The British New Wave

Note: I am planning a book on British cinema entitled 25 Essential British Films. A critical analysis of each film ranging from 2,500 to 3,000 words adding up to about 200 pages. The 25 selected films are my own personal choices; it mainly focuses on the 1960s. As an Irish man born in 1989 such a book on British cinema which focuses specifically on the 60s may seem unusual, it’s just how it worked out. There is an ending footnote of omissions ranging up to 75 films. Originally the book was to include 100 Great British Films. However, I wanted to give the films more depth. To attempt a book with the breath of film references of Raymond Durgnat’s A Mirror for England would need to have a more theoretical angle. This book is aimed to be accessible for lovers of film, my writing is not I feel academic or (I hope) complicated. Overall I believe that a lot of film theory is not definitive to understanding film as Kent Jones has pointed out ‘theory can be so disconnected from practice.’ I hope it gives something to readers new to film criticism and British cinema. I aim to give these 25 selected films a service, if the book is in anyway useful it’s because the films are great.

The sources that I found have stated that there were only ten British New Wave films made between their specified period of 1959 to 1963, it was before they say James Bond brought along yet another new British Cinema. The origins of the British New Wave overlap with the theatre movement called Angry Young Men featuring the work of playwrights such as John Osborne and Edward Bond about the working and middle classes’ battles against the establishment. It started with Room at the Top (Clayton, 1959) which it seems received more attention in the US than any other New Wave film. It features Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) a working class man in his twenties working his way up the corporate ladder in a town in Yorkshire, Northern England. A drinking game could be devised any time Joe Lampton’s name is mentioned which to my memory is a lot. Room at the Top conveys stiff-upper lip corporate life which is counterbalanced with the awkwardness and bad timing of romantic relationships.

Jimmy Porter (Richard Burton) the protagonist of Look Back in Anger (Richardson, 1959) exploded on the British film scene, he is loud, crude and very opinionated. Porter is a university graduate who runs a sweets market stall in Derby. Porter lives with his wife Alison (Mary Ure) and his friend and co-worker Cliff (Gary Raymond). Jimmy and Cliff enjoy a two man comedic role play which to they perform to Alison and by a chance on theatre stage during in unannounced visit to the play audition of Alison’s friend Helena (Claire Bloom). Tony Richardson films Derby within London, giving an air to the exterior scenes; extending settings and characters (Edith Evan’s Ma Tanner is unseen in John Osborne’s original play). The close-ups of Burton’s face in a grave with Ma are mesmerising, he was born to play Porter. His performance isup there with his portrayal of George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Nichols, 1966) as his very best. Burton’s physique is short and stark. His raging personality packs a punch with almost everyone he meets. Jimmy shows kindness towards an Indian immigrant who is mistreated on the grounds of racism. As the days go by Jimmy for all his education sinks into a serve depression as his continued disconnection with society looms ever clearer. He and Alison shield this anger and hatred with their childish role plays.


Tony Richardson as a director develops more and more after each of his four contributions to the ten film canon of the British New Wave. Archie Rice (Laurence Olivier) in The Entertainer (Richardson, 1960) is from a different generation and mindset than Jimmy Porter. As Raymond Durgnat (1976) points out Archie’s primetime of the Edwardian Era (1901-1914) has long passed as the film opens in 1939. It was filmed on location in Morecambe, Lancashire, Archie’s small flat filled with his family from his second wife Phoebe (Brenda de Banzie) son Frank (Alan Bates). His father Billy is played by Roger Livesey, only year older than Olivier and no stranger to playing older characters in Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and Losey’s The Intimate Stranger (1956).

Archie’s conniving ways brought to my mind Jimmy McGill alias Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) from Breaking Bad (Gilligan, 2008-2013) and Better Call Saul (Gilligan and Gould, 2015-) The Entertainer’s finale brings a desperate and an ultimately lonely mindset to his breaking point. Durgnat (1966) argues ‘In a sense, Archie is Britannia, the English soul, the last tatter of Tom Jones, the Edwardian music hall’s last gasp, declining England reduced to seedy, shady shifts, holding on like a battered bulldog to the masochistic loyalty inferable from his preference for prison over emigration.’

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Reisz, 1960) stars Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton, a factory worker looking for fun and games at the end of the 1950s. It’s a role Oliver Reed would have dominated. Seaton’s smarmy persona is given weight with Finney’s use of facial gestures and timing. The setting is Nottingham; where many live for the weekends in pubs and nightclubs to bare their dead-end factory jobs. Arthur fears a future similar to his parents. He lives it up while he can despite the consequences.

A Taste of Honey (Richardson, 1961) features wide-eyed newcomer Rita Tushingham and the brilliantly enigmatic Murray Melvin. Durgnat (1966) notes Richardson’s use of the Manchester landscape to symbolise social decay underestimates the impact of the cinema’s ordinary techniques. Tushingham and Melvin give the film its warmth, the Dardennes would have been proud to make this film. In the film’s most moving scene Melvin approaches Tushingham in an industrial underpass. Their faces and gestures are filled with life as they almost fly out of the underpass into the daylight.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Richardson, 1962) is maybe the best film of the British New Wave, it’s Britain’s answer to The 400 Blows. Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) is a petty thief who is sent to juvenile prison. Upon finding out that Colin can run, the governor (Michael Redgrave) enlists him as a long distance runner to win the national runners cup. The film ultimately becomes a fable of freeing oneself within a confined environment. Courtenay’s humane performance was a new type of screen presence in British cinema; his facial gestures speak volumes about hardship and disappointment.

A Kind of Loving (Schlesinger, 1962) is a morality tale about a draftsman Vic (Alan Bates) who casually dates Ingrid (June Ritchie); they must marry under convenient circumstances. Bates’ character doesn’t know what he wants. He drifts through the Blackburn setting feeling little but disappointment for it and his situation.

The L-Shaped Room (Forbes, 1962) features Jane a Frenchwoman in London who is pregnant with no desire to be with the father. She befriends her housemates Toby (Tom Bell) and Johnny (Brock Peters). The film is a balancing act of intrigue between Jane’s various housemates and how precious they are to her in different ways. It’s the British New Wave’s only non-British protagonist, the director Bryan Forbes doesn’t focus too much on this. We’re all human in the end. As always the protagonists are stuck in the moment, it often gives them periods of anxiety which Roman Polanski could have seen and been inspired before filming Repulsion (Polanski, 1965).

This Sporting Life (Anderson, 1963) stars Richard Harris as coalminer turned rugby star Frank Machin, it’s like Britain’s fore-calling to Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980). His obsessive relationship with Mrs. Hammond (Rachel Roberts) is heartbreaking. He lives with her as her lodger with her children in Wakefield, Yorkshire. Frank’s highs on the rugby field are ultimately not enough. It’s an interesting study of celebrity power. The final shot of Frank on the rugby field creates a bleak wilderness of utter isolation.

Billy Liar (Schlesinger, 1963) is a unique concept for the new Wave. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw (2014) called it ‘depressing’ and ‘defeatist’. Tom Courtenay’s performance invites us to observe a strange individual’s plight into bizarre fantasy sequences. Its ending is bittersweet as well as perfect. His decision to live in his fantasy means the alternative is a missed opportunity even if the alternative feels like a fantasy in itself which won’t be long lasting.

The British New Wave ended in 1963, a new British cinema was emerging with James Bond, Tom Jones (Richardson, 1963) The Servant (Losey, 1963) and The System (Winner, 1964) etc. British cinema defied expectation once again the late 60s with the incredibly inventive imaginations of Peter Watkins, Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell.


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