British New Wave

British New Wave (1960-1969)

"The end of the 1950s witnessed the advent in Europe (and soon afterward in Latin America) of a succession of what came to be known within global film culture as new waves (sometimes new cinemas'). These eruptions of powerfully innovative production, characterised by the emergence to prominence of youthful directors/writers, would endure into the 1970s, even longer, arguably, in some cases." [4] "The financial losses of the Europeans, as compared to the Americans on the popular market, caused drastic changes within the European film industries, leading up to the continental government-subsidised film industries of the present. Even if the historical reasons for the changes in European film policies were mainly socio-economic, they were at the time mostly discussed and dealt with in aesthetic terms, and we saw eventually the emergence of the European art cinema, a new kind of film, specifically aimed at the literate and professional middle classes." [1]

"The new waves provided an alternative to the pre-eminence of the largely taylorised American product, the so-called 'classical Hollywood film', whose dependence on compelling narrative, glamorous stars and popular genres was widely influential, if seldom closely or effectively imitated. The new waves soon became an important (perhaps the most important) part of the international art cinema, which by 1965 had established itself as a powerful form of counter-Hollywood filmmaking. The art cinema was strongly marked by modernist approaches to the medium that had little use for star glamour and repetitious genres. Modernist films tend to emphasise complex characters and intellectual themes, often in an episodic or loosely structured fashion. They do not depend upon the excitement generated by the plot-centred forms of narrative that Hollywood customarily offered. The new waves redefined and renewed the national cinemas involved, providing them with a flow of financially successful and critically acclaimed productions that reflected native culture, utilised home-grown talent and frequently garnered favourable international notice, especially after successful distribution in the United States, where the international art cinema had been an important presence in exhibition since the early 1950s." [4]

Room at the Top (1959)

One of the most important European contributions to the film history of the 1950s was, thus, undoubtedly the sudden rise of the auteur, the film director extraordinaire and the notion of the authored art film. Sweden had Ingmar Bergman, Italy had, for instance, Fellini, Rossellini, Visconti, and Antonioni, France had the Cahiers du Cinéma generation, towards the end of decade represented by the breakthrough of the nouvelle vague, with Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer and Chabrol. Traditionally, Britain has been said to have missed out on the development of auteurism and art cinema in the 1950s, instead clinging to its traditional industrial policies of trying to (albeit unsuccessfully) compete with the Americans on the popular market. Even if this was true for the film industry, it is not entirely so for film culture as a whole, since Britain was at least intellectually at the very core of the foundation of the European art cinema in the 1950s, even if the art films were not really to emerge until the 1960s (perhaps with the exception of Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top in 1959). The seeds for an art cinema and auteurist policies were to a large extent sown in 1950s Britain, not least by the journal Sequence, founded in 1947 and in 1952, when its critics joined Sight and Sound, the most prestigious British film periodical, and there pursued similar ideological concerns." [1]

British Social Realism

Industrial Britain (1933)

"By the middle 1950s, the British film industry had experienced three decades of continual crisis, relieved only intermittently by the fixing of quotas (1937), the imposition of high duties on competing films imported from Hollywood (1947) and the establishment (1949) of a government-funding agency (the National Film Finance Corporation) whose role was to provide 'end money' for native productions. However encouraged by favouring legislation, British filmmakers had achieved little sustained success either in the domestic market, where American movies were more sought after by exhibitors, or abroad, where the British product found it difficult to compete for screen time. Hollywood lured away homegrown talent, including Alfred Hitchcock and a huge gallery of star performers, writers and other craftsmen, while the major studios, all located in or around London and tied closely to the West End theatre, seemed able to conceive only dramas that reflected middle-class, southern values and sensibilities, often without much appeal for a broader national audience. Entertainment films, or 'tinsel' (to use a common expression of the time), were for the most part Hollywood productions, and many of the country’s more sophisticated viewers disparaged the thematic insubstantiality and escapist rhetoric of the films that came from across the Atlantic. Within British cinema culture, the valued 'other' of American tinsel was realism, a practice defined to some extent by its refusal of Hollywood fantasy (in its various forms) and even of fictionality itself.

