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Anstey, Edgar (1907-1987)

Producer, Director, Writer

Main image of Anstey, Edgar (1907-1987)

Most standard works on documentary and on British film history mention Edgar Anstey in connection with Housing Problems, the seminal 1935 'social problem' film, which he co-directed with Arthur Elton. It remains important - and is still jolting when seen on the big screen. But it is the totality of Anstey's career that sets him apart from his peers. Although not the most talented director within the documentary movement, unlike most of his exact contemporaries he was - as a producer - able to sustain a stable and prestigious career for many years after the decline of British documentary had supposedly occurred.

Anstey was part of John Grierson's film unit at the Empire Marketing Board and his first directing assignment seems to have been Uncharted Waters (1933) - sadly believed no longer to exist. Along with the rest of Grierson's group he was transferred to the GPO, where he co-directed at least one film, 6.30 Collection (1934), and is said to have made a central creative contribution to Granton Trawler (1934), usually attributed principally to Grierson himself. He was soon laying down further documentary roots as (briefly) the Shell Film Unit's first producer. He then moved into the growing world of independent documentary production, within which he made several films sponsored by the gas industry - in some ways, the most enlightened of 1930s sponsors. As well as Housing Problems, Anstey worked on Enough To Eat (1936), another socially conscious though now very dated film about working-class nutrition.

Anstey next enjoyed two years heading the London office of the legendary American newsreel March of Time (1935-51), working on British stories such as 'The Black Areas' (1937; about impoverished mining districts) and 'Health and Physical Fitness' (virtually a compressed remake of Enough To Eat). This work further exposed him to the importance of production and editing, and it seems likely he had realised directing was not his forte.

Like his contemporaries, Anstey was busy during World War Two, working on propaganda documentaries for various production companies - films such as Wartime Factory (1940). Shortly after the end of the war, Anstey was associated with the short-lived Rank cinemagazine series This Modern Age (1946-50), an attempt to adapt the March of Time style to postwar Britain. The extent of Anstey's actual involvement is unclear but several issues of the series demonstrate very well the shift of documentary towards the concerns of a Britain urgently reconstructing itself through nationalisation, while coping with the economic stresses caused by the costs of war.

Unlike several of his documentary colleagues (notably Paul Rotha), Anstey was brilliantly able to adapt to this changed environment and in 1949 became head of the new film unit set up by the British Transport Commission. Henceforth he was always producer rather than director, and responsible for some 500 films made for British Rail, London Transport and the Inland Waterways Board, all of them under public ownership. By the time of his 1970s retirement, Anstey could reasonably be argued as having been responsible for the most consistently high quality, large and cohesive body of documentary films ever produced in Britain. Most of the films have amazingly high production values and are still entertaining at worst, magical at best.

The films have won great popular nostalgic affection yet have been mostly ignored by 'serious' film critics. It's certainly true that Anstey's productions increasingly relaxed into a seductive blend of realism and escapism that fitted the 1950s 'never had it so good' ethos every bit as well as, say, the gentler Ealing comedies. This sort of filmmaking came to be seen as suspect to those who advocated a more journalistic function for documentary: the model that eventually prevailed on television. Moreover, Anstey appears to have run British Transport Films as a highly disciplined bureaucracy, virtually a branch of the civil service, in which film craftsmanship was taken very seriously but maverick tendencies not encouraged (consider, for instance, Anstey's displeasure at John Krish's The Elephant Will Never Forget, 1953). The Free Cinema filmmakers reported that Anstey was unfriendly to them and dismissive of their efforts. That said, Anstey was willing to provide crucial breaks for Geoffrey Jones and John Schlesinger, whose techniques deviated a little from the BTF norm.

