The British New Wave: Social Realist film of the 1960s
The British New Wave
Julie Christie in John Schlesinger's Billy Liar
The beginning of the 1960s was marked by the appearance of a range of feature films which took up serious social issues and were placed within the contemporary cultural context. The films are described as social realist and described as a British ‘New Wave’. The description of these films as a 'New Wave' should not be confused with the contemporary French films that were coming out of France from the Cahiers du Cinema milieu of directors. Some commentators regard the British New Wave as being influenced by the French New Wave. This seems inappropriate as the period usually defined as the French New Wave was happening more or less simultaneously. Arguably there was at least a two way influence as the acceptance of Chabrol and Truffaut in the British Free Cinema series makes clear. What is more likely is that any French influences that were the precursors to the Nouvelle Vague proper such as Louis Malle’s Les Amants were being seen in Britain particularly as future British ‘New Wave’ directors Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson were organising the Free Cinema events at the National Film Theatre from 1956 - 1959 as well as developing film criticism on the magazine Sequence earlier on. Cinematically it was Italian neo-realism which had made a strong influence on both British and French directors although both groupings went in different directions. It is the ‘Left Bank’ documentarists not always seen as the heart of the French nouvelle vague such as Resnais, Duras and Marker who are seemingly more influential. To this must be added the legacy of Humphrey Jennings who was enormously important to Anderson, Reisz and Richardson.
Seeming Western Cultural and Economic Synergies
At the meta-level directors in Western Europe were part of the cultural moves towards creating fully modern societies in Western Europe. By the 1950s this process was generally gathering pace at this time. Both France and Britain were overcoming post-war shortages and whilst there was a new optimism being generated in Britain after the 1950 Festival of Britain and its espousal of new technologies the mid-1950s saw the post-Suez recognition within both Britain and France that the political world had shifted entirely to a mainspring centred upon the USA in tension with the USSR. The older empires were finally having to readjust to a new world order.
The growing postwar mood was not just restricted to the countries of Western Europe. Polish cinema was making its own mark as the Free Cinema programme which featured several Polish directors makes clear.
What is Social Realism?
Cinematically the British New Wave is part of a tradition of social realism within British film which has seen many shifts since the growth of the British documentary movement in the 1930s. Realism is a difficult concept because encapsulated within it there are a range of changing aesthetic conventions all of which have as a central concern the intention of representing ‘the world as it really is’ or ‘life as it is really lived’. Lay (2002) points out:
There is no universal, all-encompassing definition of realism, nor is there agreement amongst academics and film-makers as to its purpose and use. But what we can say is that there are many ‘realisms’ and these realisms all share an interest in presenting some aspect of life as it is lived’. Carroll (1996) suggests that the term should only be used with a prefix attached. This is because another important feature of all realisms is how they are produced at specific historical points. The addition of a prefix, such as social-, neo-, documentary-, specifies the’ what’ and crucially, ‘when’ of that movement or moment. What is regarded as ‘real’, by whom, and how it is represented is unstable dynamic, and ever-changing, precisely because realism is irrevocably tied to the specifics of time and place. ‘Moment’” (Lay, Samantha, 2002: p 8)
As Andre Bazin also noted, each era looks to the technique and aesthetic which can best capture aspects of reality, thus realism is in itself an aesthetic construct dependent upon a set of artistic conventions and forms. The British New Wave is a part of this process. It has been noted that for a film to be realist rather than just realistic there are 2 necessary fundamentals. There must have been the intention to capture the experience of the event depicted and secondly the film-maker must have a specific argument or message to make about the social world employing realist conventions to express this.
Raymond Williams has argued that the four main criteria of social realism incorporate the following features:
- Firstly that the texts are secular, released from mysticism and religion
- Secondly that they are grounded in the contemporary scene in terms of setting, characters and social issues
- Thirdly that they contain an element of social extension by which previously under-represented groupings in society become represented
- Fourthly there is the intent of the artist which is mostly a political one although some artists have used the genre as route into a mainstream film-making career.
