The Anderson Tapes

He looks like a young gnome.” ~ Screenwriter David Sherwin on first meeting Lindsay Anderson.

They said of director Lindsay Anderson (IF…) that he was a Scotsman when it suited him. That is, although born in colonial India, he was of Scottish descent and he sometimes liked to be proud of this, or use it in an argument. It’s quite handy to be able to stop someone who calls you an English filmmaker and before they’ve gotten to what they wanted to say about you, you can be correcting them. But I don’t think Anderson had a highly developed sense of Scottishness (whatever that might consist of) since he gave a speech in Edinburgh where he repeatedly referred to “English cinema” and called John Grierson an English documentarist. An irate Scot in the audience shouted corrections the first couple of times, but Anderson sailed on, oblivious.

But one time Anderson did remember his nationality was when discussing what he wanted done with his effects after he died — he was clear that they should “go to Scotland”. When Anderson did in fact meet his end (after a swim, on holiday in France — not too bad) somebody must have had to interpret what that actually meant.

Anderson’s writings, his annotated scripts, and his library (lots of cookery books, apparently) ended up going to Stirling University, where they can be consulted by film and theatre scholars (or cooks, presumably). The video collection went to the organisation for promoting the film industry in Scotland, Scottish Screen (also known as the S.S.).

This collection of mainly off-air recordings made by Anderson throughout the ’80s and early ’90s can be seen behind Anderson whenever you see him interviewed in his home. It’s kind of exciting to hold one of the tapes and read Anderson’s rather shaky, spidery handwriting on the label.

Anderson recorded almost anything — old Hollywood movies, all foreign movies, appearances by friends, documentaries and news footage of political events of the day, and a suspicious number of episodes of Spenser For Hire. I guess he just like Robert Urich. Because British television no longer shows the range of films it used to, Anderson’s tapes contain a lot of rare material.

Scottish Screen, having accepted delivery of about ten big boxes containing fifty VHS tapes each, then had to decide what to do with them. What they did with them was put them in a cupboard. And, because that didn’t seem quite enough, somehow, they told a few people that the tapes were there, and available. A catalogue listed the contents of the boxes.

I found out about the collection by chance and determined to have a rummage next time I was in Glasgow (and hour away by costly train). Scottish Screen has viewing rooms so I could watch the tapes if I booked in advance. What a treasure trove I discovered. James Whale’s “sophisticated” divorce drama ONE MORE RIVER, Julien Duvivier’s moving, emotionally epic LA FIN DU JOUR, Josef Von Sternberg’s THE SALVATION HUNTERS, Mitchell Leisen’s REMEMBER THE NIGHT – -things I have yet to find anywhere else.

Sadly, all Anderson’s own films were kept elsewhere (Stirling? I never knew) apart from a few odds and ends. A recording of the HBO mini-series Glory! Glory! which Anderson had directed, was partially taped over with a Beach Boys concert. But they did have this Anderson interview about pop promos –

The only problem was, it was going to be impossible for me to see all the films. If I lived in Glasgow it would be easy enough. Scottish Screen doesn’t charge for its screening rooms, so I could have gone along once a week and treated myself to a screening. But the distance and financial difficulty of getting to Glasgow regularly nixed that. Also, I wanted to share the films with friends and students. I particularly knew that my friend Lawrie Knight would enjoy many of them. Being about 80 years old and paralysed down one side, there was no way he could come to Glasgow with me. And since Lawrie once ran Films of Scotland, the organisation that preceeded Scottish Screen, I felt he had a right to some of this primo entertainment. Since Lawrie had a horrible time with that (“Worst job I ever had!”) and was in hiding from the Scottish film industry, I couldn’t use his name.

The S.S. maintained that they couldn’t allow tapes to leave the building. Even with strict book-keeping, the fear was that tapes would go missing. My argument was that this might not matter too much — after a year at Scottish Screen, the tapes had not been requested by anyone apart from myself. I asked if I could hook up two VCRs and make copies of films. The S.S. took the view that that would be copyright infringement. Which is true, but I can’t see how it’s worse that the infringement of recording the films off-air in the first place. As Anderson would say, “Your rules are too complicated for me.”

So I decided to use subterfuge. I would visit the “archive” and request several films to view. I would be carrying several blank tapes, glue, and a razor blade. Once alone in the little room with the TV, using the razor I would meticulously peal the original, tippex encrusted labels from Anderson’s tapes, then glue them to the blanks. At the end of the session I would leave with several Andersons, and the S.S. would hang onto the blanks. During my next trip I would replace the original tapes (this meant requesting the same films twice) and borrow some new ones.

