When trying to convince fellow film fans of the merits of the various sub-genres and movements of world cinema, the British New Wave can be a hard sell since the uninitiated often associate it with dour, downbeat meditations on working class life that will likely depress them more than offer an enjoyable evening’s viewing. Such reductive expectations are, as is usually the case, completely unfounded and while British New Wave films do frequently deal in stark realism, the idea that they can all be consigned to one chilly, grey pigeon-hole is one that is immediately obliterated the moment people begin watching the films themselves. Utilising some of the most exciting new writers, directors and stars of the era as well as giving established greats roles they could really get their teeth into, the British New Wave is a crucial, diverse part of cinema history in which you can find the expected bleak meditations on everyday life alongside satirical comedies, adaptations of classic literature, surrealist tracts, poetic dreamscapes and even a musical of sorts. One of the key proponents, nay instigators, of these wonderful films was Woodfall Productions. Set up by director Tony Richardson, writer John Osborne and producer Harry Saltzman in order to film Osborne’s popular play Look Back in Anger, Woodfall quickly became one of the most exciting British production companies. The BFI’s new Blu-ray/DVD release Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema offers a perfect introduction to the company’s output, including eight of their first nine films (Peter Yates’s poorly received One Way Pendulum is not included) and a cornucopia of brilliant extras that will allow the curious viewer to quickly become fully immersed and educated in this vibrant era of British cinema.
LOOK BACK IN ANGER
Director: Tony Richardson
Screenplay: Nigel Kneale
Based on the play by: John Osborne
Producers: Harry Saltzman, Gordon Scott
Starring: Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Gary Raymond
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 98 mins
In which Richard Burton brings a giant, ham-encrusted fist down forcefully on a promising production.
Woodfall films was established with the express intention of making a screen version of John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger, a searing examination of disaffected youth and class barriers which spawned the term ‘angry young men’ to refer to Osborne and other realist playwrights of his generation. The social realism of Look Back in Anger was as influential on British cinema as it was on theatre, with the subsequent British New Wave films owing an acknowledged debt to the angry young men, but in bringing it to the screen director Tony Richardson made a big mistake in casting Richard Burton in the lead role of Jimmy Porter. Look Back in Anger was a small production with a big star at its centre. Burton has already been nominated for two Oscars at this stage and was widely known and respected. Unfortunately, the particular brand of forcefulness associated with Burton’s acting style was a poor fit for the character of Jimmy Porter, who is written with a great deal more subtlety in the play than allowed for by Burton’s bellowing turn.
Adapted by Nigel Kneale, a TV writer known for the Quatermass dramas, Look Back in Anger is nicely opened out from its original one room setting in a manner that does not eradicate the sense of emotional claustrophobia that is so important to the material. A couple of scenes are a tad more on-the-nose in delineating the class themes but in turn help to make the story more accessible for cinema audiences whose expectations differed from those of theatre-goers (a partially class-based consideration in itself). But these concessions to cinematic convention are unable to help Look Back in Anger struggle out from under the weight of Burton’s exhausting, overwrought central performance. Although he was nominated for several awards for his interpretation of Jimmy, Burton dwarfs the film’s other attributes with his excessive roaring and stagy physical posturing. As a result, the delicate social realism that the story demands is shattered by the fact that Jimmy seems almost like a creature from another world. Even on the rare occasions he’s not on screen, the threat of his imminent presence overwhelms everything else. Ultimately, the tensions between working class and upper-middle class explored in the play are trumped by the tensions between loud and quiet. Burton would go on to give some excellent performances, chiefly his exquisite role in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, in which he proved himself more suited to the Theatre of the Absurd than to the world of kitchen sink realism. Unfortunately, in Look Back in Anger he turned out to be too imposing a presence and turned a thoughtful, multi-layered play into a raving, clunky melodrama.
Director: Tony Richardson
Screenplay: John Osborne, Nigel Kneale
Based on the play by: John Osborne
Producers: Harry Saltzman
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright, Roger Livesey
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 107 mins
In which Laurence Olivier gives one of his least hammy performances in the role of his hammiest character.
