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"Never speak disrespectfully of society Algernon. Only people who can't get into it do that." (Oscar Wilde - The Importance of Being Earnest)
"Two nations, between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different names, and are not governed by the same laws." (Benjamin Disraeli - Sybil)
In 1996 the historian Arthur Marwick wrote: "It is by studying what people say and write about class, by studying, that is, images of class, that we are best able to map out a social structure which conforms with life as actually lived" (Marwick p 35). Much has been written about the way in which the representation of the working class in British films went through a major change in the late 1950s with the onset of the New Wave films. However not much has been said about the representation of, and by implication attitudes towards, the upper classes and the Establishment. This paper sets out to discover what changes, if any, there were in these attitudes during the 1950s and 1960s. But before we examine the films themselves we need to look at what changes there were to the Establishment itself, and to what extent the Establishment was the upper classes and the upper classes were the Establishment.
Part 1: Fact
Apart from historical dramas, the Monarchy does not feature very much in 1950s and 1960s films. However as symbols of the Establishment the attitudes of people towards them was important. For example, in the war servicemen were portrayed not just fighting for their country, but for "King and Country".
During the war and in the post-war years King George VI and Queen Elizabeth had established a widespread popularity with most of the population, and the King was genuinely mourned at his death. An estimated 25 million people watched Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation on TV, and with Everest being conquered and Roger Bannister running the four-minute mile the British people felt confident in themselves and intensely loyal to the Crown. "By 1952 the social structure and great institutions of English life were now more secure than ever - capped by a new Elizabethan monarchy which seemed everything a new age of mass communication and equality could desire" (Booker p 87). The few dissenting voices (John Grigg, Malcolm Muggeridge and Lord Londonderry as prime examples) were largely ignored.
The popular image of the eccentric old buffer wandering about fussing about his pigs or his dogs (exemplified by Lord Emsworth in P.G.Wodehouse's books and by A.E.Matthews in several 1950s films) was some distance from the truth. As Nancy Mitford said, "the English Lord is a wily old bird who seldom overdoes anything. It is his enormous strength" (Mitford p 61). "The purpose of the aristocrat", she said (only half-seriously), "is to lead, therefore his functions are military and political" (p 47). In 1962 the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Governor of the Bank of England, the Chairman of the Defence Committee and the Ambassador to Washington would all either belong, or be closely related to, the old aristocratic families (Sampson p 5). "The popular picture of the 20th century aristocrat .... a sad impoverished man living in a flat in a crumbling Tudor mansion, helping to collect half-crowns and serve the ice-cream while the public in their thousands come out of charabancs to gape .... is a misleading picture. In general, the Aristocracy are richer than they seem" (p 62). Anyway, as Nancy Mitford said, "The aristocrat .... is impervious to a sense of shame. All aristocrats are: shame is a bourgeois notion" (Mitford p 54).
All Britain's political leaders in the 1950s and well into the 1960s (until the rise of Wilson and Heath) were of upper class background. Churchill, Atlee, Eden, Gaitskell, Macmillan and Douglas-Home were all from major public schools. Of the 16 members of the cabinet in January 1957, six had been to Eton and only two had not attended public schools. In 1958 the magazine John Bull calculated that of the 85 members of Macmillan's government, 35 were related to him by marriage, including 7 of the 19 members of his cabinet. "Mr Macmillan has more cousins and less opposition than any Prime Minister in our history" (Childs p 72). In 1961 a Tory party manager told Anthony Sampson that "the Tory party is run by five people, and they all treat their followers with disdain. They're mostly Etonians, and Eton is good for disdain" (Today p 67).
Harold Wilson threatened to change all this, but never really managed to do so. Before he became Prime Minister he “railed against the grouse moor image, aristocratic connection, inherited wealth, speculative finance, lordly amateurs and gentlemen" (Cannadine p 149). But in office one finds him "going along with archaic rituals - kissing the Queen's hand, bowing, kneeling and walking backwards" (Childs p 119). In his cabinet of 23, 10 were public school and Oxbridge. He never seriously challenged the Establishment, and proved a disappointment to many. Bernard Levin summed up Macmillan and Wilson as "two men who between them managed to empty the decade of political principle, and scour the vessel [as they] battled to keep or to gain power - the only thing, in the end, which interested either of them" (Levin p 201).
1.4 Other Establishment Institutions
The Old Boy Network was just as prevalent in other branches of the Establishment. In 1963, for instance, a Cambridge sociologist found that out of 100 judges, 18 were sons of, or closely related to, peers or baronets, 17 were "unequivocally upper class", 39 upper middle class, 24 middle class (professional) and only two from humbler homes. 81 were Oxbridge and 39 were Eton, Harrow, Winchester or Rugby (Today p 170).
In military circles, the top people's place was the Brigade of Guards. In 1961 the 550 regular Guards officers formed a tightly-knit group which "have resisted the democracy around them. Half the officers are sons of Guards officers, all went to public schools (largely Eton) and nearly all have a private income. They can be rude, idle, self-satisfied and unintelligent, but remain .... a superb fighting force" (Sampson p 257).
In the Foreign service, in 1961 out of 78 ambassadors and Foreign Office officials 63 had been to public school. There was "still a suggestion of amateurism among British diplomats which surprises foreigners" (Sampson p 306), even though "Foreigners seem to expect English diplomats to be of the upper class" (Mitford p 11).
In 1961 there was only one Old Etonian bishop, but three quarters of them went to public school and all but three to Oxbridge (Sampson p 163). However with a few notable exceptions such as Trevor Huddleston and Canon Collins the Church of England hierarchy was pretty ineffective. As for the ordinary clergy, Malcolm Muggeridge summed it up in his typically astringent way: "Words cannot convey the doctrinal confusion, ineptitude and sheer chicanery of the run-of-the-mill incumbent, with his 39 articles in which he does not even purport to believe, with his listless exhortations, mumbled prayers, and half-baked confusion of the Christian faith with better housing, shorter hours of work and the United Nations" (quoted in Levin p 93).
In the City of London most of the major institutions were a public school preserve. The less academically intelligent public school products were to be found in the Stock Exchange and Lloyds insurance, where many of the deals were done by word of mouth, and the concept of "my word is my bond" was paramount (Sampson p 347). The more intelligent ones tended to join the old traditionally run Merchant Banks, many of which had been in the hands of the same families for several generations.
Even in industry Britain could be accused of amateurism. In 1969 the Institute of Directors found that the majority of Managing Directors had been to public school. Their report claimed that "potential success in British industry is quite closely linked to parental occupation and family status" (Childs p 79).
The major source of all this Old Boy Network was of course the public schools themselves, which flourished as never before. Many of them provided a fine education, but most of them bred snobbery, conservatism and inequality, and only about 6% of the population went there (Montgomery p 61). Eton was the leader. When C.P.Snow, who became a junior Labour minister, was criticised for sending his son to Eton, he explained that he would be more likely to meet his social equals there (Vansittart p 7). Lord Kilbracken, himself an Old Etonian, wrote that "despite all its shortcomings Eton still provided an astonishing proportion of the nation's elite in politics, the civil service, the armed forces, commerce and industry. This was because the school had firmly established itself over the centuries as being the fashionable school. It therefore automatically attracted those already best equipped by birth and social position to subsequent high rank.” "The magic of the old school tie could still carry the least distinguished chinless wonder into the highest places. Which was very nice for chinless wonders" (Montgomery p 62). "A boy can pass from Eton to the Guards to the Middle Temple to parliament, and still remain in the same male world of leather armchairs, teak tables and nicknames. They need never deal closely with other kinds of people, and some never do" (Sampson p 181).
There was appalling snobbery amongst the upper classes, particularly in the 1950s. London society would classify people as either "PLU" (People Like Us) or "NOCD" (Not Our Class Darling). The expressions "U" and "Non-U", first coined by Alan Ross in 1952 and made famous by Nancy Mitford, received widespread publicity, and were used to describe the definite borderline between the upper classes and the rest, "easily recognisable by hundreds of small but significant landmarks" (Mitford p 41). These landmarks were not confined to accent or even word usage ("mirror for "looking-glass" etc) but also to such ridiculous trivia as to whether people put the milk in the teacup before or after the tea. Evelyn Waugh referred to people as "Rather MIF, darling" (Milk In First) (p 75).
