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British new wave (act. 1959–1963) was the name given to a series of social realist feature films directed by Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, John Schlesinger, and Lindsay Anderson, in which they sought to redress what Anderson called ‘the ridiculous impoverishment of the cinema’ (Lay, 59) by depicting working-class experience on the screen. Less a coherent movement than the equivalent nouvelle vague in France, the British new wave owed more to Italian neo-realist cinema, with its reliance on authentic locations, unknown performers, and the exploration of everyday life. It also reflected similar, closely contemporary initiatives in art (for example, the Beaux Arts Quartet or ‘Kitchen Sink School’), in theatre (the Royal Court and the Theatre Workshop), and in literature. Indeed, every core new wave feature film was adapted from a novel or play written either by one of the so-called angry young men—John Osborne (Look Back in Anger, 1956, and The Entertainer, 1957), John Braine (Room at the Top, 1957), and Alan Sillitoe (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1958, and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, 1959)—or by realist fellow travellers like Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey, 1958), Keith Waterhouse (Billy Liar, 1959), Stan Barstow (A Kind of Loving, 1960), and David Storey (This Sporting Life, 1960). Yet, while these films were lauded for challenging the middle-class complacency of mainstream cinema, they were firmly rooted in a realist tradition that had sustained British film since the early twentieth century.

Origins: the documentary and free cinema movements

Despite the pioneering work of James Williamson (1855–1933) and Charles Urban (1867–1942) it was the documentary movement of the 1930s that had forged the British reputation for realism. Under the leadership of John Grierson, the film units operated by the Empire Marketing Board and the General Post Office had begun to produce actuality shorts that combined a journalistic approach with a social purpose. Grierson was also keen to dispel the working-class stereotypes perpetuated by commercial pictures and drew criticism for having a socialist agenda [see also council of the Film Society]. In fact Grierson was a social democratic humanist devoted to promoting a sense of national identity during the economic depression and the Second World War. The tone of his films could be patrician, propagandist, and patronizing, but his brand of stoicism and verisimilitude had informed such innovative docudramas as Harry Watt's Target for Tonight (1941), Charles Frend's San Demetrio, London (1943), and Pat Jackson's Western Approaches (1944), as well as the more poetic offerings of Humphrey Jennings, who was a major influence on the new wave's antecedent, the documentary-focused free cinema movement based at the National Film Theatre, London, between 1956 and 1959.

The decline of ‘public service art’ (Lay, 46) and the rise of current affairs programming on television left the new generation of documentary film-makers like John Krish (b. 1923) dependent on sponsorship from government agencies, charities, corporate film units, and private production companies. Krish's close contemporaries Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, and Karel Reisz found funding equally hard to come by, despite contributions from the British Film Institute's experimental film fund and the Ford Motor Company (after Reisz became its officer of commercials in 1956). Richardson and Anderson had graduated from Wadham College, Oxford, but while Richardson knew John Schlesinger (Balliol College) from the Oxford University Dramatic Society and the Experimental Theatre Club, he only got to know Anderson, the screenwriter and editor Gavin Lambert (1924–2005), who studied at Magdalen College, and the Cambridge-educated Reisz when they began writing for the Oxford film magazine Sequence and the British Film Institute's monthly journal Sight and Sound (which Lambert edited between 1949 and 1955). It was the difficulty of getting work seen that prompted the trio to hire the National Film Theatre in February 1956 to present Anderson's O Dreamland (1953), Richardson and Reisz's Momma Don't Allow, and Lorenza Mazzetti's Together (both 1956) under the banner of free cinema. The accompanying manifesto echoed the views that Anderson had been espousing for several years in his criticism:
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 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. (BFI Screenonline, programme facsimile)
John Grierson dismissed free cinema as ‘baby stuff’ (BFI Screenonline, ‘A history of Free Cinema’). But its bold rejection of his sociological approach caught the public mood and the three sell-out screenings at the National Film Theatre were followed by five more programmes over the next three years (each with its own manifesto), which introduced British audiences to such international directors as Roman Polanski, François Truffaut, Alain Tanner, Claude Goretta, and Lionel Rogosin, while also showcasing new works by Anderson (Wakefield Express, 1952, and Every Day Except Christmas, 1957) and Reisz (We Are the Lambeth Boys, 1957), as well as by newcomers like the Hungarian-born Robert Vas (1931–1978) and Michael Grigsby (b. 1936). Despite the fact that these documentaries were produced in isolation, they shared a common aesthetic, which was reinforced by the recurring presence of the cinematographer Walter Lassally (b. 1926) and the film editor John Fletcher (1931–1986) and the tactic of shooting in natural light on hypersensitive monochrome stock with handheld 16 mm cameras.