As it developed as a group movement during the 1930s, supported by government and private industry and under the leadership of a talented filmmaker and theorist John Grierson, British documentary filmmaking assumed a definite politics by the advent of the Second World War: left-wing, reformist (sometimes patronisingly), admiring of the 'authentic lives' led by the working class – such as fishermen (North Sea, 1938) and factory workers (Industrial Britain, 1933). During the Second World War, documentary techniques were utilised in making fiction films (such as the justly celebrated Target for Tonight, 1941) that supported the struggle against Germany and Japan, heroicising the 'ordinary' men and women who risked their lives for king and country.

The Cruel Sea (1953)

Pseudo-documentary fictional films that eschewed the escapist glamour of Hollywood tinsel remained an important and profitable area of British production during the 1950s, with significant releases such as The Cruel Sea (1953) and The Colditz Story (1955) enjoying a certain international as well as domestic popularity. Such filmmaking was in large measure the legacy of Grierson and the other documentarians of the 1930s, and it constituted a tradition of quality that promoted national identity (albeit of a somewhat restricted sort) and thematic seriousness, with its enshrinement of the democratic resistance to totalitarianism. Earning equal acclaim was a related series, the social problem films that dealt with issues ranging from juvenile delinquency (The Young and the Guilty, 1958) to racism (Sapphire, 1959), prostitution (Passport to Shame, 1958) and even homosexuality (Victim, 1961). Most of these realist fiction films were notable for their divergence, at least in significance part, from the international pattern for cinematic entertainment set by Hollywood, even though the American cinema of the period featured a similar genre. The appeal of the British social problem films of the 1950s depended more on an engagement (if sometimes rather superficial) with political and cultural concerns rather than on star appeal and conventions such as screen romance. Like the comparable Hollywood product, however, the British social realist films of the 1950s emphasised compelling narrative and socially conservative conclusions more than complex characters. Productions were usually built around established performers and did not feature self-conscious stylisation. These films were middle-class in their point of view, treating working-class characters and culture with either restrained distaste or affable condescension according to the 'moral' demands of the narrative.

Lindsay Anderson (c. 1960)

British film culture of the time, however, saw the emergence of another form of realism that found its source in an offshoot of the Griersonian tradition, the poetic realism of Humphrey Jennings, a documentarian who, in the 1940s, offered consciously stylised and aestheticised versions of the everyday. Jennings had worked as a painter and poet and felt more fondness for surrealism than for the reformist politics that had animated Grierson’s work.

In the late 1940s, a group of cinephiles at Oxford transformed the Film Society magazine into a platform from which they pled for an increased awareness of the cinema as an art form. Though generally hostile to British filmmaking, the talented editorial group at Sequence – notably Gavin Lambert, Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz – were amateurs, not only of the international art cinema and noted Hollywood productions, but also of Jennings’s films, which they saw as exemplifying a 'poetic realism' that gave equal emphasis to the 'real and the sensibility of the director who imposed his vision and hence style upon it. Sequence promised to provide, as did the Cahiers du Cinéma in France, an influential forum for a less traditionally-minded film culture (as opposed to the more mainstream Sight and Sound), but it ended publication in 1952 after only fourteen issues. Like Truffaut, Godard and others in France, however, Anderson and Reisz were eager to move into filmmaking, so that a national cinema they regarded as misdirected in its allegiance to establishment values and ignorant of the realities of a post-imperial Britain might be revitalised by a turn toward the 'poetry of everyday life'. They named the movement they founded 'Free Cinema', and it followed a call to arms penned by Anderson (published in 1956 in Sight and Sound, it bore the strident title 'Stand Up! Stand Up!')." [4]

Free Cinema: 1956-1959

Free Cinema is now acknowledged as a highly influential moment in British cinema history, which not only re-invigorated British documentary in the 1950s but also served as a precursor to the British New Wave in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But what exactly was Free Cinema? Lindsay Anderson, its undisputed founder and spokesman, later admitted, "Free Cinema, whether as a specific historical movement, or as a genre, or as an inspiration, has been defined, written about or attacked in terms so various that it isn't surprising there is now a great deal of confusion as to what exactly the term implies." An explanation is therefore needed.

