The dozen or so films produced between 1959 and 1963 that we think of as belonging to the ‘New Wave’ cycle captured the intellectual spirit behind Lindsay Anderson’s Free Cinema movement of the 50s and seemed to hint to the continent that British cinema, to reference the famous quote by Francois Truffaut, was not, in fact, an oxymoron. Often adapted from popular novels and plays of the Angry Young Men of late 50s literature and theatre, these films brought jarring images of working class life to a stuffy and conservative national cinema. In a sea of cosy army comedies, high-handed historical dramas and predictable crime thrillers, they stood out. Room at the Top was followed by a series of aesthetically innovative, socially relevant dramas which are widely considered to be great classics: Look Back in Anger (1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) A Taste of Honey (1961) A Kind of Loving (1962), L-Shaped Room (1962) Billy Liar (1963) and This Sporting Life (1963).
It goes without saying that the impetus behind the New Wave cycle was commercial, although it is also worth remembering that in the film industry the distinction between the commercial and the artistic is rarely clear-cut: producers are not just money-men, and by branding them as such we strip nuance from a complex industrial process. Nevertheless, for all its lasting cultural influence the New Wave can still be taken as an example of how the commercial film industry self-replicates. Room at the Top dominated the box-office charts in 1959 and showed that audiences wanted gritty themes, confrontational drama and intelligent social commentary.
The enthusiasm with which some producers sought to emulate the ‘kitchen sink’ style in response to this demand recalls that old saying about film being the only industry in which last year’s models are considered to be better that next year’s. A crass generalisation, sure, but here’s a brief example to illustrate the point: in 1962 the producer Raymond Stross was trying to convince the small distributor Garrick of the profitability of a new project titled ‘The Leather Boys’. In his correspondence to the company he wrote:
With every respect in the world …I believe that ‘you are not with it’! If you do not like this script you must have equally disliked the three big winners of recent time, “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”, “A Kind of Loving”, and “A Taste of Honey”, the profits from which will substantially exceed one million pounds… the world is crying out for teenage stories.
But as the film critic Alexander Walker noted, in that same year the phrase ‘New Wave’ had begun to enter industry parlance: always a bad sign. By 1963 it was all over. This Sporting Life, though considered to be one of the greatest achievements of the New Wave, was nowhere near as successful at the box office as its producers had hoped it might be.
In the canon of British cinema the New Wave films sit somewhere near the fuse: they are some of the most studied, most referenced and critically acclaimed texts of all time. But we shouldn’t forget how influential the cycle was then as well as now. In the early 60s the success of the New Wave rippled through the industry and its influence can be seen across a number of films at the level of production style. The following list offers examples of films which seem to emulate the defining characteristics of New Wave cinema, but were unsuccessful at the box office for a variety of reasons: some were just a little late to the party, some were seen as low-budget ‘programmers’ or B movies (and thus instantly forgettable), but none have managed to command very much in the way of column space or academic study.
1. The Leather Boys (Sidney J. Furie, 1963/4)
The timing of The Leather Boys was simply unfortunate. Scheduled for release in 1963, the film was held back by an industrial dispute and remained stuck in the distributor’s vaults until 1964, by which the social problem film was looking a bit ‘square’. The 60s was characterised by trends which exploded onto the scene and were passé within a few years and, given that a film could take two years from pre-production to the screen, some producers found it difficult to keep up.
Still, The Leather Boys is an exceptionally interesting film and had it been released in 1963 it could very well have become part of the New Wave cycle. The film follows Dot (Rita Tushingham) and Reg (Colin Campbell) a cockney young couple who get married and quickly become disillusioned with each other. Reggie grows close with his friend Pete, who begins to develop feelings for him and is revealed at the end of the film to be gay. Based on the 1961 book by Mary Ann Evans (published under the pseudonym Eliot George) the film plays down the book’s homosexual romance storyline but perhaps it would still have been controversial enough to stir up a fuss if it had reached cinemas a few years earlier, around the time of Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961). Sadly, despite the presence of Rita ‘A Taste of Honey’ Tushingham as its major selling point, The Leather Boys never really found a wide audience.
2. This is My Street(Sidney Hayers, 1964)
Many of the films in this list are set in a pre-swinging London rather than northern England, but like the New Wave films they tend to rely heavily on location to conjure up a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment. This is My Street is set in Battersea and follows the story of Margery Graham, a working class housewife who feels crushed at the prospect of a tedious future in the place where she grew up with a husband she despises. She has an affair with her mother’s womanising lodger Harry (Ian Hendry) and then attempts suicide when his affections dissipate.
The film presents a London in the throes of post-war reconstruction, and the streets are littered with debris and half-bombed buildings. The Radio Times called it ‘a well-written, nicely shot squalor fest’ while Alt-Movie was more unfair, dubbing it an ‘unsavoury British programmer’. In reality this is a nicely shot film (and June Ritchie is always a delight), but it’s just a shame that its interesting social themes (prostitution, unhappy marriage, lack of social mobility) become subservient to the rather hysterical melodrama of the plot.
