British New Wave 1959 –1963.

British New Wave 1959 –1963.

Free Cinema 1956 – 1959.


In the 1950’s Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson where amongst a group of young filmmakers that launched a new attitude to film making: Free Cinema.  It consisted of six programmes of films shown at the National Film Theatre in London between 1956 and 1959. ‘These films are free’ declared a programme hand out ‘in the sense that their statements are entirely personal’ they were also free from the pressure of the box office or the demands of propaganda being produced for a minimal budget and screened only at the NFT. A good percentage of the films made under this banner were documentaries, different from the mainstream documentaries of the time because they dealt head on with such subject matter as presenting a sympathetic interest in communities: whether they were traditional industrial communities or new improvised one’s like the Jazz Club in Momma Don’t Allow or a fascination with the newly emerging youth culture as demonstrated in We Are the Lambeth Boys. Other preoccupations of this movement were: unease about the quality of leisure in urban society and respect for the traditional working class. Free Cinema was the first expression on film of the shift in British culture which was happening in the Royal Court Theatre around Look Back in Anger (1956) We can now recognise Free Cinema’s significant role in the apprenticeship of film makers who made a major contribution to the social realist cinema of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and their subsequent move from documentaries to feature films was a pretty obvious one.

The Documentaries.

The Fishmongers Arms in Wood Green North London, where I had the privilege of seeing the late great Gene Vincent, was a Jazz Club back in the 1950s. Receiving a grant from BFI Experimental Film Fund Tony Richardson, a young BBC Television director, and Karel Reisz, a programmer for the National Film Theatre, used this venue for their 22 minute black and white documentary Momma Don’t Allow in 1954. This captured an emerging working class youth focused community enjoying the music of The Chris Barber Band, which at the time included Lonnie Donegan.

Jiving to Chris Barber.

A second example of the Free Cinema Movement documentaries that foreshadowed the social realism of the British New Wave was We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959). Filmed in black and white over a period of six weeks in the summer of 1958 it centred on a youth club in the Kennington area of South London. Director Karel Reisz and cinematographer Water Lassally filmed a sympathetic study of a group of teenagers at work and play which at the time was a neglected subject by both documentaries and feature films. Sponsored by the Ford Motor Company, it showed the frustrations and aspirations of a youth culture that for the first time had money and the freedom to spend it.

Suited and booted in the 50's

British New Wave 1959 –1963.


The realist cinema of the late 1950’s and the early 60’s is critically acknowledged as a very important development in British cinema history. It is characterised by black and white sober realism, being socially committed to the core principles of the Free Cinema Movement and breaking away from the British cinemas post war elitist, culturally and class bound attitudes in films like Brief Encounter (1945), comedy’s like The Admirable Crichton (1957) or Privates Progress (1956). It gave a voice to a working class that had previously been used in film for comic effect or as salt of the earth cannon fodder in films like Dunkirk (1958) and The Bridge over the River Kwai (1957); we now see them as centre to the action celebrating their common identity. Although this country’s power base never changed (nor ever will), for the first time in history the working class had a type of affluence that had not been seen before.  Tony Richardson, along with play write John Osborne and producer Harry Saltzman[1] formed the production company which would become most closely associated with the New Wave, Woodfall Films, ostensibly to film Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger. Unintentionally this act made the New Wave possible.

Look Back in Anger (1959) and Room at the Top (1959) looked directly at conflict and attitudes between working-class and middle class characters. Room at the Top was by far the more important of the two films in the overall development of the New Wave. Woodfall followed up Look Back in Anger with another adaptation of an Osborne play The Entertainer (1960). The film was not a critical or financial success and, with Woodfall’s fortunes at low ebb, Richardson went to Hollywood to direct a film for the Americans. Karel Reisz was brought in to direct Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). It was shot in six weeks on a small budget, with money being saved by employing a virtually unknown cast (with the exception of Shirley Ann Field), something not unusual in social realism drama to this day. The success of this film made Woodfall financially secure. Richardson then directed A Taste of Honey (1961) with Walter Lassally used for the first time as cameraman on a Woodfall film: the whole movie was shot outwith the studio on location. The same team went on to make Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), arguably the last of Woodfall British New Wave films.

It was the production company Anglo Amalgamated that made A Kind of Loving (1962). The producer Joseph Janni, who had missed out on the opportunity to acquire the rights for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, chose John Schlesinger to direct. Schlesinger followed this with Billy Liar (1963), which certainly was not part of the New Wave and in fact signalled a turning away from working class realism towards the zany optimism of later 1960’s with movies like Darling (1965), The Knack (1965) and Joanna (1968) The last of the New Wave films, in my opinion, was This Sporting Life (1963) directed by Lindsay Anderson and produced by Karel Reisz. Following This Sporting Life it was said that the cinema going public had shown that they did not want the ‘dreary’ new wave dramas, but in fact the opposite was true. The films which kept closest to low life naturalism from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning to Up the Junction (1968) have always proved popular at the box office, and subsequently on DVD. What brought the British New Wave to a close were the changing ambitions and inclinations of the filmmakers themselves and not the public whose appetite for this type of film is as strong as ever. Although to be fair, of all the directors involved, Lindsay Anderson is probably the one that stuck to the original principals of both the New Wave and the Free Cinema.

