Friday 20 January 2023

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema - Bruce Hodsdon continues his series - 6(8) Great Britain - Joseph Losey, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Richard Lester, Peter Watkins, Barney Platts-Mills

Joseph Losey

Great Britain                                                                                                                                                

Joseph Losey (67) b.09   Lindsay Anderson (70) b.23   Karel Reisz (82) b.26   Richard Lester b.32   Peter Watkins b.35   Barney Platts-Mills b.44


Ealing Studios

English ‘kitchen sink’ realism and after, Ken Loach, Barney Platts-Mills,
 Losey in exile, Peter Watkins 

Through the post-war years with a few exceptions, pragmatic commercialism ruled in the conformist environments at Elstree, Pinewood and Ealing studios - notable exceptions include films directed by Robert Hamer and Alexander Mackendrick at Ealing in the late 40s early 50s. There were a small number of films recognised as seriously dramatising social problems such as It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)a drama set in London’s working class East End, Yield to the Night (1956) taking an anti-capital punishment stance, and Victim (1961), a thriller portraying the dilemmas confronting homosexuals in a sympathetic light. Social problem films almost by default, made through the first half of the 60s by small independent producers, were less hostile to youth-oriented culture and tended to be dismissed as exploitation. Two of the most interesting such films made on the fringes were The Boys (1962) and The Leather Boys (63), both directed by a young Canadian Sidney Furie, the latter praised by critics for its treatment of homosexuality, is seen by Robert Murphy “as an unexpected addition to the kitchen sink cycle” (127-).

BFI DVD Free Cinema collection

In the late 1950s there was a breakthrough of new talent in the novel and theatre. The emergence of working class writers, part of a wave of dissent in cultural and political life, was foreshadowed by the BFI's promotion of the 'Free Cinema’ in six programs of short films at the National Film Theatre in 1956-9, free cinema referring to “belief shared by the documentarists that cinema should be freed from commercial constraints and look back for inspiration to Grierson’s documentary movement of the 1930s” (Street 79). Included were contributions of films focusing, generally sympathetically, on aspects of community life by Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz mixed with new wave shorts from Poland, France and the US all imbued with “a critical spirit of auteurism and in a tradition of  a benevolent middle-class humanism,” as Anderson delivered in a written manifesto. Reisz and cine-photographer Walter Lassally wrote articles calling for a freeing up of the British cinema from its overall tepidly humanist stagnation. There was considerable media interest created but the industry was unmoved.

Simone Signoret, Laurence Harvey, Room at the Top

The harbinger of a new British cinema came unexpectedly from the artistic and entrepreneurial flair and financial acumen of the producer partnership of two brothers in the industry, John and James Woolf. John Braine’s novel ‘Room at the Top’ published in 1957 was a best seller combining realism of setting with the theme of the alienation of a working class ‘hero’ with an upper class education.  In John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger Jimmy Porter’s bitterness stems from his university education which cuts him off from his working class origins. Braine’s working class hero, Joe Lampton, is public school educated but is driven by envy, not class bitterness, at the cost of his integrity and honesty. Braine identifies with his hero but maintains a certain critical distance. 

Room at the Top was directed by Jack Clayton in 1959More than the book the film was shot “with a frankness and sensuality unusual enough for the British cinema at the time” for it to be saddled by the censor with an ‘X’ certificate (Murphy 15). However, it was generally welcomed in the media not in sensational terms but as the first truly adult British film dealing seriously with contemporary social issues of class and sexual conflict. It became the fourth most popular film of 1959 after Carry On Nurse, I’m All Right Jack and Inn of the Sixth Happiness.

Mary Ure, Richard Burton, Look Back in Anger

A small independent  production company, Woodfall Films, newly formed by Tony Richardson and Harry Saltzman, benefiting from the success of Room at the Top, took the opportunity without front office interference, to film Look Back in Anger (1959) on studio sets, and Osborne’s The Entertainer (1961) filmed partly in northern locations, the former breaking new ground with Jimmy Porter played in the film with required acerbic excess by Richard Burton, cruelly and constantly subjecting his wife (Mary Ure) to humiliation. John Hill in his book Sex, Class and Realism argues that the real subject of Look Back in Anger  “was neither social injustice nor hypocrisy but the debasement and degradation of women” (quoted Murphy ibid 29). In The Entertainer  Laurence Olivier plays the down-at-the-heel music hall entertainer Archie Rice. “Osborne draws parallels between the state of Britain, on its last legs as an imperial power after the Suez debacle, and that of the music hall, declining into decrepitude of girly shows and TV spin-offs.” (ibid 17)

