Dirk’s Five – British New Wave

Everyone knows it’s grim up North London, but I’m told when one gets past Watford it’s even worse. On the back A TASTE OF HONEY (1961), here is a Friday Five of four further films to check out from the British New Wave, and one that needs beating up in the ginnel out the back of the Ferret & Trousers.


1. A KIND OF LOVING (Schlesinger, UK, 1962)

Before Fred Shawcross and his ‘One Angry Man’ column in the Bolton Evening News set fear in the hearts of Bradshawgate’s traffic wardens, the original angry Boltonian was Alan Bates. Filmed in and around Bolton, Bates plays Vic Brown, a dissatisfied draftsman who wants to escape Lancashire to see the world and make something of himself. His plans are shelved, however, after a fumble in a bus shelter with Ingrid (June Ritchie) traps him into staying put. Worse, he is forced to move in with the ultimate mother-in-law from hell, Thora Hird. You’ll never watch ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’ in the same light again. The film is also notable for a host of “before they were famous” cameos, including Leonard Rossiter, James Bolam, Alf Roberts and Nora Batty (call them by their names).

2. THE ENTERTAINER (Richardson, UK, 1960)

After seeing ‘Look Back In Anger’, Laurence Olivier, wanting a piece of the angry young action, asked John Osborne to write a play for him. The result was ‘The Entertainer’, and you get the feeling that Osborne went out of his way to take showbusiness and everything Olivier represented and make it as ugly as he possibly could. Archie Rice (Olivier) is a third-rate music hall vaudevillian full of self-doubt and self-loathing, whose collapsing personal life mirrors the decline of the music halls he refuses to let go of. During the stage sequences Olivier plays him not as a bumbler who fluffs his lines and trips over his own feet, but as a performer who’s been doing the same stilted routinue over and over for years, far too many times. “The only thing I know how to do is to keep on keeping on.” Dirk Malcolm favourite the enigmatic Roger Livesey plays Archie’s father, who is supposed to have all the talent Archie doesn’t but is never allowed to prove it. From Elsinore to Morecambe bay; critics didn’t know what to make of the film, but as an allegory of Britain’s post-war fall from grace I think it’s powerful. In later life Olivier would say it was his favourite role.


I limited myself to one Alan Sillitoe choice, so what else could it be. Albert Finney creates a cinematic archetype as bitter and surly Arthur Seaton, a Nottingham factory worker always ready with an ascerbic quote to justify slacking off and punching out.

Mam called me barmy when I told her I fell of a gasometer for a bet. But I’m not barmy, I’m a fighting pit prop that wants a pint of beer, that’s me. But if any knowing bastard says that’s me I’ll tell them I’m a dynamite dealer waiting to blow the factory to kingdom come. Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not because they don’t know a bloody thing about me. God knows what I am.

This film more than any other can lay claim to planting the seed for the careers of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Shane Meadows. Towards the end of his life Sillitoe wanted the film to be remade for a contemporary audience, but attempts to get any project off the ground were repeatedly blocked by Natasha Richardson, who inherited the rights to the book from her father. Property not always theft, then.

4. THIS SPORTING LIFE (Anderson, UK, 1963)

Towards the end of British New Wave there was a tendency amongst filmmakers to try to “out-bleak” each other, in a manner reminiscent of the Monty Python “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch (“Three abortions and an alcohol addiction? Luxury.”). Richard Harris has a difficult job, then, as Frank Machin, a young Wakefield coal miner who is the captain of the local rugby league team and seems destined for bigger things, until an aggressive streak gets the better of him. Even by the standards of the time the film is hard going, but it features perhaps Harris’ greatest performance and gritty yet striking direction from Lindsay Anderson. Machin is a man who has aspirations but seems to be unable or unwilling to better himself due to his class and the subconscious feeling that he “knows his place”. The film was critically lauded but a commercial disaster, prompting the head of the Rank Organisation to declare that he was pulling out of “kitchen sink”, and that his company would never again make such a “squalid” film.


5. THE KNACK… AND HOW TO GET IT (Lester, UK, 1965)

In Dominic Sandbrook’s history of Britain in the late fifties and sixties ‘Never Had It So Good’, covering Suez and the Macmillan era, and its follow-up ‘White Heat’, which takes the story up to the malfunctioning of Harold Wilson Mk. I, one of his central premises is that the infamous ‘Swinging Sixties’ was largely a media phenomenon blown out of proportion that was both geographically limited to a few square miles round Soho (as one commenter on IMDB puts it, “near Liberty where Mummy did her shopping”) and anathema to a population that was overwhelmingly conservative and would remain so until social attitudes began to change at a national level in the seventies. If the groovy cats of Carnaby Street were a privileged, self-selecting clique then the film critics of the day managed to get right amongst them, as evidenced by this self-indulgent piece of tripe being awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1965. Director Richard Lester was most famous for his collaborations with the Beatles, but here he takes everything that made A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964) successful and turns it all up to eleven, ditching plot and characterisation for a self-consciously wild and “zany” ride. What story there is concerns a pre-beret Michael Crawford as a naïve schoolteacher who’d like to learn from his man-about-town neighbour how to get women to like him. Rita Tushingham plays the flighty target. I’d say it hasn’t dated well but that would imply I could understand why anyone liked it at the time.

4 responses to “Dirk’s Five – British New Wave

  1. Good call on THE KNACK … Frank Spencer has never been so bad … I have a soft spot for the Bill Naughton adaptations such as FAMILY WAY (which is still finding new audiences!)

    I think that BILLy LIAR deserves a place of the list too as Otis the film that I go back to in order to make sense of my adolescence … I think it predated the D&D generation perfectly!

    • If Hollywood gave me $200 million to make a film I’d make a 3 hour epic version of ‘Spit Nolan’. Starring Tom Cruise.

      • I’ve had a word with Christopher Nolan, he says he’ll oversee the entire franchise, but we have to reboot ‘Alfie’ with Jude Law. Again.

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