Last week R|R charted a brief history of Ealing Studios to accompany Reel Ale Film Club’s screening of The Ladykillers (1955). This week we bring you another condensed history lesson alongside a double-bill screening of Free Cinema films Mamma Don’t Allow (1955) and We Are The Lambeth Boys (1958).
‘Free Cinema’ was not intended to be a long-running movement, rather it was devised specifically for the launch of three films: Lindsey Anderson’s O Dreamland (1953), Lorenza Mazzetti’s Together (1956), and Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson’s Momma Don’t Allow. This collection of films was screened in February of 1956 at the NFT (now the BFI) and came with a manifesto of sorts. Though all funded by the BFI Experimental Film Fund, these films were not made with an overarching style or significance in mind; the original programme notes assert that they simply happened to share a certain ‘attitude’. They were ‘Free’ in that they were made outside of the commercial British film industry on small budgets, with small screws and on location; all 3 films were shot with handheld 16mm cameras which were transported, and often paid for, by the filmmakers themselves. Indeed, inherent in the ‘attitude’ of the films was an antagonism to the organisation of the British film industry and its favoured high-brow ‘quality’ subject matter. By contrast, these films were committed to a portrayal of what Bryony Dixon and Christophe Dupin (in an article to accompany the BFI’s 2001 recreation of the original Free Cinema programme) call “undiscovered pockets of British society,” or as the programme notes put it, “the importance of the everyday”. Below is the first page of that 1956 programme.
With this declaration filmmakers Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Lorenza Mazzetti pledged to dedicate themselves to a completely new sort of cinema. These films were different to any being made in Britain at the time: they were deeply personal and they were exciting. It was an ambitious campaign, but a vital one, which sought to alter the attitude of British filmmaking.
This commitment to the everyday was expressed through a basis in documentary, influenced by famed British filmmakers John Grierson and Humphrey Jennings (whose wartime films were the subject of week 3 of Reel Ale Film Club’s ‘London on Film’ season). Like those filmmakers, Free Cinema sought to depict the ‘real’ life of Britain, the people and the places that were excluded from British cinema screens.
“Ironically then, the criticism of the Free Cinema filmmakers was effectively that they were outsiders.”
This movement (and more significantly its successor, the British New Wave) was also associated with the ‘angry young men’ drive in literature and the theatre of the time, such as John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which was made into a film by Tony Richardson in 1959. These works were an expression of an excluded voice – distanced from, and angry at, ‘The Establishment’. Many of the authors were from working class backgrounds, which was integral to their feeling of isolation from the British artistic elite.
The Free Cinema filmmakers however, were largely middle-class and have subsequently been criticised for their representations of ‘ordinary’ people, especially Lindsey Anderson’s O Dreamland, which depicts a day at a Margate funfair. O Dreamland’s working-class pleasure seekers would not have been considered a worthy subject matter by many, so while Anderson’s attention to a largely neglected aspect of British life is admirable, the film paints a vaguely patronising picture. A mechanical clown’s laughter echoes across the soundtrack, compounding a vague sense that these people are to be ridiculed. As Dixon and Dupin point out, Anderson “can’t resist heavy-handed editorialising, staging the promenaders’ diversions as a belaboured metaphor for the noisy emptiness of consumer society.” Ironically then, the criticism of the Free Cinema filmmakers was effectively that they were outsiders to, and observers of, this ‘ordinary’ world that they sought to portray and construct. More than this, Free Cinema filmmakers were constructing this ‘ordinary’ Britain by altering the reality that they saw, for instance by focusing on the white youths of Lambeth, so eliding the area’s large afro-caribbean population.
Although it is important to note these objections, they do not lessen its relevance or its commitment to people and the “significance of the everyday;” nor should they lessen our enjoyment of Free Cinema. Reel Ale Film Club’s choice, Momma Don’t Allow, is considerably divergent from the potentially degrading spectacle of O Dreamland’s funfair revellers. Instead, Momma Don’t Allow celebrates the exuberance of young dancers at a jazz club in Wood Green. Without the heavy cutting and voice-over commentary of O Dreamland, Momma Don’t Allow is a far warmer portrayal of working-class leisure pursuits. (Mazzetti’s Together is also set in London and is a fascinating film depicting deaf East End dock workers; search it out for extra viewing.) Most of the Free Cinema films, and a range of extra material, are available in the BFI’s boxset.
