Look Back: Influences and Major Figures of the British Free Cinema

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by Roderick Heath

You could argue—at least the pervert in me would—that the British New Wave kicked off with Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein, in the same way Vadim’s trashy Et Dieu…crea la femme gave the French New Wave its start by proving commercial viability and reinvigorating a moribund industry. You can at least trace the beginning of Brit pop culture as an individual, powerful force from that point.

Of course, the whole “angry young man” thing was a very large influence. Most of the “angry young men” were writers—John Osborne (with his plays Look Back In Anger and The Entertainer), Alan Sillitoe (the novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and long story Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), David Storey (the novel This Sporting Life)—who were of the generation that had been drafted into the Second World War, gained status and experience in their temporary socialisation of British society as well as a college education, but found themselves deeply frustrated, as the whole country did, in the post-War malaise.

You could easily argue Doris Lessing was a member of the group—most of the same influences were on her; socialism, WW2, social misplacement, with the added details of being a colonial (Rhodesian) and female. I mention her to point out that the “angry young man” phrase, whilst picquant, is unfocused. Other Angry Young Women might include Shelagh Delaney, who wrote the play A Taste of Honey—later, a signal free cinema film—and Lynn Reid-Banks, who wrote The L-Shaped Room.

Broadly, most of these writers stood under the long shadow of the social realist side of D. H. Lawrence, with his depiction of class and sexual struggle as fatally intertwined, which is why in, say, Look Back in Anger, Johnny Porter’s social frustration dovetails with his taste for taking upper-class girlfriends and treating them like rubbish. The chief difference between these British and the Beats is that where the Beats were spiritual in their highest form, the Brits were dialectically materialist.

It’s important to remember that this creative output had strong roots in what had been bubbling away under the surface of British cinema and the culture, in general, for a while. Documentary-style realism had long been an aspect, due to the long shadow of the John Grierson-produced 1930s documentaries such as Night Mail; Robert Flaherty; and the war-time master Humphrey Jennings. These were huge influences on directors like Michael Powell, who with such pre-Pressburger films as Red Ensign and The 49th Parallel showed the indelible influence of documentary makers, and David Lean, whose sequences for In Which We Serve, like the opening ship-building montage, are entirely in the Griersonian style. The British war-time film industry learned many important lessons from the docudrama approach. Whilst the ’50s cutesy Ealing approach and the slick Sidney Box comedies at Rank almost erased this legacy, David Lean melded it with a good yarn-spinner’s instincts and an ability to utilize Hollywood gloss, and Powell and Pressburger abandoned it almost entirely.

Brit-grit survived in the dry, hype-lacking style of many cheap thrillers and quota quickies, beginning with Carol Reed’s high-class thrillers Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man; through films like Ronald Neame’s The Golden Salamander, Robert Hamer’s The Long Memory, Roy Ward Baker’s The October Man. Basil Dearden is an unfortunately neglected figure; with The Blue Lamp (1951), Violent Playground (1958), Sapphire (1959), Victim (1960), and Life for Ruth (1962), he specialised in strong, entertaining, but stiff and sententious melodramas that dovetailed with “burning social issues” (racism, homosexuality, teenage hooliganism). Dearden’s best films are the gleefully cynical The League of Gentleman, which purposefully casts veterans of the war films such as Jack Hawkins, Richard Attenborough, and Roger Livesey and trashes their images, and the marvelously weird hipster version of “Othello”, All Night Long (1962), where the characters are all jazz musicians.There were also quite a few interesting working-class melodramas, closest in spirit to pre-War Warner Bros. works, including several Stanley Baker was involved in (Violent Playground) and Cy Endfield’s Sea Fury, and his rip-roaring Hell Drivers—all of which sported a gritty milieu, corny moralising, a reek of verisimiltude, and a smattering of sticky-magazine sexuality, perhaps best seen in Hell Drivers when Baker French kisses Peggy Cummins in a workshed as a truck motor throbs.

John Guillermin, a talented journeyman headed for Hollywood, directed two interesting films in a similar style. The delirious Never Let Go (1960) is a thriller that pits Richard Todd’s anxious ex-war hero, now a loser salesman, against evil crime boss Peter Sellers, in his first and possibly last completely serious role, terrific as a peculiarly London sadist Bob Hoskins would be proud of. This film ends as a kind of contemporary High Noon, and as well as broadening Sellers’ resume also featured as a teddy boy car thief young pop star Adam Faith, thus possibly initiating what would be the future convergence of pop music and the movies in Britain. Guillermin later directed the interesting satire The Guns of Batasi (1964), with Richard Attenborough as a martinet sergeant who is finding his ethos of Army, Queen and Country outmoded in an African country undergoing revolution. This film bore strong relevance to the general end-of-Empire strain of the era’s cultural concerns.

