Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Free Cinema

Groundbreaking documentary movement of the late 1950s

Main image of Free Cinema

Free Cinema is now acknowledged as a highly influential moment in British cinema history, which not only re-invigorated British documentary in the 1950s but also served as a precursor to the British New Wave in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But what exactly was Free Cinema? Lindsay Anderson, its undisputed founder and spokesman, later admitted, "Free Cinema, whether as a specific historical movement, or as a genre, or as an inspiration, has been defined, written about or attacked in terms so various that it isn't surprising there is now a great deal of confusion as to what exactly the term implies." An explanation is therefore needed.

Essentially, Free Cinema was the general title given to a series of six programmes of (mainly) short documentaries shown at the National Film Theatre (NFT) in London between February 1956 and March 1959. The programmes were put together by a group of young filmmakers and critics whose films were shown in the series' three British programmes ('Free Cinema', 'Free Cinema 3: Look at Britain' and 'Free Cinema 6: 'The Last Free Cinema'). The three other programmes introduced the work of foreign filmmakers, including Roman Polanski, Claude Chabrol and Fran├žois Truffaut.

Free Cinema was created primarily for pragmatic reasons. In early 1956, as Anderson and his friends Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Lorenza Mazzetti were struggling to get their films shown, they decided to join forces and screen them together in a single programme at the National Film Theatre, which Reisz had conveniently been programming for three years. They soon realised that although the films had been made independently, they had a definite 'attitude in common'. Anderson coined the term 'Free Cinema' (a reference to the films having been made free from the pressures of the box-office or the demands of propaganda), and together produced a 'manifesto' in which they stated the ideas behind the presentation of the programme. Although the name was intended only for that one-off event, the 'publicity stunt' proved so effective - with the event attracting wide press attention and all screenings sold out - that five more programmes were shown under the same banner in the next three years, each accompanied by a programme note in the form of a manifesto.

But Free Cinema was much more than just a clever piece of cultural packaging. It represented a new attitude to filmmaking, rejecting the orthodoxy and conservatism of both the mainstream British cinema and the dominant documentary tradition initiated by John Grierson in the 1930s. The Free Cinema group dismissed mainstream 1950s British films as completely detached from the reality of everyday contemporary life in Britain, and condemned their stereotypical and patronising representation of the working class. As the programme note for the third Free Cinema programme stated: "British cinema [is] still obstinately class-bound; still rejecting the stimulus of contemporary life, as well as the responsibility to criticise; still reflecting a metropolitan, Southern English culture which excludes the rich diversity of tradition and personality which is the whole of Britain." In contrast, the Free Cinema filmmakers affirmed their "belief in freedom, the importance of people and in the significance of the everyday" (Free Cinema manifesto). Their films attempted to rehabilitate an objective, critical, yet respectful and often affectionate portrayal of ordinary people at work or at play.

At the same time, they were strong advocates of the filmmaker's freedom to express his/her personal views through film - "no film can be too personal", insisted the first manifesto - of the commitment of the filmmaker as an artist, and of his/her role as a vocal social commentator. The one British documentarist the Free Cinema members admired was Humphrey Jennings, whose style, in such films as London Can Take It! (1940) and Fires Were Started (1943), was distinguished by a quest for authenticity and poetic form. Free Cinema's critical and theoretical background was set out in the journal Sequence (until 1952) and then in Sight and Sound, for which Anderson, Reisz and their colleagues wrote.

One obvious common denominator of the Free Cinema films (and a prerequisite to their makers' creative freedom) was the fact that they were all made outside the framework of the film industry. They were produced in semi-amateur conditions (all but three on 16mm film), and used the same enthusiastic and skilful (but mainly unpaid) technicians, particularly cameraman Walter Lassally and sound-recordist/editor John Fletcher. The active and generous contribution of these two pioneering technicians was a direct link between most of the Free Cinema films; this alone made Free Cinema much more than a label of convenience. The films were funded either by their makers or by small grants from two main sponsors, who gave them almost complete creative freedom. The BFI Experimental Film Fund, a tiny fund for innovative films set up and administrated by the British Film Institute since 1952, provided financial assistance for six of the films. The Ford Motor Company sponsored the two most ambitious productions, Anderson's Every Day Except Christmas and Reisz's We Are the Lambeth Boys.

The films also shared a number of formal and stylistic features. Typically, they were short (the longest was We Are the Lambeth Boys, at 50 minutes), used black and white film and hand-held, portable cameras, avoided or limited the use of didactic voice-over commentary, shunned narrative continuity and used sound and editing impressionistically. Their distinctive aesthetic was a consequence of three main factors: a conscious decision to take their cameras out of the studios and into the streets in order to engage with the reality of contemporary Britain; the extremely limited funds at the filmmakers' disposal; and the technology available.