The Films.

Jimmy Porter enjoys a pint.
Woodfall Films was formed originally to adapt John Osborne’s successful 1956 stage play for the big screen. Therefore it could be argued that Tony Richardson kick-started the British New Wave with Look Back in Anger in 1959. The film certainly started where Richardson’s Momma Don’t Allow (1954) finished, with the Chris Barber Band! It’s in a jazz club that we first encounter Jimmy Porter playing along with the band. Porter is what Osborne described as an angry young man and angry he certainly was! Richardson’s first feature film is mainly set in a typical 1950’s bedsit where it’s always Sunday and it’s always raining. We have four main characters, Porter of course, Alison his wife, Cliff Lewis, Porter’s lodger, friend, confident and work colleague (they have a confectionary stall in the local market) and then there’s Helena Charles, Alison’s posh and articulate friend. The relationship between Jimmy and his upper middle class wife has been described as ‘a battlefield of selfishness, indulgence, immaturity, passion and boredom’ Alison lives in constant fear of her husband but despite everything still loves him. Living in the savage intensity of the bedsit also affects Cliff and Helena. Porters not an easy character to like but as the story unfolds we discover the reason for his anger. He’s contemptuous to every one; he only shows feelings towards the working class Ma Tanner who sold him the market stall. Porter is played by Richard Burton, Mary Ure is Alison, Claire Bloom is excellent as Helena, Gary Raymond plays Cliff and Edith Evans appears as Ma Tanner. This grimly depressing watch has dated more than other examples of New Wave films but I must admit I did enjoy Burton’s great performance as the chauvinistic main character.

Unlike the other New Wave directors Jack Clayton had been in the film business for twenty years before directing his debut feature film Room at the Top (1959), which was based on a very successful first novel (reprinted at least 30 times) by John Braine. Laurence Harvey was cast as Joe Lampton. Heather Sears was ideal casting as the sexually innocent, but potentially rich Susan Brown. Donald Wolfit played Susan’s self-made Industrialist father with other major roles going to Raymond Huntley, Donald Houston and Hermione Baddeley. If you look carefully your see some up and coming actors like Prunella Scales, Wendy Craig, Ian Hendry and Maureen Lipman. But the best piece of casting was the actress Simone Signoret who plays Alice Aisgill ‘the full and rounded image of an experienced women of feeling’, Lampton’s French married lover: ten years his senior. The film went on to win British Academy Awards for Best British Film, Best Film from any Source and Best Actress for Signoret, who also won an Oscar for the Best Actress with Neil Paterson picking up an Oscar for his screenplay.
Joe Lampton and Alice Aisgill steal a intimate moment.
Not only was Room at the Top a more important film than Look Back in Anger in the development of the British New Wave, it was also seen at that time as a milestone in the history of British film making because of its sexual scenes, general themes and strong dialogue. The main character Joe Lampton refuses to accept deference to an authority, based on tradition and social status rather than talent. Due to this type of thinking the film signalled an attempt to stop being nostalgic about the past and to look to the future. X certificate films at that time were conceived to be associated with sleaziness and sensationalist horror. Room at the Top was therefore widely credited with bringing respectability back to the X certificate by being the kind of mature intelligent adult drama for which the certificate had been originally designed. Also this was a great antidote to the stiff upper lip dramas of our national cinema with its forthright working class northern accents in contrast to predominantly middle class and genteel accents. Karel Reisz remarked ‘It was time to take British film out of the drawing room’ i.e. it was a decisive break from the staid middle class restraint and repression of films like David Leans Brief Encounter (1945). Room at the Top was British Cinema coming of age, hard-hitting and realistic.

The seminal film of the British New Wave was Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). Allan Sillitoe’s screenplay was largely based on his autobiographical novel originally titled The Adventures of Arthur Seaton. Following a small part in Tony Richardson’s The Entertainer (1960) Albert Finney was cast as Arthur Seaton, a role that made his name. Seaton was a rough alienated hero at odds with society, who worked a lathe at the Raleigh bicycle factory in Nottingham Monday to Friday but a man who lived for his leisure time. ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down. That’s the thing you learn. What I’m out for is a good time. All the rest is propaganda’. This was Seaton’s philosophy and set down the principles for many gritty working class male characters. The film gives us an indication of his relationship with a workmates wife (Rachel Roberts) whom he gets pregnant, his contempt for his neighbours, his scorn for his parents way of life, but how he is eventually lured into an engagement with a pretty, but rather conventional, girl (Shirley Anne Field). On its release it was thought to be outrageous by some sections of society because of its blunt language and its depiction of abortion, but mainly because of its portrayal of a young man having sex with an older woman! What grand values we had in those days? This movie also went a long way in making working class accents acceptable in post war Britain. Produced by Tony Richardson, camera work by Freddie Francis, the film became a major critical and commercial success picking up three BAFTAs including Best British Film.

