In the late 1950s, Britain was a country in transition. The destruction caused by two world wars remained evident but the economy was booming and unemployment was at an all-time low. Popular music was bringing diverse groups of individuals together and creating a sense of unity among the youth. Despite the overall prosperity, the stark differences separating the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’ were more apparent than ever thanks to the integration of the social classes. The underlying unrest and dissatisfaction erupted in labor strikes, anti-nuclear protests, and violent race riots eventually finding expression in the film movement we now call The British New Wave.
The swell of anti-establishment sentiment that gave birth to the British New Wave first emerged in the work of artists and writers including Alan Sillitoe (Saturday and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner); Shelagh Delaney (Taste of Honey, The White Bus); John Braine (Room at the Top); David Storey (This Sporting Life); Ann Jellicoe (The Knack …and How to Get It); and John Osborne (Look Back in Anger, Tom Jones). At the time playwright, John Osborne was described as an “angry young man” and this eyebrow-raising label extended to similar writers of the period who were questioning the status-quo and giving voice to the disgruntled working classes.
Simultaneously, a group of filmmakers that included Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, and Karel Reisz were busy developing a series of documentary programs they called Free Cinema. The films they made rejected many of the contrivances of mainstream cinema and presented a bleak and unsentimental picture of Britain. In outlining their goals for Free Cinema, director Lindsay Anderson said, “These films were not made together; nor with the idea of showing them together. But when they came together, we felt they had an attitude in common. Implicit in this attitude is a belief in freedom, in the importance of people and in the significance of the everyday. As filmmakers, we believe that no film can be too personal. The image speaks. Sound amplifies and comments. Size is irrelevant. Perfection is not an aim. An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude.”
The style and attitude of these aspiring filmmakers merged with the burgeoning writers of the period as Anderson, Richardson, and Reisz began adapting the work of Osborne, Sillitoe, Shelagh Delaney and their contemporaries for the screen. In the process, the two camps created a new type of British drama known as kitchen-sink realism that was often grittier and more unforgiving than much of the British cinema that had come before it. This New Wave of British films were typically shot in stark black and white, populated by characters that were not particularly likable or even conventionally attractive. A tangible sense of loss existed amid the urban squalor on display and the dialogue was surprisingly frank, refusing to shy away from unsavory topics such as an unwanted pregnancy or spousal abuse.
Some of the best early examples of the British New Wave can be found streaming on FilmStruck and include Tony Richardson’s Look Back in Anger (1959), starring Richard Burton as a university graduate frustrated with his middle-class existence and at odds with his wife (Mary Ure); Richardson also directed The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) about a disgruntled youth (Tom Courtenay) who develops a skill for running while confined in a reform school. Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top (1959), tells the sobering story of a social-climbing accountant (Laurence Harvey) and the older woman (Simone Signoret) who loves him; Karel Reisz’ Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), features a rambunctious Albert Finney in his break-out role as a dissatisfied factory worker; and in Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life(1963), Richard Harris plays a rough and tumble rugby player in a complicated relationship with his recently widowed landlady (Rachel Roberts).
All these films contain powerful central performances by bruised, edgy and unpredictable actors. The critically acclaimed roles they inhabited solidified the “angry young man” persona for film audiences and gave voice to a generation forced to settle for less, but desperate for something more. They also bluntly and poetically challenged the social order, throwing aggressive and graceful punches at an established class system that expected them to know their place and remain there.
Among these male-centric pictures, Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey (1961) and Richard Lester’s The Knack…And How To Get It (1965) provided young women with an unlikely heroine in actress Rita Tushingham. The spunky bright-eyed ingénue was often more forgiving than her male equivalents, but behind her wide grin and waif-like appearance was a subtle melancholy at odds with her youthful exuberance. She is very relatable and throughout the sixties, Tushingham became a sort of “every girl” that young women and men could both sympathize with.
Despite the angry tone of many films that typify the British New Wave, there is often an absurdist sense of humor at play. This is particularly obvious in the work of Richard Lester who made the pseudo-musical documentary A Hard Day’s Night (1964) featuring The Beatles as fun-loving mop-tops. Lester developed his directing style while making comedies such as The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959) and The Mouse on the Moon (1963) with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. John Lennon, who was a fan of these films, invited Lester to work with The Beatles on their first feature and together they made history while creating a new musical experience that captured the zeitgeist of the times. The director’s ironic funny bone is also on display in the previously mentioned The Knack…And How To Get It (1965), which humorously tackles the battle of the sexes taking shape in the mid-sixties.
A similar sense of humor is evident in Tony Richardson’s historical romp Tom Jones (1963), where Albert Finney plays the randy title character who survives a series of spirited sexual adventures. Although it’s not emblematic of the British New Wave, the film features a screenplay by John Osborne, the original “angry young man,” and the script’s blunt attack on British morality was very modern.
While typically associated with social realism, the British New Wave is a varied genre that is not always easy to identify. This is clear when you peruse the selection of British New Wave films available to stream at FilmStruck. Nevertheless, I hope this brief look at its origins will inspire readers to seek out more films from the period that helped define an era and gave birth to so many irreplaceable talents.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for FilmStruck and published Nov. 3, 2016