Laurence Olivier, The Entertainer

Sarah Street characterises the 60s as “an exciting period for British cinema. In 1963 five feature films sought to realistically portray working class life for the first time on British screens with lead roles for actors from working class backgrounds such as Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Rita Tushingham set and filmed entirely in monochrome in northern England or Midland locations. Richardson directed adaptations of a 'new wave’ play, A Taste of Honey (1961), by Shelagh Delaney filmed on location, the ‘poetic realism’ probing female subjectivity with conservative closure and devoid of the expressive anger, the social criticism less identifiable than in other Kitchen Sink films registering positively as a ‘youth cycle’ film with audiences of the time. 

Alan Sillitoe was the author of the novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) from which Karel Reisz's first feature was adapted. It is generally acknowledged as the best realised and most successful of the ‘new wave’ cycle. Finney’s portrayal of rebel anti-hero, Pam Cook suggests, is at times engaged with society yet also alienated from it. His virility is closely linked to his desire for change in his existence. This also identifies Saturday Night  and A Taste of Honey, with the then popular ‘youth movie’ cycle, a major reason for them being the stand-out successes of the ‘kitchen sink’ films (269). 

Shirley Anne Field, Albert Finney,
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

In Morgan, a Suitable Case for Treatment (1966) directed by Reisz from a screenplay by David Mercer who was in turn influenced by the writings of R.D.Laing that gained currency in sixties counter culture. Laing argued that madness is a rational response to intolerable pressures put upon non-conforming individuals. David Warner as Morgan represented a new form of 60s hero with his surreal dreams of returning to the jungle as a gorilla. As Pam Cook points out, Morgan’s impotence is in sharp contrast to Arthur Seaton’s virility in Saturday Night “though they are both depicted as victims of their society” (ibid).  

Sillitoe was also the author of Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner (1962) which Robert Murphy identifies as marking a critical turning away from realism, “as the first of the ‘swinging sixties films” though ironically only in style (the deployment by Lassally and Richardson of a free-wheeling camera and montage with insistent music score) not in content (23). Tom Courtenay as Colin Smith, more than Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night, pursues a rational form of rebellion.  

Alan Bates, June Ritchie,
A Kind of Loving

A Kind of Loving 
(1962) the most realistic of the cycle with least concession to the melodramatic elements of the Kitchen Sink films, was directed by John Schlesinger from the novel by northern writer Stan Barstow in a lower middle class setting. Compared to Finney and Courtenay the young couple (Alan Bates and June Ritchie) are “almost painfully ordinary.” The metaphoric transition away from the kitchen sink rebellion, in the second of the Schlesinger directed films when Tom Courtenay’s role as Billy Liar (1963) is contrasted with Courtney’s as a ‘borstal nihilist’ in Loneliness. 

Lindsay Anderson (1923-94) directed his first feature, This Sporting Life (1963), from David Storey's novel. Although Anderson's film was not without critical respect for what was being attempted, the public and most mainstream critics, did not buy Anderson's unyielding adaptation of the novel as tragedy rather than social commentary. The ill-defined, ultimately doomed relationship of the boorish de facto 'working class hero' Frank Machin (Richard Harris) with the widow Mrs Hammond (Rachel Roberts) is gloomily unsympathetic and the film bombed and with it the demise of the initial 'wave' of working class realism.

Rachel Roberts, Richard Harris
This Sporting Life

“Anderson’s interests in surrealism and in broadly Brechtian ideas taken from British theatre can be seen in all his films and could be said to differentiate them from ‘mainstream’ British social realism. Those interests are most clearly identified in If…(1968) taking the public school as a metaphor for Britain in critiquing a world ordered by elitism, hierarchy, discipline and tradition, and O Lucky Man (1973), portraying a journey through an England corrupt at every level, albeit in a sometimes confused and contradictory way” (Pam Cook 266-7). 

John Hill in Sex Class and Realism (quoted Street 82) has argued that the New Wave films of 1956-63 by no means reveal a progressive image of society in that period. New themes were introduced but presented with a traditional and conservative bias.  Although there was much more location shooting most films were made in traditional classical narrative form, exceptions although isolated and far from radical, being those in films directed by Anderson and Reisz and the visual stylisations of Tony Richardson and Walter Lassally in The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner.