O Dreamland (Lindsay Anderson, 1953)

Essentially, Free Cinema was the general title given to a series of six programmes of (mainly) short documentaries shown at the National Film Theatre (NFT) in London between February 1956 and March 1959. The programmes were put together by a group of young filmmakers and critics whose films were shown in the series' three British programmes ('Free Cinema', 'Free Cinema 3: Look at Britain' and 'Free Cinema 6: 'The Last Free Cinema'). The three other programmes introduced the work of foreign filmmakers, including Roman Polanski, Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut.

Free Cinema was created primarily for pragmatic reasons. In early 1956, as Anderson and his friends Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Lorenza Mazzetti were struggling to get their films shown, they decided to join forces and screen them together in a single programme at the National Film Theatre, which Reisz had conveniently been programming for three years. They soon realised that although the films had been made independently, they had a definite 'attitude in common'. Anderson coined the term 'Free Cinema' (a reference to the films having been made free from the pressures of the box-office or the demands of propaganda), and together produced a 'manifesto' in which they stated the ideas behind the presentation of the programme. Although the name was intended only for that one-off event, the 'publicity stunt' proved so effective - with the event attracting wide press attention and all screenings sold out - that five more programmes were shown under the same banner in the next three years, each accompanied by a programme note in the form of a manifesto.

Momma Don't Allow (Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, 1955)

But Free Cinema was much more than just a clever piece of cultural packaging. It represented a new attitude to filmmaking, rejecting the orthodoxy and conservatism of both the mainstream British cinema and the dominant documentary tradition initiated by John Grierson in the 1930s. The Free Cinema group dismissed mainstream 1950s British films as completely detached from the reality of everyday contemporary life in Britain, and condemned their stereotypical and patronising representation of the working class. As the programme note for the third Free Cinema programme stated: "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." In contrast, the Free Cinema filmmakers affirmed their "belief in freedom, the importance of people and in the significance of the everyday" (Free Cinema manifesto). Their films attempted to rehabilitate an objective, critical, yet respectful and often affectionate portrayal of ordinary people at work or at play.

At the same time, they were strong advocates of the filmmaker's freedom to express his/her personal views through film - "no film can be too personal", insisted the first manifesto - of the commitment of the filmmaker as an artist, and of his/her role as a vocal social commentator. One obvious common denominator of the Free Cinema films (and a prerequisite to their makers' creative freedom) was the fact that they were all made outside the framework of the film industry. They were produced in semi-amateur conditions (all but three on 16mm film), and used the same enthusiastic and skilful (but mainly unpaid) technicians, particularly cameraman Walter Lassally and sound-recordist/editor John Fletcher. The active and generous contribution of these two pioneering technicians was a direct link between most of the Free Cinema films; this alone made Free Cinema much more than a label of convenience. The films were funded either by their makers or by small grants from two main sponsors (BFI Experimental Film Fund and Ford Motor Company), who gave them almost complete creative freedom.

Every Day Except Christmas (Lindsay Anderson, 1957)

The films also shared a number of formal and stylistic features. Typically, they were short, used black and white film and hand-held, portable cameras, avoided or limited the use of didactic voice-over commentary, shunned narrative continuity and used sound and editing impressionistically. Their distinctive aesthetic was a consequence of three main factors: a conscious decision to take their cameras out of the studios and into the streets in order to engage with the reality of contemporary Britain; the extremely limited funds at the filmmakers' disposal; and the technology available.

