Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Albert Finney: The Guardian Interview (1982)

On Memorial Enterprises, Woodfall Films and acting for film

Main image of Albert Finney: The Guardian Interview (1982)

Albert Finney was interviewed by Michael Billington at the National Film Theatre on 6 June 1982.

1. Memorial Enterprises

MB: Can I steer you back to your company, though, Memorial Enterprise? You make it sound like something very sort of random and financially convenient, but I mean presumably you and Michael Medwin, were trying to do something positive.

AF: Yes. Well, the idea was really, that we never wanted to sort of - and indeed we haven't - threaten Twentieth Century Fox. And indeed we're both actors, we're both, you know, I suppose temperamentally strolling players normally. We didn't want to sit kind of in offices and go in at seven and read scripts and do deals. We kind of felt that now and again we might come across something we'd like to get made or like to see made, and that was the principle behind it. Which is why we have a rather infrequent record in terms of production. I mean we would involve - the moment we're part of the management of a play in the West End - we made a film with Julie Christie called Memoirs of a Survivor, which we made two years ago. But we've not - I think our average since the company was founded in 1965 or 6, is something like .42 of a film a year.

MB: But very distinguished films.

AF: Oh yes. Please, I'm not, I'm not - I'm just explaining the set up. We didn't intend ever to sort of get the great production machine rolling, because we also like to work as actors.

MB: But it's an honorable record - If, O Lucky Man, Bleak Moments- isn't it? I mean all films of substance.

AF: Well, I'm delighted you think so.

2. Working with Woodfall Films

MB: Was there any feeling, though - talking of being used - I mean there you were working with Tony Richardson, John Osborne, who you knew well from the theatre. It was the great bit of Woodfall Films, wasn't it? Was there any feeling amongst the 3 of you that you could actually go on and kind of change the British cinema or do something with the British cinema to give it a kick up the rump, or not?

AF: Well, I think by that time - I mean what was extraordinary was by that time, Woodfall had made, in order, Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer, Saturday Night. Sunday Morning, Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, I think, or was it A Taste of Honey before that? Then Tom Jones. And other people working too, but Woodfall had made these sort of five, five films, which kind of all did well - people were going to the cinema then a lot, you know, and they all did pretty well.

And one just felt, that's how it is, you know, that this is just going to go on, we're just going to, you know, work together, and maybe more films together and of course that's not what happens, is it? Because then you go your own way after a while. If there is a sort of - to use the image of the British new wave again - once you've actually gained the beach head, you know, people get the impression that we're all in one boat, and we all got of the same boat at the same time and said, 'Right, there's a new wave here!' [Laughter] 'Move over, we're gonna come in. We're gonna...'

But indeed that's not what happens. You know, you come in dribs and drabs, and then somebody lands on that particular beach and says, 'Well, I don't like it here. I'm going somewhere else.' You know, you all kind of then waddle off on your own tortuous route. But I didn't have - not in any sort of historic sense. Is that what you mean, Michael?

MB: That's what I was getting at. Well, whether when the film was a hit, and you knew it was a hit, whether the three of you thought, 'Can we do something else?'

AF: No, no, no.

MB: 'Can we take this on?' No. OK.

AF: Not from my - I think in fact shortly after that, no, maybe 2 years, 3 years after that, they did The Charge of the Light Brigade, which I think was the last film that Tony Richardson and Osborne worked on together - I think; I can't quite remember - but there wasn't that sense of 'We'll go on. Onward and upward.'

MB: Right.

3. Theatre to film

MB: When you made that film, of course, I mean you had already got a reputation as a stage actor. How did Karel Reisz actually cast you in there? From seeing you in the theatre or what?

AF: I'm not quite sure. I was rehearsing a play at the Royal Court Theatre, which Lindsay Anderson was directing, and my appendix burst. I didn't ever do the play, but I'd rehearsed for about a week and a half or something. And I think it was through that probably more than anything else. And then Karel came up - I was working at Stratford in 1959 - and Karel Reisz came up to see me in tights. And we walked around the town, when he told me about the project, gave me the book and the script. And then I did - my first bit of filming ever was a night's work on The Entertainer, in a character that doesn't appear in the play, but is discussed. It is the son of Archie Rice who's doing his national service, and gets killed, or taken prisoner and killed, I think it is, in the Suez. They decided to put a pre-credit sequence in the film, which was just one night's work, when he's at the station, going off to the war. And that was a sort of living screen test, really, I think, for Saturday Night, because it was the same company, Woodfall Films, it was the same company making the two. That's all I remember.

MB: One of the - I mean all histories of British cinema pick out that film, don't they, as one of the crucial films, along with Room at the Top, for dealing with sex, work, emotion, with the reality which the British cinema at that time was not used to. I just wondered if you were very much aware, when making that film, that you were doing something that was fresh and original and new and a breakthrough.

AF: No. I mean I remember in terms of the sex, there were great discussions because the law then was that you had to have one foot on the floor, like in snooker. [Laughter] I think in fact Room at the Top was the first British film, which was made about a year before, two years before Saturday Night, which kind of intimated that two consenting adults had actually done something in bed together that we didn't see, that, if you knew what was what, you put two and two together. [Laughter] And then in Saturday Night, there were great discussions about whether I should keep my vest on, my singlet, or whether Rachel Roberts's slip should be seen, and I can't remember the results of the discussions, but it's quite interesting to think that it was what? 1960? Only two years ago.

And these great debates were going on about that. I was slightly aware - I mean the other thing about it is that it was a period where I suppose working-class subjects were taken seriously, which wasn't a very strong British cinematic tradition. And I was aware of that to some extent. I was totally engrossed in the film doing it, and I really enjoyed working with Karel. I also found film acting very interesting, that slightly obsessive thing - If you play - again, going through a whole sort of schedule, I think that our schedule was ten weeks plus two weeks of second unit at the end. The fact that it does take over for that whole period and you're sort of obsessed with it and really concentrated on it, I quite enjoyed that. I enjoyed the - I think the acting process between theatre and film is probably the same, the messages you try and send around.

The most elusive thing in film is that you try to give it the breath of life in a sense. That's the thing you very rarely get, I think. And when you see a film after you've finished it, out of the ninety minutes, there are probably about 40 of 50 seconds scattered - well, 10 or 20 seconds scattered here and there where you think, 'Ah, yes'. It's a very - but I felt very concentrated doing it.

One isn't aware. I mean, you know, the fact that it turned out to be alright, I think - but when never knows when you're actually doing it. I mean if it had been a total disaster, it wouldn't have been referred to ever since, would it?

Click titles to see or read more

Audio & Video Clips
1. Memorial Enterprises (1:41)
2. Working with Woodfall Films (2:20)
3. Theatre to film (4:47)
Bleak Moments (1971)
Entertainer, The (1960)
Room at the Top (1958)
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)
Finney, Albert (1936-)
Osborne, John (1929-1994)
Reisz, Karel (1926-2002)
Richardson, Tony (1928-1991)