The second film to come out of Woodfall Film Productions, The Entertainer shares many attributes with Look Back in Anger. It was based on a play by John Osborne, adapted for the screen by Nigel Kneale (this time with Osborne as co-adaptor), directed by Tony Richardson and had an established star in its lead role. The major difference, however, is that The Entertainer is a terrific piece of work. Though it still has some marked differences from the more famous British New Wave films that followed, The Entertainer examines many of the same themes of shifting generations and changing societal expectations but from the other side of the fence, focusing on an older man who is losing a grip on the world he understands. Woodfall would soon be known for films that foregrounded the work of a promising new generation of young actors but with The Entertainer the company produced a film which provides a devastating insight into the life of an angry middle-aged man. As music hall entertainer Archie Rice, Laurence Olivier is superb and showcases the adaptability which allowed him to retain his reputation as one of the great actors right up until his death. Best known for his Shakespearean roles including an Oscar-winning performance as Hamlet, or for roles of serious dramatic intensity such as Maxim de Winter in Hitchcock’s Rebecca or Heathcliff in William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights, Olivier is sometimes accused of being an old ham whose trademark theatrical solemnity clashes with the modern preference for realism that prevailed decades after his most iconic roles. But as Archie Rice, Olivier displays his dramatic intelligence, leaving little doubt that he could rise to any acting challenge handed down to him.
Archie Rice is a tragic but not-especially sympathetic figure who hides his anger at a world he no longer understands behind a barrage of glib jokes and hokey routines. Though at his most obnoxiously desperate on stage, Archie continues to blurt out one-liners when the greasepaint is removed. His obsession with reviving his flagging career is so strong that he only semi-registers the turmoil his family is in as his son is captured by the Egyptians at Suez and his neglected wife, well-aware of her husband’s philandering, descends into alcoholism. Like many of Woodfall’s morally-ambiguous lead characters, Archie is understandable without being likeable. We revile his selfish behaviour and yet we don’t want him to fail. This is largely thanks to Olivier’s performance, which imbues Archie with a humanism that a lesser actor would have bypassed on their way to outright grotesque. Another canny piece of casting is Roger Livesey as Archie’s father. Livesey was a veteran of British cinema, most notably for his appearances in several Powell and Pressburger films which still stand as some of the finest productions this country has ever created. Livesey is excellent as Archie’s father, a veteran performer himself whose success makes Archie’s failure even more humiliating. Adding some humour to the mix is Thora Hird as the mother of a beauty contest entrant in whom Archie takes an interest. Peppered around these stalwarts are a group of young actors who would play a significant part in the rise of new British cinema, including Alan Bates, Albert Finney and Shirley Anne Field. Although they feature comparatively fleetingly here, they would soon become major players with Finney and Field starring in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning that same year and Bates playing the lead in John Schlesinger’s excellent A Kind of Loving two years later.
The Entertainer, like many British New Wave films, forsakes a straightforward plot progression for a languid, thoughtful treatise on issues of age, class, politics and gender, making for an engagingly cerebral experience without the trappings of narrative expectations. Nevertheless, it also knowingly follows some narrative conventions as a deliberate reflection of its showbiz subject matter. The final, lacklustre performance has an ironic sting but there is no unpleasant sense of mockery in The Entertainer. Both the screenplay and Olivier’s spot-on performances in the film’s theatre sequences acknowledge the value and artistry of a multi-faceted stage comedian and there is a clear affection for the history of this art-form. But there is also an astute recognition that its time and place has passed and to cling to outdated ideas and methods can only lead to disaster. In the tensions between Archie’s progressively-minded daughter Jean (a sympathetic Joan Plowright who, like Olivier, reprises her original stage role) and her conservative-minded family and fiancé, the parallels become apparent. While the original play may not have had the impact of Osborne’s previous Look Back in Anger, the material certainly seems more suited for adaptation to the screen and the result is an oft-overlooked gem which was perhaps overshadowed by the release of the iconic Saturday Night and Sunday Morning the same year. Nevertheless, The Entertainer got Woodfall its first Oscar nomination for Olivier’s indelible central turn, a sign that British cinema was finally moving on from the cobweb-encrusted past that had kept it from serious critical consideration for so many years.
SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING
Director: Karel Reisz
Screenplay: Alan Sillitoe
Based on the novel by: Alan Sillitoe
Producers: Tony Richardson, Harry Saltzman
Starring: Albert Finney, Shirley Anne Field, Rachel Roberts
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 89 mins
In which Karel Reisz creates the first masterpiece of the British New Wave and Albert Finney takes a decisive step towards stardom.
With Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Woodfall made a landmark film which would have remained its most famous and celebrated creation were it not for the release of Ken Loach’s Kes in 1969. While that film overtook Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in terms of wide renown, Karel Reisz’s compellingly realistic adaptation of Alan Sillitoe’s novel (from a screenplay by Sillitoe himself) arguably remains the more important work in terms of British cinema’s maturation. Following the day to day life of bicycle factory machinist Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney) who is out for a good time and considers everything else to be “propaganda”, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning has the loosest of structures, with the main semblance of plot centring around Arthur’s affair with Brenda (Rachel Roberts), the wife of one of his colleagues. Determined to spend every spare second he has indulging his impulses, Arthur spends a significant amount of his time drinking and attempting to romance a young woman called Doreen (Shirley Anne Field). Belligerent and contemptuous of what he sees as the dull society around him, Arthur is the classic rebel without a cause, kicking against the expectations of others in small, impotent gestures which ultimately clash with a suppressed moral code which is fairly conventional and finds Arthur gradually succumbing to an approximation of the ordered drudgery he despises.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’s brilliance is in its critique of society through character. Although Sillitoe acknowledges the moral and social imbalance of 60s Britain, he does so through a character with whom we are not encouraged to sympathise and whose own naïve assessment of his world sees him failing to justify the periodic release of his pent-up fury with any kind of affirmative action. Unlike Look Back in Anger’s Jimmy Porter, whose rage was tempered with intelligence, Arthur Seaton is bullheaded without fully understanding why, his reductive dismissal of anything approaching analysis as propaganda giving him an easy out to behave selfishly and pass it off as a working class victory. Sillitoe’s subtle writing is matched by Reisz’s delicate direction, both encouraging us not to despise Arthur but to question a society whose rigidity could birth young men of such confused, dangerous mindsets. As Arthur, Albert Finney is magnificent. He is physically imposing but not a battering-ram like Richard Burton made Jimmy Porrter. He doesn’t go looking for fights or to start trouble but his demeanour and behaviour invite both anyway. He walks and talks with the confidence of a man but acts with the impulsiveness of a child with a fondness for cruel pranks and macho one-upmanship. Finney clearly enjoys playing the part in the many scenes involving Arthur’s hedonistic indulgences but when he finds himself faced with a serious problem that threatens his lifestyle, he allows the audience to see just small glimpses of his vulnerability.
If Tony Richardson’s earlier films for Woodfall had elements of melodrama and tinges of classic tragedy about them, Karel Reisz’s direction of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning creates a very different beast. Although there are a couple of very significant events within the film’s hour and a half (one of which earned it an X certificate on its original release), Reisz creates a slice-of-life realism more deftly than most other British New Wave films managed. Though often seen as of a piece with each other, the films of the British New Wave are more varied than they are given credit for, with some boasting a poetic bent or a penchant for comic exaggeration, others allowing themselves a tinge of romance or a smattering of fantasy. Despite this, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’s expertly captured realism is frequently seen as the template. It was certainly the most impactful in terms of striking a chord with audiences becoming the third most popular film at the British box office in 1960. There are other British New Wave films that are at least as good as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning but none which achieve that sense of a time and place quite as perfectly.
A TASTE OF HONEY
Director: Tony Richardson
Screenplay: Shelagh Delaney, Tony Richardson
Based on the play by: Shelagh Delaney
Producers: Tony Richardson
Starring: Rita Tushingham, Dora Bryan, Robert Stephens, Murray Melvin
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 100 mins
In which Tony Richardson and Shelagh Delaney create the British New Wave’s most poetic film and inspire the hell out of a young Morrissey in the process.
