense of individuation is immediately evident. The first, Meet the Pioneers (1948), more sequence-based than image-rich, pauses for a gratuitous break-time scene. Idlers That Work (1949) places the belts in geometric compositions worthy of comparison with Joris Ivens’, but its final shot highlights a single worker walking uphill.

Wakefield Express (1952) presents a reporter’s journey to collect stories for the eponymous local newspaper. What begins as a Jennings-esque portrait of a community becomes more complicated, as Anderson, away from the conveyor-belt for the first time, encounters Northern English culture first-hand. As a reference to “the carnival in Nice” makes plain, the director, remembering Vigo’s À propos de Nice (1930), is fighting a temptation towards crueller irony than Jennings’. On this occasion, compassion retains the upper hand.

Lindsay Anderson

O Dreamland (1953)

O Dreamland (1953) was Anderson’s first personal film, made for his own satisfaction with no immediate plans for its exhibition. It is an unrelieved expression of contempt for the patrons of Dreamland, a funfair in Margate. Pairing 16mm footage of horror exhibits and unphotogenic faces with tinny field recordings of barkers’ pitches and pop songs already distorted by PA speakers, Anderson condemns his fellow connoisseurs of the grotesque with hypocritical relish. Defences of the film which place it in the context of the pre-Marcusian British Left’s attitudes to “mass culture” are unconvincing and unnecessary. Anderson respects the agency of the individuals he sneers at; they are not the victims of “profiteers”, just people with bad taste, as ripe for mockery as his later bourgeois targets.

At twelve minutes long, O Dreamland was the shortest film Anderson had made so far, as well as the cheapest, produced with resources available to experimental and amateur filmmakers. In premièring it as the first film on his first National Film Theatre “Free Cinema” programme in 1956, Anderson chose his first moment of high-cultural prestige as a filmmaker to identify himself with amateur, irregular, underground, grass-roots expression. O Dreamland’s extremity liberated British documentarists from Grierson’s mandate of impersonal submission. The documentarist was not necessarily the voice of Reason, Progress or Christian Charity, just a person, and someone who is just a person can also be an artist. A quarter-century later, Anderson would again free himself by destroying his own authority, but that liberation, mostly unwitting, would be his alone. In 1956, long before he identified himself publicly as an anarchist, the exhibition of O Dreamland was perhaps his most anarchist act.

His remaining major documentaries of the decade would all be loving. Thursday’s Children (co-directed by Guy Brenton, 1954), a film about the Royal Deaf School in Margate, creates for the viewer the children’s experience of being taught to make sounds without hearing them. Post-synchronised sound, a feature of this period of Anderson’s work, has an integrated formal meaning here as a translation, for our convenience, of silent subjective perception. With Thursday’s Children, Anderson moved beyond the self-conscious outsider perspective of his first films, seeking a fellow-traveller’s solidarity with communities set apart, as John Ford saw the Cavalry.

Trunk Conveyor (1954), his last Sutcliffe’s industrial, is the most significant commercially unavailable Anderson film other than If You Were There. This film, which follows the installation of a single piece of mining equipment, is largely shot underground in dim light. Anderson’s direction remains attentive throughout the process, finding striking, dynamic ways to represent each stage, while never losing sight of its nature as labour, something accomplished by the workers rather than through them. Anderson incorporates as many observations of individual agency – gestures and moments of relationship between the men working – as he can accommodate. The film is scored with folk music performed by Sutcliffe employees, and voice-over narration is reduced to the necessary minimum.

Every Day Except Christmas (1957) made for Ford of Britain’s short-lived “Look at Britain” series, depicts Covent Garden market from around midnight until 11am. Anderson communicates his delight in discovering the intimate separateness of the market’s nocturnal community; Walter Lassally’s camera shows us the morning light with their eyes. In the first extended use of synchronised sound in an Anderson documentary, the porters talk, whistle and sing.

By 1957, Anderson had directed actors in documentaries, television commercials and television drama, and Tony Richardson7 invited him to direct plays at the Royal Court Theatre. Apart from anonymous work on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s March on Aldermaston (co-directed by Karel Reisz, 1959), it was six years before Anderson returned to the cinema.