Some of the snobbery was unwitting and astoundingly patronising. Here is Chips Channon on Queen Mary's final illness in 1953: "Everyone, Socialists, policemen, everyone, seemed deeply moved and sad" (Channon p 472). In 1957 Macmillan wrote to a colleague "I am always hearing about the middle classes. What is it they really want?" (Cannadine p 153).
1.6. Criticism of the Establishment
The expression "The Establishment" was first used in 1953 by A.J.P.Taylor and Henry Fairlie. Writing in The New Statesman, Taylor said: "The Establishment draws in recruits from outside as soon as they are ready to conform to its standards and become respectable. There is nothing more agreeable in life than to make peace with the Establishment - and nothing more corrupting" (quoted in Sisman p 214). He was disturbed by the "dismaying rapidity" with which they adopted the same habits and points of view.
After the Suez debacle in 1956 the attacks became more frequent, and were not just directed at the government but at society as a whole. Peregrine Worsthorne wrote: "Everything about the British class system begins to look foolish and tacky when related to a second class power in decline" (Cannadine p 159). Christopher Booker believes the change was dramatic. "Deep in the national psyche was the knowledge that a very real watershed had been passed. Attitudes to the outside world and to authority, the relations between class and class, England's fundamental view of herself .... that had been built up over hundreds of years - had been irreparably undermined. The dam had burst" (Booker p 119). In 1957 the "Angry Young Men" published their "Declaration". John Osborne's contribution was one long tirade against "royalty, religion, the national swill, the waffling cant of the well-off and mentally underprivileged who rule our lives, the moral funk of the Church, full of bishops sounding like bewigged old perverts at the assizes". Lindsay Anderson in the same document made his attack on the "claustrophobic upper class snobbery of English films" (p 122).
A new spirit was unleashed - "a new wind of essentially youthful hostility to every kind of established convention and traditional authority" (Booker p 33). Paul Johnson argued for "an end to the monarchy, the Lords, the public schools and Oxbridge, the regimental system, the Inns of Court, the honours list and much else" (Childs p 93). By 1961 the "Satire boom" was under way. The satirical revue Beyond the Fringe was immensely popular - and immensely funny. What was so new was that figures of authority were being insulted on the stage, however mildly. "We believed it was deadly, because the surprise anaesthetised our critical judgement" (Masters p 156). The magazine Private Eye, the nightclub "The Establishment" and the TV show That Was the Week That Was provided a "strain of public insult and personal vilification .... not known for many years" (Booker p 171).
In 1963 came the Profumo scandal, which "became, almost by chance, the vehicle and focus for a much deeper and wider movement of social and political resentment, directed at all that idea of an upper-class Conservative Establishment which in 1963 was to enter its death-throes" (Booker p 163). When the Wilson government first came to power major changes were expected. Anthony Sampson wrote: "The changes seem quite spectacular. In politics, in the boardrooms, the senior common rooms, the Inns of Court and even the BBC the familiar chorus of .... peers soldiers or courtiers has begun to troop off-stage. .... Reverence and stuffiness are out of fashion, and nearly everyone, from the head of the BBC to the Lord Chancellor, likes to think of himself as Anti-Establishment" (Today p 668). However these few hopeful steps forward were followed by several steps back again. The Establishment nightclub went bankrupt, the successor programmes to That Was The Week That Was were withdrawn, Mrs Mary Whitehouse received a wide following, and the Wilson government was so disappointing that the Conservatives under Ted Heath got back to power.
Part 2: Fiction
2.1 War Films
The sphere of activity wherein discipline and respect for the established authority is most important is of course the armed forces. The popularity of war films during the 1950s did much to reinforce the old-fashioned values of obedience and deference among the cinema-going public. In most of these films the heroes are British officers being frightfully brave and British.
A good and popular example of this was Jack Lee's The Wooden Horse (1950). The opening voice-over describes in impeccable upper class tones how it is the duty of every British soldier in captivity to try to escape. The heroes are a group of impeccably mannered, impeccably British, prisoners-of-war - played by such as Leo Genn, Anthony Steel and David Tomlinson. They all call each other by their surnames, knock on the door and stand to attention when speaking to the Senior British Officer, and use phrases such as "Good show" and "Piece of cake, old man". The off-duty atmosphere in the camp is rather like that of a British public school. There is not an "Other Rank" to be seen.
The characterisation in George More O'Ferrall's Angels One Five (1952) is a little bit stronger, in that the young hero, played by John Gregson, does have qualities which make him something of a loner in contrast with the rest of the hearty upper class chaps in his officer's mess. But once again there is hardly an Other Rank in sight (except for the gallant flight engineers who keep the planes flying, a stupid copper embarrassed to be speaking to an officer and the cheeky corporal who guards the base). Even the girls manning the headphones in the war room speak with almost comical upper crust voices. The intentions of the film are clear from the outset, when triumphal military music is heard over the opening credits, followed by a display of Churchill's "Finest Hour" speech. We are reminded of the Established traditions when Gregson says to his Commanding Officer (Jack Hawkins) that: "I serve you, sir". "No you don't, we're both serving the King". Rather unexpectedly the film ends with the death of the hero, but otherwise it is standard British war film material.
Michael Balcon, the head of Ealing Studios, always felt that his films should show what was best about British life, and if they were to attack institutions, not to do so too forcefully. The best known Ealing war film was Charles Frend's The Cruel Sea (1953). Unlike the previous two films discussed, it goes out of its way to show the futility of war, and has the sea as the villain - made so by men, as we are reminded by the Jack Hawkins voice-over at the start. The story shows the development of the characters of the officers - all speaking impeccable upper class English as usual - although it briefly includes a little of the intrepid warrant officers' lives as well. At the end it is pointed out that in five years of war the ship only sank two U-boats. This is as downbeat a war statement as any in an Ealing Studios film.
By 1958 the enthusiasm for British war films was on the wane, and the admirable Ice Cold in Alex, directed by J Lee-Thompson, was made more of an adventure story (borrowing ideas from Clouzot’s Le Salaire de la Peur) than a war film. Harry Andrews plays the competent senior Other Rank, who looks after the fragile but determined officer, John Mills. Army discipline and British guts and bravery triumph, even German officers behave like gentlemen, and all is right with the world.
But this nostalgia for the heady days of wartime spirit was now at an end, and the climate had changed. A feeble attempt at reviving it was made in 1962 with Andrew L Stone's The Password is Courage, but this time featuring a gallant bunch of "other ranks" in a prisoner-of-war camp, with Dirk Bogarde grotesquely cast as sergeant-major Charlie Coward, the intrepid British escaper, aided by his cheeky chappie sidekick, lance-corporal Alfred Lynch. Almost as if the makers realised half way through that they had backed a loser, the film degenerates into farce and slapstick, with the Germans played as ridiculous goons. And the patronising tone of the upper class voice-over at the beginning is nauseating; "This is the story of an ordinary soldier, from an ordinary background...". Upper class and Establishment values still prevail.
In the 1960s the only war films of any merit were anti-war films - using the first world war as the setting. The most successful was Richard Attenborough's Oh What A Lovely War (1969) adapted from the hugely successful stage musical at Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop. Here the officers are seen as strutting incompetent dimwits, even though they are played by a galaxy of Establishment stars such as Michael Redgrave and John Mills. However it is not these figures that give the most lasting memories of the film, but the final scene where the camera slowly pans backwards over thousands and thousands of white crosses. The anti-Establishment message is unambiguous and undiluted: a far cry from the early 1950s.
It is in comedy and satire that it is easiest to find a way of criticising the upper classes and the Establishment. But in the 1950s, for the most part, the comedy was gentle, the mocking not too severe, and the general impression left that all was right with the world.
