The swinging sixties didn’t just happen by themselves. The post-war welfare state, incredible new technology, and a shift from manual labour to office work produced a period of affluence unlike any before or since. With working class people suddenly liberated from the constraints of their previous existence, the mid 50s saw the beginning of the massive social upheaval that culminated in the 60s and was reflected in the arts. Woodfall Film Productions was at the very heart of these changes, and arguably represents the highest creative and artistic point achieved by the British cinema industry.
Woodfall epitomised its times by breaking with the conventions of the polite British movie, represented in its different ways by Gainsborough and Ealing. For the first time working class people and communities were depicted accurately and without condescension on the cinema screen, and the struggles of the younger generation to break free from the trappings that had restricted their parents became the basic material and raison d’etre of the progressive vision expressed by each Woodfall production.
The company was formed in the late 1950s by director Tony Richardson, Playwright John Osborne and Producer Harry Saltzman as a cinematic outlet for the hard-hitting, ground-breaking approach to artistic expression with which they had already taken the theatre world by storm, beginning with the stage production of Osborne’s Look Back In Anger, directed by Richardson. In 1959, the work became the first Woodfall film, introducing unsuspecting British audiences to a new X-rated depiction of the hand-to-mouth existence and bohemian lifestyles of a group of young people living in the less-than-glamorous surroundings of contemporary Notting Hill.
Woodfall followed with a series of films that defined the ‘new wave’ of British cinema - The Entertainer (1960), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961) and Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). These films, usually but not always directed by Tony Richardson, gave birth to a new set of clichés – specifically the Kitchen Sink Drama and the Angry Young Man – and introduced the world to exciting new talents such as Alan Sillitoe, Shelagh Delaney and Karel Reisz. Albert Finney, Rita Tushingham and Tom Courtenay were heroes to the emerging generation, and names like Jimmy Porter, Archie Rice and Arthur Seaton became emblematic of the turbulence that was rushing through British society.
Thematically, Woodfall films typically – but not exclusively – were located up north in doggedly working-class settings typified by belching smoke from tall chimneys and dilapidated, over-crowded housing, and concerned the struggles of a young man with a mixture of intelligence and ambition determined to break free from these shackles and achieve the ‘freedom’ represented by some combination of money, power and the lure of the big city. Not all the films had those precise characteristics – most notably Olivier’s ageing clown in The Entertainer and Tushingham’s Jo in A Taste of Honey – but the basic template was influential enough to inspire other similar ventures (A Kind Of Loving, Billy Liar etc.).
In terms of style, Woodfall productions drew heavily on the vogue for ‘naturalism’ and were clearly heavily influenced by the French Nouvelle Vague. Location shooting was a logical choice to depict the working class in their actual milieu, dialogue became gradually less ‘stagey’ and there were frequent flights of documentary-like fancy, whether in Notting Hill market, the funfair or the seaside. These elements showed that Woodfall had not only absorbed the lessons of Italian Neo-Realism and the French New Wave, but expressed its continuity with the British traditions of Humphrey Jennings and the Free Cinema movement. Sex (now arguably viewable as misogyny) and violence pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable on-screen.
Inevitably, Woodfall (most notably Richardson) had to branch out from its narrow template, and did so in style with the multi-Oscar winning Tom Jones (1963) a lavish period comedy shot in colour with high production values, showing that – like the French directors he admired – Richardson also had a desire to make ‘classic’ cinema. The swinging sixties were brought to the screen in Dick Lester’s free-wheeling The Knack…And How To Get It (1965), art cinema was touched upon with an adaptation of Duras’ The Sailor From Gibraltar (1967) and the British film industry was brought to near-financial catastrophe with the massive undertaking of Charge Of The Light Brigade (1968). All stand up as excellent films 50 years on.
As a catalogue of great films, Woodfall has no equal in British cinema, and rarely has any company so closely mirrored the changing times. To watch a Woodfall film is to see a slice of history as well as an ambitious, artistic and meaningful piece of cinema.