The British New Wave Cinema lasted only a few years, in effect from 1959 to 1963. And its output amounted to no more than, arguably, half a dozen films at most. But, albeit small in number, they were influential films and powerfully evocative, and enough to prompt leading critics of the day to talk of ‘a renaissance in British cinema’.
Coming at the end of a decade that was widely perceived as ‘a doldrums era’, replete with lightweight comedy fare, gothic horror films and endless war vehicles, or so it seemed, the New Wave films were greeted by audiences as a breath of fresh air – and paved the way, moreover, for the transatlantic success that awaited British cinema in the Swinging Sixties.
Directors and Writers
The leading directors of New Wave cinema were Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, John Schlesinger and Lindsay Anderson. Most came from the theatre, principally the Royal Court Theatre, where Richardson had directed the plays of John Osborne, notably Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer to great critical acclaim. In fact, the major production company behind British New Wave cinema, Woodfall films, was set up by Richardson and Osborne precisely to put these stage plays on to the big screen, which they did with the likes of Richard Burton and Laurence Olivier in the leading roles.
Woodfall’s fortunes fared even better when Richardson and Reisz spread their net wider to draw on northern realist novelists or playwrights such as Alan Sillitoe and Shelagh Delaney, and, what’s more, took the unusual step for the film industry of those times of engaging these authors to do the screenplays for the films of their own works. Taking the cameras out of the studio confines and engaging in larger amounts of location shooting was another first for the industry, and not at all welcomed in mainstream circles. But social realism was the watchword of these new film-makers, scriptwriters, and a younger generation of actors, including Albert Finney, Rita Tushingham, Shirley Anne Field, Tom Courtenay, Alan Bates, Rachel Roberts, Richard Harris and the like.
Karel Reisz had the first big commercial success with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), while Tony Richardson made A Taste of Honey (1961) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Lindsay Anderson engaged David Storey to script his own book of This Sporting Life (1963), which effectively brought New Wave Cinema to an end.
Realism and After
Not that these dynamic directors, nor their actors, were lost to British cinema thereafter. Subsequently, they achieved even greater acclaim, not least in America, with films such as Tom Jones (1963, Tony Richardson), If (1968, Lindsay Anderson), Midnight Cowboy (1969, John Schlesinger), and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981, Karel Reisz). By then they had become pretty much the mainstream for their own part. But their roots lay discernibly in the British New Wave Cinema they had founded at the end of the 1950s. And British cinema, not to mention its practices, preoccupations, styles and themes, was all the richer and better for their endeavours.
The social realism fostered by New Wave Cinema, in particular, made an indelible and lasting impression on British film-makers for many years, and can even be discerned in such recent films as Pater Cattaneo’s international hit, The Full Monty (1997), as well as Lynne Ramsay’s art-house success, Ratcatcher (1999). The spirit of the New Wave, in short, extended way beyond its own period and, indeed, still flourishes in British cinema today.
Two programmes shown on BBC FOUR and hosted by Kirsty Wark look in some detail at two important films from the British New Wave: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. The programmes consist of a showing of each film in its entirety, followed by a discussion of its production and reception with key members of the cast and crew.
Together they provide a unique insight into the motives and factors guiding all the participants in their making, and help to situate both films in the context of their times. Moreover, they reveal what a vital and dynamic influence British films were on world cinema, generally, on the eve of the Swinging Sixties.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
This is a challenging and inventive film from 1962, produced and directed by Tony Richardson, and starring Tom Courtenay with Sir Michael Redgrave and James Bolam in support. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was the first British film to depict the brutality within the Borstal system.
The film caused a furore at the time and its anti-authoritarian agenda ran into problems with the British Board of Film Censors, which described its story as ‘blatant and very trying Communist propaganda, and particularly worrying for us because the hero is a thief and yet is held up to the admiration of silly young thugs’.
Thus censorship, once again, is a key point of issue highlighted in the discussion of the film. But it also explores the novel features of the camerawork and editing for its time, the originality of the musical score, and debates the borrowings from the French New Wave, as well as, finally, the way in which the film continued to break new ground in British cinema of the day, and its lasting influence.
For the cast and crew's discussion of the film with Kirsty Wark, see 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner'.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
Adapted from Alan Sillitoe’s rebellious first popular novel, which is about the new young working class, directed by Karel Reisz and produced by Tony Richardson, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning stars Albert Finney, Rachel Roberts and Shirley Anne Field. The film was a revelation when it was initially released, not just for its realistic style, but also for its graphic portrayal of sex, extra-marital affairs, strong language, and, most contentious of all, abortion.
The British Board of Film Censors, for instance, urged a general toning down of all the language and sex scenes. In particular, it required that the successful abortion scene promised in the screenplay and evident from the first in Sillitoe’s original novel, be rendered ultimately ineffective and that the film-makers follow a policy of ‘social responsibility’ as far as possible.
These constitute some of the key issues highlighted in the discussion with the cast and crew of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, along with their thoughts on the origins of the film and their roles in its evolution, its stylistic and thematic innovations, the new-found acting methods it invoked, and the reception afforded it by the critics and cinema-going public.
For the cast and crew's discussion of the film with Kirsty Wark, see 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning'.