The upper classes had been famously held up to ridicule in Robert Hamer's Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). The story is concerned with the gradual elimination of the D'Ascoyne family - all played by Alec Guinness - by the unscrupulous Mazzini (Dennis Price). As a satire on the aristocracy it is interesting that by no means all the D'Ascoyne family are unsympathetic characters. Certainly one is an idiot cleric, another an incompetent admiral and a third a boring general - but the banker is well-meaning, the suffragette is fighting for a worthy cause, and the photographer is a thoroughly amiable young man. It is only the present duke, seen having a poacher thrashed by his gamekeeper, and his lecherous young heir with his appalling snobbery that are painted in truly unfavourable colours. There is also evidence of the kind of snobbery that Nancy Mitford would have readily recognised. For example, there is much horror at the thought of a member of the D'Ascoyne family being in trade, although "some people from quite good families go into the professions these days". Probably the most memorable Establishment target was the vicar: the D'Ascoyne family had followed "the tradition of the landed gentry and sent the fool of the family to the church".
The play that has most effectively mocked upper class attitudes and values, and one that has been in more or less continuous production ever since it was written, is Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. The only successful film version of it was made in 1952 by Anthony Asquith, with an unbeatable cast. Because the play is so funny, most of the attacks on the upper classes make one laugh rather than feel in any way antagonistic or uncomfortable. But Lady Bracknell (Edith Evans) is really a most disagreeable character - apart from being the ultimate in snobbery she is devious, money-grubbing, stubborn, bullying and vain. She does however reel off attacks on a whole series of Establishment targets when interviewing Jack (Michael Redgrave) as a prospective son-in-law. "Fortunately in this country Education has no effect whatever". "What are your politics?" "I am afraid I really have none, I am a Liberal". "Oh well, they count as Tories - they dine with us. Or come in the evenings at any rate." The inherent snobbery of the London upper classes is brilliantly shown in the scene where Cecily (Dorothy Tutin) tells Gwendolyn (Joan Greenwood) that in the country they call a spade a spade. "I am glad to say I have never seen a spade" she replies, and later in much horror she exclaims "You have filled my tea with lumps of sugar, and though I distinctly asked for bread and butter, you have given me - Cake!". As Evelyn Waugh might have said, she is definitely not MIF.
A curiosity appeared in 1956. This was the Boulting Brothers' Private's Progress (directed by John Boulting). In a decade when British war films had proved immensely successful and popular we suddenly had a satire on the army, set in 1942, when almost without exception all the characters, private soldiers as well as officers, are shown as incompetent, lazy or corrupt. Ian Carmichael is an incompetent upper class idiot, his Uncle Bertie (Dennis Price) is a highly devious and corrupt crook, his sidekick Private Cox (Richard Attenborough) is a totally amoral spiv, and Terry-Thomas plays a thoroughly incompetent major. Played for laughs is a scene where Cox (Attenborough), asked to lecture to his mates, delivers a course on how to cheat the railways by buying one ticket for a whole group who then hide in the toilet. It is difficult to imagine how one could have got further from the stiff-upper-lip image of the patriotic war film than was achieved in this one. This was probably the first time in the 1950s that a film was shown which had no Establishment figure to look up to, and no hero with whom to identify.
The Boultings scored another hit in 1959 with I’m All Right Jack (again directed by John Boulting). The main characters and cast are the same as those of Private's Progress, but with the significant addition of Peter Sellers. Even before the credit titles the suggestion is made that the old Establishment is finished. We see an old buffer (Sellers) in his London club tottering towards the door. The voice-over urges us to “Look hard at Sir John, a Justice of the Peace, Chairman of his Unionist association, Vice-president of the Regional Board for the Adjustment of Distressed Gentlewomen and Sleeping Partner in that vast financial complex, the City and Threadneedle Trust. Yes, there goes Sir John - a solid block in the edifice of what seems to be a stable and ordered society. Yes, there he goes, on his way OUT.” The film itself, though, is less an attack on the Establishment than a satire on Big Business and Trades Unions. The only true Establishment figure is the cabinet minister who, asked his opinion about the strike that threatens the whole of British industry, replies “You will see that I shall act, but I shall not interfere”. (The TUC leader says much the same). There is one upper class character - Ian Carmichael’s great-aunt (Margaret Rutherford) who displays the casual snobbery of the privileged rich. “Why should anyone brought up as a gentleman choose to go into industry?” she asks, and “I couldn’t bear the thought of you joining one of those horrid unions”. The irony is that she gets on famously when she meets the shop-steward’s (Peter Sellers’) mother (Irene Handl), when the two of them bemoan what is wrong with the country over a cup of tea.
Clive Donner’s Nothing But the Best (1964) has as its central idea the coaching of an ambitious young social climber (Alan Bates) to acquire upper class attitudes and style from a decadent and penniless aristocrat (Denham Elliott). The film is something of a black comedy, in that the protagonist Brewster (Bates) ends up strangling Charlie (Elliott) with his own Old Etonian tie. The Old School tie is something of a recurrent theme in the film - Old Etonian ties are worn by several other characters (Harry Andrews as the boss and Donald Pickering as the banker for example). The aristocrats themselves are not painted in any depth, and apart from Pickering and James Villiers (himself a member of the upper classes - a cousin of Joyce Grenfell) their upper class accents are far from genuine. In a key scene Brewster is quizzed by Charlie on his attitudes to all the major pre-occupations of the upper crust of the day, (Wine, Politics, Workers, Royalty, Negroes, Foreigners etc), and produces flip one-line answers to all of them. There is an echo here of the scene in The Importance of Being Earnest mentioned above, when Jack is quizzed by Lady Bracknell as to his suitability as a son-in-law. In another scene we witness a Hunt Ball (a “Hunter’s B”) where we first see various upper crust couples making fatuous remarks, and then the whole gaggle of them sweep past a static Brewster in a posthorn gallop. The ludicrous performance of the upper class at play is perfectly depicted.
In 1967 Michael Winner directed The Jokers, which was a failed attempt at a “caper” film. The story is of two upper class brothers who decide to steal the Crown Jewels in order to get themselves noticed. We see all the supposed trimmings of the decadent upper classes, including a deb’s dance, but the film fails as either a representation of or an attack against the upper classes largely because of the casting of Oliver Reed and Michael Crawford as the brothers. There is no way that the former can look like an aristocrat, and there is no way that the latter can sound like one. The jokes are mild and the overall effect is rather tasteless.
A more successful “caper” film was Peter Collinson’s The Italian Job (1969). Here the only satire on the Establishment itself is the fact that the crime boss is the undeniably upper class Noel Coward, who rules the criminal fraternity of England from his prison cell, and covers his cell walls with pictures of the Queen. He is usually introduced with the background music of “The British Grenadiers”, and our last shot of him is acknowledging the rapturous applause of the entire prison by moving his wrist gently in a royal wave.
There were surprisingly few dramas in the 1950s and 1960s which had as their central theme either the representation of or criticism of the Establishment itself. Several of them were set in upper class surroundings, with upper class characters displaying the usual kind of upper class attitudes.
For example in David Lean’s The Sound Barrier (1952) we see the upper class officer and gentleman, played by Nigel Patrick, marrying into the family of the self-made Northern businessman (Ralph Richardson) who lives in a huge mansion with his son and daughter - and a butler called Baxter. (There is even a “dressing gong” when it is time to change for dinner). The drama itself is well handled by Terence Rattigan’s script, but the family relationships are really nothing less than totally corny - and the Patrick character is little more than caricature - he says things like “Wizzo”, “Piece of Cake” and “Can’t you see, I can’t let the show down now”. The Establishment stiff upper lip is in good shape.
Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios felt that one of the first requisites of a film producer was a sense of public responsibility. Hence one can expect Ealing Studios dramas to promote and reinforce Establishment values. In Charles Frend’s The Long Arm (1956) it is the police force that is the focus. The film is semi-documentary, and has the hard-working police inspector played by Jack Hawkins (one is almost tempted to ask - who else?) using all the facilities of Scotland Yard to solve a series of crimes. Hawkins lives in a suburban house with a wife and son who display all the expected middle class attitudes to long and dangerous hours, but bravely suppress them when the chips are down. At the beginning and end of the film grateful thanks are expressed by the producers to the appropriate authorities who have co-operated with the making of the film etc etc.
Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top (1958) is the story of one ambitious working-class man’s attempts to rise to the Top. This Top is, as in The Sound Barrier, represented mainly by the family of a self-made Northern businessman - this time played by Donald Wolfit. Once again he lives in a large servant-filled mansion, only this time he has an upper class wife (Ambrosine Philpotts) with a Southern upper class accent and Southern upper class attitudes. Joe (Laurence Harvey) is constantly warned to “Find a girl of your own....” “Class?” “Shall we just say, background.” The upper class life at the Top, into which he finally marries, is by no means set up as desirable, indeed in his last shot he is seen as facing a life as a complete misfit.
