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British Film in the 1960s

A decade of radical change - not least for British cinema

Main image of British Film in the 1960s

The beginning of the 1960s found a British cinema in transition. The giants of previous decades were mostly on the wane: Michael Powell made one dazzling film, Peeping Tom (1960), but suffered a ferocious critical mauling which shredded his reputation; Carol Reed had a huge hit - and won an Oscar - with the uncharacteristic Oliver! (1968), but none of his '60s films scaled the heights of The Third Man (1949). The exception was David Lean, who was now painting on the grandest of canvases. He released just two films in the decade, the monumental Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and the equally epic if less iconic Dr Zhivago (1965), cementing his status as the colossus of British cinema.

Of the studios that had dominated the postwar period, only Rank at Pinewood and Associated British at Elstree survived, both Michael Balcon's Ealing and Alexander Korda's London Films having collapsed by 1958. The space they left behind was filled increasingly by American studios, which invested in British films to a degree not seen since the 1930s. The government-backed British Lion, operating as an umbrella for film production and distribution, went some way to keeping afloat a domestic industry already suffering from the impact of television.

The trickle of socially conscious films that had begun to emerge at the end of the previous decade now became a high-profile, if shortlived 'new wave'. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (d. Karel Reisz, 1960) continued the determined northern working-class focus that had already transformed British theatre and literature. Its (anti-) hero, Arthur Seaton, was another 'angry young man' - railing against work and the 'bastards' - representing a breed now becoming familiar to British audiences. Further examples appeared in the early years of the decade, mostly, like Saturday Night, by directors associated with the 1950s Free Cinema movement: A Kind of Loving (d. John Schlesinger, 1962), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (d. Tony Richardson, 1962), Billy Liar (d. Schlesinger, 1963) and This Sporting Life (d. Lindsay Anderson, 1963). The films gave opportunities to a new breed of dynamic young actors - Albert Finney, Alan Bates, Tom Courtenay and Richard Harris.

By the middle of the decade the focus was back on London, newly confident as the home of a thriving music and fashion scene that was envied worldwide. 'Swinging London' spawned a host of films, many of which seemed to be about the failure of their protagonists to get in on the boom - Georgy Girl (d. Silvio Narrizano, 1966), The Knack... (d. Richard Lester, 1965), the Stevenage-set Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (d. Clive Donner, 1967). The emptiness of the scene was exposed in Darling (d. Schlesinger, 1965), whose star, Julie Christie, was another of the decade's genuine discoveries.

But no mere film star could hope to match the popularity of The Beatles, who developed a more complex screen presence in A Hard Day's Night (d. Richard Lester, 1964), Help! (d. Lester, 1965) and, in animated form, in Yellow Submarine (d. George Dunning, 1968), than had Cliff Richard in The Young Ones (d. Sidney J. Furie, 1961) and Summer Holiday (d. Peter Yates, 1962). The less stellar Dave Clark Five failed to match the Fab Four's screen success with Catch Us If You Can (1965), but it was an interesting debut for its director, John Boorman, who was immediately lured to Hollywood in what was becoming a depressing trend (although Boorman has made many films here since).

Meanwhile, the buzz around all things British drew several foreign directors to these shores. With Blow-Up (1966), Italian Michelangelo Antonioni delivered an unusually acute 'swinging London' movie, while the Polish Roman Polanski, stopping off on his way to Hollywood, brought his dark, disturbing vision to Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-Sac (1966). The visitors also included two leading lights of the French nouvelle vague, François Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451, 1968) and Jean-Luc Godard (One Plus One/Sympathy for the Devil, 1968). A more permanent settler was Stanley Kubrick, who made England his home after making Lolita at Elstree in 1961, even if his films didn't always reflect the environment in which they were made; the gargantuan, psychedelic voyage of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) did, however, feature a number of Brits among the minor players. Kubrick's fellow American Joseph Losey had arrived some years earlier, and in films like The Criminal (1960), The Servant (1963) and Accident (1967) he brought an analytical outsider's eye to very English subjects.

English through and through was the Carry On series, which had begun at the tail-end of the '50s with Carry On Sergeant (d. Gerald Thomas, 1958) and became an institution during the '60s. No fewer than 16 films appeared before the decade was out, and the series quickly settled into an easily repackaged formula of mildly risqué humour, genre spoof and caricature, with soon familiar names like Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques reprising equally familiar roles.

1962 heralded the arrival of a still more successful franchise, with the release of Dr No (d. Terence Young). It was a relatively low-key introduction for Ian Fleming's superspy hero James Bond, but the series was well into gear by the time of the third release, Goldfinger (d. Guy Hamilton, 1964). Sean Connery had been waiting for a break for half a decade, but the role of Bond fitted him as snugly as the frogman suit he wore for much of Thunderball (d. Terence Young, 1965). Bond became one of the decade's iconic figures, unflappable, sophisticated, sexy and very British.

