Sunday, 28 June 2015

The British New Wave

Arguably British cinema reached its height in the years following World War II. Immediately following the war such films as Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946), Odd Man Out (1947), Oliver Twist (1948), and The Red Shoes (1948). British films would continue to see a good deal of success in the Fifties, and it was only natural that various trends in British film would emerge during the decade. A cycle of comedies began during the decade that would last into the Sixties. With the release of The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957 Hammer Films would begin a cycle of Gothic horror movies that would involve American studios as well as British ones. Among the most significant trends in British films to emerge in the Fifties was one called "the British New Wave".

The British New Wave was a movement that took it's name from La Nouvelle Vague (literally "the New Wave") that took place in France in the Fifties and consisted of such directors as François Truffaut,  Éric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, and so on. As might be expected  the British New Wave has a good deal in common with La Nouvelle Vague. The films of the British New Wave were often shot in black and white and often in the style of documentaries. The films of the British New Wave usually dealt with everyday people in realistic situations and were generally shot on location. The British New Wave began in 1959 with the release of two films, Room at the Top and Look Back in Anger.  Both films would prove to extremely successful. In fact, Room at at the Top would win two Academy Awards (Best Actress in a Leading Role for Simone Signoret and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium). It would also win three BAFTA awards and was nominated for four more.

While the British New Wave took its name from La Nouvelle Vague (also known as the French New Wave) and shared much in common with La Nouvelle Vague, arguably the British New Wave also emerged from movements in literature, theatre, and film that already existed in Britain in the 1950s. Chief among these movements was one consisting of various playwrights and novelists collectively referred to as "Angry Young Men". The term "Angry Young Man" was first applied to playwright John Osborne, having been coined by the Royal Court Theatre's press officer for promotion of Mr. Osborne's play Look Back in Anger. In the end the term "Angry Young Men" would be applied to such diverse artists as novelist and poet Kingsley Amis, novelist John Braine, playwright Harold Pinter, philosopher Colin Wilson, and several others. In the end the term "Angry Young Men" might have been used so broadly as to be meaningless, but arguably the one thing they all had in common was a disillusionment with British society in the Fifties.

 The impact of the Angry Young Men on the British New Wave is fairly obvious. What are generally considered the first two British New Wave films, Room at the Top and Look Back in Anger, were both based on products from Angry Young Men (Room at the Top on John Braine's novel of the same name and Look Back in Anger on John Osborne's play of the same name). In fact, a large number of the British New Wave films were based on the works of AngryYoung Men: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), A Kind of Loving (1962), and  The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) among them.

Another movement from which the British New Wave emerged was kitchen sink drama. The term "kitchen sink" originated in an article by David Sylvester in the December 1954 of Encounter, who coined it after seeing a piece of art by painter John Bratby that included a kitchen sink. Mr. Sylvester applied the term "kitchen sink" to a trend among young British painters towards portraying domestic banality. It would not be long before the term was applied to literature, the stage, and film as well. With regards to the stage and film the term refers to works that deal realistically with the lives of the working class in Britain. A good number of the kitchen sink dramas were set in the North of England, although examples can be found in London and elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

The terms "British New Wave" and "kitchen sink drama" are sometimes used interchangeably, although there is good reason to treat them as two separate, but related phenomena.  Quite simply, not all British New Wave films are kitchen sink dramas and vice versa. Shot in black and white in a style similar to documentaries, The Entertainer (1960) identifiably belongs to the British New Wave. That having been said, given that it centres around a British music hall performer whose career is in decline, it is debatable whether it can be considered a kitchen sink drama. Shot in vivid colour (although still possessing the look of a documentary), Kes (1969) probably should not be considered part of the British New Wave, although it is most certainly a kitchen sink drama. While many British New Wave films are also kitchen sink dramas, then, this is not always the case.

Indeed, an argument can be made that the genre of kitchen sink drama pre-dates the emergence of the British New Wave (or the Angry Young Men, for that matter). It is possible to trace the origins of kitchen sink drama not only back to the Silent Era, but very early in the history of film at that. Arguably early director James Williamson virtually invented the genre with the films The Soldier's Return (1902) and A Reservist, Before the War, and After the War (1902),  both of which offered slices of working class life. Later in the Silent Era, the 1927 film Hindle Wakes, based on Stanley Houghton's 1912 stage play of the same name, presented a fairly realistic portrayal of the working class in Lancashire.

If not outright kitchen sink dramas, then at least precursors to the genre continued to be made after the advent of talkies. Starting with Doss House in 1933, low budget film director John Baxter made a number of films that portrayed working class life at a time when the working class was largely ignored by British mainstream cinema, including Say It with Flowers (1934), A Real Bloke (1935), and The Common Touch (1941). Arguably his masterpiece, Love on the Dole (1941) starring Deborah Kerr, centred on life during the Depression of the Thirties and was as close to kitchen sink drama as any early Forties film could come. In the Forties John Baxter's films would be followed by other movies that could be considered forerunners of the kitchen sink dramas if not out right examples of the genre itself: This Happy Breed (1944); It Always Rains on Sunday (1947); and The Blue Lamp (1950).

Regardless of when the kitchen sink drama emerged, the fact is that many of the films of the British New Wave were clearly kitchen sinks dramas. This is certainly true of Look Back in Anger (1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961), and This Sporting Life (1963), all of which presented starkly realistic portrayals of working class life. What separated the British New Wave kitchen sink dramas from earlier examples of the genre is that they tended to be much grittier and often dealt with subjects that would have been impossible before the relaxation of film censorship: pre-marital sex, abortion, homosexuality, and so on.