The main focus of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962) is the life and alienation from society of the Borstal boy, played by Tom Courtney. One of the unusual aspects of the film is that the governor of the Borstal, played by Michael Redgrave, constantly seeks to instil in his inmates public school values and attitudes. The climax is the Cross-Country run against a public school, who have patronisingly agreed to compete against the Borstal. There is a cringingly embarrassing scene when the public school boys (led by James Fox - Old Harrovian - in an uncredited first performance) meet the borstal boys before the race and try (unsuccessfully) to strike up conversations.
Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963) would not have worked as a study in decadence and seduction if the character who is seduced had not been an aristocrat, with all the worst arrogance and laziness (as well as great charm) that the aristocracy often displays. In Losey’s film he is played by James Fox who gives a thoroughly creditable performance. However his girl friend, played by Wendy Craig, is given by the Harold Pinter script an over-the-top arrogance towards the servant (Dirk Bogarde) which makes one doubt that one is watching a credible upper class character. One is not left with the impression that the orgy scenes, orchestrated by the servant, are in any way true to the normal way of life of the upper classes.
The film-maker who today mounts the most cogent criticisms of the established way of doing things in Britain is probably Ken Loach. In Poor Cow (1967), which was his first feature film, he depicts the life of a not very bright wife of a convicted criminal trying to make ends meet. He shows no Establishment figures (except the judge who says that “Society is menaced by people of your kidney”), and has no attacks as such on the Establishment, except when the criminal exclaims that all coppers are bent - “They’re all bent. Stockbrokers, Members of Parliament are all thieves. Screws are the same. Everybody’s bent”. There is not much mocking of the upper class - Joy (Carol White) at one point debates taking elocution lessons so that she can “talk nice” - this when she has a lover with an upper class accent (Dudley Moore - uncredited). (It is interesting that Ken Loach cut his teeth as an actor playing upper crust twits in revue at Oxford with the likes of Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett - see Appendix).
There were hardly any films in this period which set out to depict the working of an actual Establishment institution. An exception was Lindsay Anderson’s If.... (1968), which is set in that main source of supply for the Establishment, a public school. Anderson himself was a pupil of Cheltenham College (where the film was shot), and the minutiae of public school life are accurately depicted, including the deliberate rudeness to new boys, the bullying, the beatings, the open door lavatories, the cold showers, the fagging, the compulsory learning of school slang, the arrogance and stupidity of senior boys towards the juniors, the dormitories, the school chapel and the school cadet corps. Even the schoolmasters are typical - the eccentric history master, the homosexual padre who doubles as cadet corps master, the feeble housemaster and particularly the pompous but well-meaning headmaster (beautifully played by Peter Jeffrey - an Old Harrovian - wearing an Old Harrovian tie) all have their parallels in real life. The apocalyptic final scene, when the rebels led by Malcolm McDowell gun down the parents, the schoolmasters and the other boys at Speech Day is the strongest statement made against any Establishment set-up (and by implication the rest of the Establishment as well) in any film of the period.
Did the Establishment change at all? Perhaps not much. As late as 1990 the public schools still accounted for 7 out of 9 of the army's top generals, two thirds of the external directors of the Bank of England, 33 of the top 39 English judges, all the ambassadors in the 15 most important overseas missions, 78 of the Queen's Lord Lieutenants and the majority of the bishops in the Church of England (Paxman p 156). As Bernard Levin said, "the Establishment had proved itself wiser than its enemies and instead of resisting their assaults had opened its ranks and let them through" (Levin p 354).
The way in which film-makers portrayed the upper classes and the Establishment did not alter significantly during the two decades, but there was a marked difference in the attitudes and values that the films were trying to promote. Oh What a Lovely War would have been received with horror in 1950, and The Wooden Horse with mocking laughter in 1969. If one is looking for a representative contrast between the beginning and end of the period, one need look no further than the contrast between Nigel Patrick in The Sound Barrier and Malcolm McDowell in If... : the charming upper class hero and the anarchic upper class rebel. Mockery of the aristocracy and criticism of the Establishment had been evident in the 1950s, but it was not until the 1960s that the criticism became widespread. By the end of the 1960s the last traces of Victorian deference had disappeared, and a much more critical attitude towards the "good and great" and their values and attitudes became the standard.
Ken Loach (with the author) in the 1958 Oxford Playhouse revue, All For Money.
Arthur Marwick British Society Since 1945 Penguin 1996 (“Marwick”)
Christopher Booker The Neophiliacs Pimlico 1992 (“Booker”)
Nancy Mitford Noblesse Oblige Hamilton 1956 (“Mitford”)
Anthony Sampson Anatomy of Britain Hodder 1962 (“Sampson”)
David Childs Britain Since 1945 Benn 1979 (“Childs”)
Anthony Sampson Anatomy of Britain Today Hodder 1965 (“Today”)
David Cannadine Class in Britain Yale UP 1998 (“Cannadine”)
Bernard Levin Pendulum Years Cape 1970 (“Levin”)
John Montgomery The Fifties Allen & Unwin 1965 (“Montgomery”)
Peter Vansittart In the Fifties J.Murray 1995 (“Vansittart”)
Robert Rhodes-James (ed) Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon Weidenfeld 1967 (“Channon”)
Alan Sisman A.J.P.Taylor; a Biography Sinclair-Stevenson 1994 (“Sisman”)
Brian Masters The Swinging Sixties Constable 1985 (“Masters”)
Jeremy Paxman Friends in High Places - Who Runs Britain? Penguin 1991 (“Paxman”)
Abbreviations: dc - Distributor pc - Production company p - Producer d - Director w - Writer
1950 The Wooden Horse. dc British Lion pc London Films p Ian Dalrymple d Jack Lee w Eric Williams from his novel
1952 Angels One Five. dc/pc Templar p John W Gossage d George More O’Ferrell w Derek Twist
1953 The Cruel Sea. dc/pc Ealing p Leslie Norman d Charles Frend w Eric Ambler from novel by Nicholas Monsarrat
1958 Ice Cold in Alex. dc/pc ABP p W A Whittaker d J Lee-Thompson w T J Morrison and Christopher Landon
1962 The Password is Courage. dc/pc MGM p Andrew and Virginia Stone dw Andrew L Stone
1969 Oh What a Lovely War. dc Paramount pc Accord p Brian Duffy and Richard Attenborough d Richard Attenborough w Len Deighton from stage show by Joan Littlewood and Charles Chilton
1949 Kind Hearts and Coronets. dc/pc Ealing p Michael Relph d Robert Hamer w Robert Hamer and John Dighton from a novel by Roy Horniman
1952 The Importance of Being Earnest. dc Rank pc Javelin/Two Cities p Teddy Baird d Anthony Asquith w Anthony Asquith from play by Oscar Wilde
1956 Private’s Progress. dc British Lion pc Charter p Roy Boulting d John Boulting w Frank Harvey and John Boulting from novel by Alan Hackney
1959 I’m All Right Jack. dc British Lion pc Charter p Roy Boulting d John Boulting w Frank Harvey and John Boulting from novel by Alan Hackney
1964 Nothing But the Best. dc Anglo Amalgamated pc Domino p David Deutsch w Frederic Raphael
1967 The Jokers. dc Universal pc Adastra/Gildor/Scimitar p Maurice Foster and Ben Arbeid d Michael Winner w Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais
1969 The Italian Job dc Paramount pc Oakhurst p Michael Deeley d Peter Collinson w Troy Kennedy Martin
1952 The Sound Barrier. dc/pc London Films p/d David Lean w Terence Rattigan
1956 The Long Arm. dc/pc Ealing p Tom Morahan d Charles Frend w Janet Green and Robert Barr
1958 Room at the Top. dc/pc Remus p John and James Woolf d Jack Clayton w Neil Paterson from novel by John Braine
1962 The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. dc British Lion pc Bryanston/Woodfall p/d Tony Richardson w Alan Sillitoe from his short story
1963 The Servant. dc Elstree pc Springbok p Joseph Losey and Norman Priggen d Joseph Losey w Harold Pinter from novel by Robin Maugham
1967 Poor Cow. dc Anglo Amalgamated pc Vic/Fenchurch p Joe Janni d Ken Loach w Nell Dunn and Ken Loach from novel by Nell Dunn
1968 If... dc Paramount pc Memorial p Lindsay Anderson and Michael Medwin d Lindsay Anderson w David Sherwin
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To many people cinema has little role at all other than pure entertainment. In the 1950s Michael Balcon, who as head of Ealing Studios was probably the most influential British film chief, felt he had a major responsibility, as did Lord Reith at the BBC in previous years, to educate and inform the British public, and promote everything that was best about Britain, as well as provide entertainment. Entertainment there certainly was during the 1950s and 1960s - the lasting popularity of the Bond films and comedy series such as the Doctor films and the Carry on films is testimony to that. But what of the social and cultural roles?