It would be fair to say, however, that dry visual realism matched to formula stories was part of what the Free Cinema was waging war against. They wanted realistic life stories, honest portrayal of sub-bourgeois lifestyles, and a visual rhetoric that had poetry and personality. The strong literary influence on the British Free Cinema was perhaps its most significant difference to the French New Wave, which was notable for being the first generation to take its styles, stories, and points of interest more from previous movies. The Free Cinema represented the British cinema being annexed by a larger cultural movement.

Yet few of these films were based in the stage. So why the impression they were so influenced by the stage? Perhaps because Osborne and others had found in the adventurous, government-funded stage an ideal testing ground for new ideas. This, and the fact that almost all the young actors began on the stage in a vanguard of talent including Albert Finney; Tom Courtenay; Susannah York; Corin, Vanessa, and Lynn Redgrave; Peter O’Toole; Michael Caine; Alan Bates; Richard Harris; and Robert Shaw. You could argue Richard Burton was one of this group, in his roots and generation clearly, though his Old Vic training and swift Hollywood triumph took him right out of their sphere; but he got to come back to them just once when he starred in the film of Look Back in Anger (1959), which was also the cinematic debut of director Tony Richardson, who had helmed the piece on the stage. Richardson had also made short films already and contributed to Sequence magazine, which had also seen contributions from Lindsay Anderson and others, in the same way the Nouvelle Vague crew had written for Cahiers du Cinema, and was tributed as helping change the entire discourse on cinema in Britain. Indeed, most of the Angry Young Men were swiftly embraced and celebrated by the mainstream after a short period of woozy disorientation (in Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit, in 1957, there’s a line where a journalist discusses his new story with the priceless purpose of “tearing into Angry Young Men, or ‘Sex in the Coffee Bar'”). A few of their champions, like Laurence Olivier, were old-school figures.

Look Back in Anger was accompanied by another opening salvo, Room at the Top, directed by Jack Clayton, a product of the studio system who had risen up the ranks at Denham Studio and made an Oscar-winning short in 1956. He wasn’t really one of the visionary generation, and the film, though solid and featuring excellent performances from Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret, lacked the pungent emotion and style that marked the best Free Cinema works. Clayton did go on to make what would become a standard refrain for a Free Cinema director after an early, contemporary, gritty work—the revisionary adaptation of a classic. In his case, Clayton brought an unimaginative literalism to versions of The Turn of the Screw (The Innocents, 1961) and The Great Gatsby (1974).

In 1960, Tony Richardson directed the film of Osborne’s The Entertainer, which provided the film debuts of both Albert Finney and Alan Bates. Three years later, Richardson and Osborne collaborated on another signal project, their cheeky adaptation of Tom Jones that brought Oscar-crowned glory to this ragged mob. Richardson had, with Osborne and Harry Saltzman, formed Woodfall Films, and for a time Richardson was a powerful force. After The Entertainer he made, in swift succession, A Taste of Honey (1961), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Tom Jones, and The Loved One (1965) before busting out with awkwardly received works like his ambitious hip epic The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and the stupifying Ned Kelly (1970).

Other major figures included Karel Reisz, a Czech-born film writer and maker of short films and documentaries who made his debut with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), which featured the formidable star-making performance of Albert Finney. Reisz then went on to make his weird version of Night Must Fall (1964) a not-very-good melding of old-school theatrics and modish new wave cinema tricks (whip-pans, handheld camera, overexposed sunlight scenes), the Swinging ’60s classic Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (which also made stars of David Warner and Tony Richardson’s young wife Vanessa Redgrave), and Isadora (1968). Reisz also produced the core masterpiece of the “kitchen sink” genre, Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life. Based on David Storey’s novel, it had similar themes to the previous films of the genre (and also striking similarities to Robert Rossen’s The Hustler, 1961), but achieved a genuinely nightmarish intensity in its study of a macho man’s impotency in dealing with life; Anderson managed the best fusion of directorial stylisation that communicates deep personality linked with a feverish sense of time and place.

Anderson was the most intellectually formidable, the most talented, the most British (and least happily so), the most rootless of his generation. It was largely his influence that had kicked off the Sequence scene; he was a multi-award-winning documentary maker throughout the ’50s, as which he was a profound influence on directors like Ken Loach and Stephen Frears; and his work in the theatre was vast (John Gielgud was eternally grateful to him for bringing him into the modern stage). He directed the surrealist, satirical Mick Travis trilogy, If… (1968), O Lucky Man! (1973), Britannia Hospital (1981), and a tremendous filmed-theatre version of Look Back in Anger (1980) (all with Malcolm McDowall). Ironically, Anderson is probably most recognisable playing, along with Gielgud, as one of the Oxford don snobs in Chariots of Fire (1981).