Richardson and Reisz had both preceded Anderson in making dramatic features, but although their films have been identified as contributions to a “British New Wave”, these were cautious adaptations of social realist plays and novels, as determinist and uncinematic as the least-achieved examples of the modes they ostensibly sought to render obsolete. While This Sporting Life (1963), adapted from David Storey’s novel, is usually regarded as the last of the “Wave”, it resembles those films only in its setting; in its forms, it belongs with the era’s developments in art cinema. Anderson uses the resources of studio filmmaking expressionistically, to create the subjective world of rugby player Frank Machin (Richard Harris) and Margaret Hammond (Rachel Roberts), the widowed landlady with whom he has a tortuous relationship.

Lindsay Anderson

This Sporting Life (1963)

The spaces Frank and Margaret live in are established with sight lines across cuts, each shot a discrete unit, separately lighted.8 When they go out, they stand in (or against) the landscape like Antonioni characters rather than, like Richardson and Reisz’s characters, emerging from and heading back into streets, alleys, over bridges, under tunnels. Resnaisian editing brings us into their relationship without preamble, and the images drop us into the spaces between them, seeing each with the other, creating fragmentary sequences of formal and emotional weight. The difference is accentuated by Roberto Gerhard’s atonal score.9

What Richardson and Reisz’s working-class protagonists have in common is that the filmmakers could never imagine being hurt by them. Their pranks and selfishness are admired as resistance or socio-economic consequence, not forgiven so much as unquestioned. Anderson feels for his characters. In This Sporting Life cruelty exists, without rationalisation or excuse. It can be gratuitous, as when Weaver (Alan Badel) refers to Johnson (William Hartnell) as “your little dog”; it can be motivated by fear and hurt like Frank and Margaret’s clashes, or simply unthinking, as with the blankness of the doctor and nurse at Margaret’s death. Because Anderson retains his – and our – freedom to disapprove, it can also be funny. In the restaurant scene, we can laugh at Frank’s obnoxiousness because it is so clearly deliberate, even as we cringe with Margaret, whose departure, seen by the Weavers, turns the humiliation back on him.

Hanging over Frank’s relationship with Margaret is her husband’s suicide; her recollection of his question “Why was I ever made alive?” creates a sense of existential horror which becomes the dominant tone of the film, while Frank’s professional life becomes a source of psychosexual paranoia. In short, Anderson’s first feature is a modernist film, not a realist one. After This Sporting Life, Anderson’s discovery of the Czech New Wave strengthened his fiction films’ documentary accent, but he would never seek realism’s illusion of transparency.

Lindsay Anderson

The White Bus (1967)

The White Bus (1967), adapted by Shelagh Delaney from her own short story, was Anderson’s second first film; his first shot by Miroslav Ondříček, and his first to switch between black-and-white and colour. The plain, cloud-lit, concise style associated with the director begins here. It is a work of ambiguous genre, suspended between documentary and narrative, and its protagonist is reactive, observing, seldom speaking. We see and hear the world as she does, imaginative vision breaking into the stream of social observation. In long-shot, The Girl (Patricia Healey) sits at her desk in the typing pool, finishing her work after most of her colleagues have left. The cleaners have begun their work behind her. For a second, the shot cuts to one from not quite the same position, showing The Girl hanging dead above her desk, the cleaners working on, unnoticing. In this moment, two observations occur; The Girl’s feelings of boredom and invisibility, and her sharing in the assumption of obliviousness commonly made of cleaners. This is not an estrangement effect; it establishes identification rather than dispelling it, and indicates that even the most apparently documentary of this film’s images will be subjective. The Girl’s visions do not replace reality; they are neither delusions, nor simply identified with the director’s perspective, as the exaggeration and fantasy of the subsequent films will be.

The absurdities overheard in The White Bus are things people say to define or assert themselves and their tribal pride, unaware that in doing so, they are limiting themselves. Even at his most blinkered, the Mayor (Arthur Lowe) is pitied more than condemned. Everything said is placed between inverted commas by The Girl’s distanced attention, yet Shelagh Delaney’s ear for the varieties of real speech means that the dynamic never becomes monotonous. Though the story was inspired by Salford’s civic disapproval of Delaney’s 1958 play A Taste of Honey, the film is free of bitterness or condescension. The moment when the tour party turn into dummies is the only one of Anderson’s Vigo homages that shares the lightness of the original. The most consistently funny of his narrative films, it is also, oddly, the most autobiographical. Of all his protagonists, The Girl is closest to Anderson’s reactive personality and sense of disconnection from the values and aspirations of his contemporaries. The White Bus leads to the later work, but its humility and lyrical freedom are never subsequently approached in his fiction features. The White Bus is Lindsay Anderson’s masterpiece.

