BY Richard Unwin in Reviews | 05 MAY 08
Featured in
Issue 115

Is That All There Is?

James Hockey and Foyer Galleries, Farnham, UK

BY Richard Unwin in Reviews | 05 MAY 08

Alan Price, Lindsay Anderson and Miroslav Ondricek on the set of O Lucky Man!, 1973

When it comes to curating a retrospective of the work of a film director, the task is complicated by the running time of feature films. Obviously, the ideal platform is a cinema-based season that allows full scope for exploring a director’s repertoire. With ‘Is That All There Is?’ what was instead presented was an archival record of Lindsay Anderson’s directorial career.

The benefit of such an archival exposition is the opportunity it provides to develop a picture of the artist as an individual. This approach is particularly pertinent for a director such as Anderson, with his highly personal approach. ‘Is That All There Is?’, which exhibited artefacts from the University of Stirling’s Lindsay Anderson Collection, was the first exhibition devoted to the director, who died in 1994. Drawn together in a small white gallery space were snippets from his working life: the scripts, storyboards, personal diaries and promotional posters that formed the paper trail around his dramatic creations. As well as being an acclaimed director of feature films such as If… (1968) and O Lucky Man! (1973), Anderson was also a successful theatre director and documentary maker, and one of the founders of the radical British Free Cinema documentary movement. Rather than digging deep into Anderson’s mind or the motivations behind his work, though, this was more a tribute to his art, culminating in a trophy cabinet housing the numerous awards he acquired.

Among the more revealing items on display were pages from Anderson’s personal diary from 1972, while he was on location shooting O Lucky Man! Mainly written in neat black fountain pen, the occasional word is picked out in red ink, such as the moniker ‘Malc’, which Anderson uses to refer to the actor Malcolm McDowell. Anderson’s respect for McDowell is borne out in the diary, when he describes the actor as ‘a marvellously ready and cheerful tower of strength’. The counterpoint to this relationship between film heavyweights comes on the opposite page, when Anderson notes how he sat in bed reading in a letter that his mother wasn’t well, the words ‘pain yesterday’ also highlighted in red.

Overall, ‘Is That All There Is?’ provided a surface view of Anderson’s working life. There was a lack of detailed information giving the background story. For a director who was very much an international figure, for example, the section entitled ‘Travel’ offered only one short paragraph by way of explanation. This thin veneer of information was somewhat matched by the range of exhibited artefacts, with the majority limited to photographs from Anderson’s various film sets and locations. The exhibition’s most rewarding element was the only complete film to be made available: Anderson’s excellent autobiographical documentary of 1992, from which the exhibition takes its name. Undoubtedly the exhibition would have benefited from more airings of the director’s actual work.

Despite its limitations, however, ‘Is That All There Is?’ did succeed in providing an accurate dual picture of Anderson as both a progressive maverick and, at the same time, a very British character. In 1980 he portrayed his own work as being ‘too off-beat and eccentric’ for major studios to handle. Back in 1971 he suggested that he was content to be ignored at home and respected abroad. This sense of an idiosyncratic auteur came over in Anderson’s personal demeanour. In the documentary Is That All There Is? (1993) he explains that he dislikes Michael Caine because he doesn’t like his hair and describes David Lean as over-praised. He is also dryly concerned as to whether those around him have an awareness of current affairs. Yet, despite this removed, individualistic nature, there is a definite impression that Anderson remained definitively rooted in Britain and its cultural establishment.

In perhaps the most intimate scene of Is That All There Is? Anderson is to be found sitting in his modest Swiss Cottage flat discussing with his cleaning lady the lyrics to ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ (1979). That Anderson’s cultural context was primarily a British one was reconfirmed by the exhibition’s artefacts, from the hand-drawn Christmas card sent to Anderson by John Gielgud to the photographic portrait of Arthur Lowe (most famous for playing the bumptious Home Guard officer Captain Mainwaring in the British television sit-com Dad’s Army 1968–77), with whom Anderson enjoyed a highly successful working relationship. This ‘Britishness’ probably found its fullest expression in Anderson’s ironic humour and his acute sense of the absurd. It was this quality that he drew on to produce a succession of films that skilfully exposed social inequalities and the irregularities of life.

In one of his early documentaries (not displayed in this exhibition), O Dreamland (1953), Anderson had already distilled his personal style to produce a subtle critique on the ‘great British public’ as they wander among the attractions of the seaside town Margate. With a dazzling soundtrack that combines catchy music with the grizzly cries of a laughing puppet clown, O Dreamland simply observes the holidaymakers as they view a ‘torture through the ages’ exhibit and circus animals held in the tightest of cages. The film crystallizes a combination of wit, social awareness, progressive values – and a certain nostalgia for British culture – that Anderson was to sustain throughout his career.

Richard Unwin is a freelance writer based in London, UK.