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Simmons, Anthony (1922- )

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Simmons, Anthony (1922- )

Anthony Simmons' lengthy filmography may at first appear a bizarre assortment of subjects and genres: he has made feature films and fictional shorts, independent and sponsored documentaries, prime-time dramas and 30-second commercials. Such variety reflects the reality in which most British filmmakers have always operated: sometimes able to initiate projects, but more often bringing their craft, and sometimes a distinctive voice, to the work available to them. In Simmons' case, certain recognisable threads do recur across the diverse output. Perhaps the most consistent strength of his work is an 'impressionist-realist' feeling for atmosphere and location - a corresponding weakness being an at times slapdash inattention to structure and narrative.

From a working-class East London Jewish background, he trained as a lawyer. He was diverted into film partly via political connections with left-wing sections of the film industry. His first semi-professional effort, Bulgarian Village (1947) was an ambitious 35mm evocation of rural Bulgarian life that was never completed (its soundtrack was never recorded) or released. His first two completed films, however, received cinema release. Produced by Leon Clore, the award-winning Sunday By the Sea (1953) and Bow Bells (1954) are unassuming but not unimportant films: they suggest an alternate path for British documentary that it never took. Respectively about Southend and the East End, and set to cockney music hall songs, they are non-sponsored pieces that unusually fuse the personal with the populist.

Most of the director's other shorts were made for Clore's various low-budget companies. The Gentle Corsican (1956) is again strong on ambience, though anchored to a more conventional (and more heavily fictionalised) exotic travelogue. Blood Is Life (1957), No Short Cut (1964) and Greenwich - A People's Heritage (1976) are each very different, but all unassertive and likeable COI public information films. From First to Last (1962), Simmons' promotional film about the making of Ford cars, is a fine addition to the 'industrial process' genre. Under the aegis of Clore's firm Film Contracts, Simmons also helmed numerous short television advertisements for brands as diverse as Players, Findus, Shell, Persil and Ryvita.

His three major feature films are distinctive pieces that, despite minor faults, deserve to be better known. All are imbued with a feeling for London as a setting and virtually as a character in its own right. Four In the Morning (1965) weaves documentary location coverage into a multi-stranded fictional storyline (some of the stories are more gripping than others). The Optimists of Nine Elms (1973) is only slightly let down by a rushed ending: Simmons' sensitive script and direction of child actors, and one of Peter Sellers' most disciplined performances, blend with cherishable footage of pre-gentrified South London. Black Joy (1977) evokes immigrant life in Brixton. Though uneven, it's an impressive, singular film: even when gauche, it is for its period an unusually honest, unsentimental treatment of race.

Most of his later work has been for television: one-off plays, and episodes of popular series, from The Professionals (ITV, 1978-83) to Inspector Morse (ITV, 1987-2000) by way of Supergran (ITV, 1983-87). A refreshingly unfashionable aspect of his work in both media is that for all its bittersweet or sad touches, it seems to reflect a view of life which is basically generous and mostly cheerful.

Patrick Russell

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Black Joy (1977)Black Joy (1977)

Lively, idiosyncratic Black comedy, starring Norman Beaton

Thumbnail image of Blood is Life (1957)Blood is Life (1957)

Documentary about the NHS Blood Transfusion Service

Thumbnail image of Bow Bells (1954)Bow Bells (1954)

Glimpses of London's East End accompanied by old music-hall songs

Thumbnail image of Dispute (1960)Dispute (1960)

A workplace dispute explored from multiple points of view

Thumbnail image of No Short Cut (1964)No Short Cut (1964)

Jimmy and Les get new bikes... but do they know how to ride them safely?

Thumbnail image of Sunday by the Sea (1953)Sunday by the Sea (1953)

Impressions of a day at Southend, accompanied by music-hall songs

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Thumbnail image of Postwar DocumentaryPostwar Documentary

A crucial and creatively fertile period long overlooked by historians

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