Above all, many documentary enthusiasts, including certain former colleagues of Anstey (Rotha again), were disappointed that the apparently independent-minded reformism of Anstey's more crusading documentaries of early days should have given way to such uncritical promotion of state services. Several explanations might be advanced for this. The most uncharitable is that Anstey's commitment to social change had always been skin-deep. A more generous one is that Anstey simply had no choice, as an employee of the tightly controlled nationalised transport industry, than to deliver exactly what its briefs demanded to the best of his unit's considerable abilities. But perhaps the most persuasive argument is that Anstey was consistent: his generation's earlier demands (for slum clearance, for greater state planning and improved public services) were achieved, and providing loyal service to an improved society was the logical next step.

A viewing of a selection of Anstey's film, spanning the decades, would show a remarkably consistent interest in technical processes and in the interdependence of all members of society for its smooth and humane functioning. Yes, his films reflect the best of his generation's values and, yes, they also betray their limitations. As such, he left a valuable legacy to future generations, one that still deserves celebration as well as criticism.

Patrick Russell

Anstey, Edgar, 'What is a Documentary?', Colonial Cinema, June 1945, pp. 31-33
Anstey, Edgar, 'The New Realism in Feature Films' BBC Third Programme, 12 Oct. 1947 (transcript held in BFI library)
Anstey, Edgar, 'Television, Film and Reality', Film Forum, vol.8 no.3 (1953), pp. 3-9
Anstey, Edgar, 'How we Use Films: 7 - For British Transport', The Film User, May 1954, pp. 213-215
Anstey, Edgar, 'How Films Serve the World's Biggest Employer', Industrial Screen, May/June 1959, pp. 92-94
Anstey, Edgar, 'Film and Television: Barometers of Social and Industrial Change', Video and Film Communication, Feb. 1975, pp. 8-12
Anstey, Edgar, 'The Grierson Influence', Undercut, Summer 1983, pp. 10-20
Elton, Margaret, 'Obituary: Edgar Anstey', Independent, 2 Oct. 1987, p. 14
Hardy, Forsyth, 'Tributes to Anstey and Wright', Scotsman, 7 March 1988, p. 8
Macdonald, Kevin and Mark Cousins, Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary (London: Faber & Faber, 1996), pp. 122-125

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of 6.30 Collection (1934)6.30 Collection (1934)

GPO documentary showing a postal sorting office at work

Thumbnail image of Airport (1934)Airport (1934)

Documentary about Croydon Airport; the first Shell Film Unit production

Thumbnail image of England of Elizabeth, The (1957)England of Elizabeth, The (1957)

Lively, colourful documentary evocation of Elizabethan England

Thumbnail image of Enough to Eat? (1936)Enough to Eat? (1936)

Polemical documentary examining the diet and health of British people

Thumbnail image of Every Valley (1957)Every Valley (1957)

The effect of modern transport on a small Welsh community

Thumbnail image of Housing Problems (1935)Housing Problems (1935)

Classic documentary about the problems of Britain's slums

Thumbnail image of How to File (1941)How to File (1941)

Instructional film for metal workers, directed by Kay Mander

Thumbnail image of Industrial Britain (1931)Industrial Britain (1931)

Classic documentary record of British industry at its peak

Thumbnail image of Scene from Melbury House, The (1973)Scene from Melbury House, The (1973)

Fascinating document of London from a Marylebone rooftop

Thumbnail image of Snow (1963)Snow (1963)

Stunningly shot and edited meditation on trains in winter

Thumbnail image of Train Time (1952)Train Time (1952)

24 hours in the life of the new British Railways

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Thumbnail image of Beddington, Jack (1893-1959)Beddington, Jack (1893-1959)


Thumbnail image of Wright, Basil (1907-1987)Wright, Basil (1907-1987)

Producer, Director, Writer

Thumbnail image of British Transport FilmsBritish Transport Films

Film Unit

Thumbnail image of Empire Marketing Board Film Unit (1926-1933)Empire Marketing Board Film Unit (1926-1933)

Film Unit

Thumbnail image of Shell Film Unit (1934-)Shell Film Unit (1934-)

Film Unit