FILMIN’ ROUND THE WORLD: BRITAIN (1940’s – 1960’s)

I would firsts like to start by saying thank you for your patience. I don’t have a penciled in a schedule for this blog series, I like to think of them as a nice surprise that makes a change from the reviews I do. Also, I enjoy the research in preparation for writing these posts, some of the information is just as new to you as it is to me. Anyway, thanks for your patience, let’s continue Filmin’ Round the World.

Today we’re beginning with some wartime spirit in the greatest country on Earth, good ol’ Blighty. Before the war, British cinema had already begun to cheapen itself with it’s so-called “quota quickie” films. The UK parliament had passed The Cinematograph Films Act in 1927 where cinemas would have to showcase a quota of British Films. To keep up with the demands form the government, low-budget, low-quality films were commissioned but under the economic circumstances of The Great Depression, these films were a boom and bust period. Even some of Britain’s biggest names like Alfred Hitchcock had already left the country headed for Hollywood. In normal circumstance, something like war would grind film industries to a halt, not Britain though, we kept calm and carried on thanks to an entertainment conglomerate whose voice would quickly become as loud as a gong. The Rank Organisation.

 

1940’s

Set up by British industrialist J. Arthur Rank in 1937, the growth of The Rank Organisation spread like wildfire having already established wealth through a previous flour milling business.  By the early 1940’s The Rank Organisation had already become a juggernaut in British Cinemas through the acquisition of many film industry assets with some of the biggest being the owner/operators of Pinewood Studios, purchasing Odeon Cinemas and Elstree Studios. In 1942, the organization owned 650 cinemas as well as five of the biggest film studios in the UK. Because of this rapid expansion, the Rank Organisation had practically cornered the market becoming a film empire, and they needn’t worry about the ongoing world war as cinemas that were previously close in fear of becoming air raid targets we’re reopened.

After the war had ended, the British government used cinema to promote the social changes that came with the Clement Atlee government, The Rank Organisation were continuing their growth and cinema admissions reached a record high in 1946 with 1.64 billion. World War Two had made cinema a fantastic place to get away from wartime troubles and it was about to get even better as creativity in the British film industry had boomed. Britain felt comfortable enough to take on the big dogs in the USA, The Rank Organisation was up for the challenge and launched the film careers of the like of Michael Powell, David Lean, and Emeric Pressburger. The organization even started its own acting school The Company of Youth whose alumni included Sir Christopher Lee and Donald Sinden. It was director Lawrence Oliver who would make the loudest move as his 1948 adaptation of Hamlet became the first non-American film to win best picture at the Academy Awards.

The circle of life inevitable took hold and when there is a rise, there is always a fall. The fall is argued to have begun in 1947, rationing was still ongoing in Britain and the government decided to put even more spending imported food from the United States, causing a quarter drop in profits from the UK on imported Hollywood films. Hollywood fought back by refusing to distribute new films to the UK and The Rank Organisation sort to counteract this. By creating more and more high budget films The Rank Organisation had the hopes of continuing this streak of creative films making the British film industry overtake Hollywood as the dominant global film industry. However, before this massive influx of British films could be released, the ban was suddenly lifted, and with it came a flood of American made films which proved to be more popular with audiences at the time. The Rank Organisation’s plan had backfired and with it came losses of up to £3 million with an overall debt of £16 million.

The empire that The Rank Organisation had built up was falling, all the studio’s the company owned bar Pinewood were either closed, sold or rented out to other investors. They found some salvation by broadening their horizons towards radio and TV. however, their sole dominance at the top of the film food chain was shared with ABPC (Associated British Picture Corporation). So, what would happen to creative filmmaking in the UK? Were standards about to decline?

 

1950’s

The 1950’s British cinema scene was littered with relatively cheap productions, the money from British made productions was declining, something had to be done or British made films would be non-existent. At the beginning of the 50’s, the government introduced a new form of tax called The Eady Levy. The purpose of this new tax was to provide more funding to British productions by cutting the income from ticket prices in half, one half to the exhibitors and the other to the makers of British films without it being counted as a subsidy, which would have been protested by foreign competitors. However, this new law didn’t get off to the greatest of starts, times had changed and with it a burst of new entertainment technology. Home entertainment had become increasingly popular with radio listening reaching its peak and TV sales had skyrocketed, especially in 1953 with the coronation of Elizabeth II on the horizon.

Despite the appeal of The Eady Levy, cinema was still falling behind. However, even though all the doom and gloom, the film scene had expanded. War and comedy films had become popular genre’s, War films were described to conserve old values and provide a nostalgic trip to witness the success of wartime Britain, whilst comedy could be cheaply made to fit the economic struggles of the industry.