Bryan Forbes had begun as what Michael Caine tried to avoid, a cleaned-up player of working class skivers. To earn extra dough, he started rewriting scripts (he told a story about how he had littered a rewrite of The Black Shield of Falworth with “forsooths” and “verilys”, expecting to be fired, but instead was rewarded with more work) and then scripting and finally broke into directing with Whistle Down The Wind (1961), and followed it up with two important New Wave works, The L-Shaped Room (1962), about a pregnant woman’s difficulties, and the intense thriller Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964). Later, he adapted James Clavell’s prison camp drama King Rat (1965), which stirred much irritation from the Australian RSL for telling the truth about the POW camps, the post-Goon black comedy The Wrong Box (1966), and, much later, the witty, very ’70s thriller The Stepford Wives (1975).

John Schlesinger perhaps ended as the most accomplished and successful of the group, though he had some noisy clangers to his credit. Schlesinger, like many of the others, had a diverse background across radio, TV, film, acting (which he claimed to be not very good at) and directing BBC documentaries. He made a feature documentary, Terminus (1961), about Waterloo Station that won him attention, and his first feature was A Kind of Loving, about a young couple (Alan Bates and June Ritchie) in a small coal mining town who have to marry when she gets pregnant. It’s a classic kitchen sink drama with a clean, bold style, promising but much of a muchness. Schlesinger then adapted Keith Waterhouse’s novel Billy Liar (1963), and Darling (1965), which together made a star and Oscar winner of Julie Christie. Darling bore interesting thematic similarities to some other films before it, a kind of hip morality play not so far from a film like Val Guest’s tartly ironic, if plastic, The Beauty Jungle (1964), the tragedy of a young woman (Janette Scott) bent on a professional career who gets talked by Ian Hendry’s smooth publicist into becoming a model, and finds herself addicted to the attention but swiftly discarded. Schlesinger later made his majestic version of Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), an of course, Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971), extend and deepen the Free Cinema’s concerns and stylistics.

Desmond Davis, a TV director and cameraman on several New Wave films, made a nice little stab in the Free Cinema mould with the fine but little noted I Was Happy Here, featuring Sarah Miles as a discontent housewife married to flashy, stiff-necked businessman Julian Glover, reminiscing about her idyllic teenaged romance in her seaside home town. Davis unfortunately made few films, though he did direct two flavourful entertainments in the early ’80s, the camp classic Clash of the Titans and the Sherlock Holmes TV movie The Sign of Four.

Ken Loach, before making the accomplished Kes, also essayed embryonic films very much in the Free Cinema vernacular (for those with the mistaken impression Kes appeared without any trial runs) in Cathy Come Home for TV and his debut film Poor Cow (1967), based on Nell Dunn’s novel, in which Carol White’s Joy flirts with prositution after her husband (Terence Stamp) is imprisoned. A fair first film, it lacks the strong dramatic spine that Loach became more adept at, but established right away that his influences were chiefly Free Cinema, documentary, and determinedly individual.

When did the Free Cinema end, and when did it transmute into the Swinging ’60s? One could point to films like Morgan and Georgy Girl as transitional works, films with a melding of humble realism and a more knockabout, humorous character. Maybe the most crucial is A Hard Day’s Night, a film, which, like the rock band it celebrates, is a melding of the old, the current, and the futuristic. It sits squarely in the free cinema mould with its handheld cameras, natural lighting, real settings, portraying with exactness the tawdry scenes of railways stations and naff TV studios its heroes romp through, and yet it also ruptures it, subverts it, by its mockumentary status; it’s faking its realism, it drops into pure fantasy and surrealism when it feels like it. Around this time British cinema also was benefiting from the cross-pollination of directors from other countries coming there to work. Such temporary and permanent cultural exiles as Joseph Losey (with the freaky apocalyptic drama These Are the Damned, 1961), Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski, Richard Lester, John Huston, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jerzy Skolimowski, Fred Zinnemann, Silvio Narizzano, and Sidney Furie, were making their mark or about to.

It’s interesting to note that where most of the above directors deliberately went all-out to prove their talents across a variety of styles and art forms—Richardson from The Entertainer to Tom Jones, Schlesinger from Darling to Far from the Madding Crowd—to take claim of the general cultural legacy as well as creating their own, their progeny began splitting firmly into separate camps. You had men like Ken Loach who moved relentlessly back towards dry, documentary, stringent realism in look and feel (often enforced by low budgets) and a plush stylist like Ken Russell, yet they both owed their beginnings to the same mentors, role models, and TV training. Only a few, like Stephen Frears, retained adeptness for playing every side of the fence. In the modern line-up of British talents, like Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday and The Bourne Supremacy) and Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice), you still see their influence.

  • Kimberly spoke:
    2nd/02/2008 to 12:03 pm

    Very nice piece! Informative and well considered. I’ve been loving the recent FREE CINEMA COLLECTION from Facets. I got it as Christmas gift and it’s definitely one of the best DVD sets of last year.

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