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Groundbreakers: The Free Film Movement in British Cinema

“As filmmakers we believe that no film can be too personal. The image speaks. Sound amplifies and comments. Size is irrelevant. Perfection is not an aim. An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude.”

- Lorenza Mazzetti, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reiz, Tony Richardson

In the post-war austerity years, Britain spawned a new breed of filmmakers, with new vision and a fresh approach, looking at Britain. often largely through foreign eyes, whose work inevitably affected more mainstream filmmakers. They were the Fifties equivalent of dogme filmmakers. For this alone their work was significant and their legacy is worth careful examination.

“With a 16mm camera, and minimal resources, and no payment for your technicians, you cannot achieve very much in commercial film terms. You cannot make a feature film and your possibilities of experiment are extremely limited. But you can use your eyes and your ears. You can give indications. You can make poetry.”

The observation is timeless, though the words are dated. They came from Lindsay Anderson, one of the founders of the new cinema movement which gave a platform to young filmmakers who needed to work outside the constraints of  the industrialised mainstream industry.  


Six Free Cinema programmes were screened at the National Film Theatre in London between 1956 and 1959, launching the platform on a post-war nation that was just beginning to throw off the restraints of austerity in the early Modern Elizabethan era.
The filmmakers who created this new platform, like directors Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reiz, Tony Richardson, Claude Goretta, Alain Tanner and cameraman Walter Lassally, moved on into fiction work: others, like Mike Grigsby and Robert Vas steered their courses in documentary.

These were films that were discussed much more than seen, because they were all short documentaries 20 or 25 minutes long which did not sit easily in cinema programmes and being auteurist, they were radical departures from the perceived British documentary tradition. Auteurism had only just appeared in critic vocabularies during these years, so that gives a fair indication of how radical their approach was seen to be.


These films were made between 1952 and 1963, jammed between the austerity years and the Beatles. Many fitted snugly within normal documentary criteria and some of them – Every Day Except Christmas (Anderson, 1957) and We Are The Lambeth Boys (Reisz, 1959) - were sponsored by The Ford Motor Company for their film series Look at Britain. These films were in effect looking at Britain in a very different way, because they are presented much more like personal statement than observational work. For an audience, their impact is heartfelt rather than engaging and they have poetic resonanace.

I was spellbound by the first of these films I ever saw. We Are The Lambeth Boys in 1959 were about the same age as I was when I first saw it  and I immediately identified with their adolescent world of Teddy Boy suits and flared skirts, juke boxes, cheap cigarettes and having fun, though musically I was miles away from Bill Haley and the Comets and my suits were strictly Italian-style.

O Dreamland (Anderson, 1953) and Nice Time (Goretta/Tanner 1957) were more impressionistic, portraits of Margate and Piccadilly Circus. A very similar free form approach was used for Momma Don’t Allow (Reisz, 1956) which was a study of a jazz club in North London’s Wood Green.


We are often seen through foreign eyes because Reisz, Vas, Goretta, Tanner and Lorenza Mazzetti were born elsewhere and were all relative newcomers finding their feet in new surroundings. Refuge England (Vas, 1956) shows the bewildering first day in London of a monoglot Hungarian refugee, long before asylum seekers became politicised and they were just vulnerable, confused people. Together ( Mazzetti, 1956) looks at two other outsiders, deaf mutes coping with work, leisure and unwanted attention, which for me was a mirror of the struggles of my three deaf mute cousins going through these same traumas ten years later. Not a lot had changed in that time.

 Industrial and working communities are another Free Cinema subject, observing ordinary working lives but at a time of industrial and social change when many industries were coming towards the end of their era. Wakefield Express (Anderson, 1952) portrays just such an industrial community, set in a provincial newspaper. Enginemen (Grigsby, 1959) looks at the lives of railway workers just as steam propulsion was going into decline. Tomorrow’s Saturday (Grigsby, 1962) takes us through a typical Blackburn, Lancashire weekend and The Vanishing Street (Vas, 1962)  overlooks an East End Jewish community that is threatened by redevelopment.


These films now are like timeshots. Black and white 16mm to keep costs low and with all the imperfections of filmmakers still learning the technicalities of their craft, but all of these factors are dismissed by the sense of immediacy that overtakes the viewer. There are no better street level portraits of Britain in those transitional years of the fifties. Their auteurs went on to become very influential filmmakers, including some of the best screen dramas made in Britain.

Karl Reisz directed Saturday Night And Sunday Morning (1960) the unforgettable screen version of Alan Sillitoe's working class novel about a Nottingham factory worker, who likes to spend his Saturday evenings in the pub and Saturday nights in bed with his best mate's wife. An unforgettable performance from Albert Finney in one of our best “kitchen sink” drama offerings.

Tony Richardson cast Rita Tushingham and Dora Bryan in A Taste of Honey (1961) the tale of a pregnant Salford teenager and her manipulative mother. A superb screen adaptation of Shelagh Delaney's play which I watched again recently. Rita Tushingham gives a groundbreaking performance as the girl who sets up an unlikely friendship with a homosexual. It is as fresh and as powerful more than forty years on, as it ever was.

Richardson also made the Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner starring Tom Courtenay and Michael Redgrave, in which Courtnay's Borstal boy has absolutely nothing going for him, except his ability to run. This is one of the key films of the transition of  the Free Cinema auteurs into Britain's New Wave. Karel Reisz directed David Warner and Vanessa Richardson in Morgan – A Suitable Case For Treatment in which Warner plays a newly divorced man determined to sabotage his ex-wife's subsequent marriage. Eminently watchable.

The British Film Institute, which helped finance the short documentaries that became Britain's Free Cinema showcase, has now taken them from archive and re-released them in this century with all eleven films of the original NFT programmes coming out in a DVD package, complete with a documentary on the New Cinema movement and five more films made under the New Cinema principles.