In the early 1950s cinema-going was very much part of the social scene for large sections of the British public. In 1951 there were 1,365 million admissions to the cinema. In 1946 one third of the entire population went to “the flicks” once a week, and 13% twice a week. This probably had more to do with the absence of rival attractions for the evening’s entertainment than to the quality of the films themselves, despite the fact that there were many deservedly popular high quality films being made at around that time. (The British contribution was significant, and the pattern had been set in the 1940s with films like In Which we Serve (1942), Oliver Twist (1948), The Red Shoes (1948), Whisky Galore (1948), Passport to Pimlico (1949) and The Third Man (1949)).
But by the end of the 1960s all this had radically changed. By 1970 there were only 193 million cinema admissions - less than one seventh of the 1951 number. Cinema-going was no longer the automatic first choice entertainment for a Saturday night like it had been in many households. There were many reasons for this, but the most obvious was the colossal growth (and novelty value) of television. One cannot “blame” the movie-makers for this decline - high quality British films produced at the end of the 1960s can probably match the list quoted above: these could include A Man for All Seasons (1966), If... (1968), 2001 (1968) Kes (1969), The Italian Job (1969) and Performance (1970). But our first conclusion is clear: the social role played by cinema-going in the early 1950s had been replaced by that of TV-watching by the end of the 1960s.
However there is another social role that is played by the cinema, concerning the extent to which the social content of the films themselves influences and changes the social lives of the people who see them. It is impossible to be categorical about which comes first - does the film change society or does changing society influence the kind of film being made? Almost certainly a bit of both was going on during the 1950s and 1960s.
In the 1950s the emphasis was not so much on trying to change the lives of those who watched, but more on bringing to the public’s awareness the social problems of the day. The films of Basil Dearden and Michael Relph crop up all the time in this context. John Hill points out that between 1947 and 1963 their films addressed practically all the main social problems characteristic of the era; anti-German feeling (Frieda), Ireland (The Gentle Gunman), youth (The Blue Lamp, I Believe in You, Violent Playground, A Place to Go), race (Sapphire), homosexuality (Victim), religious fundamentalism (Life for Ruth) and brainwashing (The Mind Benders). How successful these “social problem” films and others like them were in achieving any change is a moot point - certainly the outlook of the British public did become more liberal during the period. The Wolfenden Report on prostitution and homosexuality would never have been produced in 1957 without a change in public opinion, a change to which cinema had made a contribution. As another example, coincidental with the rise of the shop stewards' movement and unofficial strikes there were several films made portraying Trades Unions in a very unflattering light. Bernard Miles’ unsung little film Chance of a Lifetime (1950) showed what happened when a factory owner, fed up with the unions, allowed his workers to run the factory for themselves. The Boulting Brothers I’m All Right Jack (1959) in a lighter vein, and Guy Green’s The Angry Silence (1960) in a more melodramatic vein, brought to a much wider public a recognition of some of the excesses of Trades Unionism. However nothing very radical was done in the way of change until the confrontations engineered by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
The focus in the 1960s was somewhat different. As the 1950s prosperity led to a widespread feeling of never having had it so good, so the aspirations of the younger working classes became set at a very much higher plane than those of their parents’ generation. Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top (1958) showed how a working class lad could better his lot through exploiting his cunning and his sexuality, and Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) was even more influential. Halliwell's Film Guide says: “Startling when it emerged, this raw working-class melodrama .....delighted the mass audience chiefly because of its strong central character thumbing his nose at authority. Matching the mood of the times ..... it transformed British cinema and was much imitated”. There were of course many other early 1960 influences at work in parallel to this. Thumbing noses at authority became almost an industry in itself ,with the satirical magazine Private Eye and the weekly BBC TV programme That Was The Week That Was in the forefront. Although, oddly enough, cinema never really took part in the satire boom, nevertheless unlike in the early 1950s it made a significant contribution to social change in the 1960s.
We should also consider the cultural role of cinema. In the 1950s the cinema was not looked upon by many people as an organ of culture in its own right. There were only occasional attempts to bring to the screen “high art” cultural artefacts such as opera or ballet, but film makers did rely fairly heavily on adaptations of drama or literature for their staple fare. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger tried, with only mixed success, to follow their successful ballet-based film The Red Shoes (1948) with The Tales of Hoffman (1951) and Oh Rosalinda! (1955) - an adaptation of Strauss’ Die Fledermaus - but neither film made much of a splash. Nor did Peter Brook’s The Beggar’s Opera (1952) or Sidney Gilliat’s “biopic” The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (1953). At least they tried - one scans the lists for the 1960s in vain for similar films.
Laurence Olivier tried hard to raise money for a film of Macbeth, but his Richard III (1955) was to be the last major Shakespeare film of the period (Stuart Burge’s 1965 Othello was little more than a film record of Olivier’s National Theatre performance). Adaptations of Dickens’ works, brilliantly successful in the 1940s under David Lean, were less so in the 1950s. Brian Desmond Hurst’s Scrooge (1951) was a good attempt, and Noel Langley’s Pickwick Papers (1952) and Ralph Thomas’ A Tale of Two Cities (1958) are both entertaining enough, but they are all comparatively lightweight. Once again, there was nothing comparable in the 1960s. Screen adaptations of “classic” plays and literature tended to be somewhat looked down upon by elitist critics, but that did not stop the 1950s film-makers churning out adaptations of Conrad (Outcast of the Islands - Carol Reed 1951), Orwell (1984 - Michael Anderson 1955), Melville (Moby Dick - John Huston 1956), Chesterton (Father Brown - Robert Hamer 1954), Kern (Three Men in a Boat - Ken Annakin 1956), and the brilliantly cast version of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (Anthony Asquith 1952). They also used more modern middlebrow drama and literature such as Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (Guy Hamilton 1954), Isherwood’s I am a Camera (Henry Cornelius 1955), Rattigan’s The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith 1951) and The Deep Blue Sea (Anatole Litvak 1955) and Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country (Zoltan Korda 1951). But none of these films were creating a new culture, they were merely reflecting and perhaps reinforcing an existing culture. The critic Jeffery Richards claimed that “In ethos and outlook, in technique and approach, mainstream 1950s films were essentially conservative, middle class and backward-looking”. In the 1960s there was less effort in this direction, although a few isolated but unsuccessful attempts were made to adapt literary works such as Peter Brook’s amateurish-looking Lord of the Flies (1963) and Joseph Strick’s extraordinary attempt to film James Joyce’s Ulysses (1967).
More important cultural changes were afoot in Britain in the later 1950s. Colin Wilson’s cry that “Our civilisation is an appalling, stinking thing, materialistic, drifting, second rate” was reflected in the plays and novels of the “Angry Young Men”, and given widespread influence through the “new wave” films made from those plays and novels. The best known examples are Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top (1958), Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), and Tony Richardson’s remarkable quartet of Look Back in Anger (1959), The Entertainer (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). All these films, as well as contributing to the social changes already discussed, gave impetus to the new mood of more adult, permissive and less “high art” culture in Britain. Although the new wave film movement itself might have fizzled out by the mid 1960s, there is no doubting its important input to the swinging sixties era that was just beginning.
