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Anstey, Edgar Harold Macfarlane (1907–1987), documentary film-maker, was born in Watford, Hertfordshire, on 16 February 1907, the younger child and only son of Percy Edgar Macfarlane Anstey and his wife, Kate Clowes. His father was a chef, distinguished in his occupation. Edgar Anstey attended Watford grammar school and then Birkbeck College, London University, graduating in sciences. In June 1926 he was appointed junior scientific assistant at the Building Research Establishment, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, where he served for five years, ‘eagerly looking for something more creative to do’, developing a keen interest in film, and joining the London Film Society, which gave him the opportunity to see films by Soviet and continental avant-garde directors. In 1931 he left the security of the civil service to join the nascent documentary film unit at the Empire Marketing Board under John Grierson.

Anstey's creative career fell into two phases. Until 1949 he followed the mercurial path of Grierson, making the types of documentaries which Grierson was currently championing, and moving posts in accordance with Grierson's wishes. Housing Problems (1935) and Enough to Eat? (1936), both made jointly with Arthur Elton, were landmarks in the development of the documentary, being the first (and effectively the only) Griersonian documentaries addressing social issues with party political implications. They employed the starkly pedagogical, unvisual style, deliberately devoid of aesthetically pleasing features, which Grierson argued for at the time. Following Grierson's interest in the kind of screen journalism developed by the American series March of Time—designed not so much to report but to editorialize about contemporary issues—Anstey became the London editor of March of Time and then went to the USA as foreign editor (1936–8). March of Time issues touching on British concerns, such as appeasement, were banned in Britain, much to the regret of Winston Churchill.

Always a patriot and a family man first, Anstey returned to Britain as war was approaching, though he loved the United States and was set fair for a career there offering both greater scope and better financial prospects. He was turned down for military service, much to his anger, because he was more useful to the war effort as a film-maker. Between 1940 and 1945 he directed, produced, or supervised the making of some seventy films, concentrating on instructional films, the most unglamorous but most useful type of film during the war.

After the war something went wrong with the documentary movement. There was a loss of purpose, creative development, and young talent—Grierson called it ‘the dereliction’. Some of the leading figures—such as Harry Watt and Paul Rotha—tried their hand, with varying success, at feature films and television; others, such as Stuart Legg and Basil Wright, gradually gave up film-making altogether, and Grierson himself took charge of a feature-film studio (Group Three) and never returned to documentary production. Anstey turned to writing in 1947, publishing a book on the development of film techniques in Britain, and worked as a film critic for The Spectator (1946–9), but unlike the others he then returned to production, with drive and purpose undimmed. In 1949 he became films officer for the British Transport Commission and established there a new documentary film unit, British Transport Films, which he headed until his retirement in 1974. Also in 1949 he married (Marjorie) Daphne, who worked with Grierson at the National Film Board of Canada; she was the daughter of Leslie Dalrymple Lilly, of the Canadian Bank of Commerce and the Lilly Adjustment Agency. They had a son and a daughter.

Thus began the second phase of Anstey's creative career. His unit succeeded in attracting young talent, such as that of John Schlesinger, and adopted new technologies and creative ideas as they came along. In addition to making many instructional, informational, and public relations films of impeccable technical standards as well as cost-efficiency, it produced a regular flow of documentaries, gaining some of the highest awards nationally and internationally, including those of the British Film Academy and the Venice film festival, and the Oscar in Hollywood. Anstey showed that the solution to the ‘dereliction’ of the documentary was to give the audience aesthetic enjoyment as well as ideas, and that those ‘arty’ and ‘commercial’ techniques which make films attractive need not be incompatible—as Grierson had so disastrously argued—with the documentary purpose. Journey into Spring (1957), Between the Tides (1958), Under Night Streets (1958), Terminus (1961), and Wild Wings (1965) are some of the most mature and flawless manifestations of the British documentary film genre. As Anstey later put it with characteristic simplicity: ‘Without art there is no effective communication, anyway’.

Anstey was also an outstanding manager, of people as well as organizations, and a much liked and effective committee man, lecturer, and public speaker. He served as chairman of the British Film Academy (1956 and 1967), president of the British and the International Scientific Film associations (1961–3), and governor of the British Film Institute (1965–75), and was adjunct professor at Temple University, Philadelphia (from 1982). He was appointed OBE in 1969, but it pleased him particularly to have been made an honorary member of the Association of Cinematographic and Television Technicians and of the Retired Railway Officers. In appearance he was the image of the tall, slim Englishman, with a small moustache and regular features, made for the classic Savile Row suit; in manner he was courteous, rather formal at first, but with great warmth and charm. His private life was entirely devoid of the eccentric preferences, tastes, and lifestyles common to those in the film world. Anstey died suddenly on 26 September 1987 at the Royal Free Hospital, London. He had been suffering from leukaemia, which sapped his physical energies, but his intellectual zest and vigour remained unimpaired to the last.

Nicholas Pronay, rev.


E. Sussex, The rise and fall of British documentary (1975) · G. R. Levin, Documentary explorations (1971) · personal knowledge (1996) · private information (1996) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1987)


BFI, film reviews for The Spectator

Wealth at death  

£179,139: probate, 14 Dec 1987, CGPLA Eng. & Wales