The majority of these films avoided narrative continuity and voice-over commentary and made impressionistic use of both sound and editing. Moreover, most titles sought to address the complaint in the free cinema's third manifesto that
British cinema [is] still obstinately class-bound; still rejecting the stimulus of contemporary life, as well as the responsibility to criticise; still reflecting a metropolitan, Southern English culture which excludes the rich diversity of tradition and personality which is the whole of Britain. (BFI Screenonline, free cinema article)
In fact film-makers like Basil Dearden and Michael Relph had striven to expose the flaws in post-war society by producing problem pictures tackling such taboo topics as delinquency, disability, racial and gender inequality, incest, and homosexuality. However, the likes of Sapphire (1959) and Victim (1961) were compromised by their well-meaning, bourgeois perspective and by the tendency to uphold the consensus by solving crises from within existing social frameworks. Consequently, workplace comedies like the Boulting brothers' I'm All Right, Jack (1959) and such Carry On outings as Sergeant (1958), Nurse, Constable, and Teacher (all 1959) presented a more credible, if still cosy insight into working-class life.

Turn to the new wave

By the time of the screening of Free Cinema 6 (subtitled ‘the last free cinema’) in March 1959, the movement's founders, Anderson, Richardson, and Reisz, were also ready to graduate from documentary to feature films and in doing so set in train the new wave. After Momma Don't Allow Richardson had befriended the actor George Devine, with whom he had worked on a BBC version of Chekhov's The Actor's End (1955). Later that year they had together formed the English Stage Company, which began its tenure at the Royal Court Theatre with the première of John Osborne's prototype ‘angry young man’ drama, Look Back in Anger (1956). Although several early reviews had been hostile, it was hailed as a watershed in British theatre after Kenneth Tynan's declaration that ‘I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger’ (Richardson, 79). However, even though Richardson and Osborne had co-founded Woodfall Films shortly after teaming up with Laurence Olivier in the Royal Court production of The Entertainer (1957), they were pipped to the big screen by an adaptation of John Braine's novel, Room at the Top (1958), by Jack Clayton, a journeyman film-maker otherwise unconnected—socially or professionally—with members of free cinema or the new wave.

For cinema audiences used to Diana Dors and Norman Wisdom, Clayton's was a daringly bold and thrillingly immediate drama that considered subjects like pre-marital sex and adultery with a casual, vernacular frankness that was more usually associated with continental cinema. In fact Joe Lampton (played by Laurence Harvey) was neither particularly angry nor young. However, the former RAF prisoner of war recognizes that his working-class roots could thwart his social aspirations, and employs his lethal charm to seduce both the councillor's daughter Susan Brown (Heather Sears, 1935–1994) and the unhappily married Frenchwoman Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret, 1921–1985) in his bid to attain affluence and acceptability. Such callous cynicism sufficiently appalled the guardians of Hollywood's production code for them to deny Room at the Top a release certificate. Nevertheless, Signoret and the screenwriter Neil Patterson (1915–1995) won Academy awards and the film's domestic box-office success rather stole the thunder from Richardson's 1959 cinematic take on Look Back in Anger.