The swinging sixties culture is associated in the minds of most people with Liverpool, the Beatles and the fashions of Mary Quant, but an important ingredient was the impact of the James Bond films. Doctor No (Terence Young 1962), From Russia With Love (Terence Young 1963), Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton 1964) and Thunderball (Terence Young 1965), the first four (and best) Bond films, took the cinema-going public by storm. The stories were arrant nonsense, but the British hero defying all the dangers that the world’s most powerful villains could devise created an entirely new role model for the impressionable 1960s youth. The image and outlook were enhanced by the brilliantly successful Ken Adam designs and the music of Monty Norman and John Barry.
Several attempts were made on both sides of the Atlantic to imitate the Bond films, but part of the skill of Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli, the producers, was that no imitation came anywhere near to the real thing. But the self-confidence that James Bond inspired in the British youth, together with the new class-unconciousness engendered by the new wave films, gave rise to another cultural icon, the hip hero from the humble background with a flip line in cheeky repartee. The most obvious examples of this are the Michael Caine films of the 1960s, including The Ipcress File (Sydney Furie 1965), and Alfie (Lewis Gilbert 1966). By 1969 popular culture had travelled a long way in twenty years - look at the difference between Dirk Bogarde in The Blue Lamp (Basil Dearden 1949) and Michael Caine in The Italian Job (Peter Collinson 1969).
Away from the mainstream of British cinema there were two other genres that were achieving fame (or notoriety depending on one’s point of view) through the medium of the cinema. The first of these to gain ground in Britain in the 1950s was Science Fiction. For many years Hollywood had been turning out highly entertaining B-movies with rubber monsters and ingenious special effects, but Science Fiction in Britain had always been the province of the novelist rather than the movie-maker, with the novels of H. G. Wells and more recently John Wyndham having a large following. The genre was given new life in the 1950s with a few highly successful films such as Val Guest’s The Quatermass Experiment (1955) and Quatermass II (1957). Both these films were made by Hammer Films, the studio that was the main producer of the related genre, the horror film. Although much sneered at as childish rubbish, the Hammer horror films were often extremely well made: Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958) were probably the best. By the 1960s inspiration seems to have departed from Hammer, who turned out scores of trashy follow-on films which resulted in the sub-culture becoming marginalized and all but ignored by the major studios.
To conclude. John Hill may argue that by the early 1960s “All had not changed as utterly as some of the critics might have us believe”, citing the popularity of films like Doctor in Love and The Young Ones, but it is equally arguable that the social and cultural roles played by cinema in Britain changed significantly over the two decades.
Marwick A British Society Since 1945 Penguin (1996)
Hill J Sex, Class and Realism. British Cinema 1956-1963 British film Institute (1986)
Halliwell’s Film Guide (10th Edition) ed. John Walker, Harper Collins (1994)
Richards J and Aldgate A Cinema and Society Oxford, Basil Blackwell (1983)
Moore-Gilbert B and Seed J (eds) Cultural Revolution? The Challenge of the arts in the 1960s London, Routledge
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In 1970 the writer Raymond Durgnat claimed that “The British cinema renewed itself, tardily no doubt, by orthodox commercial procedures”. The so-called “new wave” films of the late 50s and early 60s certainly played a part in lifting the British cinema from the doldrums of the middle 50s, and it could be argued that this was done using “orthodox commercial procedures”, but that is by no means all that there is to say about them.
Early on in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Arthur (Albert Finney) asks his new girl friend Doreen (Shirley Anne Field): “Do you go to the pictures then?” “Only on Wednesdays” she replies. “I go on Wednesdays an’ all” he says. This pattern of regular cinema-going was characteristic of life in Britain in the 50s, but with the advent of television and the increasing use of other leisure pursuits cinema attendances were dropping dramatically. In 1959 the number of cinema admissions was less than half the number in 1951 and the box-office takings were one third down. However thereafter, although the number of admissions continued to decline, the takings remained more or less constant until the mid 70s when they began to pick up again. Thus the bare statistics show that if British cinema was not exactly “renewed”, at least the decline was halted. It is incontestable that the “new wave” films played an important part in this - Room at the Top was the biggest box office hit in Britain in 1959, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning 3rd in 1961 and A Kind of Loving 6th in 1962. (It is equally incontestable that other more main-stream films also played their part - for example I’m All Right Jack (1959), The League of Gentlemen (1960) and Guns of Navarone (1961)).
Commercial procedures and considerations, as always in the film business, were vital ingredients in the making of the new wave films. By the late 1950s a new mood was afoot in British culture, with the novels of Kingsley Amis and John Braine and the plays of John Osborne and Shelagh Delaney leading the way. The Woolf brothers, who owned and ran Romulus Films, were shrewd independent movie-makers with an eclectic list of films in their portfolio, ranging from Moulin Rouge (1953) through I am a Camera (1955) to Sailor Beware in 1956. Sensing the possible appeal of the new culture they first tried to buy the rights of Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, and when this failed they turned to John Braine’s novel Room at the Top, acquiring the rights for £5,000. Laurence Harvey and Heather Sears were both relatively unknown, but the star whose inclusion in the film owed most to commercial considerations was undoubtedly Simone Signoret, cast as Alice Aisgill, the mistress of Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey). When the film was released the public flocked to see it - not necessarily because of the critical acclaim (although this certainly helped) but almost certainly because of the reputation it quickly acquired for showing scenes of dramatic sexual activity such as had not been seen before in a British film. There was no better way to ensure the film’s commercial success than to cast a French “femme fatale” actress in a leading role, and let half the movie-going public fantasize about the chances of a working class lad from the North making it with a sultry French beauty. The cinema hoardings gloated: "A Savage Tale of Lust".
Meanwhile Tony Richardson and John Osborne had formed Woodfall Films to make a film version of the latter’s Look Back in Anger. A key influence, at any rate as far as the financing was concerned, was the American Harry Saltzman, later to win fame as the co-producer with Cubby Broccoli of the James Bond films. Saltzman was finally able to stitch up a deal with Warner Brothers that included giving the starring role to Richard Burton. But despite the magnetic performance by Burton as Jimmy Porter, the film failed to catch the imagination of the public and was not a box-office success. It is not hard to see why this is so - the film had none of the steamy sex scenes of Room at the Top, nor was Jimmy Porter anything like as attractive a character as Joe Lampton. Jimmy vents his anger unremittingly against women, the establishment and society in general, but unlike Joe Lampton does nothing about it and has no ambitions to make it to the “top”.
The same lukewarm reception at the box-office was received by Woodfall’s next effort, a screen adaptation of Osborne’s play The Entertainer. Laurence Olivier repeated his stage performance in the main role, but once again the film lacked glamour and popular appeal. Nobody was going to be particularly turned on by the sight of the ageing Archie Rice (Olivier) in bed with his innocent young “starlet” (Shirley Anne Field). The film was plagued with problems even before its release, and, crucially, failed to get a general release on the main Rank circuit.
Fortunately for Woodfall, their next project was the greatly successful Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Once again Harry Saltzman had trouble raising the finance, but once he had done so and the film was successfully released they had a success on their hands. In retrospect again it is not difficult to see why. Unlike the two Osborne films, but like the successful Room at the Top, the story has the same formula of working class lad defying the bosses and established family society, with a liberal dose of fairly explicit sex scenes thrown in. Add to that the critics’ favourable notices and everyone was soon talking about a hit.
Orthodox commercial procedures in the cinema industry often dictate that a successful formula is repeated - sometimes ad nauseam. Predictably, several attempts were made to repeat the formula of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, but sex melodramas such as Flame in the Streets (1961) and The Wild and the Willing (1962) were merely boring, unrealistic and unsuccessful. So films in the genre had to be well made - and although A Taste of Honey (1961), long cherished by Tony Richardson as a film he badly wanted to make, was certainly well made - for a commercial success the other ingredients were needed as well.
A cynical view of This Sporting Life (1963), Lindsay Anderson’s first feature film, could attribute its relative lack of success at the box office to the fact that the sexual interplay between Frank Machin (Richard Harris) and Mrs Hammond (Rachel Roberts) is understated and subtly inferred rather that explicitly shown. When Frank is given the chance of an adulterous affair with Mrs Weaver (Vanda Godsell) he turns it down.
