Kicking against the pricks: The British New Wave

❉ How the cinematic left-hook of the British New Wave created a cultural earthquake, with its raw, brutal realism.

Let us take you for a five-minute moment out of 2016 and back to the mid 1950s. If you worked in a factory, lodged with your parents and lived in a redbrick terrace, the chances were that you rarely saw your life up there on the then silver screen. But all that changed at the fag end of that decade with the first cinematic left hook of the British New Wave.

A cinematic offspring of the left-wing-driven plays and novels of the 50s, these pugnacious films were swiftly coined “kitchen sink dramas”, shifting the dramatic focus away from the comfortable middle and upper classes and onto the struggles and ambitions of the British working class. Influenced by the nervy, verite-like stylings of their French cousins, these directors often came from documentary features and brought with them a raw, brutal realism that was akin to a cultural earthquake in a cinema landscape dominated by cosy Ealing comedies, baroque Hammer horrors and – even then – patriotic WWII actioneers.


Like the Dogme film experiment four decades later, the British New Wave had a manifesto of sorts. It had come from the “Free Cinema Movement”, an idealistic new approach to cinema drawn up in a Charing Cross cafe by Lindsay Anderson and fellow documentarians Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz and Lorenza Mazzetti. “No film can be too personal,” they wrote in their succinct 103-word statement drawn up to promote an NFT screening of three of their short documentary films. That Charing Cross manifesto informed the work that they mounted when they moved into narrative film-making.

Richardson was the first to move into features with a 1958 adaptation of John Osborne’s searing, establishment rocking play, ‘Look Back In Anger’. Richard Burton was cast as the – oh, yes – “angry young man” Jimmy Porter, the bright working class iconoclast married to a young upper class wife in this microcosmic class war narrative.

Karel Reisz meanwhile released his first film in 1960 with an adaptation of Alan Sillitoe’s novel ‘Saturday Night And Sunday Morning’, a vigorously naturalistic drama set among the grinding factory life of 1950s Nottingham and featuring a career-defining turn from Albert Finney as the bullish anti-hero Arthur Seaton (“I’m out for a good time – all the rest is propaganda!”).

Lindsay Anderson followed Reisz with ‘This Sporting Life’ in 1963, another powerfully gritty black and white drama starring a young Richard Harris as a bitter coal miner turned rugby league player. Richardson, meanwhile, had released ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’ in 1962, another Alan Sillitoe adaptation, this time following Tom Courtenay as an introspective Borstal boy who is encouraged to take part in a cross-country race against the neighbouring public school.

All of these films pitted a lone class warrior against the forces of authority and conformity. As social documents, they’re priceless. Shot amidst a smog of noisy pubs and suffocating living rooms, they show a time when class divisions were clear and absolute, and are fuelled by a socialist ideal of working class empowerment. They were also the first to be unashamed – within the patrician confines of the BBFC – in their attitude to sex and infidelity. Films like Richardson’s ‘A Taste Of Honey’ (1961) were bold in their depiction of sexual promiscuity as Jo, a 17-year-old girl from, yes, the North, enjoys various sexual dalliances and finds herself pregnant and controversially unmarried.

The independence these films enjoyed was a result of specially formed companies. Most films of the time were produced by the twin titans of the British film industry, Rank and Associated British Picture Corporation, but the New Wave’s separation from the cinema establishment meant there was no resistance for their vaulting ambitions for verisimilitude. The New Wave took the film cameras out of the studio confines for the first time, engaging in much larger amounts of location filming, and it meant that they were free to pick new, hungry actors who fitted the roles, instead of hiring some Rank-tutored posho to put on a Northern accent for six weeks.

The movement became the accepted form of British cinema in the 1960s. The original trio were inevitably lured by the bigger bucks of the studios, but brought with them a similar sense of realism and outsider energy. Richardson helmed a lavish adaptation of Henry Fielding’s novel ‘Tom Jones’, while Karel Reisz went on to direct ‘Isadora’ in 1968, a biopic of the American dancer Isadora Duncan. But it was Lindsay Anderson whose career through-line was most obvious from those early New Wave efforts. His loose cycle of movies starting with ‘If…’ in 1968 and ending with ‘Britannia Hospital’ in ’82 were all authority-bashing state-of-the-nation satires, amplified by ambition, budget and scale, but with the same maverick sense of independence and socialist polemic.

The New Wave never really infected the DNA of mainstream British cinema in a way it did in France. The industry never gave the new breed the support that Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol received the other side of the pond and Richardson’s ‘Tom Jones’ and Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If…’ were both funded by American companies. The French independents have always benefitted from government subvention in a way our individualists could never even dream of.

But the spirit of those pioneers is still there in Terence Davies, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Shane Meadows and Lynne Ramsay. The social climate may have changed but with Bridget Jones and James Bond movies being our prime cultural exports, there are still enough pricks to kick wildly against.

❉ For more on British New Wave cinema, check out content from BBC Radio 4’s British New Wave season on BBC iPlayer.

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