Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
British Film in the 1950s

A closer look at an underrated decade

Main image of British Film in the 1950s

Until recently, the Fifties have been commonly seen as the 'doldrums era' of British cinema. During the decade the two major cinema chains had embarked on a programme of cinema closures. The Rank Organisation closed 79 of its cinemas in 1956 and Associated British Picture Corporation closed 65 a year later. In 1951, cinema admissions had stood at 1,365 million in Britain; by 1960, the figure was down to 500 million.

The decline in attendance was accompanied, in many eyes, by a decline in standard. After the creative energy of the late 1940s (often seen as a Golden Age), British films had become to some observers timid, complacent, and, thematically and stylistically, as conservative as the country's political complexion. Lindsay Anderson described British cinema of this time as 'snobbish, emotionally inhibited, wilfully blind to the conditions of the present, dedicated to an out-of-date, exhausted national idea.' He was to be a leading voice, along with Karel Reisz, of the 'Free Cinema' movement launched in 1956, which attempted to give a documentary immediacy to its observation of young people and working-class life. Reisz and Anderson (with, respectively, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in 1960 and This Sporting Life in 1963) were to emerge in the next decade as key directors of the so-called 'British New Wave', though, ironically, they were to be anticipated by a man who had been working in the British film industry for twenty years, Jack Clayton. His debut feature, Room at the Top (1959) was a huge international success and its sexual frankness and Northern realism were to usher in a new era.

The most popular genre of the time was the British war film. The Cruel Sea (d. Charles Frend, 1953), The Dam Busters (d. Michael Anderson, 1955), Reach for the Sky (d. Lewis Gilbert, 1956), and Sink the Bismarck! (d. Lewis Gilbert, 1960) were the top box-office attractions of their year, while The Bridge on the River Kwai (d. David Lean, 1957) was the British cinema's biggest international success of the decade. Critics were sometimes dismayed by this trend, seeing it as a nostalgic wallow in former national greatness during a time of uncertainty about Britain's international role. More recently, however, such films have been seen as part of a distinctive genre - the British equivalent of the American Western - that offers illuminating observations on British values, emotions and notions of heroism and masculinity. Also, within the traditional formula of stiff-upper-lip heroics and deference to authority, there were some fascinating deviations: for example, the female-driven narrative of A Town like Alice (d. Jack Lee, 1956); the offbeat The One that Got Away (d. Roy Baker, 1957), where the escapee hero is German; and perhaps most famously, Ice Cold in Alex (d. J. Lee Thompson, 1958), where John Mills' British officer is more neurotic than noble, tempted by Sylvia Syms' assertive nurse and intimidated by Anthony Quayle's masculinity (particularly when he might actually be the enemy).

The other popular genre was comedy, which brought new talents such as Norman Wisdom and Peter Sellers to the screen, and also spawned a number of successful series. Three enduring classics emerged from Ealing Studios - Charles Crichton's The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and two from Alexander Mackendrick, The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955), all featuring Britain's finest actor-star of the time, Alec Guinness. However, Ealing ceased production in 1958, and its understated comedy was ultimately displaced in public affection by the exuberant coarseness of the Carry On films, whose popularity hit their peak with Carry On Nurse (1959). Launder and Gilliat's St Trinian's films also had their following, as did the Betty Box and Ralph Thomas Doctor series, launched with spectacular success by Doctor in the House (1954), a film even praised by Fran├žois Truffaut (not the biggest fan of British cinema). Comedies with a striking individuality included the Boultings' I'm All Right Jack (1959), a biting satire on industrial relations, and Henry Cornelius's engaging film about the London to Brighton car race, Genevieve (1953).

If Ealing Studios had become synonymous with genteel British comedy, Hammer was the studio that became associated with lurid British horror. One production, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) was famously described by the esteemed C.A. Lejeune of The Observer as amongst the most repulsive films she had ever seen. Nevertheless, its team of director Terence Fisher and actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee followed it with an even bigger hit the next year, Dracula (1958), bringing eroticism and excess to a cinema more often associated with repression and restraint. One horror film that did meet with critical approval was an atmospheric adaptation of an M.R. James story, Night of the Demon (1957), directed by Jacques Tourneur, who had learnt how to convey terror through suggestion rather than shock in his association with Hollywood producer Val Lewton in the 1940s.