Made in Warsaw while if….’s screenplay was being rewritten, 1967’s The Singing Lesson (aka Raz Dwa Trzy) juxtaposes musical performances by third-year drama students with the everyday activities of people in the streets and shops of the city, and, more fleetingly, the memorials of the past. After the comic disconnection of the ‘Resolution der Kommunarden’ scene in The White Bus – in which the performance’s unintelligibility to the audience, rather than the audience’s failure to understand, is the comic centre of the scene – in The Singing Lesson Anderson takes a more affectionate look at the distance between the imaginative utopia of the theatre and the world outside.

Gavin Lambert noted that in The Singing Lesson, “Soviet-style communism” makes “life in Warsaw a mirror-image of everyday life in the drab, anonymous city of The White Bus”.10 Despite the need for caution, Anderson’s proposal to Warsaw’s documentary studio was essentially honest, “the reality of everyday existence”,11 rather than Poland’s political situation, is the contrast that gives the students’ vitality its poignancy: the latter they already know; the former they cannot be prepared for.

Lindsay Anderson

if…. (1968)

The world created in if…. is one whose rules feel like discovered inevitabilities. The narrative, loose but plotted across the grid of the institution’s regimentation, is shapelier than that of The White Bus, but neither as playful nor as challenging. In if…., Anderson and Ondříček’s style is not visionary but hallucinatory, the fantastical erupting without rippling the texture of the remembered humdrum; the beige walls, brown food, chipped paint and shiny faces. As in The Singing Lesson, we see a group of idealists yet to discover the world, but in this film the world is barely seen. The film’s documentary-like attention is largely focused on the school, society reduced to a few minutes in the town, a roundabout, a few shop windows, other people long-shot stooges to Mick (Malcolm McDowell) and Johnny (David Wood). This is the boys’ obliviousness, not Anderson’s. One of the roundabout gardeners raises his spade threateningly in defence the second that the boys’ feet hit the turf. The class memory of centuries is in that gesture, its throwaway quality an indication of Anderson’s deep personal knowledge of the territory.

The setting of if…., its appeal to young public school survivors, and the mood of the times in which it appeared have given it the reputation of scathing satire, but what makes the film lastingly disturbing is the softness in its observations, the nostalgia for the known threats of institutional life. Anderson defined himself against institutions, which is not the same as defining oneself outside of them; distrust is a mode of attention. He had been a successful schoolboy.12 Promoting if…., Anderson described its perspective and his own as “anarchist”, an identification he retained for the rest of his life. Anarchism is a broad church, but within it, the worldview of the Mick Travis films is heterodox, seeming closer to what Americans call “libertarianism”; a half-belief in natural hierarchy is discernible in the films’ division of humanity into strong and weak, enlightened and foolish, noble and corrupt. Later, this would change.13 Until if…., the impetus of his film work had been his quest to understand and respect “ordinary people” “as ends in themselves”.14 15 In if…., the boys’ ordinary life is already an extraordinary construct before fantasy transforms it, and the film’s only working-class character, also called The Girl (Christine Noonan), is a fantasy within a fantasy, an ideal lover and revolutionary ally.

After if….

The success of if…. led to two further films written with David Sherwin, starring Malcolm McDowell as a character called Mick Travis. The first, O Lucky Man! (1973) was Anderson’s most ambitious production, a picaresque epic about the futility of ambition. Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) is a Candide-like coffee salesman who travels around Britain in pursuit of ‘success’, and is repeatedly disappointed. The film began as the combination of two projects, a comedy based on McDowell’s experiences as a coffee salesman, and a documentary about Alan Price’s tour of Britain. Despite its scale, O Lucky Man! retains the lightness of both of these ideas; the people Travis meets are far more simply caricatured than the characters of if…., and their stories are self-contained vignettes, with most of the cast playing multiple roles. Across three hours, the film lays out a comprehensive “view of society”16 coupled with a spiritual worldview, primarily a self-help-tinged Zen derived from D. T. Suzuki’s Westernised compact Buddhism, and sardonic songs by Alan Price as himself. Finally, Mick achieves enlightenment, and leaves the treadmill of narrative, attaining a Nirvana more like Christian Heaven, a jubilant reunion of ideal selves. Jocelyn Herbert, the resident designer of Royal Court productions, began designing Anderson’s films with if…., and this scene features the most absurdist example of the cosy-drab aesthetic that they developed – Heaven as a church-hall disco with balloons.