Social Realism and Representation
Social realist texts usually focus on the type of characters not generally found in mainstream films. Social realist texts draw in characters who inhabit the social margins of society in terms of status and power. This ‘social extension’ has usually involved the representation of the working class at moments of social and economic change. Hill has noted that this is not just a matter of representing the previously under-represented but that these subjects are represented from different specific social perspectives.
For example there was a shift in modes of representation of the working class from the Grierson documentaries of the 1930s to British Free Cinema documentaries and the British New Wave features which followed on from the Free Cinema Movement. Free Cinema and New Wave chose to represent the working class neither in victim mode, nor in heroic worker mode as had been done previously. The working class were to be seen as more energetic and vibrant.
Critics generally accept that women have faired badly in the representations of the British New Wave, although Loach’s Poor Cow (1967) and TV docudramas Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home helped redress the balance. By the 1980s social realist films such as Letter to Brehznev (1985), Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) reflected the changing nature of society and the growing importance of women in the workforce, not only women but humour too was more apparent. This approach continued into the 1990s with films such as Mike Leigh’s Career Girls (1997). Some have argued that the portrayal of women took a retrograde step in the mid to late 1990s as they became adept consumers unsupportive of husbands as in Brassed Off (1996) and The Full Monty (1997). Alternatively women became victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse Stella Does Tricks (1996), Nil By Mouth.
It has been argued that in general the representation of the working class has shifted from being producers to consumers reflected in a move which has seen members of the working class in more privatised domestic environments and leisure-time settings instead of as members of geographical communities or in workplace environments where collective bargaining procedures are in place. Hill sees this as starting with British social realist films of the 1960s and continuing into the 1980s and 1990s.
Whilst social realist representation has tended to focus upon white working class males there has been some breakthrough in terms of race in films such as My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Bahji on the Beach (1994). The changing sense of Britishness has been represented through cultural hybridity and multiculturalism from the mid 1980s through until Chada’s Bend it Like Beckham moving from social real to a more fantasy mode in the process. Recently social extension has begun to be granted to the position of asylum seekers and refugees and those effected by the diasporic forces relating to globalisation and the collapse of the psot-capitalist states (Soviet Union / Communist China). Last Resort (Pawlikowski 2000) and Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002) which keeps in the frame wider issues of the structures of globalised inequality from a social realist perspective.
Another facet of social realist representation has been a tendency towards autobiography suggest Lay (2002). Starting with the work of Bill Douglas and Terence Davie, Lay suggests that this was present in films such as Wish You Were Here (A retro-social realist film), Stella Does Tricks, East is East and Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsey, 1999). It is arguable that these films contain within them a nostalgic look backwards from a working class perspective which in some sense echoes the growth and success of the ‘heritage film’ in British cinema.
The British New Wave
The ‘New Wave emerged in Britain at a time when Macmillan’s concept that the British as ‘a people’ had ‘never had it so good’ was a dominant feature. The long economic boom which had gathered pace during the 1950s alongside the developments in the welfare state and the growth in power of social democratic discourses of meritocracy had led to the emergence of a new social formation of better educated, assertive and frustrated, smart grammar school educated younger people who wanted to see the fustiness and stuffiness of a system based upon status and respect shift into a meritocratic environment. It is difficult to gauge exactly how important the effect of the liberated meritocratic consciousness of United States culture and the British experience of this during the war impacted upon the general level of consciousness but indicators from the work of Jacky Stacey on British working class women audiences who preferred the more meritocratic sentiments of Hollywood to the RADA driven accentuation of much British post-war cinema points to deeper underlying societal shifts.
