BRITISH CINEMA IN THE 50's AND 60's.
A Brief Introduction
"The 1960s witnessed a revitalisation of British Cinema and the emergence of a flourishing and diverse film culture after what was widely perceived to be the 'doldrums era' of the 1950s. The 1950s had seen the two great cinematic traditions of the 1940s - Ealing and Gainsborough - gradually running out of steam and expiring. many of the great directors of the 1940s (David Lean, Carol Reed, Michael Powell, Thorold Dickinson, Robert Hamer, Alexander Mackendrick) declined, retired or removed to America. There was a sclerotic sense of old formulae being unimaginatively followed, of a failure and nerve of invention. The characteristics products of the decade reflected this: the war films that relived old glories, the Norman Wisdom comedies that trod in the footsteps of George Formby, the anaemic 'international' epics which aimed futilely to break into the American market and which misused the sensitive talents of such stars as Dirk Bogarde and Peter Finch. In ethos and outlook, in technique and approach, mainstream 1950s films were essentially conservative, middle-class and backward looking. The 1960s brought a small but influential body of films which captured the attention of critics by tackling the life style and aspirations of the young and working class in a fresh unpatronising way. They adopted an approach that was to be seen and proclaimed as sexually liberated, politically radical and socially committed. They marked a definite advance on 1950s cinema but, seen from the perspective of the 1990s, seem more limited, particularly in their treatment of race, sex and gender, than critical orthodoxy had allowed. Over concentration on these films at the expense of many other cinematic products of the decade has also tended to distort the received picture of the age." Jeffery Richards (1)
For Britain, the period immediately following the war was one of rationed drabness while its former adversaries, Germany and Japan, were on the way to recovery. In the 1950’s, consumerism (measured in the number of households possessing cars, telephones, televisions, washing machines and other domestic appliances) created changes in patterns of cultural behavior. While the class structure remained, the increased spending power of the masses (particularly the under-25s.) gave rise to the so-called “cultural revolution" of the 1960s. The relative affluence, better housing, wider car ownership and growth of television in the 50s created more varied leisure alternatives to the cinema for mass family audiences which resulted in a decline in cinema attendances from 1365 million admissions in 1951 to 501 million in 1960. Box office takings in the same period fell from £108 million to £64 million (2). This loss of mass attendance was to create fertile ground for more specialized film genres likely to appeal to young adult audiences.
The roots of the revitalization of the British cinema of the early-1960s arises principally from literary, theatrical and even television trends in the 50s together with a liberalization of film censorship. These influences are characterized by social realism, provincial working-class settings and sentiments, sexual frankness and satire. The film version of John Braine’s 1957 novel Room at the Top released in 1959 is generally regarded as the revitalization milestone. Other significant works of fiction written (and subsequently filmed) during the 50’s include Stan Barstow’s A Kind of Loving (1960), Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar (1959 ), David Storey’s This Sporting Life (1960), Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) and his short story The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959). Filmed plays are represented by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956), and The Entertainer (1957), Shelagh Delany’s A Taste of Honey (1958), and Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker (1960). During the decade, critically despised literary genres such as spy, crime, fantasy and science fiction found respectability as vehicles of social comment through the efforts of established critics such as Kingsley Amis in his critical survey of SF New Maps of Hell (1960). All these genres were to play important roles in 60s British cinema. ABC-TV’s Armchair Theatre (1958-62) created by Canadian-born producer Sydney Newman was also an important influence as an explicitly populist “theatre of the people” (3) featuring plays by Clive Exton, Alun Owen and Harold Pinter.