The combination of ideal collaborators, artistic freedom and major-studio backing makes O Lucky Man!, in a sense, the apotheosis of Anderson’s film career. This was the last of his films shot by Miroslav Ondříček, and probably the peak of his professional status as a high-profile auteur. Yet his best work had been made at close quarters and on a small scale, and satire had only been one element in it. if…. was about a milieu he knew intimately and had strong, mixed emotions about; O Lucky Man!, about many different aspects of British society, none of which he or Sherwin knew at first-hand, involved a more intellectual, editorial kind of engagement. The film is not wholly comic, and there are many sequences in which Anderson’s unforced ire is powerfully evident, but in O Lucky Man! he comes close to being a mere satirist.17

Lindsay Anderson

O Lucky Man! (1973)

In Celebration (1975) followed, in which Anderson recorded his direction of David Storey’s 1969 play for Ely Landau’s American Film Theatre. As cinema, it is an act of self-abnegation, remarkable only for Anderson’s decision to make nothing cinematic of it. He had previously adapted his direction of Storey’s Home to videotape for television; his next work for that medium was an original.

Written by Alan Bennett with Anderson’s uncredited collaboration, The Old Crowd (1979) adapts the style of Anderson’s films with Ondříček to the multi-camera electronic television studio, expanding the self-referential aspects to include glimpses of crew, equipment, and the studio beyond the sets. These disjunctions include one instance of genuine exposure, as Anderson’s decision to direct from the studio floor rather than the gallery means that a cutaway to the gallery shows producer Stephen Frears queuing the shots, revealing Anderson’s relaxed attitude to shot composition.

What sounds like the dialogue of a social comedy about paranoid middle-class people becomes for Anderson, affirming their fears with every choice he makes, a study of people who are panicking too little. The kind of solipsistic overreaction, already a staple of British television situation comedy, in which a character takes a pile-up of small irritations thwarting their plans as indicating society’s collapse, seems here to be simply Anderson’s worldview. What are the signs of this collapse?

Strikes. Uncouth servants. Vandalised telephone boxes. The Old Crowd aired during Britain’s ‘winter of discontent’. Later, Anderson opined that British trade unions had ‘deserved as well as received their defeat at the hands of Margaret Thatcher’.18

Anderson’s attraction to the grotesque reaches its zenith in Britannia Hospital (1982), the last of the Mick Travis films. Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) is a TV journalist investigating a hospital, shortly to receive a royal visit on the occasion of its five-hundredth anniversary, in which the patients are raw material for the experiments of transhumanist posthumanist Dr. Millar (Graham Crowden). Primarily an attack on trade unions and the NHS, the film combines broad, victim-hating comedy with brightly-lit slapstick gore.

In his 1985 television documentary Free Cinema, Anderson suggests that Britannia Hospital was the last film worthy of the label, but for much of its length, it feels more trapped than free, lacking the energy to relish its own extremity. The Zen of O Lucky Man! is absent. Written with David Sherwin, who was himself recovering from a mental breakdown, it is a film trapped inside its own mind; a powerful experience, but not of the kind intended.

The unconscious paranoia already seen in The Old Crowd here becomes a circular harangue, only occasionally lighting on anything real. While the film has the reputation of being scatter-shot, most of its venom is reserved for the working class. The film’s identification figure, Potter (Leonard Rossiter), is a middle-class functionary whose murder of an obstructive trade unionist is treated as an occasion of catharsis. Sherwin called it “an assault on Thatcher’s Britain that hurts”,19 but the news story that inspired it dated from June 1974, when Labour was in power. Britannia Hospital’s targets are Thatcher’s own – unionised labour and an Establishment rendered too wary by self-image, tradition and Great War guilt to oppress them effectively. Like The Old Crowd, it was most favourably reviewed by the conservative press, who evidently appreciated its anti-union, anti-NHS and classist jokes more than they resented its relatively weak jabs at the upper classes.