The tension in art cinema between notions of authorship, realism and modernism previously lacking any kind of meaningful framework for identification in the mainstream of British cinema, came briefly to the surface as outlined above. This coalesced with new developments of a social aesthetic in literature and theatre in the shifting portrayal of class in the cinema primarily in the films directed by Anderson and Reisz. After the end of British social realism as a coherent movement in the cinema in 1963 there were Losey’s three film collaboration with Pinter in art film mode (see below).  

Tom Courtenay, Julie Christie
Billy Liar

The British cinema, in the words of Alexander Walker, “took the train south to swinging London.”  In Billy Liar scripted by Keith Waterhouse from his novel and Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s adaption of the play, Billy (Tom Courtenay) dreams of going to London to become a scriptwriter. Immersed in his fantasy life Billy doesn't make it but his girlfriend (Julie Christie) does. She metaphorically walks into the role of Darling (1965) as the ‘good-time girl on the make’.  Schlesinger leaves the understated observant style of his first two features behind for modernist stylistics in filming an Oscar winning script by novelist turned screenwriter Frederic Raphael.  Rita Tushingham, as the heroine in Richard Lester's Woodfall-produced comedy, The Knack... and How to Get it (1965), also ends up in London with cheerfully amoral results.

The first of Richard Lester's two films with the Beatles, A Hard Day's Night (1964) symbolically brought the British rock scene from Liverpool to London. Nowell-Smith comments that except for the two Beatles films and Antonioni's Blow-up (1966) “there was little sense among the British or in British-made films of the middle or late 60s that a cultural revolution was going on in Britain.” The only hint of revolutionary politics is in Lindsay Anderson's If…(1966) that takes place only in fantasy in the confines of a boarding school.

The Beatles, A Hard Day's Night

More potentially prescient was the re-emergence of realism in the mid-60s in the work of committed left wing filmmaker Ken Loach working in collaboration with Tony Garnett, initially in television. Cathy Come Home is a fictional exposé of the link between the housing industry and homelessness viewed by an historically unprecedented television audience in 1966 inspiring a parliamentary enquiry. It established Loach’s reputation for steadfast commitment to socialist beliefs strengthened by a realist aesthetic in engaging with social issues in an increasingly unsympathetic political environment. Early cinema features produced by his own company with Garnett, Poor Cow (1967) and Kes (1972) through persuasively naturalistic acting and also, in the former untypically involving a certain distancing in combining cinéma-vérité techniques with dramatic reconstruction which was subsequently disowned by Loach. There was also the adoption of some other nouvelle vague practices such as division into episodes and direct address to the camera in the portrayal of the life of a young woman through a mix of “backstreet romanticism and neo realist populism rarely seen in British films” (Murphy 152).

David Bradley, Kes

Loach takes the location filming much further than the ‘kitchen sink’ filmmakers and combines individual performance, rarely using name actors, with ensembles (including non-professionals) in unforced working class settings and an insistence that English be spoken in local dialect. In contrast to the affecting but unsentimental simplicity of Kes centred on the rapport formed between a socially deprived Yorkshire boy and a kestrel, the naturalism in Family Life (1971) becomes especially polarising.  Loach’s form of fictional documentary on the causes of schizophrenia, schematically scripted by David Mercer based on R,D. Laing’s unorthodox theories, leaves little scope for reflection.

Barney Platts-Mills (1944-2021) began in the industry as an editor in film and then television. He moved to directing short documentaries for Maya Films which he had set up with two friends. The film he most valued was  Everybody’s An Actor  which set out to be an account of theatre director Joan Littlewood’s notable work on improvisational drama with local teenagers.  After having initial problems the small crew won their confidence. The idea of making a feature length film finally settled on a story with some of the participants in Everybody’s an Actor who kept on asking ‘when they were going to make a real film?’  

Anne Gooding, Del Walker, Bronco Bullfrog
The cast were all delighted to be given a script of Bronco Bullfrog (1970) which few of them then read. Del is an apprentice welder who engages in petty theft to relieve the boredom. He takes up with 15 year-old Irene to her parents’ disapproval. During their fitful courtship they join up with Bronco Bullfrog who has just escaped from Borstal. They are part of a social group who foreshadow the 70s punk movement. The film was improvised, scene by scene, with the director indicating lines of action or the dialogue and recalling actual or acted incidents to provide a basis for working. They achieve an entirely consistent acting style using their own gaucheness and inarticulateness as an expression of those of the characters. Platts-Mills’s casualness about story and structure becomes a positive and attractive quality. Despite the characters lack of direction in their lives the film develops “an inner impulse” amidst moments of high comedy.” Sustained dialogue occupies minimal screen time. “The strength of the film is that its high quality of observation is human not anthropological” (Robinson). 