Arguably the only other box-office hit among the new wave films was A Kind of Loving, which despite the rather ordinary characters of Vic (Alan Bates) and Ingrid (June Ritchie), and the less aggressively anti-establishment stance of the young hero, nevertheless touched a chord with the public. In a variation from the other two successes, this time Vic is more a rebel against old-fashioned family values (represented by Thora Hird as the mother-in-law) than the establishment and society in general, and this time the sex scenes are more often ones of frustration rather than fulfilment. The quality of the film itself and the acting of the stars, as well as the expectations raised by previous experience with the other films and the favourable critical notices ensured the film’s commercial success.
But there is far more to be said about the new wave films than whether or not they were successful commercially. In 1957 Lindsay Anderson had hit the nail squarely on the head when he complained that British cinema was “English, ..... metropolitan in attitude and entirely middle-class.” He went on to describe it as “snobbish, anti-intelligent, emotionally inhibited, wilfully blind to the conditions and problems of the present, dedicated to an out-of-date, exhausted national idea”. New waves had flourished in other countries - indeed in Italy the neo-realist movement had already virtually died by 1957. In France François Truffaut made the first (and personal favourite) of his films of Jean-Pierre Leaud, Les Quatre Cents Coups in 1958 (released in 1959). But British cinema had to wait until 1959 and the early 60s for a handful of directors to make the breakthroughs with the small number of films that constituted the British new wave.
And breakthroughs there were, in several different ways. The first, and most easily identified by the movie-going public, was sexual explicitness as already discussed. It is difficult for today’s audience, bombarded by explicit sex scenes all over the cinema and TV screens, to appreciate how innovating and unusual it was to see sexual and adulterous couplings in major British films. The heroine gets pregnant in most of them, including Heather Sears (Room at the Top), Mary Ure (Look Back in Anger), Rachel Roberts (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), Rita Tushingham (A Taste of Honey) and June Ritchie (A Kind of Loving). Abortion, hitherto a taboo subject, is discussed in some depth in Saturday Night, but it was not until Alfie in 1966 that the full horrors of back-street abortion became central to the story.
The second major breakthrough was the setting of the films in working-class northern backgrounds, with the main characters as rebels in society with an urge to better themselves (although none of them really make it satisfactorily). Even when the hero has actually committed a criminal act (Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) the sympathies of the audience are entirely with him. It was felt at the time that these characters were much nearer the reality of working class life than anything that had gone before, although criticisms were made of such things as Laurence Harvey’s accent in Room at the Top and all the Nottingham accents in Saturday Night.
There were innovations too in the way in which the camera was used. Many of the films were adaptations of stage plays, so in order to add a filmic dimension to the finished product many scenes had to be rewritten to place them in different settings from the original. In A Taste of Honey Shelagh Delaney herself rewrote the play with Tony Richardson, placing some of the key dialogue away from the interior set to the outdoors, for example the canal bank. To promote the sense of realism in the film, Richardson avoided completely the use of sets, and gave his cameraman Walter Lassally the opportunity to roam over the industrial landscape in such a poetic fashion that some critics felt that the net result was over-glamourised. Be that as it may, it was the first time in British films that attempts were made to show the urban scenery as it really was.
Many of the films shed new light on social problems of the day, for example race relations and homosexuality in A Taste of Honey and gender relationships within the home in A Kind of Loving, but these insights were more due to the cleverness of the scripts and the direction rather than any particular “new wave” feature. (The French "Nouvelle Vague" was similar in many artistic concerns and techniques, but moved away from the realist documentary tradition concerned with social problems towards more personal experiences and relationships.)
The later new wave films moved some way away from the strict realism of the earlier ones. Both This Sporting Life and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner made extensive use of the flashback, indeed the climax of the latter film shows all the key moments in Smith’s life flashing into his head as he runs his final race and makes the crucial decision to give the race to the opposition (James Fox). Central to the theme of Billy Liar are the fantasies that Billy (Tom Courtenay) builds up in his mind, and these are all given filmic expression by being shown on the screen. Indeed Billy Liar can be said to be the last of the new wave films - certainly the last in which the working class rebel hero has urges to leave his northern environment and better himself somewhere else. Ian Wright in the Guardian complained that we had seen it all before - “A Taste of Loving on Saturday Night at the Top”.
So what was the legacy of the new wave films? In my neighbourhood video shop the films are not stored in a shelf marked “New Wave”, but a shelf marked “Kitchen Sink”. The owner tells me that they are hired out quite frequently, but less for their entertainment value than their oddity and historical values. Some critics bemoan the fact that Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson with their public school background and Karel Reisz, “a middle class Jew from central Europe” in his own words, never really got into the heart and soul of their working class heroes, and that their subsequent decline in inspiration, or in Lindsay Anderson’s case concentration on theatre work, represented a really missed opportunity for British cinema to make giant steps forward. It was left to a new generation such as Ken Loach to carry forward the torch of working class social realism in films. Meanwhile, as Alexander Walker neatly put it when discussing Billy Liar, “With Julie Christie British cinema caught the train south”. “Swinging London” had moved centre stage, and Dick Lester and his imitators radically changed the style and content of 60s British films.
Hill J Sex, Class and Realism. British Cinema 1956-1963 British Film Institute (1986)
Durgnat R A Mirror for England London, Faber and Faber (1970)
Armes R A Critical History of British Cinema London, Secker and Warburg (1978)
Houston P The Contemporary Cinema 1945-1963 Harmondsworth, Penguin (1963)
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Nothing but the Best, released in 1964, was directed by Clive Donner, produced by David Deutsch with a screenplay by Frederic Raphael. Halliwell’s Film Guide describes it as a “hard, skilful, rather unattractive comedy with interesting social comments on its time”. It is awarded two stars, which puts it in the middle rank of films, alongside roughly contemporary British films such as Zulu, The Servant, This Sporting Life and Darling. It should be constructive then to try to explore why the film today is not nearly so well known as these others.
By the mid 1960s the British film industry was in dire straits. 1963 saw the lowest gross box-office takings since the war, and cinemas were closing at an alarming rate. Comedies had proved to be among the more successful genres, besides being generally cheaper to make than, say, lavish costume dramas or war films. But by this time Ealing Studios had closed, the Doctor series of comedies was virtually played out, the Boultings had not had a hit since I’m All Right Jack (1959) and only a few other Peter Sellers films and the Carry On films were showing any consistent success. However an important change was happening outside the cinema. The weekly satirical magazine Private Eye and the BBC Television programme That Was the Week That Was (“TWTW”) had proved enormously popular, particularly with the young up-and-coming generation that was to herald the “swinging sixties”. It became enormously daring, and fashionable, to mock the “establishment”, to ridicule the upper classes and to poke fun at pomposity and stuffiness in any walk of life.
It was against this background that Anglo-Amalgamated commissioned Frederic Raphael to adapt for the screen a short story by Stanley Ellin. Raphael was a successful novelist who had turned to writing for films - “one of the great wasted talents of British cinema” according to Roy Armes - earning huge sums of money subsequently for trendy films such as the Oscar-winning Darling (1965) and Two for the Road (1967). The director was Clive Donner, whose previously best known work for the cinema was a rather plodding version of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker (1963): as we shall see the choice of this director may have been a mistake.
The casting was interesting. The main part went to Alan Bates, one of the generation of young actors that had cut their teeth in the New Wave films of the 50s (The Entertainer 1958 and A Kind of Loving 1960), and were now big box-office successes. He had also taken the lead role in the original stage version of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. The main male aristocrats were played by highly professional old stagers, Harry Andrews and Denholm Elliott, but in both cases cast out of their usual characters. The former usually played tough NCO types (Moby Dick 1956, A Hill in Korea 1956, Ice Cold in Alex 1958) and the latter more wimpish upper crust types (The Sound Barrier 1952 and The Cruel Sea 1953). To cash in on the satire boom the main female role went to Millicent Martin, the only female member of the cast of TWTW, and this too proved to be a mistake. Two other members of the TWTW team were engaged to play small cameo parts, Willie Rushton as an upper-crust twit and Bernard Levin as himself.
Other experts were impeccably chosen, including the well-known composer Ron Grainer for the music. More importantly perhaps, the photography was entrusted to Nicolas Roeg, who later went on to direction, including the cult film Performance (released in 1970).