One group is allowed to be human: the protesters at the hospital gates. Each is a person visibly cast not on physiognomic, typological criteria, but for their distinct physical and expressive qualities. While their actions are caricatural, the performers are permitted to individualise them, and in doing so break through the cynicism of the rest of the film. Despite his rage, Anderson has not lost the desire to see people as ends in themselves.  In the close-ups and pans of the protesters and staff listening to Millar in the film’s concluding sequence, their reality renders his apocalyptic fantasies, even in this science-fiction setting, inconceivable, even as we are given no counter-narrative. They are like the room sound that persists after the concluding cut to black, and after the voice of Genesis (Frank Grimes) has ceased.

Free Cinema

Britannia Hospital’s failure saved Anderson, releasing him back into the world. His next film, a documentary about the pop duo Wham!’s visit to China, exists in two versions. Anderson’s cut, titled If You Were There…, completed in 1985 and to date still unreleased,20 and the theatrically released cut, prepared by Strathford Hamilton and Andy Morahan and re-titled Foreign Skies. If You Were There… and Foreign Skies differ most markedly in the relationship of Wham!’s musical performances to the structure of the film, and the screen-time allotted to scenes of Chinese life. If You Were There… opens with Wham! rehearsing. The unmixed sound filling the space makes them seem more like a rock group than a pop act, and one is reminded of Anderson’s unfulfilled ambition to make a documentary of Alan Price’s tour in the early seventies. The camera is close and at eye-level with the musicians, and the cuts between the stage and an unexplained, silent audience of Chinese men are reminiscent of The Singing Lesson. After this, Wham!’s music is heard mediated and excerpted until the concert sequences – on a television showing the video for “Bad Boys” watched by a small crowd; from a cassette given to a market trader by Andrew Ridgeley; on a boombox George Michael turns off as he enters a dressing room. During the concert scenes, Anderson cuts regularly to audience members’ reactions to the music. Some dance with awkward enthusiasm, while a couple of sober men move to the beat more reservedly. One soldier remains still and focused on the stage; another enjoys watching the dancing of the woman next to him. These observations are followed by Anderson’s own reactions – two cutaway sequences sound-tracked by the live performances, one semi-staged, one purely documentary.

The second, the “River of Life” sequence, is beautifully described in the last chapter of Lindsay Anderson: Cinema Authorship.21 The first, appearing in the eleventh chapter, ‘To Give You Money!’, responds to “Everything She Wants” with shots of electronic goods on display and in boxes on a pavement, a montage of department store and supermarket shopping, and, most resonantly, acted scenes in which a Chinese woman visits a hair salon. She chooses a Western model’s hairstyle from a book, followed by nail varnish and eye-shadow. With this scene, Anderson relates the subject of the song to two of the film’s themes: the meaning of Wham! in a Chinese context, and the ways in which fragments of Western culture that arrived in China before Wham! inflect that meaning unpredictably. He also indicates, with gentle irony, that this song about the interpersonal cost of consumerism can only promote consumerism in a Chinese context, its novelty overwriting the anguish it once expressed.

The second major difference between If You Were There… and Foreign Skies is in the screen-time devoted to China without Wham!. Where Foreign Skies keeps such footage to a minimum, directing the viewer to discover China at Wham!’s pace, If You Were There…, mostly scored with Chinese music, places the group’s visit immediately in its wider cultural context. Full sequences are devoted to traditional musicians, martial artists and qigong practitioners, while in the sixth chapter, “Afternoon Off”, subtitled ‘In the park/We practice English’, a trumpeter busks in white tie and tails, and Andrew Ridgeley interviews a Chinese man who likes John Denver and Loretta Lynn and dislikes “disco”. It’s worth noting that, in contrast to Foreign Skies, political discussion is entirely absent from If You Were There…. This open, generous film signalled the rebirth of Anderson’s creative vitality. It is to be hoped that the rights-holders will one day permit its public exhibition.

The Whales of August (1987), adapted by David Berry from his play with Anderson’s uncredited input, concerns the conflict and reconciliation between Libby (Bette Davis) and Sarah (Lillian Gish), widowed sisters summering in Maine. The sisters and their neighbours, characters surrounded by their memories, are played by actors themselves surrounded by the history of the American cinema. The time is uncertain – the women recall the war as though it was as distant as it was at the time of the film’s making, but an estate agent who visits is dressed for the early ‘60s. The Whales of August has been regarded as beside the point of Anderson’s career, at least one profile omitting to mention it, but this is a mistake. Apart from the Chekhov productions he suggested as comparisons, his theatre career included a number of consciously old-fashioned projects22, and the survival of traditions had interested him since Wakefield Express.

