François Truffaut, the French director and critic, famously once said that the cinema and the British were inimical to one another, implying that as a nation we had neither a real cinematic tradition nor an innate feel for cinema, a summation that was clearly partial and superficial. In tandem with other French directors and critics of the Nouvelle Vague era, Truffaut was a Hollywood enthusiast, often elevating routine material to the level of art and discovering hitherto hidden directorial ‘geniuses’ such as Howard Hawks, Samuel Fuller and even Jerry Lewis as justification of the ‘auteur theory’, which established the director as the author of a film. However, it is true that throughout its history British cinema has had to contend with the increasingly dominating influence of the Hollywood industry. At times it has struggled to survive, not only in an artistic sense but also as a separate economic entity, raising the question of whether or not there has existed an indigenous film industry at all.

With this Hollywood dominance of the marketplace has come an economic stranglehold, easily imposed by the major American film companies. More and more, the problem has been how a truly British film industry could make British films that reflected British society, and avoid merely producing genre product for a worldwide market in which 95% of the films shown were made by American companies or financed by American money. What is, after all, a ‘British film’? For example, three of the most successful ‘British’ films of all time – The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and The English Patient – were all financed by Hollywood money, but they are largely British in content and have British directors, writers and stars. When the total oeuvre of the British film industry is considered, it is possible to see how Truffaut’s statement about the British and cinema can be dismissed as critically insubstantial.

The 1960s: The British New Wave

The French New Wave ( Nouvelle Vague ) directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Louis Malle had led the way in breaking free from the confining traditions of the established French cinema. Both in the radical new techniques and the subject matter they dealt with, they created a vibrant, fresh national cinema. Influenced by that trend, new British directors including Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz and John Schlesinger broke free from the rather hidebound restrictions of traditional British cinema and made films that tried to reflect a post-war Britain, largely populated by working-class people struggling to make a living in sometimes grim circumstances. This change was also heavily influenced by the British theatre and the new playwrights (dubbed the ‘Angry Young Men’ by the popular press) such as John Osborne, Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker, Shelagh Delaney and John Arden.

Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz had been involved in the ‘Free Cinema’ movement, making several documentaries that dealt with the class structure in British society and portrayed the working lives of ordinary people. Generally, the British New Wave was leftist in attitude, critical of the establishment and class barriers, although most of these directors who were part of this new impetus were themselves middle-class and ex-public schoolboys. Another change that the British New Wave brought about was the emergence of actors from working-class roots, often from the North. Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Rachel Roberts, Rita Tushingham, Alan Bates, Tom Bell and Alfred Lynch were not typical RADA graduates and could more convincingly play the working-class characters. Others such as Sean Connery, Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris came from Celtic backgrounds and brought a variety of accents to the British film that had hitherto largely been indifferently reproduced by actors brought up and trained in the south-east of England. Traditional British cinema did not completely disappear, of course, but the 1960s are dominated artistically by these emerging voices.

Case study: Ken Loach’s Kes (1969)

Ken Loach and Tony Garnett had had their successes in television’s Wednesday Play slot with productions such as Cathy Come Home before they made Kes ( Ed: one the pivotal British films of the 1960s). They brought their radical sensibilities and views to this subject-matter, turning a simple story of a boy who finds a kestrel and thereby some much-needed meaning to his life, into a representation of a working-class community in the north of England with all its restrictions, poverty (economic and spiritual) and harshness. This is not a sentimental view of the British working-class. The characters are not the salt of the earth or brimming over with the milk of human kindness. Billy Casper, the boy protagonist, is confronted at all turns with indifference and sometimes cruelty. Because of his lowly class background he is dismissed at school as unlikely to amount to very much; at home, he is subjected to harassment by his older brother who takes out his frustrations with life on him.

Billy’s life is transformed, however, when he rescues a kestrel that he looks after and makes a ‘friend’. There is an inevitability about the destruction at the hands of his brother of the falcon because everything in Billy’s life is programmed to failure and loss. The one sympathetic adult represented is a teacher who encourages Billy in his caring for the kestrel, but he is one adult among many who show Billy little understanding. There is an authenticity about the portrayal of working-class life that the vast majority of British movies lack. It is not all gloom, however, there are some humorous episodes including the famous sequence where the boneheaded sports master plays out his fantasies about being a football star on the school playing fields. Billy Casper is the kind of kid who is always last to be picked when sides are being chosen at football and who remains unnoticed at the back of the class. In focusing on a boy like this, Loach and his colleagues are making an implicit statement about the waste of human potential that the British class system wreaks. Billy has potential as his care for the kestrel reveals, finer feelings and a desire for higher things, but the odds are stacked heavily against him, the film implies.

David Bradley who plays Billy went on to become a professional actor and Colin Welland, who plays the sympathetic teacher, continued his acting career to become the screenwriter of Chariots of Fire . Ken Loach would continue to become one of the leading lights of the radical British cinema, more politicised and able than Mike Leigh, who became the safe, comfortable so-called ‘radical’ director of the establishment. In his later movies, Loach sometimes strays into sentimentality when portraying working-class life and his films can be more worthy than worthwhile, but in Kes he avoided those pitfalls, crafting a key British film of the 1960s.

This is an edited extracted of Don Siach’s Pocket Essential Great British Movies. To buy a copy please follow one of the links provided and support Kamera by doing so.