3. That Kind of Girl (Gerry O’Hara, 1963)
At this point I feel like I need to ask the reader to bear with me. Anyone who has had the dubious privilege of having seen it will know That Kind of Girl as an early sexploitation film rather than a ‘kitchen sink’ drama. But the low-budget exploitation flicks produced by people like Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser deserve a bit of attention for their willingness to tackle taboo social issues. That Kind of Girl was (I’m fairly sure) the first British fiction film to deal with the issue of venereal disease. An exotic European au-pair girl comes to (you guessed it) London and strikes up affairs with a couple of men before contracting syphilis and shamefacedly resigning her position.
Production company Compton was so keen to give That Kind of Girl the veneer of establishment respectability that they sought an endorsement from the British Medical Association (this appears in the first frame of the film, in large letters). The company used the same tactic with The Yellow Teddybears (1963), using that film (about underage sex and teenage abortion) to start a national debate about sex education. In a way, Compton was trying to tackle the same social issues evident in films like A Taste of Honey, just without the same budget, artistic finesse or cultural respectability.
4. The Little Ones (Jim O’Connolly, 1964)
Like Vernon Sewell’sThe Wind of Change (1961) The Little Ones is a B movie which tackles themes of race and immigration at a time when both were hot political issues but virtually ignored on cinema screens. Unlike The Wind of Change, The Little Ones was never reclaimed from the bottom half of the British cinema programme, and has been virtually unseen for more than 50 years.
The film is about two young friends, Jackie and Ted, who decide to run away from home. Ted lives with his family in one room in a particularly decrepit part of London’s East End. His mother beats him regularly. Jackie’s prostitute mother treats him with ambivalence and his father, a Jamaican immigrant, left years ago. The boys spend their time dreaming of far away, exotic lands (‘why would anyone want to come here?’ Ted asks in disbelief). They decide to stow away in a removal van to Liverpool and from there catch the first boat to Jamaica.
This is a realist film shot in parts with a shaky handheld camera for that added bit of verisimilitude. This film moves from gritty, derelict London to Liverpool, and in a departure from the usual archetype Liverpool is shown here to be the more affluent city. When the boys go on a petty crime spree to obtain food for their journey they are painstakingly pursued and finally collared by a local police inspector who sits them down to give them a good talking to. The policeman loses his temper with Jackie and blurts out ‘don’t talk to me like that you little n…’. He then stops, and visibly deflates. This moment of racial intolerance is apparently at odds with the inspector’s view of himself as a progressive liberal. Jackie is nonplussed: he is used to this treatment. This is a powerful moment in a film which seems caught between being a serious social commentary and a whimsical comedy in the vein of a Children’s Film Foundation feature.
5. The Family Way (Roy and John Boulting, 1966)
Steve Hawley argues that The Family Way lies on the boundary between the kitchen sink and the Swinging Sixties, and in many ways more accurately reflects how the decade was probably experienced in the regions outside London. The Family Way was produced and directed by the Boulting Brothers and adapted for the screen by Bill Naughton (Alfie, Spring and Port Wine) who also wrote the play. Hayley Mills plays Jenny Fritton, a young girl newly married to the shy and sensitive Arthur. Arthur and Jenny are unable to consummate their marriage because both feel too pressured to have sex by their family and neighbours, and Arthur becomes a local laughing stock as a result.
This is far from a lost ‘B’ (and there’s a lot more to the production of the film than I have time to go into here!) but it isn’t as well-known as it could be. The film straddles what Robert Murphy calls the ‘mid-decade divide’ and falls somewhere between social realism and the more permissive sexual mores of the Swinging London films (this sort of makes sense when you realise that the play was actually written 5 years before the film was released).
Of course, this all begs the question of what exactly characterises a British New Wave film. One common tendency is to throw out labels like ‘gritty’ and ‘kitchen sink’, and these are problematic because they are so very vague (in general they refer to ‘real’ representations of working class domestic life, but this could be applied to a huge number of British films and TV dramas). The word ‘realism’ also has a multiplicity of meanings and is one of the most contested terms among humanities scholars.
But it’s worth noting that academics don’t hold the monopoly on how we define British New Wave cinema. In online criticism Sons and Lovers, the D. H. Lawrence adaptation set in a small mining town, is sometimes cited as being part of ‘New Wave’ and sometimes not. This is also the case with The Entertainer, the 1960 Woodfall film which stars Laurence Olivier as a third-rate music hall star. As part of their recent ‘The Brit New Wave: From Angry Young Men to Swinging London’ season the New York Film forum screened The Entertainer, Girl With Green Eyes and The Leather Boys. They also screened The Pumpkin Eater, Jack Clayton’s wonderfully complex tale about a woman facing a mid-life crisis. The Wikipedia entry titled ‘British New Wave’ includes references to J Lee Thompson’s 1959 film Tiger Bay and Val Guest’s 1960 crime thriller Hell is a City (which seems like a bit of a stretch). I suppose what this tells us is that the British film canon is constantly shifting; its boundaries are continually being re-negotiated, and it is this process of negotiation which is important to a healthy film scholarship.