The description of cultural phenomena as ‘New Waves’ is an important metaphor which if it is extended fully leads one to note that there were deep up-swellings and currents from which the wave developed. That theatre and cinema and book publishing were challenging the old mores driven by a combination of liberal and social-democratic sentiments can, ironically, be seen as a part of the success of the long economic boom which allowed the youth of the time the relative economic security to dream about other futures. Certainly it would be unwise to split cinema from this rapidly changing socio-cultural milieu. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the positioning and fantasy of Billy Liar (1963) which came at the end of the social realist phase of the ‘New Wave’ and has a more ambiguous nature both in its style and in a recognition that there is social change happening fast. Julie Christie and Schlesinger represent this dramatic shift in Darling.
The Major British New Wave Films
Room at the Top (1959): Dir Jack Clayton
Look Back in Anger (1959): Dir Tony Richardson
Saturday Night Sunday Morning (1960) : Dir Karel Reisz
Taste of Honey (1961): Dir Tony Richardson
The L Shaped Room (1962):Dir Bryan Forbes
A Kind of Loving (1962): Dir John Schlesinger
Lonliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962): Dir Tony Richardson
This Sporting Life (1963): Dir Lindsay Anderson
Billy Liar (1963): Dir John Schlesinger
Directors and Actors
The major New Wave directors were Anderson, Reisz and Richardson coming from a background of the Free Cinema. The films dealt with working class subjects and focused on a range of concerns particularly in relation to young people. The films dealt with abortion, prostitution, homosexuality, alienation due to lack of communication and relationship breakdown. The films were intent upon representing a non-London working class environment and were shot in towns such as Nottingham and Mamchester. Black and White fast film stock gave a grainy feel to the film. This was also necessary to cope with the shooting conditions which tended to go for natural lighting and outdoor sets.
Conventional stars were not used rather ,young, usually more working class actors predominated such as Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Richard Burton, Michael Caine and Tom Courtenay. Two of the women most associated with the movement Rita Tushingham and Rachel Roberts interestingly didn’t ‘make it big’ although Julie Christie who came in on the tail-end of the movement in Billy Liar did. The New Wave didn’t actually contribute to the growing pool of regional actors rather it was the way society was changing. Local authority grants for attending drama colleges meant larger numbers were attending and the growth of social realist theatre as well as the rapid growth of TV was creating the demand for more actors. The overall expansion of media was creating pressure for more representation of a wider number of subjects and the sentiments created around the ’People’s war’ had contributed to a widespread recognition of the need to represent the working classes. As Lindsay Anderson had written
‘The number of British films that have ever made a genuine try at a story in the popular milieu, with working class characters all through, can be counted on the fingers of one hand... This virtual rejection of three quarters of the population of this country represents a more than a ridiculous impoverishment of the cinema. It is characteristic of a flight from contemporary reality.’
The films were based upon books and plays who had direct experience of working class life such as Alan Sillitoe, John Braine, David Storey, Shelagh Delaney.
Tom Courtenay in The Lonliness of the Long Distance Runner
Frequently Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top (1959) is considered as the first of the British ‘New Wave’ films however Hayward considers that his film is best seen as one of the precursors to the movement with Richardson’s Look Back in Anger (1959) being the real beginning of the movement. The film starred Richard Burton. Following this came Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) starring Albert Finney then A Taste of Honey (Richardson 1962), with Rita Tushingham. A Kind of Loving (Schlesinger, 1962), Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner (Richardson, 1962), This Sporting Life (Anderson, 1963) with Rachel Roberts and Richard Harris. By 1963 over one third of film production was broadly New Wave showing that British cinema could resist Hollywood - at least for a short time.
