We were deeply saddened to learn of the death of Anthony (Tony) Smith, who served as director of the BFI from 1979 to 1988. He had a varied career as a broadcaster, author and academic, also serving on the board of Channel 4, and as president of Magdalen College, Oxford from 1988 to 2005.

As director of the BFI he was a cultural force, hugely supportive of the many filmmaking talents we were working with at the time through the BFI Production Board, among them Terence Davies, Peter Greenaway, Menelik Shabazz, Derek Jarman and Sally Potter.

He was instrumental in raising millions of pounds in private funding that enabled us to set up the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI) in 1988, which was located at (what is now) BFI Southbank until its closure in 1999. He was also responsible for nurturing a close relationship with the late philanthropist John Paul Getty Jr and this resulted in some very generous donations that funded the purchase of our building in Stephen Street and the building of the Conservation Centre at Berkhamsted, which houses much of the national collections of film and television cared for by the BFI.

The BFI has a great deal to be grateful to Anthony for, and his legacy as director remains firmly visible today. In recognition of his contribution, when Anthony left the BFI in 1988 we bestowed on him our highest honour – the BFI Fellowship.

Below the line, Richard Paterson, former head of research and scholarship at the BFI and now honorary professor at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Cultural Policy Research, remembers Anthony’s time at the BFI.

Anthony Smith CBE, BFI director from 1979 to 1988
© Photographer unattributed. BFI National Archive

After a distinguished career as a current affairs producer at the BBC, Tony was appointed director of the BFI in 1979. My first encounter with him was before that, though, at the 1979 Edinburgh Television Festival when I was sitting behind him in a BFI/SEFT (Society for Education in Film and Television) organised session on TV audiences. Even though he was yet to take up the post as director, he intervened from the floor to draw the sting from audience members’ comments about the BFI.

I joined the BFI’s education department the following year and I was soon aware of a dynamic leader who wanted to develop the BFI’s profile, including furthering its work on television. He’d played a major role in lobbying the Annan committee for an ‘Open Broadcasting Authority’ on the fourth terrestrial channel and had subsequently joined the board of Channel 4.

When Paul Madden, TV projects officer, left the BFI in 1981, Tony asked me to take over the role. After the BFI’s diamond jubilee celebrations in 1983, I got Tony’s support for a Year of Television in 1984. One outcome from this was the initiation of a pilot research project on the history of race and ethnicity on British television. This was carried out by David A. Bailey and became a fully-fledged research programme when Tony secured funding from the BBC. This led in 1992 to a two-part documentary, Black and White in Colour, directed by Isaac Julien and narrated by Stuart Hall.

Tony was always supportive of ambitious projects, of which the creation of the privately-funded Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI) Is probably the best example. I benefited from this support in 1987 / 88 when he secured money from the Markle Foundation for the development of an idea from Geoffrey Nowell-Smith –the film scholar, author and honorary professorial fellow at Queen Mary University, London – to conduct a mass-observation-style project involving the television audience. 

This project, which we called One Day in the Life of Television, recruited 18,000 viewers and 2,500 industry workers and involved the archiving of every single minute of television broadcast in the UK that day. It resulted in a book based on the diaries from the day (edited by Sean Day-Lewis), a two-hour ITV documentary (directed by Peter Kosminsky) with footage from both ITV and BBC crews, and an exhibit at MoMI that featured Kylie Minogue’s wedding dress from Neighbours!

I can well recall the day in the summer of 1988 when Tony told me he would be leaving to become president of Magdalen College; I felt abject disappointment. During his final weeks at the BFI there was a gathering when Sir Denis Forman, who had been BFI director in the early 1950s and chair in the 1970s, heaped praise on Tony’s accomplishments for the BFI, of which there were many.

I remember, too, sharing a platform with him at a BFI summer school and his ineffable ability to speak without notes to the exact required length was remarkable. A few years later, when Tony got a commission from Oxford University Press to edit an International History of Television, I gladly accepted his invitation to co-edit the volume. In subsequent years we met regularly for lunch, often at his flat in Albany, Piccadilly, and I learned much about his life. Sadly, despite my encouragement he steadfastly refused to countenance writing an autobiography.

I learned a lot from Tony and he will be greatly missed. His influence in my life makes me recognise the truth in the phrase ‘we stand on the shoulders of giants’. To this day the BFI continues to owe a lot to Tony’s initiatives, including the John Paul Getty Jr Conservation Centre at Berkhamsted, the BFI database and its Stephen Street headquarters.

– Richard Paterson

Lord Richard Attenborough on Anthony Smith

Video interview by  Christophe Dupin and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, AHRC and Queen Mary University of London.