Finally, another movement from which the British New Wave would emerge was the Free Cinema movement. The Free Cinema movement was a documentary movement that emerged in the Fifties with such films as O Dreamland (1953), Momma Don't Allow (1956), and Together (1956). The documentaries of the Free Cinema movement were characterised by the use of handheld cameras and being shot on 16mm film in black and white. They generally focused on working class people, much in the way kitchen sink dramas had. Most of the documentaries belonging to the Free Cinema movement cost only a few hundred pounds to make and most tended to be short in length. Three of the most important directors in the British New Wave had started out as part of the Free Cinema Movement:  Tony Richardson (who went on to direct Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey, and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner),  Karel Reisz (who went on to direct Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), and Lindsay Anderson (who went on to direct This Sporting Life).

As mentioned above, the British New Wave emerged in 1959 with two films. The first to be released, Room at the Top, centred on Joe Lampton (played by Laurence Harvey), a working class young man who had just gotten a job with  Borough Treasurer's Department. He ultimately finds himself torn between the daughter of a wealthy man and an older married woman. The second film to be released, Look Back in Anger, was based on  John Osborne's play of the same name. It centred on the archetypal angry young man, Jimmy Porter (played by Richard Burton), who is unhappy in his marriage, restless in his life, and generally angry at the world.  Both films proved to be successful at the box office and both picked up their share of awards. Both also established much of the character of the British New Wave: films shot in black and white and generally centred on angry young men of the working class living in the North.

Even if both films had failed, it seems likely that the British New Wave was inevitable. In fact, 1960 would see the release of two of the most notable films of the movement: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and The Entertainer (1960).  While Saturday Night and Sunday Morning followed Room at the Top and Look Back in Anger in centring on an angry young man of the working class, The Entertainer offered a stark contrast to those films. The film centred on music hall entertainer Archie Rice (played by Lord Laurence Olivier) in London whose career is on the decline. One could say rather than centring on an angry young man in the North, it centres instead on a depressed middle aged man in the South. Regardless, The Entertainer is identifiably part of the British New Wave, with its social realist approach and black and white photography.

Arguably the British New Wave reached its peak in the years 1962 and 1963. The year 1962 saw the release of A Kind of Loving (1962) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), while the year 1963 saw the release of Billy Liar (1963), This Sporting Life (1963), and The L-Shaped Room (1963). Even as the British New Wave reached its peak, however, it was coming to an end. British cinema was changing and moving away from the sort of kitchen sink realism embodied by many of the British New Wave movies. In fact, this shift in British cinema can be seen in one of the last British New Wave films to be released, Billy Liar.

Billy Liar is identifiably a British New Wave film. It is shot in black and white and to a large degree it shares the cinéma vérité style of other British New Wave films. It is even set in the North and centres on a young man. That having been said, it also differs a good deal from other British New Wave films. Its protagonist, Billy Fisher (played by Sir Tom Courtenay), seems more middle class than working class, and more frustrated than angry. Indeed, he seems much more likeable than the protagonists of many of the other British New Wave films, despite his tendency to stretch the truth. What is more, Billy Liar has a somewhat lighter touch than other British New Wave films, with a good deal of humour, not to mention fantasy sequences illustrating Billy's daydreams. While still identifiably part of the British New Wave, at the same time Billy Liar pointed the direction in which British cinema was moving, that of the lighter hearted, more fantasy oriented "Swinging London" films characterised by A Hard Day's Night (1964), The Knack …and How to Get It (1965), and Smashing Time (1967).

Indeed, the end of the British New Wave would be ushered in by one of the men who had started it. Tony Richardson directed Tom Jones, an adventure comedy shot in colour that was a far cry from the British New Wave. Released in 1963 it proved to be an enormous success and would be followed by similar British adventure comedies for the remainder of the decade. In 1964 A Hard Day's Night was released. Not only did the film introduce The Beatles to the big screen, but it also started a cycle of "Swinging London" films that lasted until around 1967.

While the British New Wave can be said to have ended in 1963, it would have a lasting impact on British cinema. In fact, it even had an impact on the "Swinging London" movies and comedies that followed. Although both are comedies, Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966) and Georgy Girl (1966) are not only shot like the British New Wave films, but dealt with subjects previously covered by the British New Wave. Of course, there have been dramas released since the mid-Sixties that show a strong influence from the British New Wave. Lindsay Anderson's if... (1968) carried on the anti-establishment stance of the British New Wave films. Kes (1970) could very nearly pass for a British New Wave film had it not been shot in colour. Even though it was released in 1996, was shot in colour, and is set in Scotland rather than England, Trainspotting also owes a good deal to the British New Wave.  Of course, the British New Wave's most lasting legacy may be in the directors who emerged from it. Lindsay Anderson, Jack Clayton, Bryan Forbes, Tony Richardson, and John Schlesinger all began by directing British New Wave films.

In all the British New Wave would only last about four years. Despite this it would have a lasting impact on British cinema that is still being felt today. Indeed, if kitchen sink realism has been more common since the Sixties than it was before, that is largely due to the British New Wave. There can be little doubt it will continue to have an influence in the decades to come.

1 comment:

Silver Screenings said...

Great post! You've given me a whack of new-to-me films to add to my Must Watch List. I'm not that familiar with British New Wave film, so I found your post really helpful. (I'll keep it handy when watching some of these films in the future. It'll be like a "Bonus Feature"!)

Thanks for joining the blogathon with this well-researched, well-written post. :)