Along with Momma Don’t Allow, Reel Ale Film Club will be taking a trip south of the river with Karel Reisz’ We Are The Lambeth Boys. This also looks at the youth culture which was emerging rapidly at the time, specifically, as Screenonline notes, attempting to deliver a “positive portrait of the lives of ordinary teenagers, far from the usual violent ‘Teddy Boy’ stereotype”. Shot at a youth club near Oval over the summer of 1958, the film revels in the hijinks of a group of teenage boys.The roundtable-style discussions were a breakthrough in documentary film practice, particularly for the space this set up gives for subjects to express themselves; the film’s best scenes are those in which the boys talk freely about their aspirations and their fears. The identity of the group is central to the film, indeed it would not exist without them. Appropriately then, the title of the film is taken from a song sung by the boys as they drive through the West End, as the clip below shows.
Six Free Cinema programmes were screened at the NFT from 1956 to 1959 (including Polish and French editions); We Are The Lambeth Boys featured in programme 6, entitled ‘The Last Free Cinema’. From here the movement’s filmmakers went on to pursue their commitment to social realism through feature-length fiction films such as Saturday Night Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960),The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962) and This Sporting Life (Lindsay Anderson, 1963). These films and others, known collectively as the British New Wave, would not have been possible without Free Cinema. Moreover, these films were a major influence for French documentary filmmaker Jean Rouch (the subject of a recent article by C.P.Thorne) and others; the legacy of Free Cinema is evident in documentary film practises right up to today’s reality television.
For more information on this period of British film history, R|R recommends John Hill’s Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956-1963 and the wealth of information – including the original programme notes for the first Free Cinema screenings – available online from the BFI.
Momma Don’t Allow and We Are The Lambeth Boys will screen at Reel Ale Film Club on the 23rd May at 8pm.
London on Film – 25th April – 19th September:
25/4 - Silent London - Piccadilly (E.A. Dupont, 1929)
2/5 - Wartime London: Part 1 - Waterloo Bridge (Mervyn LeRoy, 1940)
9/5 - Wartime London: Part 2 - I Was a Fireman (Humphrey Jennings, 1943) + London Can Take It (Humphrey Jennings, 1940)
16/5 - Larceny in London: Part 1 - The Ladykillers (Alexander McKendrick, 1955)
23/5 - British New Wave - We Are The Lambeth Boys (Karel Reisz, 1959) + Momma Don’t Allow (Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, 1956)
30/5 – ‘Its’s Wonderful to be Young’ - The Young Ones (Sidney J. Furie, 1961)
6/6 - Queer London: Part 1 - Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961)
13/6 - British Bands: Part 1 - A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1965)
20/6 - Art House - Blow Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)
27/6 - Terror on the Tube - Quartermass and The Pit (Roy Ward Baker, 1967)
4/7 - Hitchcock’s London - Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock, 1972)
11/7 - DINOSAURS in London - One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (Robert Stevenson, 1975)
18/7 - Gangster’s Paradise: Part 1 - The Long Good Friday (John Mackenzie, 1980)
25/7 - Horror - An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)
1/8 - Queer London: Part 2 - Prick Up Your Ears (Stephen Frears, 1987)
8/8 - Larceny in London: Part 2 - A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton & John Cleese, 1988)
15/8 - Romantic Comedy - The Tall Guy (Mel Smith & Richard Curtis, 1989)
22/8 - Gangster’s Paradise: Part 2 - The Krays (Peter Medak, 1990)
29/8 - London Soul - Young Soul Rebels (Issac Julien, 1991)
5/9 - British Bands: Part 2 - SpiceWorld (Bob Spiers, 1997)
12/9 - Big Guns in the Big Smoke - Harry Brown (Daniel Barber, 2009)
19/9- Docu-dreams - Dreams of a Life (Carol Morley, 2012)