Two particular technological limitations determined the Free Cinema aesthetic: the limited shooting time of the spring-wound Bolex 16mm camera (which meant no shot could last longer than 22 seconds), the impossibility of recording synchronised sound outside the studio until the turn of the 1960s (We Are the Lambeth Boys was one of the early experiments in that field). On the positive side, the emergence of hyper-sensitive film stock allowed filming on location without the use of artificial light, even by night.

The filmmakers made a virtue of these financial and technological limitations: as the Free Cinema 3 programme note stated, "with a 16mm camera, and minimal resources, and no payment for your technicians, you cannot achieve very much - in commercial terms.... But you can use your eyes and your ears. You can give indications. You can make poetry." In that respect, Free Cinema advocated and developed a genuine 'aesthetic of economy'. The films may have lacked polish - some were even shot on spare (read 'scratched') government film stock - but their inner quality came from the creative way in which the filmmakers arranged sounds (often a combination of natural sounds and added music) and images, often creating symbolic contrasts between them.

Although Anderson later denied Free Cinema the status of a genuine 'film movement', the films' concern with some aspect of contemporary life in Britain, their similar independent mode of production and their common aesthetic seem sufficient to earn it the name, however limited the movement might have been in comparison to, say, Italian neo-realism or the French New Wave.

But Free Cinema must also to be understood as an early manifestation of a wider cultural movement, which also included a new breed of writers who began to challenge the existing social and cultural order. The 'angry young men', as they became known, focused on lower-middle-class and working-class life and were savagely critical of the institutions of English society. They included novelists Alan Sillitoe, John Braine and David Storey and playwrights Arnold Wesker and John Osborne, whose 'Look Back in Anger' (produced in 1956, shortly after the first Free Cinema programme) was the archetypal 'angry young man' work. The 'angry young men' had a direct link to Free Cinema in Tony Richardson who, with George Devine, had founded the English Stage Company at London's Royal Court Theatre, and directed both stage and film versions of Osborne's 'Look Back in Anger' (and later partnered Osborne to set up the film production company Woodfall).

The emergence of the 'British New Wave' partly explains why Anderson and Reisz decided to end the Free Cinema series in March 1959. To some extent, this decision showed the limitations of the project as an end in itself. However, as Richardson, Reisz and Anderson were about to move on to feature filmmaking, one can, at the very least, recognise Free Cinema's significant role in the apprenticeship of filmmakers who made a major contribution to the flowering of 'social realist' cinema in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Meanwhile a handful of younger filmmakers kept the movement alive for a few more years, producing short, low-budget documentaries in the Free Cinema style.

Christophe Dupin

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Enginemen (1959)Enginemen (1959)

Manchester railway workers discuss the end of the steam age.

Thumbnail image of Every Day Except Christmas (1957)Every Day Except Christmas (1957)

Classic Free Cinema doc about Covent Garden market

Thumbnail image of Momma Don't Allow (1956)Momma Don't Allow (1956)

Free Cinema short following teenagers at a jazz club.

Thumbnail image of Nice Time (1957)Nice Time (1957)

Lively film charting a Saturday night in London's Piccadilly Circus

Thumbnail image of O Dreamland (1956)O Dreamland (1956)

Groundbreaking Lindsay Anderson short about the Margate funfair

Thumbnail image of Refuge England (1959)Refuge England (1959)

Moving film about a Hungarian refugee's first day in London

Thumbnail image of Together (1956)Together (1956)

Moving film following two deaf mutes through London's East End

Thumbnail image of Wakefield Express (1952)Wakefield Express (1952)

Early Lindsay Anderson documentary about a local newspaper

Thumbnail image of We are the Lambeth Boys (1959)We are the Lambeth Boys (1959)

Free cinema documentary about South London teenagers

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of A History of Free CinemaA History of Free Cinema

Thumbnail image of Beyond Free CinemaBeyond Free Cinema

The legacy of the shortlived but influential documentary movement

Thumbnail image of British New WaveBritish New Wave

50s-60s films which reinvigorated cinema

Thumbnail image of Free Cinema 1Free Cinema 1

The 1956 cinema programme that launched a movement

Thumbnail image of Free Cinema 3Free Cinema 3

The second programme of British films in the Free Cinema series

Thumbnail image of Free Cinema 6Free Cinema 6

The final Free Cinema programme in March 1959

Thumbnail image of Postwar DocumentaryPostwar Documentary

A crucial and creatively fertile period long overlooked by historians

Thumbnail image of Short FilmsShort Films

The feature's older but less celebrated brother

Thumbnail image of Social RealismSocial Realism

The most 'typically British' of all film genres

Thumbnail image of They Started HereThey Started Here

How British film giants began their careers - with the help of the BFI

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Lassally, Walter (1926-)Lassally, Walter (1926-)


Thumbnail image of Reisz, Karel (1926-2002)Reisz, Karel (1926-2002)

Director, Producer, Writer

Thumbnail image of Vas, Robert (1931-1978)Vas, Robert (1931-1978)