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Beyond Free Cinema

The legacy of the shortlived but influential documentary movement

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"Free Cinema is dead. Long live Free Cinema." So ended the programme note accompanying the final Free Cinema programme of documentary films, screened at the BFI's National Film Theatre on London's South Bank in March 1959. Over six programmes, Free Cinema had given exposure to a new generation of British filmmakers working outside the mainstream, making a virtue of their low budgets and crude equipment, and introduced British audiences to the best new work from France, Poland and North America. The Free Cinema group, led by Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz, accompanied their own apparently modest short films with a grandiose 'manifesto' rejecting mainstream British cinema as remote and 'obstinately class-bound' and calling for a new approach rooted in contemporary everyday experience. After three years, however, the group announced the end of Free Cinema, with this explanation:

the strain of making films in this way, outside the system, is enormous, and cannot be supported indefinitely. It is not just a question of finding the money. Each time, when the films have been made, there is the same battle to be fought, for the right to show our films. As the madman said as he hit his head against the brick wall: it is nice when you stop.

The statement was a clear acknowledgement of the group's failure to create the conditions in which a new type of independent short film production and exhibition could emerge and prosper. Moreover, Free Cinema co-founder Tony Richardson had already made the move into commercial feature film production with Look Back in Anger (1958), while Reisz was about to embark on his own first feature, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). Anderson, by contrast, would have to wait several more years before his turn could come with This Sporting Life (1963).

However, the influence of Free Cinema did not disappear. The British New Wave features, including those by Richardson, Reisz and Anderson, were, to an extent, a marriage of Free Cinema's themes and aesthetics with the 'Angry Young Man' stories of the new generation of novelists and playwrights. Meanwhile, by no means all of the filmmakers associated with Free Cinema went into feature film production. Robert Vas and Michael Grigsby remained in documentary beyond the 1950s.

While in Manchester, Grigsby and some of his colleagues at Granada Television continued to work in their spare time for their amateur filmmaking collective, Unit Five Seven, which perpetuated the Free Cinema spirit in more ways than one. Not only did they produce their short film independently, they also actively promoted them in film societies up and down the country. They also published a regular newsletter which gave the unit's work a theoretical basis, just as the Free Cinema group had done in their programme notes. As for their thematic and stylistic concerns, they remained close to those of Free Cinema.

After Enginemen (1959), Grigsby directed Tomorrow's Saturday, which captured the weekend atmosphere of the working-class inhabitants of a Lancashire mill town. As for Vas, he continued to work on several short documentaries in London - also with the help of Unit Five Seven. Best known in this period is The Vanishing Street, a sensitive portrait of a disappearing Jewish community in London's East End.

Both Tomorrow's Saturday and The Vanishing Street were completed in the summer of 1962, and correspondence between the two filmmakers reveals that both actively campaigned for a further Free Cinema programme at the NFT that year, which would have consisted of their latest films as well as The Saturday Men (1963), an evocative look behind-the-scenes at West Bromwich Albion Football Club, directed by Free Cinema's in-house technician John Fletcher and sponsored by Ford as part of the same 'Look at Britain' series as Free Cinema's Every Day Except Christmas (1957) and We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959).

The project was stopped by BFI officials who apparently felt it was time to turn the page on Free Cinema. Ironically however, Vas's and Grigsby's films were themselves funded by the BFI's Experimental Film Fund, which had backed most of the 'official' Free Cinema shorts. And among those who had queued outside the NFT in the late 1950s to see the Free Cinema shorts were other aspiring filmmakers who would draw inspiration from the Free Cinema adventure.

Again, it was frequently the BFI which gave them the financial means to make their mark in film. Gala Day (1963), a lively account of the annual miners' festival in Durham, is another example of a collective filmmaking project, combining Free Cinema techniques with an approach more associated with the American 'Direct Cinema' school. As for The Rocking Horse (1962), a simple love story between a teddy boy and a student artist directed by first-timer James Scott, its geographical location and subject matter recall both the Free Cinema short Nice Time and Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

A number of other shorts of the late-1950s/early-1960s period can be associated more or less directly with the Free Cinema venture. March to Aldermaston (1958), a record of the first famous protest march against from London to the nuclear weapons factory at Aldermaston, was made 'anonymously' by a number of voluntary film and television technicians (including Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz). The film's contrasting stylistic influences - Free Cinema and television reportage - reflect the diverse backgrounds of its contributors. John Schlesinger's Terminus (1961), a British Transport Films short about a day in the life of London's Waterloo station, shares with Free Cinema its observational tone and its creative use of images and natural sounds. Where the film differs is in its use of staged scenes. The television work of Denis Mitchell in this period also bore similarities with Free Cinema films, in particular his impressionistic short film about working-class communities in the urban North West, Morning in the Streets (BBC, tx. 25/3/1959), broadcast days after the final Free Cinema programme closed.

Of course, by no means all documentaries made around this time were indebted to Free Cinema. Many of those making sponsored documentaries firmly rejected the improvisational philosophy on artistic grounds; others considered it irrelevant, given the economics of the industry acknowledged in Free Cinema's parting statement. Meanwhile, the more improvisatory television documentary work (much of Denis Mitchell's output, and that of Philip Donnellan, with whom it is often compared), drew on parallel radio documentary traditions more than on cinema. In the years and decades that followed, the history of documentary would be rewritten several times, with other movements and filmmakers accentuated - Direct Cinema and its antecedents in the US, the 'reflexive' approach exemplified by Nick Broomfield in the UK - while Free Cinema's legacy was neglected. But while the claims for Free Cinema made by Lindsay Anderson and his cohort may have been exaggerated, the Free Cinema spirit survived and inspired well beyond the 1950s, as this collection of films amply demonstrates.

Christophe Dupin

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Gala Day (1963)Gala Day (1963)

Documentary portrait of the 1962 Durham Miners' Gala

Thumbnail image of March to Aldermaston (1959)March to Aldermaston (1959)

Documentary about the famous anti-nuclear protest march

Thumbnail image of Nine, Dalmuir West (1962)Nine, Dalmuir West (1962)

Kevin Brownlow's elegiac portrait of Glasgow's last tram

Thumbnail image of One Potato, Two Potato (1957)One Potato, Two Potato (1957)

Highly engaging short documentary about children's games

Thumbnail image of Rocking Horse, The (1962)Rocking Horse, The (1962)

Poetic short about a Teddy Boy's affair with a painter

Thumbnail image of Terminus (1961)Terminus (1961)

Celebrated study of 24 hours in the life of Waterloo Station

Thumbnail image of Tomorrow's Saturday (1962)Tomorrow's Saturday (1962)

Documentary about a typical Saturday in Blackburn

Thumbnail image of Vanishing Street, The (1962)Vanishing Street, The (1962)

Documentary about a slice of East End Jewish life about to disappear

Thumbnail image of Morning in the Streets (1959)Morning in the Streets (1959)

Groundbreaking TV doc capturing a typical morning in a Northern city

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