After a while, my requests for five or ten tapes must have become wearisome, and my fondness for guddling through the boxes in search of uncatalogued treasures did not justify close supervision, so it was suggested that I should just carry a box through to the screening room and knock myself out. This I was more than happy to do.

Left alone with a whole box, or sometimes two or three boxes, I didn’t need to worry about removing labels. Nobody would notice if the box was slightly less full when I was done. And since I always returned all the tapes after pirating them, I felt I was unlikely to get into serious trouble if caught, so I grew ever bolder.

It was simply impossible to pass up a treat like Gregory LaCava’s STAGE DOOR or Anatole Litvak’s MAYERLING when I saw them before me, so the number of tapes borrowed kept increasing. My bag could hold about ten, and my coat and trousers had numerous deep pockets. Stuffed full of tapes, I came to resemble an articulated plastic manwith a Frankenstein monster walk, clunking internally with each step, but I somehow managed to make it out of the building undetected each time. I was usually the same bulk on departure as on arrival, because concealed about my person on entering the building would be the tapes from my previous depradations. I sometimes wondered if the staff had realised what I was up to, but also realised that it was fundamentally harmless, and partook of a recognisably Andersonian spirit.

After all, Anderson would have approved of a bit of film-buff anarchy.

(Also, Lawrie had a little bit of history with Anderson, having helped film MARCH TO ALDERMASTON, a documentary about the gigantic anti-nuclear protests of the ’50s: a high-angle shot taken from a moving car is Lawrie’s work. “I felt rather guilty about filming all these marchers from a car, with a big cigar in my mouth, but my partner, Morton Lewis, just said, ‘Shut up, we’re on the march, aren’t we?’”)

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13 Responses to “The Anderson Tapes”

  1. Brilliant story! I actually did a similar thing with some tapes from Manchester University when I was studying there, borrowing the tapes I was allowed to borrow, copying them at home with a couple of tape recorders hooked up together and returning them in a couple of days – I took the similar view that since they were recordings from television and since I would have recorded the films if I’d been around at the time to do so I would have that it wasn’t so bad! It allowed me to pick up The Reflecting Skin and the Channel 4 silent presentation of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at least!

    Nerdy question – did Anderson use 180 or 240 minute tapes? Long or Short play recordings? (!)

    I loved the idea of building up your own ‘film library’ that VHS first provided – that I wasn’t restricted by television schedules so much and would always have something in reserve that I hadn’t seen that I could throw on at any time. I just kick myself (especially now with television schedules the way that they are) that I didn’t start taping things until late 1994 – the previous decades sound like a goldmine for rare, weird and wonderful films that barely show up even on today’s multitude of digital channels.

    I’ve often wondered if there would be a good place to will my video collection to when I pass on. It would seem a shame (not to mention an environmental disaster!) to just throw them all in a skip!

  2. Anderson used both 180 and 240 tapes, but mainly 240 so he could get two films on each. Sometimes he just recorded key moments (frustrating when I wanted to see the whole of Lubitsch’s Angel). He only ever used SP mode. Most of my VHS is in LP, cost and space being a bigger factor for me.

    I’ve sometimes found good stuff in charity shops, off-air recordings of Russ Meyer films and old episodes of the late, lamented Mving Pictures. So, if in doubt, will your movies to Cancer Research.

    Or to me.

  3. Cost and space mean most of my VHS collection is in Long Play too.

    Moving Pictures was excellent wasn’t it! Sadly I’ve only got a few episodes from the final season in 1996 on tape.

  4. I’ve tried to build up a collection of Moving Pictures, but I’m nowhere near complete. Would be interested in hearing what the features are on your episodes.

  5. Anderson’s If… changed my life. I wrote the liner notes for the Criterion DVD. I believe I mentioned this before but I finally met him at ( of all things) the cast and crew screening of My Own Private Idaho. Gavin Lambert had brought him and (needless to say) he greatlt enjoyed it. We were chatting amiably and thenn Keanu Reeves swanned by and proved far too distracting for Anderson, who very politely excused himself and went in pursuit of the Demi-God.

  6. I used to have an Off-Air copy of STAGE DOOR , I thought I gave it to you.

    I do remember when we met Anderson at the Edinburgh Uni FilmSoc….there were very few interesting questions asked. I fear that he must have found us a dull bunch.