After his colleague Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning emphatically trumped his own directorial efforts in terms of both quality and popularity, it was to Tony Richardson’s credit that he did not try to emulate its style in his next feature. A Taste of Honey could hardly be more different from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, forsaking that film’s distinctly male viewpoint for a narrative told through the experiences of females and a young gay man whose approach to life is a far cry from the booze-breathed belligerence of Arthur Seaton. This refreshing angle in a British New Wave dominated by men stems from the talents of dramatist Shelagh Delaney who wrote the original play on which the film is based at the age of 19. Adapting it into a screenplay with the assistance of Richardson, Delaney was able to retain subject matter that was controversial for the era, including teenage pregnancy, interracial relationships and homosexuality, but these realistic topics are couched in a poetic style which never soft-pedals their significance but provides a less insistently grim viewing experience than Richardson’s previous work.
A Taste of Honey tells the story of 17 year old schoolgirl Jo (Rita Tushingham) whose complicated relationship with her mother Helen (Dora Bryan) is strained by the arrival of a suitor named Peter (Robert Stephens). Seeking comfort in the arms of a young black sailor named Jimmy (Paul Danquah) and moving into her own flat, the newly pregnant Jo forms an unconventional family with her new friend, gay textile student Geoff (Murray Melvin) who pledges to look after Jo and her baby when Jimmy ships out. But when Helen’s relationship runs into problems, the question of who needs who more causes friction. Delaney’s combined ear for realistic dialogue and penchant for florid wit results in one of the British New Wave’s finest screenplays and fans of The Smiths will spot numerous lines pilfered by Morrissey such as “the dream is gone but the baby is real” and “I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice” (a tad rich given he also wrote the lines “if you must write prose or poems the words you use should be your own, don’t plagiarise or take on loan”). Morrissey’s admiration for the film makes sense since The Smiths’ lyrics trade in a similar style of mordant wit and eloquence.
There are numerous other strings to A Taste of Honey’s bow. The performances by the main cast are extraordinary, with Tushingham making a terrific film debut and Bryan absolutely nailing the part of her mother. The two women play off each other brilliantly, making a convincing mother-daughter pairing and gently hinting at the connective tissue between these two apparently quite different people. Although they frequently clash, there is a touching realism to their fleeting moments of harmony as they share a joke or momentarily let their guard drop when one needs the other. As Geoff, Melvin is delightfully understated in an era when a gay character was more likely to be played as a mincing menace to masculinity and his relationship with Jo is convincing and, at times, heartbreaking, while Stephens take on Helen’s pushy, alcoholic boyfriend is a multi-layered portrait that evolves throughout the film rather than a one-note grotesque. Further improving A Taste of Honey is its cinematography by the celebrated Walter Lassally, a cinematographer who had worked with Richardson and his contemporaries on the Free Cinema films from which the British New Wave had grown. The film was shot entirely on location in Manchester and Salford and Lassally used three different film stocks keyed to different locations and designed to emphasise natural light, resulting in some startlingly immersive shots of the city’s northern industrial landscape. If Saturday Night and Sunday Morning felt grubbily realistic, A Taste of Honey feels like a vivid dream; the sort of dream that lacks any element of the fantastical but somehow renders ethereal the all-too-tangible world of your waking life.
THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER
Director: Tony Richardson
Screenplay: Alan Sillitoe
Based on the short story by: Alan Sillitoe
Producers: Tony Richardson, Michael Holden
Starring: Tom Courtenay, Michael Redgrave, James Bolan
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 104 mins
In which a young Tom Courtenay gives a mesmerizing performance in another blinding Sillitoe script.
