British New Wave  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The British New Wave is the name given to a trend in filmmaking among directors in Britain in the late fifties and early sixties. The label is a translation of Nouvelle Vague, the French term first applied to the films of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and others.

There is considerable overlap wth the so-called "Angry Young Men", those artistes in British theatre and film such as playwright John Osborne and director Tony Richardson, who challenged the social status quo. Their work drew attention to the reality of life for the working classes, especially in the North of England, giving rise to the expression, "It's grim up north". This particular type of drama, centred around class and the nitty-gritty of day-to-day life, was also known as the kitchen sink drama.

The New Wave was characterized by many of the same stylistic and thematic conventions as the earlier French New Wave. Usually in black-and-white, these films had a spontaneous quality, often shot in a pseudo-documentary (or cinéma vérité) style on real locations and with real people rather than extras, apparently capturing life as it happens.

By 1964, the cycle was essentially over. Tony Richardson's Tom Jones, Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night and the early James Bond movies ushered in a new era for British cinema, focusing less on realism and social issues, and more on light comedy and escapism.


The Beginnings

The origins of the British New Wave can be traced back to the onset of the Free Cinema Movement in the late 1950s. Directors like Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson collaborated on a series of short-subject documentary films that explored the culture of Britain and its youth in the late 1950s. Films like Momma Don't Allow (1956) and We are the Lambeth Boys (1959) captured the spirit of the British youth whether it is dancing in the Jazz clubs or hanging out in the streets of Liverpool. These films were screened at the National Film Theatre between 1956 and 1959.

All the films made under the "The Free Cinema Movement" banner had several common traits. First of all, they were all 'free' from the big studios. They were all either financed independently or under the charitable contribution of several art funds. The crews were generally un-paid and the equipment used was minimal and far below industry standards. The films were made employing the use of 16mm cameras which were mostly hand-held, a significant method that was experimented with later during the peak of the New Wave by cinematographers like Walter Lassally.

Rise of the Rebels

1958 saw the release of what can be called the first film of the British New Wave. With the release of Room at the Top (1958), a new kind of story-telling came about. The story dealt with realistic portrayal of the lives of both the middle-class and the working-class britain and the plot was based around the daily routine of people living this life. The sudden change from lavish exotic story-telling to the simplistic portrayal of real-life was recieved with warmth and much appreciated. The trend developed with the 1959 release of Tony Richardson's Look Back In Anger.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

The true effect of the movement was not felt until the production of Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). Reisz took his experiences of on-location filming from his time with the Free Cinema Movement and decided to film all the outdoor scenes of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning on location. While all the indoor scenes were still shot on sound-stages, this was the first of its kind in British Cinema.

The story of the film was adapted to screen by Alan Sillitoe from his own novel. It told the story of Arthur Seaton (played by Albert Finney), a young man who works at the factory all day long and unwinds during his weekly outings on saturday nights. Arthur is a rebel all the way. From having an affair with his co-worker's wife Brenda, to playing pranks on the female co-workers to shooting pellets at his neighbour's wife to getting into fist-fights, he has done it all. The film was known for its straightforward depiction of Arthur and Brenda in bed (a move that was unacceptable at that time) and its notorious use of almost communist-like statements against the society.

A Taste of Honey

Tony Richardson released A Taste of Honey in 1961. Adapted for the screen by Shelagh Delaney and Richardson from Delaney's play of the same name, A Taste of Honey picked up from where Saturday Night and Sunday Morning last left the movement. Richardson pushed the envelope of on-location shooting further by deciding to shoot even the indoor scenes on-location in rented apartments. cinematographer Walter Lassally worked extensively with Richardson to bring out a realistic and almost documentary-like look to the outdoor scenes in the film. Lassally made use of Ilford filmstock of different speeds in accordance with the location of the shoot and the availability of light. Some of the highlights of the film include an improvised sequence where the main characters of the film go to a carnival which features real people as extras and a rare cameo appearance from Tony Richardson himself. Another great piece of cinematography was the use of hand-held camerawork during a sequence inside a car.

Delaney's story tells the journey of Jo (played by Rita Tushingham), a young woman who is just out of school and living with her single mother. The journey takes Jo to fall in love with a coloured sailor who leaves for a long voyage right after he impregnates her. Her mother eventually marries a rich younger man moves out, forcing Jo to drop out of school, get a job at a local shoe store and support herself. This is where she meets and forms a close friendship with Geoffrey (played by Murray Melvin), a young gay man who eventually moves in with Jo when she needs someone to support her during her pregnancy.

As with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), A Taste of Honey openly dealt with a lot of topics that were previously considered taboo. The subjects of pre-marital pregnancy, homosexuality and illicit relationships were all addressed openly and in a highly positive tone. Tushingham and Melvin won the best actor honours at Cannes Film Festival in 1962, making A Taste of Honey an instant hit internationally.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Richardson followed up his critically acclaimed A Taste of Honey (1961) with the almost-immediate release of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). Working once again with cinematographer Walter Lassally, Richardson built on the foundations laid down by his previous film in terms of cinematographic experimentation. Richardson and Lassally employed the extensive usage of hand-held camera juxtaposed with long tracking shots to achieve the intended feeling of chaos and disturbance. Loneliness was released during what was considered to be the peak of the British New Wave. By this time the early films have made enough of an impact to achieve proper funding and interest from around the industry.

Loneliness explores subjects that were previously addressed in Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). Alan Sillitoe once again adapts his work for the screen in Loneliness which tells the story of a young man named Colin Smith (played by Tom Courtenay) who is sentenced to a boy's reformatory for robbing a bakery. It is here that he discovers his talent for long distance running. The story explores the Colin's journey through the reformatory as he trains himself for an upcoming sporting event with a boarding school juxtaposed with flashbacks of his life so far which resulted in his perpetual bitterness, rebellion spirit and his hatred towards the society.

Tom Courtenay achieved critical acclaim for his portrayal of the rebellious Colin Smith and was compared extensively with Sillitoe's other major character Arthur Seaton from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

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