The epitome of 60's cool: Mr Arthur Seaton

Prior to making The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) the team of Tony Richardson and Walter Lassally made the critically acclaimed A Taste of Honey (1961). Starring, in her debut feature film, Liverpool actress Rita Tushingham, who was the first significant female face of the British New Wave. She plays Jo an awkward shy 17-year-old girl who craves affection and gets pregnant by a young black seaman. When her promiscuous and selfish mother Helen (Dora Bryan) abandons her to move in with latest boyfriend (Robert Stevens) Jo finds a job and rents a room which she ends up sharing with Geoffrey (Murray Melvin), a lonely homosexual. That’s realism for you! Shelagh Delaney who shared screenwriting credits with Richardson based the film on her the play of the same name. A brilliantly crafted movie that dealt openly with sex and race previously touched on in Basil Dearden’s ‘social problem’ films like Pool of London (1953) and Sapphire (1959). The film won four BAFTAs: Best British Screenplay, Best British Film, Best Actress (Bryan) with Tushingham named as Most Promising Newcomer and won Best Actress and Murray Melvin Best Actor at the1962 Cannes Film Festival. Even in America the film gained Tushingham a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer.

Jo with her unborn baby's father.

Colin Smith contemplates his freedom.
With direction by Tony Richardson, cinematography by Walter Lassally and a screenplay adapted from his original story by Allan Sillitoe we have the ingredients that mean classic Woodfall and classic 1960s British New Wave - The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). The film stars Tom Courteney in his screen debut as Colin Smith, Michael Redgrave as the Borstal Governor, James Bolam as Colin’s best friend Mike and Avis Bunnage as Colin’s mother. This classic also features some actors and actresses that have since become household names including John Thaw, James Fox, Julia Foster and if you look carefully you will spot the late, much underrated Arthur Mullard, whom I met quite often as a child (he lived at Highbury Fields which was close to my grandmother). Sillitoe’s story involves Colin Smith as a defiant teenager who rebels against the system, certainly a symptom of the sixties? He refuses to follow his father, who suffers from ‘a nameless capitalist disease’ as one reviewer put it, into the factory and prefers to make a living from petty thieving. Sent to Borstal he discovers a talent for cross-country running and the governor exploits the young lad for his own ends. Richardson’s film is avowedly left wing and has a well-deserved dig at authority in the guise of the police, religion and the hypocrites that run the Borstal system. I suppose if I had to put a tag line to this extremely well made film it would have to be ‘Salvage your pride at the expense of material comfort’. The score makes great satirical use of one of England’s greatest hymns, Sir Hubert Parry’s Jerusalem.

Exploited by authority!

This passed as heavy petting in 1962.
Its what you did back in the day, if you got a women in the family way, you married her that was realism. Vic Brown was unlike Arthur Seaton (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) he was a nice guy; he wasn’t rebellious like Arthur, just the normal boy next door. A Kind of Loving (1962) John Schlesinger’s debut feature film was made at Shepperton Studios in 1961 and starred Alan Bates (Whistle Down the Wind 1961) as Vic Brown, a young draftsman who is cajoled into marrying Ingrid Rothwell (June Ritchie in her debut role) after getting her pregnant. Unable to afford accommodation of their own they end up living with his sour tongued mother-in-law (Thora Hird). Schlesinger’s film, based on a Stan Barstow novel of the same name, is about everyday ordinary decent people and their struggles to do the right thing. A grand example of a very well crafted and well acted British movie. Schlesinger went on to direct Billy Liar (1963) and Darling (1965).

Lindsay Anderson was a major player in the Free Cinema, also a writer, critic, actor and communicator. He is said to be the only New Wave film maker who today is rated as an auteur as his films stand together as a body of work, including one of the revolutionary films of the 60’s If (1968). He was born into a kind of elitist establishment background which he spent most of his life denouncing.

A sport played by gentlemen?