In Platts-Mills’s second feature, Private Road (1971), London’s East End is replaced by middle class suburbia in Surrey and Bohemian London. While there is a similar structure to Bronco Bullfrog of an alternating escape and frustration pattern for the young couple: a struggling ‘classless’ young writer introduces a depressive young woman to the drop-out world. The ‘escape’ sequences are free of dialogue and backed by music.  The professional actors resourcefully maintain the spontaneity of Bronco Bullfrog in conveying a sense of real characters against a real background which was actual in the earlier film. Ironically as it turned out, confirming his continuing development, Platts-Mills’ is more formally confident while retaining his seeming preference for understatement in his second feature, developing what one critic has called “an odd mixture of romanticism and scepticism about society’s future” (Tom Milne in ‘Time Out’)

Bruce Robinson, Susan Penhaligon, Private Road

In these films writer- director Platts-Mills was critically acknowledged as ‘an authentic original’ (Penelope Houston), ‘a talent fulfilled’ (Lindsay Anderson), his films ‘send your heart leaping’ (Alexander Walker). Bronco Bullfrog, made in 6 weeks for £18,000, was widely acclaimed as ‘one of the freshest films of post-war British cinema’. Platt-Mills’s observant eye locates and captures semi-spontaneous behaviour through relaxed improvisation best described as a form of naturalism. Details of behaviour set in tough and difficult environments balance competing emotions with resilient good humour.  It is this unspoiled spontaneity, often seen in child actors, that is so frequently appreciated on the screen.  

Platts-Mills’s two films share company with films like that of the lead actor in Private Road, later writer-director, Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I (GB 1986), Jacques Rozier’s Adieu Philippine (France 1961, q.v.) and Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (US 2017). The ineptitude and arrogance then too often on display in the mainstream British film industry, producer-director Bryan Forbes being a particular culprit here (see David Robinson, Sight & Sound v9/3 70 pp132-3). Inadequate distribution support made it too difficult financially for Platts-Mills to make films. He continued to share his insights in developing the talents of young people. He made two low budget features with non-professional casts in the early 2010s, one with a mythological theme was filmed in Gaelic.

The BFI released Bronco Bullfrog and Private Road on DVD in 2010.

Joseph Losey (1909-84) arrived in London in 1953 in a self-admitted state of absolute panic without family or money, in exile from the McCarthyist blacklist in Hollywood which forced him to leave a successful career as a film and theatre director. He established contacts with fellow blacklisted self-exiles and sought work necessarily anonymously, for rock bottom pay on low budget productions. His dedication and powers of persuasion enabled Losey to begin the demanding process of rebuilding a career. He developed long term relationships with Dirk Bogarde, Alexander Knox, designer Richard MacDonald, editor Richard Mills, writer Harold Pinter, et al. By 1957 he had assembled an all-star cast from the British acting establishment, including Michael Redgrave, Ann Todd, and Leo McKern for his breakthrough film as credited director, Time Without Pity, based on a play by Emlyn Williams. Losey described it “as a big turning point in my life because through the French it reached many other people […] Basically it gave me confidence that I could do something again.” 

Anne Todd, Michael Redgrave, Time Without Pity

The genre adaptations that followed, most notably Blind Date (1959), The Criminal (1960) and The Damned (1961), inventively directed as they were, did not notably advance Losey’s status in the industry or with the critical establishment in Britain. Producer difficulties in the releasing of his personal Franco-Italian financed Eve (1962) was followed by Losey's decisive movement into the new art cinema in his collaboration with writer Harold Pinter and the cinematography of Douglas Slocombe in The Servant (1963) which dissects the upper middle-class with a degree of astute observation confused by finally settling for a seemingly reactionary plea for the certainties of boundaries imposed by class. The Losey-Pinter collaboration continued in a soon to be the widely praised masterpiece, Accident (1967), and the disappointingly conventional The Go Between (1971). This “enabled him to foreground themes,” Nowell-Smith suggests,” which in his genre films [in America] in the 1950s [before being blacklisted] were already present but less overtly displayed because subordinated to the demands of action and plot.” (134)                                                                          