Rita Tushinham in Taste of Honey
Losey / Pinter’s The Servant also came out in 1963 and their depiction of upper class decadence can be seen as exploring the same socio-cultural phenomenon that Visconti had begun to depict. Visconti was to explore this in depth through firstly The Leopard and later The Damned, Death in Venice and Ludwig. Pinter and Losey were to explore the impact of the growth of the New Universities and the changing media scene on the encrusted cloisters of academia and the upper classes in Accident a few years later. The sentiments in these films by Losey and Visconti are a serious exploration of the writing on the wall for the European aristocracy. Here it is possible to draw comparison with Louis Malle’s The Lovers in which Europe’s other well known upper class film-maker explores the decadence and isolated world of the French and international Haute-Bourgeois, the provincial bourgeois and the newly emergent class of the independent thinker and doer. That it is the representative of this class who ‘gets the woman’ who is herself marked by a break with a break in conventions about the role and position of woman is indicative of a changing consciousness at a European level, in the light of post-war disillusion with a class system which led Europe to disaster and was twice rescued by the USA.
This Sporting Life
The social realist films of this ‘new wave’ period were based upon a range of novels and stories which had already made significant inroads into the British psyche. They were adaptations which involved the original authors themselves. The crossovers with theatre were seemingly much stronger than in France. The point is also important as some critics such as Armes have in a rather small minded way pointed out that the directors associated with these films such as Richardson, Anderson and Reisz, were from an upper middle-class public school and Oxbridge background. Linking these directors with Visconti and Malle shows that the European aristocratic hegemony was clearly crumbling and that a new hegemonising process based around a meritocratic process was emerging. Over the longer-term Visconti in Italy and Anderson in Britain might be said to the most consistently left-wing of these directors. John Hill’s later review of the criticism of the British ‘New Wave’ directors attempted to undermine the reductionist sour grapes of Armes and Durgnat by taking a textual approach which noted that although the directors were outside of the class they were representing which can be discerned through the ’marks of ennunciation’ articulating a critical distance between observer and observed. As Aldgate and Richards point out this analysis still left the contextual aspects of criticism largely unexplored.
Hill’s Marxist inflected criticism led to a critique of these films which saw them as misogynistic and many commentators return to this point, however, Murphy has since commented that for the first time women were playing in roles that were far carrying a far more serious emotional weight than the ‘...pathetically trivial roles women had to play in most 1950s British Films.’  In many ways this gender issue needs a careful film by film analysis. By the time of Billy Liar (1962) for example Julie Christie is playing an extremely dynamic role. She feels able to hitch-hike anywhere and comes and goes as she pleases, she is able to transcend the petty provincialism of Nottingham and move to London where she knows that lots of things are happening. By comparison Billy Liar (Tom Courtenay) despite his fantasy life is unable to summon the courage to make the break and move to London and make his dreams come true. In that sense the criticism of the New Wave that it focuses on individuals rather than the possibilities of class solidarity is relevant. The underlying message of Billy Liar is that the newly emergent youth of the 1960s have the possibilities they must have the courage to take these opportunities. That is was a young woman who does this is encouraging from a gender equality perspective. In this the film can be read as a precursor of the ‘Swinging Sixties’.
Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life also 1963 is perhaps more ambiguous. It can be argued that the representation of the Rachel Roberts character is negative, to the point that she commits suicide however this representation of a woman who is left on a small widow’s pension and is struggling to survive financially yet resists the pressure to be made dependent upon a man is an underlying theme. That she finds suicide the only way out can be read as a comment upon a society that does not make the necessary social space for women. The pressure to succeed at any cost is one which Machin, played by Richard Harris, finds hard to bear. His working life is brutalising and he has come out of the mines into Rugby League a sort of modern gladiator he is unable to provide Mrs. Hammond with what she wants.
Unlike the cover which describes Mrs. Hammond as ‘frigid’ it is perhaps better to examine the character of Machin whose machismo soon expires when faced with advances from the wife of his boss. Machin likes to control and runs away when he can’t. In this sense it is not unreasonable to argue that there is a crisis of masculinity being represented in which power, sexuality and control allied to class position are all in the process of being renegotiated. The film is also a representation about the possibilities of escaping a drab and dangerous working class life. The professionalisation of sport is just beginning and the film strongly relates to the changing media environment. Stardom is counterpoised to living in a run down terraced house. The incongruity of the Mark IX Jaguar owned by Machin underscores the point.
