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FILM / And that is all there is: Is That All There Is? will be seen as the last film and testament of Lindsay Anderson, who died this week. Kevin Jackson reports on a fitting obituary and, below, Anderson's colleagues pay their respects

Kevin Jackson
Thursday 01 September 1994 23:02 BST
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When an artist dies, it is always tempting to ferret through his or her final work for some veiled hint of mortality, some quiet note of leave-taking or Last Testament. In the case of Lindsay Anderson, that search does not take long and the valedictory note is loud and clear. The concluding sequence of what we must now call his last film, Is That All There Is?, has the form of a funeral gathering on an open boat, with Anderson raising a glass in memory of two actress friends, Jill Bennett and Rachel Roberts, while their ashes are scattered to the waters of the Thames and Alan Price sings that lilting cabaret song about terminal disillusion from which the film takes its name.

The highly personal tone of Anderson's piece was originally his response to an executive producer's brief - it was commissioned by John Archer of BBC Scotland for a forthcoming series, The Director's Place, in which film-makers from around the world offer visual essays about a locale that has some private significance for them. Anderson chose to shoot a diary of daily life in his North London flat and in his local shops, whose keepers are pressed into half-delighted, half-embarrassed service as supporting players.

Since his death has suddenly gazumped the BBC's schedules, however, Is That All There Is? now looks less like an evocation of household gods and the daily grind than Anderson's deliberate attempt to leave us with the kind of obituary he wanted for himself - mischievous, cantankerous, amusing and unexpectedly lyrical.

Not that the film is altogether unconventional: indeed, all the elements of a standard obit are there. Friends and relatives show up to reminisce - and to empty a bottle of red wine angrily over Anderson's patrician head - as his CV is recounted by various means. Anderson's films are swiftly reviewed by point-of-view pans around the posters for This Sporting Life, If . . . and O Lucky Man] mounted on his bathroom wall; these shots represent the director's contemplations as he wallows, defiantly baring a magisterial paunch, in his morning tub.

Anderson's stage work is summarised by a theatre programme blurb and a swift montage of stills. His critical work - an unjustly neglected aspect of a busy life's output - is rapidly surveyed in a meeting with the Guardian's Tom Sutcliffe.

His manifest pride is well-founded, and yet there is little here of the traditional mellowness of a veteran browsing through his scrapbooks. He is a spiky host to colleagues who drop in. Why, he asks a chum, do you make investigative films? 'To make people think'. 'Do you think people want to think?' comes Anderson's beady reply. 'Some people.' Anderson raises a glass of vodka to his lips: 'Not the kind of people we make films for. . . old boy.' (That vodka didn't need to be put in the fridge for chilling.) Moreover, this whole film is sardonically intercut with snippets of daytime television: African famine sequences rub frames with tracking shots down the meat-laden aisles of a supermarket; bland words seem to crumble in the grinning mouth of Ron Howard as he plugs his latest film to Oprah Winfrey before Anderson's withering gaze.

There are, too, moments when that same gaze turns outwards towards the audience, his piercing eyes reprimanding us for our dumb passivity in the face of the ignorant, the crass, the ersatz and the absurd. Our country is the poorer for the closing of those eyes, and it would be tempting to offer further words of praise, were there not a key moment here which pours scorn on all such journalistic encomia: Anderson reading out the daft rave on a book's back cover as though removing a slug from his mouth, and muttering with incomparable disdain: 'Imagine writing that. . . '

'HIS WAS A DIFFERENT VOICE'

KAREL REISZ

'We first met on a bus going to Aston Clinton, to the BFI archives. Lindsay was running Sequence, the magazine he started (in the Forties) with Gavin Lambert. It was the first to take commercial film seriously - the art magazines were all Eisenstein and German expressionism, but Sequence started writing about American musicals and so on. I wrote for it and co-edited the last issue or two.

When we began making documentaries, quite independently of each other, we became friends. I produced his first proper film, (the short) Every Day Except Christmas. Then, because I'd made Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and was hot, I was offered This Sporting Life. Lindsay wanted to direct it, so I produced it. The film is completely his; there's no creative input from me whatsoever. I was an ideal producer] A lot of films from the early Sixties were sociological, although that's not the word. This Sporting Life was much more - dare I say it? - Lawrentian: a film of feeling, which happened to have a working-class setting. Lindsay was the son of a general and had no sentimentality about the working class. And the film doesn't give the audience any kind of let-out at the end, which is very Lindsay.

'He was an extraordinarily confrontational person, with very strong convictions: more anarchic, really than left-wing. There was a whole generation, around the (Royal) Court and those first Free Cinema films, as he christened them, for whom he was a sort of cardinal. He was extremely seductive. I remember Bernard Levin writing from Cannes in the Sixties, 'I don't understand it: after every screening, there are people sitting on the Carlton terrace asking: what did Lindsay think of it?' He had that authority.

'There was a high degree of control and technical brilliance in his films, and also a peculiarly aggressive attitude to the audience. He wanted to startle and shock them. It's strange because his creative god was John Ford. All his life he used to go over to see the old man; he became like John Ford's Boswell. And he admired the Ford qualities, which were enormously traditional and conformist, but his own work was quite different.