Having brought a uniquely dreamlike quality to the kitchen sink drama in A Taste of Honey, Tony Richardson followed up by waking audiences into a grim reality again as Alan Sillitoe adapted another of his realistic studies of class and disenfranchisement for the screen. Based on his own short story, Sillitoe’s screenplay for The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner takes a different approach from Saturday Night And Sunday Morning’s chronological plod through the mundanities of everyday life, instead opting for a non-linear structure which begins with Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) being sent to Ruxton Towers, a borstal for juvenile offenders, before showing us exactly what landed him there through a series of carefully-placed flashbacks. In amongst these remembrances we follow Colin’s progress behind bars as his physical prowess brings him to the attention of the Governor (Michael Redgrave), whose belief in athletics as an important tool for rehabilitation is clearly secondary to his own fiercely competitive nature, which in turn breeds elements of favouritism and a juvenile single-mindedness that does a disservice to the boys in his charge. As Colin is taken under the Governor’s wing, his fellow detainees begin to lose respect for him… but what is Colin’s ultimate motivation?
Unlike Arthur Seaton, who states his hedonistic philosophy outright, Colin Smith is a character of sly wit and manipulative intelligence. He spends much of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner weighing up the options before him, a process represented by the flashbacks to his pre-incarceration days on the streets of Nottingham. Colin is played to perfection by Tom Courtenay who encapsulates all the seething resentment and sense of injustice whether it be below the surface or boiling over. The latter is a rarity, for Colin is a conniver who is willing to play the long game and the action he ultimately takes can be interpreted as victorious or foolhardy depending on how the viewer has read the deliberately ambiguous story. Courtenay would star in another of the British New Wave’s greatest films, Billy Liar, the following year and his talents as an actor are clear in just how different a character and performance we see in that film. Amusingly, in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Colin’s best friend is played by James Bolan while in Billy Liar the best friend role would be taken by Rodney Bewes. Bolam and Bewes would soon ditch Courtenay and team up as TV’s The Likely Lads! But I digress…
Watched back to back with A Taste of Honey, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner feels like a considerably grimier experience, testament to a stylistic diversity with which Richardson and the kitchen sink drama in general are rarely credited. There is no place for a poetic take on realism in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Richardson opting quite rightly for a bleaker sense of chilly reality to match the material, although Sillitoe’s screenplay does offer moments of sly comedy in Colin’s disdainful reaction to a word association exercise. This nod to a more liberal-minded attempt at rehabilitation and its failure to engage the subject is a shrewd inclusion and testament to Sillitoe’s refusal to oversimplify issues with one-sided treatments. As well as Courtenay’s turn in the lead role, Michael Redgrave also provides dramatic weight to the film as the Governor. In a continued policy of combining new and established talent, Redgrave’s place in theatre and cinema history makes him the ideal foil for Courtenay’s cocky upstart and the seasoned professional and vibrant newcomer bounce off each other with considerable subtlety. The result is another complex, compelling classic from Woodfall’s early period.
Director: Tony Richardson
Screenplay: John Osborne
Based on the novel by: Henry Fielding
Producers: Tony Richardson, Michael Holden, Oscar Lewenstein
Starring: Albert Finney, Susannah York, Hugh Griffith, Edith Evans, Joan Greenwood
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 128 mins
In which a shift in source material from contemporary plays to classic literature results in one of the most bizarre Best Picture Oscar winners ever.
Despite having carved out a reputation as one of the finest purveyors of kitchen sink dramas, Tony Richardson was not about to let Woodfall stagnate and his next project took a step in a different direction. While all the studio’s films until this point had been based on the work of contemporary writers, with Tom Jones Richardson looked instead to classic eighteenth-century literature for inspiration. The hero of Henry Fielding’s bawdy picaresque novel does seem in many ways like a precursor to the pleasure-seeking Arthur Seaton and accordingly Albert Finney was cast in the role, while Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer’s author John Osborne was engaged to write the arch screenplay. Also in keeping with Woodfall’s previous outings, Richardson peppered his cast of young actors with old-hands like Edith Evans, High Griffith and Joan Greenwood. The stage seemed set for an exciting new take on the epic costume drama and Tom Jones does indeed bring many new angles to the often creaky sub-genre. The film has, however, aged somewhat poorly and what felt new and exciting at the time of its release too often seems hackneyed and even desperate to modern eyes.
