The history of British cinema has always been at best an uneven one, marked by cycles of confidence and expansion followed by decline and stagnation. The period from 1960 saw similar fluctuations but with one crucial difference: by the early 1990s it was possible to argue that the British cinema, as an entity rooted in a particular industrial infrastructure producing a certain critical mass of audio-visual fictions for exhibition in cinemas, no longer existed. Films continued to be made but most were primarily for a television audience, with perhaps a brief theatrical 'window' as a kind of showcase, and the films that were most selfconsciously 'English' were predominantly made with American money and for the American market. This period, then, marks a process of fundamental transition or terminal decline, depending on your view of what cinema is or ought to be. It begins in the middle of a boom, but one which already marked a shift on the part of certain British producers to establish a degree of independence from the dominant structures of the industry. Such 'independence' would achieve even greater significance in the 1980s, but by then the industry itself had changed irrevocably.
The dawning of the 1960s coincided with a period of invigoration in the British cinema after what many had regarded as the inert complacency of the previous decade. The British 'New Wave', with its focus on contemporary working-class experience, grew out of 'Free Cinema', a movement of oppositional film-makers and critics like Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, and Tony Richardson, committed to shaking up moribund British film culture. These film-makers had produced influential documentaries in the late 1950s, such as Momma Don't Allow ( Richardson, 1956), Every Day except Christmas ( Anderson, 1957), and We Are the Lambeth Boys ( Reisz, 1959), on subjects such as the emerging youth culture and more traditional aspects of working-class life. Their ambitions to graduate into features required both appropriate subjects and sources of finance.
As so often in British cinema history, the inspiration for these film-makers was provided by literature and the theatre. This came in the shape of the works of the 'Angry Young Men': frank and uncompromising slices of 'real life' served up by young writers John Braine, Alan Sillitoe, John Osborne, and others. Their collective disenchantment with the smugness and false promises of post-war British society struck an ideological chord with the proponents of Free Cinema. In 1959 Tony Richardson and John Osborne came together to form Woodfall Films with American impresario Harry Saltzman, which led to screen versions of Osborne's plays; Look back in Anger ( 1959), with Richard Burton , and The Entertainer ( 1960), with Laurence Olivier, both of which Richardson had previously directed at the Royal Court.
Woodfall was supported by another independent, Bryanston Films, chaired by industry stalwart Michael Balcon, which enabled them to release their films through British Lion. The bridgehead established, Richardson's Free Cinema colleagues followed him into features, often with the collaboration of the authors and playwrights whose works inspired them. Karel Reisz made his highly successful adaptation of Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning ( 1960), perhaps the most accomplished of the northern working-class 'young man on the make' scenarios due largely to the central performance of Albert Finney. Lindsay Anderson contributed the raw and brutal This Sporting Life ( 1963), adapted by David Storey from his own novel. However, Richardson continued to be the most prolific of the group, collaborating with Shelagh Delaney (the only woman in the 'Angry' coterie) on A Taste of Honey ( 1961) and with Sillitoe on The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner ( 1962).
Allied Film Makers, a new independent company formed by Bryan Forbes and Richard Attenborough, also emerged under the British Lion umbrella. The company produced several films including Whistle down the Wind ( Forbes, 1961) and The L-Shaped Room ( Forbes, 1964), a rare example in the genre of a contemporary subject featuring a young woman's experiences in London's bedsit land. Outside the aegis of Woodfall and British Lion other notable contributors to the British 'New Wave' included John Schlesinger, another former documentarist, who directed A Kind of Loving ( 1962) and Billy Liar ( 1963). The latter shared the working-class, urban milieu of the genre, but deflected its characteristic anger and desperation into comedy, centred around an undertaker's clerk who lives in a world of fantasy.
Collectively these films constituted the latest manifestation of a progressive realist aesthetic in British cinema, dating back to Grierson's 'documentary ideal' which involved a gradual extension of the cinematic franchise to include realistic representations of the lower orders in society. And while many can be criticized for their overt sexism and machismo, the New Wave films did mark a certain aesthetic evolution in British cinema, from the initial largely studio-based productions of Room at the Top and Look back in Anger, to the freer cinéma-vérité style of