To define exactly what Jeffrey Richards (4) has called the “flourishing and diverse film culture” of the 60s emerged I will arbitrarily assume it began in 1959 with Room at the Top and that what he defines as “doldrums era” of the 1950's ended with Sink the Bismarck in 1960. Richards’ contention that British films during the decade which produced the Ealing comedies (notably The Man in a White Suit ) and Bridge on the River Kwai were inferior to those that followed requires some examination of typical 50s fare. While the Ealing comedies are generally held to be major achievements in 50’s British cinema, there were only seven made in the period 1948-55 : Whisky Galore (1948), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Passport to Pimlico (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Titfield Thunderbolt (1952) and The Ladykillers (1955). The films now tend to be dismissed by cineastes for their “provincial narrow-mindedness, snobbery, sexual repression, verbosity, archness and sentimental nationalism” (5) although the films by Hamer and Mackendrick evade these descriptions. Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Man in a White Suit can be seen as early (and superior) influences on such later satires as Nothing But the Best (1964 ) . Ealing also produced an early slice of social realism in The Blue Lamp (1950) concerning the work of a West London police station. The influence of the British Board of Film Censors undermined the credibility of the criminal gang, although Dirk Bogarde’s portrayal of the gang leader, Riley, was to establish him as a major actor in the 50s and 60s. The 50s work of the Boulting Brothers began with the powerful thriller Seven Days to Noon (1950) voicing very early concerns about nuclear warfare and continued with satirical comedies (frequently starring Ian Carmichael) such as an adaptation of Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim (1957 ) and Carlton Brown of the F.O. (1959). In their finest comedy I’m All Right Jack (1959), what was intended as an even-handed satire on management-labour relations was dominated by Peter Sellers' magnificent performance as Fred Kite, a Stalinist shop steward creating a stereotype which still bedevils the union movement. This, and other Boulting Brothers films, were to lay the foundations of the “satire boom” of the 60s.
Generally the output of the British studios in the 50s are seen as parochial films dominated by escapist comedies, simplistic war films and the beginning of the horror boom, although close examination does show diversity, experimentation and adaptation to falling cinema attendances. One of the most successful films was Rank’s Coronation documentary A Queen is Crowned (1953) while comedies such as Genevieve (1953) and the Doctor series proved tremendously popular, being re-released as double-bills. Norman Wisdom took up the mantle of George Formby as a gormless gimp in a series of comedies commencing with Trouble in Store (1953) and the Carry On film cycle began in 1958 with Carry on Sergeant. For budgetary reasons war films were confined to prisoner of war camps [The Wooden Horse (1950 ), Albert R.N. (1953), The Colditz Story (1955 )] or isolated combatants [Dunkirk (1958), Ice Cold in Alex (1958)]. The collective ethos of the 40s war films was abandoned in favour of depicting a war run by officers with other ranks reduced to marginal stereotypes. Exceptions to the genre were The Cruel Sea (1952) and A Hill in Korea (1956) which presented a grimmer, less heroic depiction of war. Hammer Films, a small studio specializing in film adaptations of successful radio and TV dramas, produced a version of Nigel Kneale’s popular TV serial The Quatermass Experiment (1955) initially retitled The Quatermass Xperiment to capitalize on the X-certificate introduced in 1951 to exclude under-16’s from certain films. Because of its success, the studio then launched a highly successful Gothic-horror cycle with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958) establishing Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as major actors in this genre.
The most notable British big-budget film of the 50’s was David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) financed by the American Columbia Pictures and aimed at an international audience. The film’s questioning of the notions of military tradition, honour and blind obedience were lost on the majority of British cinemagoers who tended to see it as another celebration of national heroism.
The “new wave” of 60s British realism had such precedents in "social problem" films as Yield to the Night (1957), Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957), No Trees in the Street (1958) and Violent Playground (1958) but it is Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top (1959) that is regarded as the key film in the movement.
The British Board of Film Censors had traditionally worked in close cooperation with the film industry not just to curb bad language, sex and violence but to ensure that a comfortable middle-class image of Britain was presented on the screen. By the end of the 50s it was obvious to the more liberal Board under John Trevelyan that social realism in fiction, theatre and television were acceptable to British audiences and that subjects such as class and sex could be presented in adult films. Room at the Top can be viewed as a Faustian morality tale in which the anti-hero, Joe Lampton (Lawrence Harvey), must lose the woman he loves, Alice (Simone Signoret), in order to marry into the wealthy Brown family. Although the sexual frankness is tame by today’s standards, it is Joe’s “attitude” towards class and sex that contemporary audiences can still relate to. Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) differed from Room at the Top as only one class was depicted, with authority figures such as foremen and policemen relegated to minor characters. Unlike the upwardly mobile Joe Lampton ( who is almost a middle-class accountant at the beginning of the film), the film’s well paid factory worker hero, Arthur Seaton is contemptuous of the drab ghetto of working class life in Nottingham ; he is not a revolutionary : “All I’m out for is a good time. All the rest is propaganda.” His only act of rebellion comes at the end of the film when he throws a stone towards the housing estate where he and his girl-friend, Doreen (Shirley Anne Field), will presumably spend the rest of their lives. The national and international success of these two films together with Look Back in Anger (1959) and The Entertainer (1960) resulted in productions (predominantly by small independent companies such as Woodfall) of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1961), A Taste of Honey (1961), A Kind of Loving (1962 ), Billy Liar (1963), This Sporting Life (1963), The Caretaker (1963), and Nothing But The Best (1964). Of these, only A Taste of Honey could be regarded as having a feminist sub-text while Room at the Top and others could be considered by contemporary critics as both misogynistic and sexist. Like the Ealing comedies, the number of “new wave” realist films of the mid-60s were relatively small ; however, their success attracted international investment in the British film industry. This combined with other cultural changes at this time in Britain created a more diverse range of films than in the previous decade such as the marriage of current popular music with the cinema resulting in Richard Lester’s innovative Beatles films A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help (1965).