In their brief review of the critical literature on the British New Wave Aldgate and Richards note that ‘probably the most trenchant critique’ of the British ‘New Wave’ came from Peter Wollen. Wollen’s criticism largely hinges on a textualist based comparative analysis which judges the British ‘new wave’ with the Cahiers group of French directors who for Wollen’s appear to encapsulate the whole ethos of the French Nouvelle Vague. The SPECT construction of the French New Wave is considered in depth in the section on France, here it can suffice to ask whether the methods and methodological approach were appropriate or rich enough to justify the scathing tone of the attack on the British directors. Drawing on Michael Balcon’s wartime pamphlet Realism or Tinsel Wollen notes that within the British cinema there has been a strong element of a preference for ‘realism’ over ‘tinsel’ an aesthetic structuring which Wollen associates with nationalism:
This system of value, though most strongly entrenched on the left, ran all the way across the political spectrum. For the right, as with the Left, the aesthetic preference was bound up with nationalism. ‘Tinsel’ was of course bound up with Hollywood escapism and, in contrast, realism evoked local pride and sense of community... British critics praised films they liked in terms of their realism and damned those they did not as escapist trash. The French New Wave, however, aimed to transcend this shallow antinomy.’
This mode of rhetoric has become a self supporting argument rather than a more fully coherent one based upon differing nuances and circumstances. In the same piece Wollen has conflated the ‘Left Bank’ artists such as Duras and Resnais, more renowned for making documentaries in the earlier 1950s. It is intersting how wollen attacks the crucial diffrence between representations of nation between British and French New Waves. French New Wave was very much a Parisien affair whiclst British New Wave had the guts to represent different parts ogf the country effectively. This could be read as two different nationalisms at work in different ways.
Wollen has seemingly eschewed linkages between how the Italian neorealists might have had an effect upon the British shift to realism, there is no linkage with the surrealist impulse which underpinned the work of Humphrey Jennings and which significantly influenced the Free Cinema movement. An appreciation of the non-realist approaches of Powell and Pressburger is also absent. If, for Pressburger especially, ‘Art’ was to function as a form of transcendence then Billy Liar can be seen as playing out the possibilities of transcending one’s social reality either through the growing media through comedy which reverts to fantasy as the limitations of the possibilities overwhelm. Fantasy is carried through the Julie Christie character which emerges in Darling. Both can be read as a critique of ‘false aspirations’ carried by the nouveau professional classes as well as a deliberate sidelining of the ‘Art for Art’s sake’ argument.
The British cultural milieu was certainly very different to that of the French in which certain overlaps such as their relations to empire could be noted. If there is a trenchant critique to be made of British ‘New Wave’ then it resides more in its failure to properly represent the diasporic influxes that were changing the cultural and social composition of the industrial cities that they were representing. In this the British were probably no worse than, nor better than, the French. Very few films of the period dealt directly with issues of diaspora and decolonisation. In that sense British New Wave was not realist enough!. In terms of the aesthetics of the British New Wave the use of locations such as back allies, cobbles, seaside towns in winter and empty railway stations works to create a feel which has been described as an aesthetics of urban squalor. Some commentators have considered that this acts to 'romanticise' the ‘decaying infrastructure of industrial Britain'  However given that many of the films are dealing with the changes in society the representation of urban and industrialised spaces needs to be considered alongside the representation of newer factories,
Another critique of British New Wave espoused by Wollen was in its lack of ‘modernism’. In fact the modernism classed as an aesthetic was apparent in the sound tracks, which incorporated British popular music in working class leisure venues, from the skiffle group in Saturday Night Sunday Morning to the dance hall scenes in Billy Liar and This Sporting Life. Interestingly the main music was written and performed by Johnny Dankworth in several of these films including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and the non New Wave The Servant and Darling. This reflected a strong rise in modernist aesthetics strongly influenced by the culture of the USA. While no sound track is likely to ever compete with the Miles Davis extraordinary and entirely improvised one for Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold, the incorporation of Britain's most influential jazz musicians of the time is indicative of an approach that belies Wollen’s seeming Francophilia and as pointed out above dates from the 1956 Momma don’t Allow . Arguably the British new wave films were tackling a more interesting range of discourses and were coming from a different place to the French processes of modernisation. The task of analysis is to be searching for a greater depth of understanding of these social processes not indulging in a ranking exercise.