Peter Watkins as an amateur filmmaker in his mid-twenties in 1961 reconstructed the 1956 Hungarian uprising in Forgotten Faces filmed in the back streets of Canterbury. For the BBC, in Culloden (1964), he recreated the last battle to be fought on English soil, between the Jacobites and the English in 1746. The reconstruction takes the form of on-the spot tv reportage. In The War Game (1966) the effects of a nuclear attack on Britain are evoked with such affect that it was permanently deemed by the BBC to be too disturbing to be shown on television. In what he called called a 'block structure” Watkins juxtaposed the strategies for dealing with a nuclear attack with a re-creation of such an attack using simulated newsreel images and then reversing them so that the present becomes ‘fantasy’ and the supposed future ‘actuality’. His approach to docudrama in Punishment Park (1971) was filmed in the American desert pushing docudrama to its limits in which political dissenters are subjected to a staged three day survival ordeal.  In its blending of realism with expressionistic techniques and complex sound-image relationships evoking the paranoia of the Nixon years of anti-Vietnam protest, Punishment Park is a powerful advance on his first cinema feature. Privilege (1967), an attempted savage satire of the British rock scene's manipulation by the Establishment to keep the masses quiet in politically difficult times, a repressive government being portrayed as in league with the church.

The War Game

Watkins moved away from such simulation in his own work, itself a demonstration of the power of  media manipulation.  In Edvard Munch (1974) which he made clear in interviews is a deeply personal portrayal of the life and work of the pioneer expressionist painter made for Norwegian television. In his subsequent work in the media, Watkins collaboratively deployed an open, non-manipulative, if still emotionally expressive approach to narrative. In a multilevelled structure he provides a balance between the actuality of Munch’s statements, providing insight into the nature of his artistic creation in an historical context. The improvisations of non-professional actors expressing their own feelings and concerns directly, links the viewer to problems in contemporary society. 

Edvard Munch

Watkins returned to production in the 80s after devoting his energies solely in the intervening years to analysis and stinging criticism of what he sees as the dangerous centralisation and homogenisation of the mass audiovisual media - the resultant formal straitjacket he terms the monoform. This second phase was devoted to applying his analysis by collaboratively working with non-professional groups on av productions in a uniquely decentralised way.   See the entry on Watkins in Wikipedia.  Also  “Peter Watkins and the Politics of Expression”  by Gordon Thomas at                               



Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, “Britain: From Kitchen Sink to Swinging London” Ch.10 Making Waves                                                           

Geoff Gardner “Joseph Losey: I'm a stranger here. I have no friends” essay in the Brisbane International Film Festival catalogue 2002                                                                                                                                       

Joseph A. Gomez, “Peter Watkins” International Dictionary Vol.2 Directors pp.575-6                                                                                   

Robert Murphy,  Sixties British Cinema  BFI 1992                                                                                                                                     

Geoff Brown,  “Paradise Found and Lost: The Course of British Realism” in The British Cinema Book Ed.Robert Murphy BFI 1992

Pam Cook, “Auteur Theory and British Cinema” in The Cinema Book 2nd ed. BFI 1999  pp265-82               

Sarah Street,  British National Cinema 1997

David Robinson, “Around Angel Lane”  Sight anSound  Summer 1970 pp132-3 

Penelope Houston,  “Private Road”  ibid  Autumn 1971

Luke Aspell, Great Directors: Lindsay Anderson Senses of Cinema December 2017                                                                                   

Peter Tonguette, Great Directors: Richard Lester Senses of Cinema May 2003                                                                                          

Dan Callahan, Great Directors: Joseph Losey Senses of Cinema March 2003


Previous entries in this series can be found if you click the following links

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Tables and Directors Lists to Accompany Bruce Hodsdon's Series

Notes on canons, methods, national cinemas and more

Part One - Introduction

Part Two - Defining Art Cinema

Part Three - From Classicism to Modernism

Part Four - Authorship and Narrative

Part Five - International Film Guide Directors of the Year, The Sight and Sound World Poll, Art-Horror

Part Six (1) - The Sixties, the United States and Orson Welles

Part Six (2) - Hitchcock, Romero and Art Horror

Part Six (3) - New York Film-makers - Elia Kazan & Shirley Clarke  

Part Six (4) - New York Film-makers - Stanley Kubrick Creator of Forms

Part Six (5) ‘New Hollywood’ (1) - Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Pauline Kael and BONNIE AND CLYDE

Part Six (6) Francis Ford Coppola: Standing at the crossroads of art and industry

Part 6(7) Altman


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