Notable original contributions to the 60s British Cinema were made by two Americans Joseph Losey and Stanley Kubrick. A Clockwork Orange (1971) was Kubrick’s only comment on British society but his other films of the 60’s: Lolita (1962), Dr Strangelove (1964) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) greatly enhanced the international standing of British actors (notably Sellers) and film crews. Losey fled America in 1953 to avoid being blacklisted and directed several low-budget but notable films such as The Sleeping Tiger (1954) frequently using a pseudonym. In The Criminal (1960), a stylish prison film with a script by Alun Owen , Losey introduced toughness and authentic dialogue previously lacking in British crime films that was to influence future gangster films such as Robbery (1967), Performance (1969), Get Carter (1971) and The Long Good Friday (1979). However, it is Losey’s The Servant (1963) that is arguably one of the best British films of the decade. Based on Robin Maugham’s 1949 novella, Harold Pinter’s screenplay looks at the corrupting class system of Britain through the master-servant relationship of Tony (James Fox) and Barrett (Dirk Bogarde). The reversal of their roles, with homosexual undertones, is the one of the most perceptive cinematic critiques of the class system.
The most successful films of the 60s and the following decades were the Bond films commencing with Doctor No (1962). Although in the tradition of Bulldog Drummond and Dick Barton, the Bond films were firmly tongue-in-cheek and the casting of Sean Connery with a broad Scots accent made Bond a classless hero. In the newly found spy genre, Len Deighton’s working class anti-hero Harry Palmer, played by Michael Caine, first appeared in The IpcressFile (1965) and in two subsequent films Funeral in Berlin (1966 ) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967 ). The only significant film to deal with the realties of cold war espionage was The Spy who Came in from the Cold (1965) based on John Le Carre’s novel with its premise that both sides are morally bankrupt.
Despite the commercial and artistic achievements of the 60’s British cinema, admissions in the decade fell from 501 million in 1960 to 193 million in 1970 but increases in ticket prices led to a fall of only £5 million from the gross box office takings of £64 million in 1960 (1). By th is time, most of the production finance came from America sources which led to films aimed primarily for international audiences from the 1970s onward.
In summary, 50s cinema (with a few notable exceptions) portrayed Britain and its class system without question where everyone “knew his place” and role in society. This view was presented in films aimed at mass family audiences. With greater affluence and educational opportunities creating upwardly mobile Joe Lamptons and discontented Arthur Seatons, stereotypical portrayals of the working class were no longer acceptable. Although the number of 60s “new wave” films were relatively small, they had a considerable revitalizing influence on most British films of the decade in the way in which British society was depicted.
CAUTE, D. Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life, Faber and Faber, 1994.
LANDY, M. British Genres: Cinema and Society, 1930-1960, Princetown University Press, 1991.
MARWICK, A. British Society Since 1945, Penquin, 1996.
RYALL, T. Popular British Cinema, Close Up:The Electronic Journal of British Cinema , Issue 1, Winter 1996/7.
(1) RICHARDS, J. New waves and old myths: British cinema in the 1960s, in Moore-Gilbert, B. and Seed, J. eds., Cultural revolution? - the challenge of the arts in the 1960s, London, Routledge, 1992, pp 218-235.
(2) WOOD, L. (ed) British Film Industry, 1980, London, British Film Institute.
(3) JACOBS, J. Sydney Newman.
(4) RICHARDS, J. New waves and old myths: British cinema in the 1960s.
(5) COE, J. Political Comedy At Its Best, New Statesman, August 22, 1997.