Having invested in Richardson's project, Warner Bros insisted on Richard Burton being cast as Jimmy Porter, Osborne's central figure who takes out his frustration with the restriction and hypocrisy of a post-imperial, industrially moribund society on his docile wife, Allison (Mary Ure, 1933–1975) , and her actress friend, Helena (Claire Bloom, b. 1931) . However, Burton was too old and poised for the role and struggled to convey Porter's self-pitying ennui, garrulous arrogance, and bitter fury that there were ‘no good, brave causes left’. Richardson also failed to open out the action, but made much more effective use of his Morecambe locations in adapting The Entertainer (1960), which saw Laurence Olivier triumphantly reprise his stage role of Archie Rice, the fading music-hall comic whose dalliance with the much younger Tina Lapford (Shirley Anne Field, b. 1938) hastens his personal and professional ruin. If this was more a kitchen sink than an angry young man saga, it was unusual in showing a new wave character actually at work, as Richardson dwells in unforgiving close-up on Rice's increasingly desperate performances. The following year Richardson further distanced himself from the typical social realism subject matter by focusing on an adolescent girl's rite of passage in A Taste of Honey. Based on the play by Shelagh Delaney produced three years earlier at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, this Salford soap opera packed in tabloid topics including juvenile promiscuity, cross-racial romance, and homosexuality. But Jo (Rita Tushingham, b. 1942) is too naïve to fulminate against her fate, even though she is constantly harangued by her brassy mother Helen (Dora Bryan, b. 1923) and abandoned by the black sailor Jimmy (Paul Danquah, b. 1925) after a shoreleave fling.

By contrast the Nottingham teenager Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay, b. 1937) allows his rage to fester after he is detained for robbing a bakery in Richardson's last brush with social realism, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). However, this owes as much to the spirit and technique of nouvelle vague pictures like Truffaut's Les 400 coups (1959) as to Alan Sillitoe's novella, though there is still plenty of proletarian toughness and awkward nonconformism to savour as Colin is coerced into representing his borstal in a cross-country race against a nearby public school and thinks back on his dead-end existence during his training runs, while also plotting his revenge on Michael Redgrave's self-serving governor. Nottingham also provided the setting for another Sillitoe adaptation, the Czech-born Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), which many consider the least dated entry in the social realist canon. Indeed, with his binge drinking, reckless womanizing, and sour assertion ‘All I want is a good time—all the rest is propaganda’, Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney, b. 1936) could easily be a contemporary working-class hero. But, having made pregnant a workmate's wife (Rachel Roberts), even he discards resentful rebellion to embrace resigned responsibility.

The draughtsman Vic Brown (Alan Bates) and serial fantasist Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) respectively come to much the same conclusion in John Schlesinger's A Kind of Loving (1961) and Billy Liar (1963), as the first knuckles down to living with the pregnant typist Ingrid (June Ritchie, b. 1938) and her shrewish mother (Thora Hird), while the second passes up the chance of a lifetime in London with the trendy Liz (Julie Christie, b. 1941) to stay working for a Yorkshire undertaker.

Despite being the first to make a film, Lindsay Anderson became the last free cinema alumnus to complete a feature. Released in 1963, just under a decade after Thursday's Children (1954) had won Anderson an Academy award, This Sporting Life emerged just as post-war pessimism was being replaced by the permissiveness of the swinging sixties. Chronicling the brief taste of celebrity enjoyed by the miner Frank Machin (Richard Harris) with his home-town rugby league team, this is the new wave's most psychologically complex picture, as Machin strives to cope with the exploitation of the club's owners, the envy of his team-mates, and the resistance of his widowed landlady, Margaret (Rachel Roberts). Yet, in spite of bearing the influence of John Ford and Ingmar Bergman, this almost Antonionian treatise on alienation failed to resonate with audiences demanding escapism like Goldfinger and Tony Richardson's Oscar-winning period romp Tom Jones (both 1963).