This is not a film about sport. Nor is it to be categorised as a North Country working class story. It is a film about a man. A man of extraordinary power and aggressiveness, both temperamental and physical, but at the same time with a great innate sensitiveness and a need for love of which he is hardly aware’. This is a quote from Lindsay Anderson before his debut feature film, This Sporting Life, was released in 1963.  The film stars the individualistic Irish born actor Richard Harris, in his first starring role; he plays Frank Manchin a tough Yorkshire miner who becomes a North Country rugby league star. Machin is a misanthrope, a mean and moody working class anti-hero who makes his own luck, in this case through sport. He lodges in the house of Margaret Hammond, a widow with two young children, with whom he tries to develop a relationship. At first she regards him with a mixture of fear and disgust, but gradually lets her guard down as the sexual tension builds between the two. At first it develops into a rather tender relationship, although their first encounter amounts to nothing less than rape! Welsh actress Rachel Roberts plays Mrs Hammond, a direct and intense actress ideally suited to both of her New Wave roles. David Storey’s atmospheric source novel paints a dark picture of lives ruined by poverty and sexual repression, which are replicated brilliantly by Anderson. The most poignant parts of the film are those set in Margaret Hammond’s house, the day out in the countryside with her two children and the masculine brutality of the rugby pitch. The film also features William Hartnell, the first Doctor Who, Alan Badel and Colin Blakely. Although it marked the end of the British New Wave it was said to be the first of a new kind of serious artistic British film.

Anti hero Frank Manchin and the widow get to know one another.


The British New Wave films were revolutionary in terms of content and earnest in terms of social comment. It all went to emphasise a fascinating 5-year period in British cinema. This early part of the sixties was a time of great change and central to that change was full employment. This led to a more affluent working class with more freedoms to influence popular music, fashion, culture and personal travel[2].   There appeared to be a greater awareness of political and social change amongst the younger generation of the working classes, who were more inclined to speak out than previous generations.

For a brief period London was the production capital of the western world attracting foreign filmmakers like Polanski, Truffant, Antonioni and Kubrick because of the excitement and clamour of the times or maybe escaping from more oppressive cultures, but for what ever reason their influence added greatly to the British film industry. Unfortunately lack of investment and available finance in the decades that followed forced many of our filmmakers and performers to cross the Atlantic to Hollywood and consequently the British film industry has never been as proficient or as powerful as it was during the 1960’s.

After 1963 social realism was mainly championed by the medium of television with such ground breaking series as The Wednesday Play (1964–1970) and subsequently Play for Today (1970–1984) From these transpired some of Britain’s future talent including Ken Loach, Tony Garnet, Mike Leigh, Alan Bleasdale, Alan Plater and Stephen Frears. British television continued to portray the working class for comic purposes, sometimes socially relevant and hard hitting Steptoe and Son, Till Death Do Us Part, The Likely Lads, Boys from the Black Stuff, Auf Wiedersehen Pet, Only Fools and Horses and sometimes not, for example The Royle Family. Have we really come down to being portrayed as a dirty vest in front of a TV? And of course the working class parody that’s Shameless. But I suppose the tradition is now carried on by televisions soap opera’s like Coronation Street and EastEnders which are nowhere near as bad as the mind numbing reality programmes served as Orwellian pink gin for the masses.

The realist tradition of the New Wave is still a force to be reckoned with in cinema today. In the last decade directors associated with the original BBC Plays are still directing meaningful films, admittedly some are slightly lighter hearted than we have come to expect, maybe something to do with the mellowing that comes with age? Ken Loach: Sweet Sixteen (2002) Looking for Eric (2009). Mike Leigh: All or Nothing (2002) Happy go Lucky (2008). Stephen Frears: Dirty Pretty Things (2002). While some of our newer British filmmakers demonstrate the continuing appeal of the genre. Lynne Ramsey: Ratcatcher (2000) Morvern Callor (2002). Andrea Arnold: Red Road (2006) Fish Tank (2009). Alison Peebles: Afterlife (2003). David Mackenzie: Young Adam (2003) Terence Davies: Of Time and the City (2008) and of course Shane Meadows: Dead Mans Shoes (2004) This is England (2006) even the two comedies Meadows made during the decade proved to be of the realist tradition: Once Upon the Time in the Midlands (2002) and Le Donk (2009). There are of course plenty more examples including Hunger (2009) and Control (2007).

Revisiting the original films of the British New Wave period has turned out to be an enthralling experience and proved they still hold a great appeal. The reason for this is that they have meaning that still resonates today and as the historian David Kynaston commented recently ‘a high degree of honesty and nuance’ These films give you an almost nostalgic feel with the concept of a job for life, the guarantee of a occupational pension and of course the existence of manufacturing industries based in this country. Things sure ain’t wot they used to be?

Dedicated to my friend Darren Connor without whose help and encouragement I would never have started my Movie Ramble blog.

[1] Saltzman split with Woodfall over the casting of A Taste of Honey and went on to produce eight of the James Bond movies
[2] In 1959 the first stretch of the MI motorway was opened

1 comment:

  1. Wow pretty comprehensive essay here Brian. Was it originally written for the blog or something else?