Lindsay Anderson

The Whales of August (1987)

In The Whales of August as in Anderson’s more obviously Brechtian films, we are never watching the characters only, but always also watching the actors playing them. Libby’s infirmities are mostly Bette Davis’s; Tisha walks with a cane because Ann Sothern did. Anderson records the undiminished talent and charisma of his veteran cast, but the film is not a mere star vehicle. The plot’s restricted range – it culminates in Libby’s assenting to Sarah’s wish to install a picture window – is honest, rather than trivial. Making something of their lives in the present requires, as it did for Anderson at this point in his career, as much acceptance as ambition.

Glory! Glory! (1989) made for HBO, was Anderson’s second American film, and his second religious musical epic. When televangelist Reverend Dan (Barry Morse) is incapacitated by a stroke, his diffident son Bobby Joe (Richard Thomas) introduces bar-band singer Ruth (Ellen Greene) as ‘Sister Ruth’ to reverse plunging ratings and donations. She succeeds, leading the broadcast to unprecedented success. As her private life and the calculations of church executive Lester Babbit (James Whitmore) come to muckraker attention, complications ensue. Bobby Joe, Ruth and Lester end up confessing their sins on national television, redeeming the ministry.

The detailed research that informed Stan Daniels’ screenplay helped Anderson make his most accurate and compassionate satire since if….. An often-farcical story, itself enmeshed in the absurd specifics of late-eighties American cable television’s unstated production code – “fuck” permissible except as a verb; mild nudity strongly encouraged even if unmotivated – is happening to characters, not caricatures, for whom redemption is conceivable. As in O Lucky Man!’s church sequence, the ironic and the miraculous coexist. The film ends with a flashback to the Reverend Dan’s original church singing ‘Shall We Gather at the River’, John Ford’s favourite hymn. Is what this church became still, somehow, the church? Is Anderson, using one kind of television to look at another, practising the same vocation as Ford? This ending offers an affirmative answer to both questions.

Lindsay Anderson

Is That All There Is? (1992)

Is That All There Is? (1992), a documentary self-portrait made for BBC Scotland, is Anderson’s last film. Commissioned to make a film about himself, he shows himself in relationship to others; his cleaning-lady, acupuncturist, friends, collaborators and family are introduced by name in title-cards. During many scenes, Anderson acts as interviewer, drawing out others’ stories; his brother delivers the film’s only typically Andersonian rant. In exchanges whose obvious contrivance is part of their humour, he makes himself the butt of his own jokes, depicting himself (falsely) as tone-deaf, failing to convey the tune of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” to the cleaning-lady (Catherine O’Neill), or irritating shop assistants.

Among these scenes are set clips of Anderson’s off-air recordings of television, selected for absurdity or satirical eloquence (with occasional manipulation – the same 70s electronic music is heard over news shots of a space station and a clip from a softcore porn film). In this, and a confrontational sequence cutting from supermarket shelves and shoppers to silent off-air images of news footage of Somalian famine, Anderson’s methods resemble the free quotations and commentary-through-juxtaposition of scratch video.

In one scene, Anderson’s friend Bernard Kops calls him an “old-time anarchist”. As noted above, the relationship of the Mick Travis films to anarchism had been complicated; how Anderson dealt with his diminished status after Britannia Hospital, and the loss of his authority to define the terms by which his work was evaluated, brought his late works closer to anarchist ethics in their implications. Freed from the burden of prestige, and given new opportunities to be an outsider as he had been in Wakefield, Margate and Salford, Anderson regained his centre. Making personal cinema from the disparate offers he received, he became a great director.

Anderson dedicates his last sequence to Jill Bennett and Rachel Roberts, gathering friends to scatter their ashes from a boat into the Thames. Surviving grief, Anderson ended his career as an anarchist with a sense of humour.



Thanks to Kathleen Dickson and Steve Tollervey at the British Film Institute, and to Karl Magee and Valerie Wells at the University of Stirling.