The end of the new wave was further hastened by a combination of the film-makers' desire to move on and the growing frustration of the press. The critics had assessed Room at the Top, Look Back in Anger, and The Entertainer as cinematic spin-offs of the angry young man and kitchen sink aesthetics, with only Leonard Mosley wondering, in his review of Clayton's film, whether ‘a little revolution in the cinema has taken place’ (Daily Express, 3 April 1959). By contrast Woodfall Films was anxious to link its pictures with developments in France and used the press book for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning to proclaim ‘The New Wave reaches British cinema’. The Times took the bait and headed its review ‘Satisfying film from the New Wave in English cinema’ (28 Oct 1960), though not everyone was convinced. As Patrick Gibbs argued in his notice for A Taste of Honey:
In this country there doesn't exist exactly a new wave of film directors such as broke over France a few years ago; there is discernable, though, a new ripple, who work on un-romantic contemporary subjects in a realistic style. Tony Richardson is one of these, his A Taste of Honey being an exciting example of the new school. (Daily Telegraph, 16 Sept 1961)
Paul Dehn similarly referred to a ‘new school of provincial realism’ in his review of A Kind of Loving (14 April 1962), while Penelope Gilliatt argued with reference to A Taste of Honey that
It could be claimed that the British cinema, too, had achieved ‘a new wave’—less tumultuous and sensational, perhaps, than its Gallic counterpart, but still a development of some importance, testifying to the belated willingness of the British cinema to grapple with the British realities. (The Guardian, 12 April 1962)
But Gilliatt also warned that such an emphasis could become repetitive: ‘The trouble is, however, that we now begin to see signs that these revolutionary, newly realistic films of ours are losing their freshness; they are becoming the victims of their success and are becoming formulised’ (12 April 1962). Far more enthusiastic was Peter Baker who, in reviewing This Sporting Life, went so far as to claim that ‘British movies will never be quite the same again … In a cinematic delta, puckered by scores of New Wavelets, it has an impact of an Atlantic breaker which knocks all hell out of the shallows’ (Sunday Telegraph, 10 Feb 1963). But the directors themselves (who had done little to foster the notion of a concerted movement) were by now beginning to depart from the realist style. Richardson had already been to Hollywood to make Sanctuary (1961) and he returned the following year to become embroiled in a tortuous adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One (1965). By contrast Schlesinger and Reisz opted to capture the modishness of swinging London in Darling (1965) and Morgan: a Suitable Case for Treatment (1966) respectively. Yet Schlesinger also ended the decade in the United States, where he directed Midnight Cowboy (1969), the first X-rated film to win the Oscar for best picture. Anderson, however, remained in Britain to rework Jean Vigo's Zéro de conduite (1933) as If … (1968), a scathing satire on the public-school system that owed little to either free cinema or social realism.

Half a century on, social realism is frequently accused of chauvinism, individualism, mono-culturalism, and the romanticization of poverty and urban decay. Yet this cinema of emasculation still provides a potent snapshot of its times and the conservative codes by which ordinary people lived. Anderson wanted British cinema to make the working classes ‘feel their dignity and their importance’ (Hill, 128). However, it was television that took up the mantle, with soaps like Coronation Street (1960–) and drama showcases like the Wednesday Play (1964–70) and Play for Today (1970–84) nurturing the talents of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, who remained at the forefront of a social realist cinema that evolved to meet the challenges of changing times.

David Parkinson


J. Hill, Sex, class and realism: British cinema, 1956–1963 (1986) · R. Murphy, Sixties British cinema (1992) · T. Richardson, Long distance runner (1993) · R. Murphy, The British cinema book (1997) · S. Lay, British social realism: from documentary to Brit-grit (2002) · W. J. Mann, Edge of midnight: the life of John Schlesinger (2005) · BFI Screenonline, www.screenonline.org.uk/index.html, accessed on 18 Nov 2010 · Y. Zarhy-Levo, ‘Looking back at the British new wave’, Journal of British Cinema and Television, 7 (2010), 232–47