'He was very Scots and had a complicated love-hate relationship with the English. If . . . crystalises that. In the scenes set in the public school, he was able both to give you the emotional intensity of that life and, at the same time, convey his hatred of and detachment from it. The inspiration is definitely Vigo's Zero de Conduite. If . . . . doesn't have that film's bold strokes, but it has other things, it has a grudging respect and affection. The effect is . . . poetic - is that the word? It's just good stuff.

'He was a loner. There was an absoluteness of stance about him, an uncompromising quality which gave him many disciples, but also hundreds of enemies. He lived alone, but there was a very wide circle of people for whom he was important. You accepted the savagery and the bitterness because he accepted it for his own work. He was . . . , yes, his own person.'

SIR DENIS FORMAN

'My first meeting with Lindsay was in 1947 when he and Gavin Lambert were looking for help to keep Sequence in the black. I was about to become the Director of the British Film Institute, and I persuaded them to come there. This was a pretty big jump because it meant giving up total independence and editing a paper - Sight and Sound - owned by an institution. What they did was not easily forgiven by people like Mick Balcon (Sir Michael Balcon, the then-head of Ealing Studios). He was upset at assaults on The Blue Lamp and other Ealing films, which they thought were rather laughable schoolboy stuff. And it was quite difficult to steer Sight and Sound away from censorship because, although it was financed by public money, it was in no way supporting British film.

'In those days, it was not easy to find the money or resources for a personal documentary, but Lindsay managed it, and O Dreamland (1953) made people sit up. He had an abrasive approach and never let gentlemanly behaviour get in the way of expressing his views. He took great pleasure in being a loner. Like Delius, he wouldn't listen to anybody else's music in case he started to sound like them. His was a different voice, because he saw British films and Britain from the outside, perhaps as a Frenchman might. When he became a film-maker, he kept that voice. And the world listened in shocked admiration.'

BRIAN GLOVER

'I worked with Lindsay on many occasions, in Britannia Hospital and on stage in What the Butler Saw. He left a great impression on me, and whenever I'm acting and I'm not sure what to do, I always think, 'What would Lindsay do? What would Lindsay have said?'. And he'd have said, 'Don't do it cheap, do it truthful'.'

CLIVE PARSONS

'Working with Lindsay was challenging, difficult and ultimately the best experience I had producing. I probably learnt more from him than anyone. He took success and failure in his stride. He was tough on producers, and cynical about both public and critical reactions to his films. But one of the best things about Britannia Hospital was that we became friends.'

DAVID STOREY

'We were introduced in 1960 by Karel Reisz; it was the beginning of 30-odd years of collaboration, on plays principally - he directed nine of my plays at the Royal Court and three more at the National - but also films. This Sporting Life was a nightmare because we were all so new to film-making, and therefore vulnerable. Richard Harris was a handful by his own admisssion; Lindsay was overwhelmed for a while, but he brought a necessary dynamic to the film. I guess you could describe it as a scorching experience for all involved.

'He was, and probably remained, an enigma; a very unusual man by common consent. He had a high intelligence and an equally formidable sensibility. He was a man of great paradoxes: acerbic, but also kindly, authoritarian but sentimental, arrogant but generous. He was devoid of envy and jealousy, which in this business is very unusual. But out of it came an extraordinary artistic vision, which he sustained to the end. He didn't see film-making as frivolous entertainment. He had a caustic eye for what was insensitive in human nature, but also a lyrical view of life. The subjects he put up were not fashionable, and it was singularly difficult for him to get films together because of his integrity of perception in an industry constantly looking for novelty.'

GRAHAM CROWDEN

'I worked with Lindsay on If . . . . I played the surgeon, Stuart, in O Lucky Man] and Britannia Hospital, and I remember also turning up as a down-and-out at the end of O Lucky Man] You must remember that Britannia Hospital was made at the height of the Falklands War and, being anti-Establishment and anti-jingoistic, didn't stand a chance. I think that's rather stayed with it to this day. It's a hard film, but it has great compassion, and was absolutely Lindsay's view of things. It's a powerful vision of the state of the country, and very prophetic. Whatever the hitches during production, there was a good atmosphere on set. But Lindsay could be harsh. If something was a load of rubbish, he'd say, 'No, I don't think we want that, do we?' He was a very dear friend.'

LINDSAY ANDERSON, A FEATURE-FILMOGRAPHY

Anderson made only a handful of films, but what a handful: (top to bottom) This Sporting Life (1963), a keynote film of the 'angry young man' school, with Richard Harris ('a handful by his own admission') and Rachel Roberts; Malcolm McDowell in If. . . (1968), which brought a whiff of European revolution to Britain; Mona Washbourne and Anthony Nicholls in the picaresque O Lucky Man] (1973); Leonard Rossiter, pondering the state of the nation in the savage Britannia Hospital (1982); The Whales of August (1987), which united Anderson and two Hollywood legends, Lillian Gish and Bette Davis. Photographs: Kobal Collection

Interviews by Sheila Johnston and Ryan Gilbey

See obituary, page 16

Is That All There Is? will be shown on BBC2 at 8.00pm on 17 September

(Photographs omitted)

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