Two particular technological limitations determined the Free Cinema aesthetic: the limited shooting time of the spring-wound Bolex 16mm camera (which meant no shot could last longer than 22 seconds), the impossibility of recording synchronised sound outside the studio until the turn of the 1960s. On the positive side, the emergence of hyper-sensitive film stock allowed filming on location without the use of artificial light, even by night.

Thursday's Children (Lindsay Anderson, 1955)

The filmmakers made a virtue of these financial and technological limitations: as the Free Cinema 3 programme note stated, "with a 16mm camera, and minimal resources, and no payment for your technicians, you cannot achieve very much - in commercial terms.... But you can use your eyes and your ears. You can give indications. You can make poetry." In that respect, Free Cinema advocated and developed a genuine 'aesthetic of economy'. The films may have lacked polish - some were even shot on spare (read 'scratched') government film stock - but their inner quality came from the creative way in which the filmmakers arranged sounds (often a combination of natural sounds and added music) and images, often creating symbolic contrasts between them.

"Most of the films expressed the directors' attitudes toward contemporary, urbanizing Britain. Popular culture formed a central subject. Anderson's O Dreamland (1953) reflected on the public's need for a cheap night out, while Tony Richardson's Momma Don't Allow (1955) and Reisz's We Are the Lambeth Boys (1958) rendered teenagers' lifestyles with considerable affection. More traditional subjects were treated with a new restraint. Anderson's film about Covent Garden's markets, Every Day Except Christmas (1957), emphasized work routines and earthy language, while his Thursday'S Children (1955) offered an optimistic view of a school for deaf children by capturing the pupils' spontaneous cheerfulness." [3]

Although Anderson later denied Free Cinema the status of a genuine 'film movement', the films' concern with some aspect of contemporary life in Britain, their similar independent mode of production and their common aesthetic seem sufficient to earn it the name, however limited the movement might have been in comparison to, say, Italian neo-realism or the French nouvelle vague. After three years, however, the group announced the end of Free Cinema, with this explanation:

The strain of making films in this way, outside the system, is enormous, and cannot be supported indefinitely. It is not just a question of finding the money. Each time, when the films have been made, there is the same battle to be fought, for the right to show our films. As the madman said as he hit his head against the brick wall: it is nice when you stop.

"Free Cinema is dead. Long live Free Cinema." So ended the programme note accompanying the final Free Cinema programme of documentary films, screened at the BFI's National Film Theatre on London's South Bank in March 1959. The emergence of the 'British New Wave' partly explains why Anderson and Reisz decided to end the Free Cinema series. To some extent, this decision showed the limitations of the project as an end in itself. However, as Richardson, Reisz and Anderson were about to move on to feature filmmaking, one can, at the very least, recognise Free Cinema's significant role in the apprenticeship of filmmakers who made a major contribution to the flowering of 'kitchen sink' cinema in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Meanwhile, a handful of younger filmmakers kept the movement alive for a few more years, producing short, low-budget documentaries in the Free Cinema style.

From Free Cinema to Kitchen Sink and New Wave

The 'Kitchen Sink' trend (so-called for its depiction of grubby, everyday life) was Britain's equivalent of the French New Wave. Its principal directors emerged out of the Free Cinema group.

Look Back in Anger (1959)

"As so often in British cinema history, the inspiration for these film-makers was provided by literature and the theatre. This came in the shape of the works of the 'Angry Young Men': frank and uncompromising slices of 'real life' served up by young writers John Braine, Alan Sillitoe, John Osborne, and others. Their collective disenchantment with the smugness and false promises of post-war British society struck an ideological chord with the proponents of Free Cinema." [2]

"The most important of these works was John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger, directed on the stage by Tony Richardson in 1956. In 1959, Richardson and others formed a production company, Woodfall, in order to move from the documentary shorts of Free Cinema into feature filmmaking. One of the first Woodfall films was an adaptation of Look Back in Anger (1959) starring Richard Burton. The alienated hero runs a candy stall in an open-air market and rants to his mates about the inj ustices of the class system. His best friend is his elderly landlady, whom he accompanies on a visit to her husband's grave. Like other films of this tendency, Look Back in Anger's sober realism owes a good deal to location shooting.