A major problem with Tom Jones is that it feels more like a box of tricks than a film. In attempting to capture the winking nature of the saucy material, Richardson throws everything he can think of into the mix from a silent film style prologue to freeze frames, speeded up footage and frequent fourth wall breaking. Sometimes it works, with the cheeky turns to camera (something I loathe when done clumsily) giving the film a devilish charm but ultimately the constant prestidigitation becomes severely distancing. At over two hours in length (the director’s cut, also included here, comes in at a little under two hours), Tom Jones is an exhausting experience as there is little engagement to be had with these characters and what begins as playful merriment eventually feels like tired frolicking. Oddly, for a film whose characters seem almost secondary and are played with an affectionate but one-dimensional staginess, Tom Jones received five Oscar nominations in the acting categories. It remains the only film to achieve three Best Supporting Actress nominations (although the award went to another British actress, Margaret Rutherford, in Anthony Asquith’s largely forgotten The V.I.P.s) and it won several other high profile Oscars including Richardson for Best Director, Osborne for Best Adapted Screenplay, John Addison for Best Original Score and, amazingly enough, Best Picture.
The Best Picture Oscar win for Tom Jones is less shocking with a little context. 1963 was a particularly weak year for cinema and the film found itself up against weak fare like Ralph Nelson’s Lilies of the Field and laboured epics like How the West Was Won and Cleopatra. In the face of these desperately creaking remnants of old Hollywood, Tom Jones looked positively vivacious. International Anglophiles also found much to delight them in the film’s sweeping images of rural Britain and the heritage film trappings which so delight the Academy and which Tom Jones partially subverts but ultimately also relies strongly upon. Decades later, Tom Jones is one of the most regularly forgotten and least praised Best Picture winners, its gluttonous food-gobbling seduction scene being its sole well-remembered moment. But in its desire to innovate and its impish energy, it is also infinitely preferable to other dour British adaptations of classic literature like John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd, the British New Wave’s other big period piece. It can’t sustain its charms for 128 minutes but Tom Jones is an article of genuine fascination with glimpses of brilliance amongst its many trying-too-hard moments.
GIRL WITH GREEN EYES
Director: Desmond Davis
Screenplay: Edna O’Brien
Based on the novel by: Edna O’Brien
Producers: Oscar Lewenstein
Starring: Peter Finch, Rita Tushingham, Lynn Redgrave
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 91 mins
In which a gentler approach to slice-of-life material results in a damp squib.
All of Woodfall’s films have a deliberate tendency to meander, with character and comment generally favoured over incident. This approach had worked well for the studio, producing films with a greater sense of depth than some of their more neatly-plotted predecessors. The danger of this approach, of course, is that if the characters fail to come alive or the social commentary is too muddy then you’re left with a directionless bore. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened with first-time director Desmond Davis’s Girl With Green Eyes. Davis had worked as a camera operator on several Woodfall productions before being given the chance to direct Edna O’Brien’s adaptation of her own novel. The film tells the story of Kate Brady (Rita Tushingham), a girl just out of convent school who rooms with her best friend Baba (Lynn Redgrave) in Dublin. When the pair meet middle-aged author Eugene Gaillard (Peter Finch), Kate is immediately attracted to him and engineers further meetings with him until a budding friendship begins to turn into a romance. But Eugene’s secretiveness, Kate’s naivety and her interfering Catholic family all conspire to make their initially idyllic affair into something more complex.
Girl With Green Eyes is another new proposition for Woodfall, its gentle approach to a slowly unfolding drama distinguishing itself prominently from previous releases. Sometimes mischaracterised as a romance, the film is more of an examination of a young woman’s struggle for personal freedom, with her own beliefs proving as much of an obstacle as those of the people around her. Though Finch may be the film’s biggest star, it is Tushingham who is the focus, her mesmerising eyes communicating more than her passable attempt at an Irish accent. Much better though is Lynn Redgrave as Baba, whose outgoing boisterousness lights up the screen for the comparatively short amount of time she appears. Her characters scenes are sprinkled throughout the film and help to punctuate the tedium of the central relationship but unfortunately the brooding longueurs stack up making the hour and a half runtime seem considerably longer. Although it makes some relevant observations about the oppressive expectations heaped on the shoulders of young Irish women, Girl With Green Eyes eventually fizzles out with a strange non-ending in which even Tushingham’s narration sounds like it was cut off mid-sentence.