Tourneur was one of a number of directors from abroad who enriched British cinema during the 1950s. Two of England's favourite sons, Alfred Hitchcock (Stage Fright, 1950) and Charlie Chaplin (A King in New York, 1957) returned to make films here. Blacklisted Hollywood director Jules Dassin came to England to make a striking film noir, Night and the City (1950) before settling in Europe. Two other American directors (also blacklisted during the McCarthyist era for their political affiliations), Joseph Losey and Cy Endfield, came to England and settled, making stylish and energetic low-budget thrillers during this decade before achieving full artistic maturity in the 1960s. Even Walt Disney produced royalist English sagas such as The Sword and the Rose (1952), directed by one of the stalwarts of British cinema, Ken Annakin, whose masterpiece of the period (described as such by both Mike Leigh and Quentin Tarantino) was Across the Bridge (1957), a superb adaptation of a Graham Greene short story with a towering performance by Rod Steiger as a crooked financier on the run.

While it is true that some of the great British directors (Carol Reed, Robert Hamer, Alberto Cavalcanti, Thorold Dickinson, Alexander Mackendrick) declined or departed during this time, and that some of the finest young stars (James Mason, Deborah Kerr, Stewart Granger, Jean Simmons) migrated to Hollywood, interesting work continued to be done. The literary tradition flourished in works such as Anthony Asquith's exquisite film of Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version (1951), which contained arguably Michael Redgrave's finest screen performance, and in Laurence Olivier's Richard III (1955), the third and perhaps best of his Shakespearian films as actor-director. Supreme screen actors such as Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker either launched or consolidated their craft and reputations; and although the decade might seem to have been dominated by uniformed images of Jack Hawkins, Richard Todd and Kenneth More in command during wartime, one should not forget actresses such as Diana Dors, Yvonne Mitchell and a young Hayley Mills giving memorable performances in three films directed by J. Lee Thompson with an intriguing, pre-feminist slant: respectively, Yield to the Night (1956), Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) nand Tiger Bay (1959). The 'doldrums era'? Not quite. It is worth noting that 1959 finished with an extraordinary statistic. The top twelve box-office films in Britain were all actually made in Britain - something never since repeated and now almost inconceivable.

Neil Sinyard

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Belles of St Trinian's, The (1954)Belles of St Trinian's, The (1954)

Anarchic comedy based on Ronald Searle's popular cartoons

Thumbnail image of Bridge on the River Kwai, The (1957)Bridge on the River Kwai, The (1957)

The first large-scale David Lean epic, a multi-Oscar-winning World War II saga

Thumbnail image of Carry On Nurse (1958)Carry On Nurse (1958)

The second Carry On, with the team beginning to take shape

Thumbnail image of Curse of Frankenstein, The (1957)Curse of Frankenstein, The (1957)

Breakthrough horror that made stars of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee

Thumbnail image of Dam Busters, The (1955)Dam Busters, The (1955)

Much-loved World War II classic about the famous bombing raid

Thumbnail image of Expresso Bongo (1959)Expresso Bongo (1959)

Cliff Richard comedy about the discovery of a new musical star

Thumbnail image of Hell Drivers (1957)Hell Drivers (1957)

Uncompromising B movie set in the macho world of ballast truck drivers

Thumbnail image of I'm All Right Jack (1959)I'm All Right Jack (1959)

Peter Sellers is a militant trade unionist in this peerless workplace satire

Thumbnail image of Ice Cold in Alex (1958)Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

Classic war film charting a perilous journey across North Africa

Thumbnail image of Importance of Being Earnest, The (1952)Importance of Being Earnest, The (1952)

Glorious adaptation of Oscar Wilde's classic play

Thumbnail image of Man in the White Suit, The (1951)Man in the White Suit, The (1951)

Ealing classic with naive inventor Alec Guinness up against British industry

Thumbnail image of Night of the Demon (1957)Night of the Demon (1957)

Clever, subtle occult chiller by American director Jacques Tourneur

Thumbnail image of Richard III (1955)Richard III (1955)

Laurence Olivier's definitive version of Shakespeare's great history play

Thumbnail image of Room at the Top (1958)Room at the Top (1958)

The first 'kitchen sink' drama kick-started a British film revolution

Thumbnail image of Tiger Bay (1959)Tiger Bay (1959)

Melodrama starring Hayley Mills as a seven-year-old witness to murder

Thumbnail image of Trouble In Store (1953)Trouble In Store (1953)

Comedy in which Norman Wisdom foils a robbery in a department store.

Thumbnail image of Yield to the Night (1956)Yield to the Night (1956)

Diana Dors stars in a powerful anti-capital punishment film

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of Ealing ComedyEaling Comedy

Eternal postwar comedies from 'the studio with team spirit'

Thumbnail image of Free CinemaFree Cinema

Groundbreaking documentary movement of the late 1950s

Thumbnail image of Hammer HorrorHammer Horror

How a small studio brought new blood to the British horror film

Thumbnail image of Social Problem FilmsSocial Problem Films

British cinema and postwar social change

Related People and Organisations