Although Look Back in Anger was a commercial failure, another Woodfall film made at the same time, and released shortly before it, did well at the box office. Room at the Top (1959, Jack Clayton) was adapted from a novel about a cynical working-class hero who marries a factory owner's daughter in order to better his lot. Dwelling on the disillusionment of life in Britain's provincial cities, Room at the Top was unusual in its sexual frankness and its depiction of class resentment." [3]

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

"Woodfall was supported by another independent, Bryanston Films, chaired by industry stalwart Michael Balcon, which enabled them to release their films through British Lion. The bridgehead established, Richardson's Free Cinema colleagues followed him into features, often with the collaboration of the authors and playwrights whose works inspired them." [2]

"Perhaps the quintessential film of the Kitchen Sink trend is Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). Arthur deeply resents his factory job and his passive parents, yet at the end he and his fiancee stand staring at a suburban housing development, a shot suggesting that they face the same dreary life.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was based on an Alan Sillitoe novel, and he adapted his short story for Richardson's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), the story of a sullen prisoner in a reform school who trains as a cross-country runner. Like other angry-young-man films, Loneliness uses techniques borrowed from the French New Wave, including fast motion to suggest excitement during the hero's crimes and hand-held camera work for scenes of his exhilarating open-air jogging. In an echo of Truffaut's The 400 Blows, Loneliness ends with a freeze-frame as the boys assemble gas masks.

This Sporting Life (1963)

Lindsay Anderson, like the Cahiers du cinema directors, had been a film critic, and he lambasted the British cinema for its stodgy refusal to face contemporary life. His first feature, This Sporting Life (1963), takes as its protagonist a miner who tries to become a professional rugby player while carrying on a troubled affair with his landlady. Anderson indicts capitalist society through the corrupt sports promoters whom the hero encounters." [3]

A Taste of Honey (1961)

"Collectively these films constituted the latest manifestation of a progressive realist aesthetic in British cinema, dating back to Grierson's 'documentary ideal' which involved a gradual extension of the cinematic franchise to include realistic representations of the lower orders in society. And while many can be criticized for their overt sexism and machismo, the New Wave films did mark a certain aesthetic evolution in British cinema, from the initial largely studio-based productions of Room at the Top and Look back in Anger, to the freer cinéma vérité style of A Taste of Honey (1961) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Aided by technical developments such as lightweight portable cameras and faster film stock Richardson and his dnematographer Walter Lassally were able to make extensive use of real urban locations - northern industrial landscapes in Manchester and Salford - integrating them as a central feature in the drama as the film-makers of the French 'Nouvelle Vague' had begun to do with the streets of Paris.

Tom Jones (1963)

These films also marked the emergence of a new breed of British actor: a tough, street-wise, and instinctive performer, whose acting style owed more to Brando and Dean than to Olivier and Alec Guinness. The 'authenticity' of the likes of Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, and Rita Tushingham also helped to give the New Wave films a classconsdous edge which had previously been lacking." [2]

"Kitchen Sink cinema was a short-lived trend. This Sporting Life failed, and the unexpected success of another, very different Woodfall film swerved filmmakers in new directions. Turning away from harsh realism, Richardson adapted a classic British comic novel in Tom Jones (1963), tapping Osborne for the screenplay. Backed by United Artists, the big-budget color film borrowed heavily from the French New Wave. It became a huge hit and won several Academy Awards.

Alfie (1966)

Turning from working-class life in the industrial cities, filmmakers began to attach themselves to the vogue for portraying the lifestyle of "swinging London." English clothes and British rock and roll were suddenly fashionable, and London came to be seen as the capital of trendiness, social mobility, and sexual liberation. A series of films probing the shallowness of the "mod" lifestyle found success in art theaters around the world.

