Tuesday, March 12, 2013

It's Grim Up North - British New Wave in 10 Films

The British New Wave is typified by two key phrases, It's Grim Up North and Angry Young Men. Taking, what for the time was, a revolutionary documentary-like approach towards cinematography the filmic movement captured what it was like for young people in a post war society that had lost its way.

The Angry Young Men were a group of playwrights and novelists loosely and lazily grouped together under the one banner to signify a new shift in the style and content of British letters towards the gritty realism of what it meant to be a member of the working classes, the conflicts and frustrations of everyday existence and their disillusionment with traditional British society.

These works struck a chord with a group of filmmakers practising under the banner of the Free Cinema Movement taking their cues from the pre-war work of documentary filmmaker John Grierson. Much like Lars von Trier would do 40+ years later with Dogme '95 they launched their movement with a new anti-establishment manifesto:

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.

It was only a matter of time before the two movements came together and in the space of a few short years these artists changed British cinema forever before naturally moving on to Hollywood productions. From 1958 with the release of the "shocking" Look Back in Anger until 1964 and the release of the Oscar winning farce, Tom Jones, from two of the major players in the movement there came a stream of powerful films that remain some of the best ever produced in Great Britain.

Here in chronological order are a selection of ten of the best:

Look Back in Anger (1958)

Based on an autobiographical play by John Osborne and directed by Tony Richardson, Look Back in Anger tells the story of Jimmy Porter (Richard Burton) a loud, obnoxious, educated working class man who physically and verbally abuses almost everyone he comes in to contact with but especially his middle class wife who he detests for a perceived lack of emotion. The film is almost an anti-Brief Encounter with a role perfect for Burton to display his trademark acting style and shocked audiences for its class portrayal rather than the spousal abuse.

Room at the Top (1959)

Based on a novel by John Braine and directed by Jack Clayton, this was the first British film to openly depict adultery and make reference to the fact that sex can be pleasurable and the first X certified movie to get a mainstream cinema release. It is the story of Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey,) a working class boy who schemes to climb the social ladder by marrying the bosses daughter whilst attempting to keep a mistress on the side. (Winner of two Oscars)

The Entertainer (1960)

The Entertainer features Laurence Olivier as Archie Rice, a music hall comic who manipulates those around him in a selfish attempt to regain success however unlikely. He drinks, makes crude philosophical jokes about sex and politics and humiliates his wife. Written by John Osborne as a play at Olivier's request in an attempt to stay relevant and then adapted in to this movie directed by Tony Richardson, Olivier won a Tony and followed it up with an Oscar nomination for this performance.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

The adaptation of Alan Sillitoe's debut novel about Arthur Seaton, a young factory worker in the north of England. It's a warts and all, kitchen sink drama; unflinching in its depiction of a time and place that at once is quite alien to yet completely the same as working class England in the 21st century. Arthur drinks, Arthur smokes, Arthur fights, Arthur fucks, Arthur rails against society, without Arthur there could be no Alfie or Trainspotting. Sillitoe and director Karel Reisz turned a fantastic novel of postwar Britain in to a complex and interesting screenplay and a film heavily influenced by Truffaut. And then of course there's Albert Finney to come along and put in the performance of a lifetime.

A Taste of Honey (1961)

A Taste of Honey pretty much has it all. Teenage pregnancy, interracial relationships, living in sin with a gay boy, neglectful parents, poverty, regional accents and all of it told in an upbeat manner. Based on Sheelagh Delaney's play written when she was only 18 years old and adapted together with director Tony Richardson this is a slightly lighter film than those that came before but would surely have been even more shocking to 60s audiences because of it.

A Kind of Loving (1962)

A Kind of Loving was directed by John Schlesinger, from a novel by Stan Barstow and a script from Keith Waterhouse, it starred Alan Bates. A story of frustrated youth, all about love, lust, and loneliness in working class Yorkshire. It's especially claustrophobic and typical of the sexual experimentation/revolution found throughout the film career of Schlesinger.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

Another Tony Richardson directed film, adapted by Alan Sillitoe from one of his short stories and starring a young Tom Courtenay, it recounts the story of a reform school cross-country runner who seizes the perfect opportunity to defy the authority that governs his life. This time highlighting the lack of options for the youth in post war Britain and youth reformatory conditions thanks to groundbreaking direction from Richardson and a strong performance from Courtenay.
The L-Shaped Room (1962)

Based on a novel by Lynne Reid Banks, directed by Bryan Forbes and starring the French actress Leslie Caron already famous for her roles in Hollywood productions. L-Shaped Room is the story of the unmarried but pregnant Jane and her encounters with a group of outcasts from society in a British boarding house. Touching on the taboos of sex and abortion this is one of the lesser known films to come out of the British New Wave.