War films were very much the top box-office attractions of the period, often seen as the British equivalent to Hollywood westerns. Although war films were expensive to make, the fact they came once in a blue moon made them seen as a special event that could fill screenings. not only were these films successful, they became a symbolic observation of British cinema to the rest of the world. David Lean’s 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai became Britain’s biggest international success in the last decade making over $30 million on its initial release.

Comedy, on the other hand, told the exact opposite story. Its true comedy was just as successful as war films; however, comedies were more conditioned to franchising and were more common in cinemas thanks to serialization. The cult classic Carry On films would become the longest running with films continuing for twenty years. The “Doctor” series was responsible for making its lead star Dirk Bogarde one of the most popular British actors of the 1950’s. The Rank Organisation was the sole production company responsible for these comedies and understood the importance of the family market.

Although these genre’s told different stories, the one development that can be traced back to both were the looser restriction on censorship. This allowed a small, B-Film horror film studio Hammer to have a piece of the action. Much like the comedies of the time, Hammer Studio’s found success in the various sequels released, despite the films being despised by critics for being too lurid and disgusting.

The British film industry would not have its greatest push until 1957 when the Eady Levy tax became fully established and the financial benefits of the tax were out in the open. This caught the attention of filmmakers across the sea and by the end of the decade. Because of the cheaper production facilities combined with the very generous money distribution, American filmmakers discovered that the same quality in film production in Hollywood would cost far less in the UK, provided that 85% of filming was done in Britain. This attracted Hollywood giants like Stanley Kubrick and Sidney Lumet to work in the UK which in turn ensured the employment of British filmmakers and actors.

Things were starting to look up for Britain from the attention overseas, by 1959 the top twelve box office films in Britain were all made there. Success like this has never since been repeated. But whilst foreign filmmakers were finding success, Britain’s own line of filmmakers had begun a cinematic revolution. A revolution that saw to change the face of British Cinema from the scene it had become. British New Wave was coming.

 

1960’s

The “Swinging Sixties” had gripped Britain, especially in London. Excitement and hope swept through the capital, people suddenly felt the freedom to do whatever they wanted. Cinema had to capitalize on this sudden shift in attitude, therefore, American funded films were richer, exciting and had a sexier appeal through its action and exotic locations. Case in point, The Bond series. The first of its films Dr. No (1962) was an overnight success despite a lack of marketing. It combined gripping action, subtle humor and sex fantasy in a style that matched the carefree society outlook. After the release of Goldfinger (1964), it had become a global phenomenon that was followed by a lot of bond imitation films wanting to have a piece of the action. Even though these films could not match the success of the Bond films, it didn’t stop the spy genre climbed sharply to become the most popular genre of the period.

While the spy genre depicted the glitz of youth freedom, a group of film critics and journalists arrived with a completely different view on what British cinema should be and a warning of what it was going to become. One of their philosophies is that British cinema was becoming class restrictive and films needed to show working-class stories, highlighting the significance of everyday life. This first started as the Free Cinema Movement in the late 1950’s, where it’s founders Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, and Tony Richardson showcased three films at the National Film Theatre in London where they’re ideology was brought to life. This inevitably evolved into a string of films that would become known as British New Wave.

Much like French New Wave, the directors involved were rebellious, angry and had the agenda of turning British Cinema upside down into their own vision that would put the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s famous phrase “Most of our people have never had it so good” into questioning. Anderson, Reisz, and Richardson put their shared philosophy into practice and individually released films that went on to be successes in their own right, Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963), Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

British New Wave didn’t have the longest of runs, but its legacy ran into another movement of its own. Inspired by Anderson, Reisz and Richardson, more and more directors jumped to make films that would continue this style of filmmaking it what can only be described as a social realist transition. Social Realist films had a more in your face approach when it came to showing the everyday struggles of everyday Britons, they were more shocking, more political and because of a very relaxed censorship restriction could show even more controversial topics. An icon of the social realist genre is British director Ken Loach who struck gold with his 1969 film Kes.

By the end of the decade, there was another big shift in values. The Swinging Sixties had outstayed its welcome and was quickly diminishing which set off alarm bells for overseas funding, especially from America. The ongoing Vietnam War and Space Race had taken control of Lyndon Johnson’s budgeting. American funding was beginning to decrease and although not entirely gone as films with American interest remained, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find funding for British films with no American talent behind it. Without American interest, British films would struggle, and this was seen plain and clear through what people describe as “The decade that taste forgot”.

 

Our trip through the land of hope and glory has been full of twists and turns. I’m hoping of course to continue this journey but for now a little tease of where we travel to next.

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