For example, in Darling (1965, John Schlesinger) a thoughtless, trivial model rises in society through a string of love affairs and finally marries an Italian prince. Darling uses many techniques derived from the Nouvelle Vague, such as j ump cuts and freeze-frames. Alfie (1966, Lewis Gilbert) offers a male reversal of Darling, in which a selfish charmer seduces a series of women, ducking all problems until confronted with the illegal abortion of one of his victims. Alfie follows Tom Jones in letting the hero share his thoughts with the viewer by means of asides to the camera.

Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966)

Reisz's Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966) joined the working-class hero of the Kitchen Sink period with a comic critique of swinging London. A man from a Marxist family tries desperately to prevent his wife from divorcing him and marrying a snobbish artgallery owner. Morgan assimilates art-cinema conventions in its fantasy scenes, in which the hero compares people to gorillas and envisions his execution.

Apart from the new prominence of the London lifestyle, creative talents left Kitchen Sink realism behind. The success of Tom Jones led Richardson to Hollywood, while Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Richard Harris, and Michael Caine became international stars. Hollywood's tactics in financing British films changed as well. The intimate, realistic film would often be associated with a more overtly political cinema, while many nota ble later British works were either expensive prestige films (often made with American backing) or inventive genre pictures." [3]

In summary the British New Wave worked upon an emergent element of realism which sought to represent elements of the working class and its changing environment. Criticisms have been levelled that the films concentrated on characterisations at the expense of the possibilities of class solidarity as a way forward. This marks a break from the brief associations which were made between the Free Cinema movement and the New Left centered around issues of art, representration and didacticism. In that sense the underlying discourses can be seen as ones which promote a meritocratic society in which opportunities are available but it is down to the individual actor themselves about whether they make a success of these opportunities.

The Legacy

The Whisperers (1967)

"The British new wave had run its course by 1963 as principals of the movement, like Jack Clayton and Tony Richardson, turned to other kinds of projects. But both these directors, along with Reisz, Anderson, Schlesinger, Forbes and others, continued through the following decades to produce films that, like their new wave progenitors, interestingly engaged with the tradition of the European art film. Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), Forbes’s The Whisperers (1967), Clayton’s The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) and Anderson’s If.... (1968), among many other similar entrants into the international market, testify to the enduring importance of the movement. A new generation of filmmakers coming to prominence in the 1980s has likewise kept the tradition of modernist social realism alive. These practitioners of so-called 'Brit Grit', particularly Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, like the new wavers of the 1960s, have committed themselves to realism rather than tinsel, eschewing the more extreme forms of cinematic modernism for films that speak directly, if with style and subtlety, to the contemporary world." [4]


  • O Dreamland (1953)
  • Momma Don't Allow (1955)
  • Thursday's Children (1955)
  • Together (1956)
  • Every Day Except Christmas (1957)
  • We Are the Lambeth Boys (1958)
  • Look Back in Anger (1959)
  • Room at the Top (1959)
  • Hell Is a City (1960)
  • Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)
  • The Angry Silence (1960)
  • The Entertainer (1960)
  • A Taste of Honey (1961)
  • Only Two Can Play (1962)
  • A Kind of Loving (1962)
  • Sparrers Can't Sing (1962)
  • The L Shaped Room (1962)
  • The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)
  • A Place to Go (1963)
  • Billy Liar (1963)
  • The Servant (1963)
  • This Sporting Life (1963)
  • Tom Jones (1963)
  • A Hard Day's Night (1964)
  • Girl with Green Eyes (1964)
  • Night Must Fall (1964)
  • Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)
  • The Leather Boys (1964)
  • The Pumpkin Eater (1964)
  • Darling (1965)
  • The Knack … and How to Get It (1965)
  • Alfie (1966)
  • Cathy Come Home (1966)
  • Georgy Girl (1966)
  • Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966)
  • Poor Cow (1967)
  • The Whisperers (1967)
  • If.... (1968)
  • Up The Junction (1968)
  • Kes (1969)
  • Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)
  • The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)