Meet the Pioneers (1948)
Idlers That Work (1949)
Wakefield Express (1952)
Three Installations (1952)
O Dreamland (1953)
Thursday’s Children (1954)
Trunk Conveyor (1954)
100, 000 Children (1955)
Henry (1955)
Green and Pleasant Land (1955)
Foot and Mouth (1955)
Energy First (1955)
The Children Upstairs (1955)
£20 A Ton (1955)
The Adventures of Robin Hood (six films for television, 1956-57)
Every Day Except Christmas (1957)
This Sporting Life (1963)
The White Bus (1967)
The Singing Lesson (1967)
if…. (1968)
Home (video for television, 1972)
O Lucky Man! (1973)
In Celebration (1975)
The Old Crowd (video for television, 1979)
Look Back in Anger (supervised video recording of Ted Craig’s stage production, 1980)
Britannia Hospital (1982)
More, More, More (promo clip for Carmel, 1984)
If You Were There (unreleased, 1985)
Free Cinema (film for television, 1985)
Sally (promo clip for Carmel, 1986)
The Whales of August (1987)
Glory! Glory! (film for television, 1988)
Is That All There Is? (film for television, 1992)



(References beginning “LA” are to items held in the Lindsay Anderson Archive at the University of Stirling.)

  1. Lindsay Anderson, Paul Ryan ed., Never Apologise: The Collected Writings (London: Plexus, 2004), p. 193.
  2. Brian McFarlane, “Anderson, Lindsay (1923-1994)”, BFI Screenonline, http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/446941
  3. For example, in Free Cinema, his 1985 essay film for television, he situates Britannia Hospital, a sustained exploration of the grotesque and his most caricatural film, in the tradition of Humphrey Jennings’ Spare Time (1939).
  4. Anderson, Ryan ed., Never Apologise, 364.
  5. Anderson, Ryan ed., Never Apologise, 364.
  6. Lindsay Anderson, About John Ford (London: Plexus 1981, 1999), p. 109
  7. Richardson, a friend of Anderson’s since Oxford, had collaborated with Karel Reisz on Momma Don’t Allow (1956), a documentary included on the first Free Cinema programme. His own Great Directors profile can be read here: http://sensesofcinema.com/2007/great-directors/tony-richardson/.
  8. It’s worth comparing Denys Coop’s cinematography here with the crystalline brightness of his work on John Schlesinger’s A Kind of Loving, shot on location the previous year
  9. Gerhard had composed music for Secret People (Thorold Dickinson, 1952), the production of which was the subject of Anderson’s first book Making a Film, (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1952).
  10. Lambert, Mainly About Lindsay Anderson, 162.
  11. LA 1/5/2/1, quoted in John Izod et al, Lindsay Anderson: Cinema Authorship (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2012), p. 102.
  12. Anderson, Ryan ed., Never Apologise, 36.
  13. Although the author betrays a hasty eye in describing Anderson’s style as “impersonal”, an interesting discussion of if…. from an anarchist perspective can be found in Richard Porton, Film and the Anarchist Imagination, 207-11, (London: Verso Books, 1999).
  14. Anderson, Ryan ed., Never Apologise, 364.
  15. Lindsay Anderson, About John Ford (London: Plexus 1981, 1999), p. 109
  16. David Sherwin, Going Mad in Hollywood and Life with Lindsay Anderson (London: Penguin 1997), p. 41
  17. Years later, O Lucky Man!‘s relative breeziness would be reflected when a dialogue sample from the film was used on “Ebeneezer Goode”, The Shamen’s anthropomorphising ode to MDMA, which reached number 1 in the UK charts during the production of Anderson’s last film, Is That All There Is? (1992).
  18. Anderson, Ryan ed., Never Apologise, 41.
  19. Sherwin, Going Mad in Hollywood, 207.
  20. LA 1/10/3/7
  21. Izod et al., Lindsay Anderson: Cinema Authorship, pp. 304-5.
  22. For example: The Bed Before Yesterday (1975) a new Ben Travers farce; The Kingfisher (1977), a star vehicle for Ralph Richardson and Celia Johnson (and, on Broadway, Rex Harrison and Claudette Colbert); and a revival of Philip Barry’s Holiday (1987)

About The Author

Luke Aspell is a filmmaker and writer. His writing has appeared in Vertigo, Sequence, Film International and Charcoal, and online at lukeaspell.wordpress.com; three recent videos can be seen at xviix.com.

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