Billy Liar (1963)

Another British New Wave dream team combination with Tom Courtenay starring in a John Schlesinger film based on a Keith Waterhouse novel, play and script. Billy Liar is a lazy, irresponsible, dreamer living in a dreary Northern English town. Less angry than Arthur Seaton but just as frustrated, he substitutes the aggression of other British New Wave films with a rich and varied fantasy life which causes him just as much harm as the lack of hope and chance seen to be available to him.

This Sporting Life (1963)

Lindsay Anderson's first foray in to narrative film making is an adaptation of a David Storey novel which stars Richard Harris as possibly the angriest young man of the lot. A man driven to succeed but never satisfied, Frank Machin is a whirlwind of repressed anger and hostility that bursts out of him at the strangest of times. Sure his rage and desire drive him on to better things but it hangs over him just waiting to destroy him. Anderson's direction is a no holds barred grim vision of the reality of working class life in Northern England.

Out of the movement British cinema became more open to depicting the reality of everyday life, Alfie in 1966 at one stylish end of the spectrum and Poor Cow in 1967 at the other more bleak end and opened the door for Mike Leigh's unique brand of film making when he created his debut, Bleak Moments, in 1971.

Other notable films if you feel like exploring further might include If..., Kes, Hell is a City, The Knack...And How To Get It, A Place To Go, The Leather Boys, Up The Junction and Darling.

Anderson would go on to direct Malcolm MacDowell in a notable late period New Wave film If... Tony Richardson and John Osborne would win Oscars for directing Albert Finney in Tom Jones. Jack Clayton would make a mess of The Great Gatsby. Karel Reisz made the almost forgotten Night Must Fall featuring a psychotic Albert Finney and then only made 7 films over a 30 year period. Alan Sillitoe wrote one more screenplay for 1972's The Ragman's Daughter. Tom Courtenay was nominated for two acting Oscars nearly 20 years apart and was recently seen in Quartet. I originally knew Lynne Reid Banks from her Indian in the Cupboard books/movie so seeing where she started was an eye opener. Bryan Forbes gave us the criminally underseen Richard Attenborough film Seance on a Wet Afternoon. John Schlesinger was perhaps the most successful of the bunch, not least for his Oscar for Midnight Cowboy whilst Albert Finney garnered five nominations throughout his career but didn't win once.

And so ends today's history lesson. How many have you seen? Kitchen sink drama not your thing? Anything I've missed that should have been included? Leave it all in the comments.


  1. Room at the Top probably ranks among my favorite films. (Though I really need to re-watch it again.) The other films I saw that are on this list (Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) were also pretty great too.

    1. Hey Anna, good to know there are other fans out there. Obviously as a fan already my recommendations are guaranteed to make you a happy viewer. If you can find copies of them that is.

  2. Great post! a couple of years ago I decided to work my way through the BFI top 100, so came a cross most of these. This Sporting Life; Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner; and Saturday Night, Sunday Morning were all favourites. Nice to see Mike Leigh get a mention too, I'm a big fan of his films and unique style of film making.

    I love these kind of films as a nice change to hollywood - these actors look like real people, in real situations. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of glitz and glamour now and then, but these British films have always been more special to me and have shaped my subsequent taste in cinema.

    1. Thanks Georgina.

      Did you make it all the way through that Top 100?

      I am a massive Mike Leigh fan, Bleak Moments is not just a clever name in this instance though, it's a shame that the movement pretty much died before he got a chance to stretch his legs. Still the work he did for the BBC was very impressive and quite important I believe.

      I too love a good film filled with glam, glitz, explosions and nonsense every now and then, but only when it's done right. Kitchen Sink dramas are the absolute opposite whilst still remaining a part of narrative cinema and whilst I prefer them I need to consume them slowly and with great care.

  3. No, I didn't unfortunately - I gave it a good go though! I'll have to revisit and finish the list.

    I know, it is a real shame he is not better known - I really think he is one of the best directors working today. Did you see his latest film - Another Year? It was excellent. I must admit - I've seen almost everything Mike Leigh did, but not Bleak Moments- i'll have to seek it out.

    1. The last new film I saw was Happy-Go-Lucky which was a disappointment, I generally am a little disappointed by his lighter, more comedic work. I have owned Another Year on DVD for over a year now but still haven't even taken the disc out of the case despite all of the high praise. I guess you could say that HGL had a negative impact on my Mike Leigh anticipation.

      I'm unsure whether Bleak Moments is readily available, haven't looked in a while but with all his BBC stuff released on DVD it must be too. I had an ex-rental VHS once upon a time. I had the impression it had never been rented.

  4. http://brianmatthews60.blogspot.co.uk/p/british-new-wave-1959-1963.html

    My only grumble with your list is i would not include Billy Liar.

    1. Hey Brian, is it too upbeat for you or you just didn't like it?

  5. Nicely done. I've only seen Room at the Top, which felt a bit too dated and melodramatic for my taste. However, there are several of these on my watchlist, such as The Entertainer, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The L-Shaped Room, and This Sporting Life.

    1. Thanks Josh. It's not the best of the bunch but was important as part of the whole. I hope your further experiences are better.