THE KNACK… AND HOW TO GET IT
Director: Richard Lester
Screenplay: Charles Wood
Based on the play by: Ann Jellicoe
Producers: Oscar Lewenstein
Starring: Rita Tushingham, Michael Crawford, Ray Brooks, Donal Donnelly
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 85 mins
In which TV’s Frank Spencer delivers the line “Get in there and rape her, she wants you to rape her.”
Richard Lester was a hot new director when he made The Knack …and How to Get It for Woodfall. He had just come off the back of making one of the British New Wave’s most unusual, enjoyable and, perhaps against the odds, greatest films, A Hard Day’s Night and was about to make his second film with The Beatles, the Swinging London surrealism of Help! (also ace). The Knack …and How to Get It is often retrospectively referred to as a small, lesser-known film between two massive hits but at the time this adaptation of the play by Ann Jellicoe was critically hailed, even winning the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes. With its barrage of visual gags, fourth wall breaking, editing tricks and tongue-in-cheek subtitles, The Knack …and How to Get It has Lester’s directorial stamp all over it and there is much to enjoy in its loose, formless approach. However, as a mid-60s film examining gender roles and sexual attitudes of the time, it has inevitably dated and one lengthy sequence in particular has ensured the film remains rarely screened to this day.
The Knack …and How to Get It begins with awkward school teacher Colin (Michael Crawford) jealously marvelling at how his housemate Tolen (Ray Brooks) seems to be able to get any woman he desires. Seeking tutoring from Tolen and with newly-acquired housemate Tom (Donal Donnelly) along to comment drily on proceedings, Colin sets about trying to become a hit with the ladies. His first step is to obtain a large cast iron bed which he must push through London to his home. In doing so, he catches the eye of Nancy (Rita Tushingham), a young woman who has just arrived in London and is searching for the YWCA. Assisting in transporting the bed, Nancy becomes the unwilling recipient of sexual advances from Tolen, leading to an apparently unfounded accusation of rape which turns the power dynamic on its head.
As you can probably spot from reading that synopsis, The Knack …and How to Get It has a serious tonal problem in incorporating its larger themes into its superficially quaint structure. But it is the portion of the film addressing rape which derails what was, until then, an interesting collection of ideas. For some, the problem with the rape material was that they saw it as unsuitable subject matter for a comedy but The Knack …and How to Get It is clearly satirical in intent and in exploring sexual relationships of the time was well within its rights to tackle the subject. The problem is the emphasis of the skit. Having fainted in the midst of Tolen’s latest attempt to seduce her, Nancy comes round and immediately cries rape, something which terrifies all three men so much that they move far away in three jump cuts, without having to move their legs. That the allegation is untrue is already problematic but Lester then has Nancy run around like a woman possessed, honking “Rape” in various comic ways like a broken bicycle horn. She then goes to Tolen’s room and takes off all her clothes (off camera), at which point the men assume she is enacting a rape fantasy and Colin actually eggs on Tolen to “get in there and rape her.” Apologists for The Knack …and How to Get It have floated all sorts of possible readings of this bizarre sequence and chided its critics for being too easily offended. But the problem is that the most readily applicable reading is that women, in order to obtain power, are willing to make false rape allegations and Tushingham’s ravings make her into a figure of ridicule as much as the men so desperately flailing around to make sense of the situation. The fact that she then goes and takes all her clothes off makes things even more problematic. It may be that the film did not intend viewers to react this way but it at least had a duty in its ambiguity to make sure that certain doors were closed and in making such a crass interpretation so thoroughly likely, The Knack …and How to Get It simply can’t come back from the ruins of its own archness.
It is apparent from reading these reviews back to back that Woodfall’s output is something of a mixed bag but this fantastic new boxset more than earns its five star rating for its four great films, three of which cannot be overlooked by any serious devotee of British cinema. But even the failures have elements of interest and with an accompanying book full of essays and almost a day’s worth of extra features, Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema allows viewers to completely immerse themselves in this era of British filmmaking. For those curious about the British New Wave, I can think of no better place to begin.
Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 11 June 2018. An astonishing 20 hours+ of bonus material includes commentaties, trailers, interviews, documentaries and, most excitingly of all, short films from the period including classics of the Free Cinema movement O Dreamland, Momma Don’t Allow and We Are the Lambeth Boys.
The full list of extras is as follows:
• The Stories that Changed British Cinema panel discussion (2018): Danny Leigh, Rita Tushingham, Tom Courtenay, Joely Richardson, Paris Lees and Jez Butterworth explore the gritty stories brought to life by Woodfall Films
• George Devine Memorial Play: Look Back in Anger (Peter Whitehead, 1966)
• Oswald Morris Remembers Woodfall (Alan Van Wijgerden, 1993)
• Ten Bob in Winter (Lloyd Reckord, 1963)
• Look Back in Anger trailer
• George Devine Memorial Play: The Entertainer, Sequence One and Two (Peter Whitehead, 1966)
• O Dreamland (Lindsay Anderson, 1953)
• Panoramic View of the Morecambe Sea Front (Mitchell and Kenyon, 1901)
• Parade on West End Pier, Morecambe (Mitchell and Kenyon, 1901)
• Parade on West End Pier, Morecambe (2) (Mitchell and Kenyon, 1901)
• Parade on Morecambe Central Pier (Mitchell and Kenyon, 1902)
• Morecambe Promenade & Winter Gardens (Mitchell and Kenyon, 1901)
• Morecambe Pier (Mitchell and Kenyon, 1900)
• Scenes by the Stone Jetty, Morecambe (Mitchell and Kenyon, 1901)
• Morecambe Carnival – Topical Budget 944-2 (1929)
• Lancashire Coast (John Taylor, 1957)
• Albert Finney Interview (2009)
• Shirley Anne Field on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Caroline Millar, 2009)
• We are the Lambeth Boys (Karel Reisz, 1959)
• Walter Lassally Video Essay (2002) – Walter Lassally explains some of the decisions and techniques used on A Taste of Honey
• A Taste of Honey 50th Anniversary Q&A with Rita Tushingham, Murray Melvin and Walter Lassally (2011)
• A Taste of Honey from Stage to Screen – A Journey with Murray Melvin (2018)
• Rita Tushingham on A Taste of Honey (2018)
• Holiday (John Taylor, 1957)
• Walter Lassally Video Essay (2002) – Walter Lassally explains some of the decisions and techniques used on The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner
• Momma Don’t Allow (Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, 1956)
• The Guardian Interview: Albert Finney (1982 – audio only)
• Vanessa Redgrave on Tony Richardson (2017)
• USSR Today: Meeting to Mark the 200th Anniversary of Henry Fielding (1954)
• Tom Jones trailer
• George Devine Memorial Play: Luther (Peter Whitehead, 1966)
• Walter Lassally on Tom Jones (2017) – The cinematographer looks back over his work on Tom Jones
• Rita Tushingham on Girl with Green Eyes (2018)
• Film Poetry: Desmond Davis (2018) – A new interview with director Desmond Davis
• Food for a Blluuusssshhhhh (Elizabeth Russell, 1959)
• The Peaches (Michael Gill, 1964)
• Girl with Green Eyes trailer
• George Devine Memorial Play: Exit the King (Peter Whitehead, 1966)
• Captain Busby The Even Tenour of Her Ways (Ann Wolff, 1967)
• Now and Then: Dick Lester (1967)
• Rita Tushingham remembers The Knack… and how to get it (2018)
• Staging The Knack… and how to get it (Marcus Campbell Sinclair, 2018)
• British Cinema in the 1960s: Richard Lester in Conversation (Marcus Campbell Sinclair, 2018)
• Audio Commentaries by Robert Murphy, writer Alan Silllitoe and cinematographer Freddie Francis (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), Rita Tushingham, Dora Bryan and Murray Melvin (A Taste of Honey), Robert Murphy, Alan Sillitoe and Tom Courtenay (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), Adrian Martin (Girl with the Green Eyes), and Neil Sinyard (The Knack…and How to Get it)
• Stills Galleries