  7. Great story… you are my hero! Of course it’s much easier if the source material is on DVD. I can visit a certain university (which has rare movies on $300 institutionally-licensed DVDs) toting a laptop with lots of free disk space. Sit in the screening room watching something I brought from home on their TV, while the laptop is busily making perfect copies of the discs I checked out (about 20 minutes per disc).

  8. Just off the top of my head I remember some of the segments in the episodes I have were on Icelandic cinema (around the time of Cold Fever), Lynch on Lost Highway, Escape From L.A. (interesting behind the scenes piece, terrible final film!), a Kieslowski tribute.

    I’ll add them to the list! (would love to swap for some of the earlier episodes!)

  9. Ah, Simon, I think you’re right, I did get Stage Door from you, and I got Allegret’s Entree Des Artistes from the Anderson Archive.

    At that Edinburgh University thing, my friend Danny Carr was part of the committee that took the great man to dinner afterwards, where he literally fell asleep in his soup. So I guess he must have been bored…

    All praise to piracy!

    I wonder what Anderson chatted about with Reeves…

  10. I read your post with interest. I am an Archivist employed by the University of Stirling to catalogue the Lindsay Anderson Archive http://www.is.stir.ac.uk/libraries/collections/anderson/index.php. I work as part of a research team working on a three-year project ‘The Cinema Authorship of Lindsay Anderson’ funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) which will re-evaluate Anderson’s work and the established public and critical perception of Anderson. This is being done through the use of his wonderfully rich and interesting Archive. My job is to catalogue the collection to item level so that it is accessible for the team for research, and of course, accessible for all researchers. Cataloguing the tape collection is one of the things I have planned to do and once it’s catalogued I am sure it will be of great benefit to researchers. The entire collection, including the tapes, is now housed here at the University of Stirling and we welcome researchers to come and look at material from the collection. The library here at Stirling is currently being refurbished and as part of this refurbishment we are going to get a new Archive office with more room for researchers. We are also organising a conference ‘Filmmakers and their Archives’ in September of this year with an impressive line-up of speakers. This provides another opportunity for us to publicise the important of Anderson’s Archive.

    As an Archivist, and a custodian of Lindsay Anderson’s Archive, I am astonished at your actions as what you did was to endanger unique and irreplaceable material by removing it from its custodians at that time. You rightly mention the value of the tapes yet by your ‘borrowing’ of them from their (temporary) home you put them at great risk.

    This comment is sent in a personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Stirling.

  11. Thanks for getting in touch.

    I would like to stress that I put the tapes at no risk whatsoever, other than that associated with playing them. The chances of an accident happening to them in my care was no greater than the chances of Scottish Screen burning down or being robbed. I would argue that if the films are to be preserved but never played then all you need is a list of titles, which would be a valuable record of what Anderson considered worth recording. As mass-produced VHS tapes, their value is the contents, including many rare films no longer aired on UK TV which deserve to be seen. I can’t imagine Anderson intended for them to gather dust in cardboard boxes.

    I’m delighted that the archive will be made available to the public and is in safe hands. Even when i was accessing it I found many tapes missing or misfiled or mislabelled, so it’s good work that needs to be done. For me, and I think for Anderson, the value of the collection is what it can teach about cinema, rather than about the collector, but any use to which it is put is good.

  12. Just to re-iterate re: “if the films are to be preserved but never played then all you need is a list of titles, which would be a valuable record of what Anderson considered worth recording.” The aim of the cataloguing of the Collection is that all the material will be publicly available for all researchers. With material such as the video tapes this is only available onsite in the Archive search room but we are also digitising some of the letters and images from the collection so that some material is available remotely (an example of which can be seen on my blog with the letter from Akira Kurosawa to Lindsay Anderson, which I just had to publicise!).

  13. I’m adding you to my blogroll – amazing letter!

    I realise you’re making the films available and strongly approve. I just meant that back in the day the stuff was locked away and not being used, and there were no plans to make use of it.

    It never made sense to me that Scottish Screen forbade copying of the tapes on the grounds of legality: according to law, off-air recordings are supposed to be erased within a week, so by the letter of the law Scottish Screen should have wiped the whole collection. Needless to say we’re all glad they didn’t.

    So in addition to making the tapes available onsite, it’d be great if you could make copies for any particularly needy researchers unable to travel to you.

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