Bedsit cinema of ’60s England

Pub date August 29, 2007
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

The early ’60s French new wave gets imitations and retrospectives and books galore, but in terms of homage, the British new wave of roughly the same era hasn’t been gifted with much more than a number of Smiths 7- and 12-inch singles covers and some Morrissey lyrics. Such tributes are nothing to sniff at, but an orange Shelagh Delaney on the cover of Louder Than Bombs or a picture of a pouty Rita Tushingham on the packaging of Sandie Shaw’s version of "Hand in Glove" don’t amount to the unanimous praise and canonical status given to, say, Jean-Luc Godard.

The subject of the new Pacific Film Archive series "Look Back at England: The British New Wave," "bedsit" or "kitchen-sink" British film drama of the early ’60s has often been a target for critics. Pauline Kael sneered at its emotions. The films of Tony Richardson and the acting of Tushingham have met no greater naysayer than Manny Farber, who devoted an entire essay, titled "Pish-Tush," to attacking Tushingham as the foremost example of a "megalomaniac star who can make the simplest action have as many syllables as her name." No doubt about it, Tushingham is mannered. But more than 40 years on from Farber’s essay, many and much worse offenses have been committed to celluloid and video, and it’s easy to see the merits of a movie such as 1962’s A Taste if Honey, written and directed by Delaney, whose dialogue and lead-colored riverside scenario provided Morrissey with an entire song ("This Night Has Opened My Eyes," far more doleful than A Taste of Honey) as well as a number of lines to steal for other lyrics.

"Look Back at England," which looks at nearly a decade of filmmaking, kicks off this week with Richard Burton abusing a Claire Bloom much wimpier than his future real-lire and onscreen wife in Richardson’s 1958 adaptation of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and ends with the Stanley Kubrick–tinged Malcolm McDowell antics of Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 If… In between, you’ll find Tom Courtenay, madcap in 1963’s Billy Liar (sampled on Saint Etienne’s album So Tough) and haunted in 1962’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner; and Albert Finney, loutish in 1960’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Michael Caine posh loutish in 1966’s Alfie. Prototypical angry young men? Yes. But women had major roles as well — the period introduced us to the divine Julie Christie (in Billy Liar, her appeal later inspiring a song by Yo La Tengo, and in 1965’s Darling) as well as Tushingham, who meets her everything-and-the-kitchen-sink directorial match in Richard Lester in The Knack … and How to Get It, a 1965 film as narratively wild as Godard’s work of the era, if not wilder.

Yo La Tengo, Saint Etienne, the Smiths: funny how the seeming dreariness of British bedsit movies inspired maybe even more great pop acts than did the French new wave visions of and for the children of Marx and Coca-Cola. You can also find the seeds of the lurid extravaganzas of Derek Jarman in some of these pictures, if not the phallic frenzies (to borrow the title of Joseph Lanza’s new book) of Ken Russell and the hallucinations of Nicholas Roeg. The hyperextravagant Joseph Losey could find a home within the modest British new wave (his 1963 The Servant is a touchstone, thanks to Dirk Bogarde’s career peak performance). And while a contemporary director such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa loves his French new wave, he’s no stranger to the British corollary either. His Séance (2000) is based on Bryan Forbes’s 1964 Séance on a Wet Afternoon.

Speaking of Forbes, his excellent The L-Shaped Room (1962), starring a low-key Leslie Caron in a Tushingham-style unwed mother role, is one of the few links missing from "Look Back at England." But you can seek it out on video — and discover the source behind the opening moments of The Queen Is Dead. (Johnny Ray Huston)


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