The style and tone of the film itself are set in the very first shot before the credit titles. It is a close-up of Alan Bates musing, with the National Anthem on the soundtrack, then a voice-over of Bates saying: “Face it, it’s a filthy stinking world, but there’s some smashing things in it”. Cut to the credit titles and Millicent Martin singing “Nothing But the Best”. The credit titles themselves are over still photos of polo games, casinos, smart tailors, plush desks and other high-life icons. As soon as they are finished we go back to the same picture of Bates, and the voice-over: “Yes, there’s some smashing things in this world, and I’m one of them”. Then in the very first scene we find Bates deliberately pushing his targeted date (Lucinda Curtis) into a puddle by the side of the road so that he can persuade her to come upstairs to his flat to dry off. When she complains that her shoes are ruined he says he will buy some more, but she says “What with”? It is thus clear that we have a penniless thoroughly amoral protagonist. In a not very subtle link we see a shot of a pub sign of “The Old Pretender” (a recurring image in the film), and then the voice-over of Bates saying “I can cope with this kind of chick with my eyes shut, but sooner or later of course she will have to go”- a hint here of a darker side to his nature.
Once the character of Brewster (Alan Bates) is established, we then switch to his lodgings. There is an interchange between him and his landlady (Pauline Delaney), with both of them looking past each other (he has a girl upstairs and she has a fancy-man outside the front door). We know both are up to no good. “People are shocking, honestly”, says the voice-over.
Next morning we see Brewster with an office colleague. “Dennis and I are both at the bottom rung of the same ladder” says the voice-over, “But there is only room for one at the top. Sooner or later Dennis will have to go”. This clear reference to the 1958 Room at the Top suggests that we can expect the same kind of story of working-class hero making good, but with a more flippant and trendy style replacing the solemn moralising tone of the original.
The next piece of scene-setting is the lobby of Horton’s, the estate agents where Brewster is employed. To the sound of martial music, a huge Rolls-Royce draws up and the imposing figure of Horton (Harry Andrews) appears, complete with bowler hat, buttonhole and Old Etonian tie (another recurring image). Everybody bows and scrapes while he sweeps in and mounts the stairs. Next to arrive is Lord Langham (James Villiers) in an open-top sports car with a dolly bird, Anne (Millicent Martin), and two spaniels beside him. He chucks the keys to the doorman and strolls up the stairs, leaving Brewster looking wistfully up the stairs (up the ladder) after him.
One of the problems with a film of this sort is the extent to which its effects can be emphasised without going too far into unrealistic exaggeration and farce. The whole atmosphere of Horton’s is a caricature, as are the characters that we have so far met. When Brewster first comes into Horton’s office, admitting to butterflies, he hears James Villiers’ unmistakably upper crust voice telling the boss that his “Father’s got a horse running in the 3.30 on Thursday”. It comes as no surprise later in the film that Langham is easily routed by Brewster, both as perspective son-in-law and as prospective rising star in the company. The Langham character has no more depth to it than an aristo in a Carry On film.
The next major character we meet is Charlie, played by Denholm Elliott. This character like the others is only one-dimensional, but here the interest is maintained by the clever playing by the actor. We quickly recognise him as a ruthless but charming aristo with no money and no morals whatever. At his first meeting with Brewster he explains why he is at the bottom, and adds; “The trouble with the bottom is, it’s such an incredibly long way down”. Another rather heavy-handed reference to Room at the Top.
One rather curious director’s trick at this point is a shot of Brewster’s telephonist girl-friend walking down a pavement flanked closely either side by a row of parking meters. While he talks to her Brewster is always outside the row of meters, or crossing from one side to the other. Much later in the film, after he has made it almost to the top, we see him walking confidently by himself down the centre of the same row of meters. An allusion that does not quite come off.
The best director’s tricks and gimmicks are not immediately noticeable as such to the viewer, but Clive Donner uses several others that are. When Charlie collects his effects from various railway station left luggage offices where he has been keeping them out of harm’s way he is loudly accompanied by the music of Gaudeamus Igitur, a tune long associated with public schools and academia. Almost every time hereafter whenever we see Charlie, the tune is repeated.
An allusion that does come off, but is used in a cruder heavy-handed way, is the flypaper hanging from the ceiling in Brewster’s kitchen. First Brewster collides with it, and later in the film, when he is about to meet his end, Charlie does the same.
The rather heavy-handed hints at the darkness to come are repeated in the next scene. Charlie has discovered that Brewster is “One more ambitious yob.” “Well, yes, I am really.” “Dead ambitious?” “Dead”. Long pause. As Charlie then says, “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.”
In the celebrated sequence that follows the director’s tricks are more successful. Charlie takes Brewster to Cambridge and then gives him a viva voce exam in the squash court. The dialogue in Cambridge is continuous, while the locations that we see change. (This is a technique also used to good effect by Desmond Davis in The Girl With Green Eyes 1963). The dialogue in the squash court is one of the few places in the film where most audiences will actually laugh out loud. Brewster is quizzed on his attitudes to all the major pre-occupations of the upper crust of the day, (Wine, Politics, Workers, Royalty, Negroes, Foreigners etc), and produces flip one-line answers to all of them. There is an echo here of the famous scene in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest when Jack Worthing is quizzed by Lady Bracknell as to his suitability as a son-in-law (Anthony Asquith’s film version had appeared in 1952).
Much less obtrusive than the director’s tricks is the camera-work of Nicolas Roeg. For example there are several shots of Horton towering over everyone else in the picture, and Roeg uses the ample frame of Harry Andrews and his imposing chin to good effect. When we first see him in his office we have a low-angled shot of him standing towering over everyone else, including Anne’s shapely legs as she sits in an armchair. Later there is Brewster’s “picnic” in the boardroom, where we see the massive Horton at the side of the picture, smoking a cigar and holding a glass of brandy, with the subservient Ernest Clark on the left (further away from the camera) and four other minions with their backs to the camera as they leave the room.
Another scene with effective camera-work is the Hunt Ball, where we glimpse various upper crust couples making fatuous remarks, and then the whole gaggle of them sweep past a static Brewster in a posthorn gallop. The whole ludicrous performance of the upper class at play is perfectly encaptured.
The assembled cast do a reasonable job. Denholm Elliott and Harry Andrews do all that is asked of them in their roles, and Alan Bates is quietly restrained, never quite looking the part as an aristo, with a voice that is cleverly just that little bit over the top. He even learns to say “Orff” in imitation of Charlie. But Millicent Martin is badly miscast as Anne. She never looks or sounds the part, and the character lacks all credibility. She is unlucky in that most of the lines she is given are trendy and jokey and endlessly flippant - the film drags towards the end when she has replaced Charlie as Brewster’s companion.
One more criticism of the director’s heavy-handedness will suffice. In the scene near the end of the film when Brewster finally gets Anne into bed in a deserted country house, the scene is punctuated with the noise of cooing doves. The point is fine, and amusing. But it is repeated again and again throughout the entire sequence until it begins to become obtrusive.
The end is unusual. It was still "not done" to let the criminal get away with the crime, but ending with a question mark had been tried before (the best known example being Kind Hearts and Coronets 1949). When Charlie’s body is discovered we pan back to the hook on the end of a crane in the form of a question mark, and the film ends with a query and the written comment “The End is a phrase which usually closes other people’s stories, it never applies to one’s own”. This Wildean epigram may work for some people, but may have alienated others. Brewster’s crimes and total immorality are never punished, and as he says, he may have got away with it. (The question mark was again used famously in The Italian Job 1969.)
Dilys Powell described Nothing but the Best as “a film with a smooth, smiling elegant fun, witty but never concentrating on wit to the detriment of tension”. It is a film which had plenty of good ideas, a witty script, an excellent cameraman, a worthy cast (with one or two exceptions), but a director who just missed the lighter touch that undoubtedly one of the great Ealing Comedy directors would have applied to it. That lighter touch might have moved it from relative obscurity today to the front rank of British comedies.
Halliwell’s Film Guide (10th Edition) ed. John Walker, Harper Collins (1994)
Murphy R Sixties British Cinema London, British Film Institute (1992)
Cook C (ed) The Dilys Powell Film Reader Manchester, Carcanet (1991)
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