Bond's unstoppable success led to many imitators, the best of which was the trio of films featuring Len Deighton's anonymous masterspy, now given the name Harry Palmer. Michael Caine was already on the rise thanks to Zulu (d. Cy Endfield, 1964), but The Ipcress File (d. Sidney J. Furie, 1965) confirmed him as one of the faces of modern Britain. Its two sequels, Funeral in Berlin (d. Guy Hamilton, 1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (d. Ken Russell, 1967), didn't quite match the first film's impact, but by the end of the decade the former porter from Smithfields meat market was a global superstar, thanks to similarly punchy performances in Alfie (d. Lewis Gilbert, 1966), and The Italian Job (d. Peter Collinson, 1969).

Less popular with critics but just as successful with audiences, Hammer Studios extended its Dracula and Frankenstein franchises, but also released a number of imaginative one-offs, among them The Nanny (1965) and Plague of the Zombies (1966), upping the sex quotient as the decade wore on and censorship relaxed. A number of smaller studios, like Amicus and Tigon, followed in Hammer's wake, attracting still more critical derision at the time, but in the longer term winning cult status for the likes of Freddie Francis's Dr Terror's House of Horror (1965) and Michael Reeves' Witchfinder General (1968).

By the end of the decade, the sheen of youthful optimism was wearing off. The war in Vietnam attracted huge opposition, but carried on regardless (though public protests may have deterred Britain from joining in). The hippie generation was beginning to recognise that naïve pacifism couldn't hope to compete with entrenched state power that was prepared to use force to crush protest, as events in America, at Ohio's Kent State University and the Chicago Democratic Convention, demonstrated. The strikes and occupations of May 1968 in Paris seemed momentarily to mark the beginning of genuine revolution; a feeling captured in Lindsay Anderson's If.... (1969). Meanwhile, the promise of 'peace and love' was turning to paranoia, madness and despair. Performance (d. Donald Cammell/Nicolas Roeg), completed in 1968 but held back until 1970 by an anxious Warner Bros, showed a very unswinging London, in which the psychedelic dream had turned nightmare.

Mark Duguid

Related Films and TV programmes

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Kitchen-sink realism meets airy fantasy in this much-loved Sixties comedy

Thumbnail image of Carry On Cleo (1964)Carry On Cleo (1964)

Comedy in which two British slaves end up in Ancient Rome and Egypt

Thumbnail image of Criminal, The (1960)Criminal, The (1960)

Joseph Losey's fascinating portrait of a changing criminal underworld

Thumbnail image of Darling (1965)Darling (1965)

Julie Christie gives an Oscar-winning performance as an amoral socialite

Thumbnail image of Doctor Zhivago (1965)Doctor Zhivago (1965)

David Lean's epic version of Boris Pasternak's novel

Thumbnail image of Goldfinger (1964)Goldfinger (1964)

Sean Connery returns as James Bond in what may be the best of the series

Thumbnail image of Ipcress File, The (1965)Ipcress File, The (1965)

Michael Caine's first outing as Len Deighton's secret agent Harry Palmer

Thumbnail image of Kind of Loving, A (1962)Kind of Loving, A (1962)

New Wave film about a man torn between desire and responsibility

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Spectacular David Lean epic about the desert adventurer

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Hammer chiller which suggests that nanny doesn't always know best

Thumbnail image of Oliver! (1968)Oliver! (1968)

Lionel Bart's Oscar-winning musical adaptation of Dickens' Oliver Twist

Thumbnail image of Peeping Tom (1960)Peeping Tom (1960)

Notorious horror film which all but ended Michael Powell's career

Thumbnail image of Performance (1970)Performance (1970)

Dazzling psychological drama about a gangster and a rock star

Thumbnail image of Plague of the Zombies, The (1966)Plague of the Zombies, The (1966)

Hammer horror in which zombies invade a Cornish village

Thumbnail image of Primitive London (1965)Primitive London (1965)

Deliriously over-the-top, salacious 'exposé' of Swinging London

Thumbnail image of Repulsion (1965)Repulsion (1965)

Terrifying psychological thriller about a mentally disturbed young woman

Thumbnail image of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

Classic slice of Northern gritty realism that made a star out of Albert Finney

Thumbnail image of Servant, The (1963)Servant, The (1963)

James Fox and Dirk Bogarde's savage attack on the British class system

Thumbnail image of This Sporting Life (1963)This Sporting Life (1963)

Lindsay Anderson directs Richard Harris as a troubled rugby player

Thumbnail image of Victim (1961)Victim (1961)

Dirk Bogarde stars in the first serious British film about homosexuality

Thumbnail image of Witchfinder General (1968)Witchfinder General (1968)

Gruelling but thoughtful horror about the 17th Century witch-hunts

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