Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Morning in the Streets (1959)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Morning in the Streets (1959)
BBC, 25/3/1959
35 minutes, black & white
Directed byDenis Mitchell
 Roy Harris
PhotographyRoy Harris
 Gerry Pullen
 Graham Turner
 Ted Wallbank

Study of the people of a northern city and their attitudes to the arrival of a new day.

Show full synopsis

Morning in the Streets, made by the BBC's Northern Film Unit, was publicised as an "impression of life and opinion in the back streets of a Northern City in the morning". The city in question is never identified: scenes were shot in Manchester, Salford, Stockport and Liverpool then combined as if capturing a single half-day in a single location. Because the film is impressionistic rather than journalistic, this artistically licensed deceit is easy to accept. While a minority of viewers disliked the film, it was hailed for bringing television documentary to a new level of artistic ambition, worthy of film antecedents. And in fact, after its broadcast Morning in the Streets became part of the non-theatrical documentary repertory, available for years for 16mm bookings.

The several instant resonances with British documentary tradition include the almost, but not quite, seamless mix of observational scenes with staged ones such as those of a family waking up in their one-room apartment early in the day. A sequence on living conditions echoes Housing Problems (d. Arthur Elton/Edgar Anstey, 1935) not only in subject, but also in technique (with its use of an old woman's testimony to camera, directly facing the viewer). And the Free Cinema filmmakers who admired the film certainly spotted the shade of Humphrey Jennings in its frequent pauses to take in details of scant narrative, but great poetic use: streetlamps, pavement puddles, birds, cats, broken bottles, toy soldiers. But much of the technique is novel, specifically televisual, and influenced more by radio than by cinema. The audio techniques, in particular, were becoming a stylistic signature of Denis Mitchell, who co-directed with cameraman Roy Harris. Sound is occasionally used synchronously (albeit by matching silent camerawork to separately recorded audio tapes), but also contrapuntally: snatches of recorded, anecdotal and philosophical conversations are played over imagery to which they are only tangentially related. There is no narrator.

It's not a faultless film. The music is sometimes irritating. Some thin stretches of storyline featuring Murphy, an Irish tramp and street-philosopher, seem silly. And Mitchell's evident attraction to the grotesque and the bleak isn't to everyone's taste. The optimism of the final scenes of children enjoying their school lunch break is strangely undercut by an off-screen voice having referred, immediately beforehand, to the threat of atomic destruction. But the imperfections almost work in favour of the film, which is beautiful rather than pretty.

Patrick Russell

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. 6am (4:05)
2. Off to school (2:44)
3. Talk talk talk (2:44)
4. The great mass (2:18)
Mitchell, Denis (1911-1990)
Beyond Free Cinema
Liverpool: Shaping the City