Compare Wollen’s tone with that of John Orr for example; Orr takes a more measured synoptic view of the cinematic processes of modernity, noting in Resnais Nuit et Brouillard (1955), that he moves from the documentary to the imaginary, a shift managed by Schlesinger’s ‘Billy Liar’ in 1963 for example but one set against the changing cityscapes of postwar Britain. Orr refers to Deleuze’s argument that neorealism opened up cinematic space in the new open spaces of Europe’s damaged cities. Whilst Deleuze argues that these were ‘anywhere spaces’ in which the exterior location did not have to define itself the cinematic space of Nottingham which served as location shooting for Saturday Night , Sunday Morning as well as Billy Liar was symbolic of class representation, and the rise of the working classes, it was symbolic of ‘creative destruction’ that great economic engine described so effectively by Schumpeter, with war acting as the great catalyst to this enduring process at the heart of capitalism. It was also symbolic of social, economic and cultural progress. Rather than being associated with the deeply alienated cinematic/ geographical spaces of mainland Europe, British cinema largely avoided the apocalyptic mood of continental Europe.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
The story telling of the British new wave was outside of the frenetic and frantic pace of Hollywood and also outside of the cinematic time of the emerging mainstream European modernists like Fellini or Antonioni. British cinema had the intensity of the theatre underpinning it and much of British New Wave was like a kammerspiel on location. It was a variant on mainstream modernism and modernity which was perhaps informed by British pragmatism as much as aesthetic theorising but it also owed something to Rossellini and Visconti.
It is Rocco and His Brothers (1960) which charts the changing world of the Italian peasant classes as they come to industrial cities such as Milan to create new lives which is arguably one of the more influential films. The role of boxing for example as a sport drawing its workforce from people trying to escape working class drudgery is explored by Visconti. The treatment of the girlfriend of the Rocco by his brother who finally murders her has resonances with This Sporting Life. Where Visconti does score over the British New Wave in terms of class representation is his specific use of recognising that class solidarity is the way forward for the new working classes in that sense Visconti is more of a political film maker than the British New Wave directors.
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.
There have been many criticisms from feminist critics that these films are generally misogynistic as on the whole they don’t have positive representations of women playing roles as key protagonists within the films. It is possible to take Wollen’s critique seriously in one way for if the lack of ‘tinsel’ which he criticises within the realist mode of the British New Wave is extended to humour then many of the films fall into this category, Look Back in Anger never rated as a side-splitter neither did This Sporting Life. On the whole Billy Liar manages to transcend this tendency which helped to give the impression of British New Wave social realism its grim and gritty reputation. By comparison Truffaut’ 400 Blows, Tirez sur le pianiste and Godard’s A Bout de Souffle were welcome breaths of fresh air displaying a lightness of touch with parodies of gangster movies. In the content of location shooting in the latter two films and even in the more prosaic autobiography Truffaut finds a lightness of touch even in the grim institutions.
British New Wave: A Webliography
Jazz in 1960s British New Wave Cinema: An Interview with Sir John Dankworth http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/bitstream/2438/743/1/DankwortharticleJP.pdf
Open University History and the Arts on British New Wave
The Importance of Humphrey Jennings as an influence on the British New Wave directors should not be underestimated, several of these directors like Reisz, Anderson and Richardson were also deeply involved in thte Free Cinema Movement
Lindsay Anderson on Humphrey Jennings: Sight & Sound, Spring 1954
Free Cinema the Precursor to the British New Wave
British Cinema: Social Realism – Webliography
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