Although few today, even among the ranks of film-buffs, seem to have heard the term "Free Cinema," it describes an approach to film-making that, during the mid to late-fifties, helped to revolutionise the future course of English film, pointing the way towards social realist/new wave films such as A Taste of Honey. Taking their cameras to the streets of London, young film-makers, working independently (though sometimes helped by the BFI's Experimental Film Fund), tried to capture the lives of ordinary people respectfully and objectively, in deliberate contrast to the frequently condescending and sentimental portrayal of the working-class in mainstream cinema.
The essence of this approach is captured in the Free Cinema manifesto of 1956, which accompanied the first programme of films (including O Dreamland!,Momma Don't Allow, and Together): "These films were not made together; nor with the idea of showing them together. But when they came together, we felt they had an attitude in common. Implicit in this attitude is a belief in freedom, in the importance of people and in the significance of the everyday".
The films proved to be a sensation; when the first programme was shown at the National Film Theatre, on 9 February 1956, the Evening News reported: "Every beard and duffle coat in London, every urchin-cut and pair of jeans seemed to converge on the National Film Theatre in Southbank last night.....I saw Sir Carol Reed [and] the Boulting Brothers....eagerly discussing afterwards the work of the four young directors who worked on the films." The success of the films took even their makers aback. Last year I interviewed the photographer of many of the best-known Free Cinema films, Walter Lassally, who recalled that the public reaction to the first programme "was very surprising to us and also very gratifying."
Many of the film-makers and technicians behind the British programmes were foreign, including Lassally, whose family had escaped Hitler's Germany before the war, and who had a long and distinguished career ahead of him on major feature films such as A Taste of Honey, Tom Jones, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, and Zorba the Greek. Then there was Karel Reisz, the future director of numerous classics, including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The French Lieutenant's Woman, Lorenza Mazzetti, and Robert Vas.
In the documentary that accompanies the BFI DVD release, Walter Lassally suggests that foreigners in London were able to find material that escaped native-born directors, and in our interview, I asked him why he thought this. "Native directors might find this material - for example, pub scenes in the East End - either too commonplace or not sufficiently interesting, depending on their viewpoint. Foreigners can see these things through different and less prejudiced eyes. A good example from the feature film sector is Knave of Hearts, also known as M..Ripois, directed by René Clément....[With] a British cameraman, he made use of hidden, sometimes hand-held cameras in the streets of London in a way which no British filmmaker had ever done, certainly not on a feature film." But, although foreigners were prominent in the movement, Lassally does not believe that there were any really similar movements on the Continent, "although there was a spontaneous, simultaneous mutual connection with the early films of the French new wave". Nor, on the whole, was there much exchange of ideas between the makers of the shorts shown in Free Cinema's 'foreign' programmes, and those involved with the British programmes; the foreign films were made independently and chosen "because they seemed to fit under the umbrella. I later made a short film, Children's Corner which was produced by Lionel Rogosin, the [French] maker of On the Bowery, but usually contacts were brief and confined to such times as they were visiting us or vice versa."
Although the work was not at all lucrative --to say the least-- there were various artistic reasons why film-makers chose to involve themselves with Free Cinema projects. Walter Lassally had worked as a professional free-lance cameraman since 1951, and had accumulated previous documentary experience: "In my case it started pre-Free Cinema with Sunday by the Sea (1951), Thursday's Children (1952) and Bow Bells (1953)". However, he was drawn to provide much unpaid work and expertise on Free Cinema films "through my connection with the BFI and its experimental film fund. I have always been interested in films that were 'free' in the sense that was used in Free Cinema: they made one free to express one' s self without undue pressures, commercial or otherwise". Lassally believes that young film-makers' interest in filming ordinary people and everyday life can be ascribed to the fact that "British cinema was so very conservative, middle class and studio-bound in the fifties".
Like Reisz, Tony Richardson was a major player in the movement, and likewise destined to be a very important figure in new wave cinema, but the guiding spirit behind the movement, a man whose role Lassally describes as "pioneering, primary and crucial," was Lindsay Anderson, a cinema rebel from an old Scottish military family who had recently begun writing polemical articles for Sight and Sound, the BFI's magazine, and would later go on to direct such classics as This Sporting Life, If.... and O Lucky Man! I asked Lassally, who worked with Reisz, Richardson and Anderson, whether the experience from his point of view was different in each case. "I enjoyed working with all of them, but, yes, they were all very different, with Lindsay being the most poetic. I very much regret that I didn't have the opportunity to shoot a feature with Lindsay."
One cannot make any statement about how much of the 'average' Free Cinema film was staged and how much was 'real' because, according to Lassally, Free Cinema was not a 'movement' in the classical sense of a consistent, shared approach to artistic creation. "There is really no such thing as an average Free Cinema film. The phrase [Free Cinema] was coined by Lindsay Anderson to serve as an umbrella for the showing of three very different films. They only thing they had in common was that they were completely independent....No films was ever produced deliberately under this umbrella, except tangentially, as in the case of Every Day Except Christmas and We Are the Lambeth Boys, which were sponsored by the Ford Motor Co. in a period when Karel Reisz was their Films Officer, and then formed the centrepieces of subsequent Free Cinema programmes. Other films, particularly those from abroad, were selected because they seemed to fit comfortably under this heading. Not until much later was Free Cinema referred to as a movement, which it never really was at the time."
The naturalism of Free Cinema is startling, and I was curious to know how Free Cinema film-makers elicited such open behaviour from their subjects. "This comes with experience of making that type of documentary film. It has to do with getting thoroughly acquainted with your subject(s) to the point where they feel at home and uninhibited with you, the film-makers." In their freshness and sensitivity, many of the films are very reminiscent of the war-time documentaries of Humphrey Jennings, so I asked whether there was any connection between Free Cinema and the Mass Observation movement, the ongoing social research project which Jennings had helped to found. "No, but Lindsay was always an admirer of Jennings, the only other poet in British cinema."
Lassally believes that his Free Cinema period was formative for his later work, as it was for Anderson, Reisz and Richardson. Techniques that he had learnt during his Free Cinema period "came in very handy when 'insinuating' actors into natural surroundings, as was the case with my first feature Another Sky (1954), filmed in Morocco, and right up until the present day, such as [when filming] Julie Christie in India in Heat and Dust.....this is undoubtedly also true to some extent for Lindsay, Karel and Tony. It should be noted that A Taste of Honey is the first British feature film to be shot entirely on location, and even this film could not be produced a year earlier when it was ready to go because the financiers would not contemplate an all-location venture."
When asked how he feels about his Free Cinema experiences, looking back over a long career that includes work on new wave and Merchant Ivory films, Lassally replies "It was a start, and very enjoyable most of the time!"
Many thanks to Walter Lassally for his time, and to Jill Reading and Christophe Dupin for helping to arrange the interview.The interview was conducted by Isabel Taylor.
Review of the BFI's Free Cinema DVD set
For anyone with an interest in English cinema (or English social history, come to that) there is wonderful news: the BFI's release of a three-DVD set of all the films from the three Free Cinema "British" programmes (programmes 1, 3 and 6 -the other programmes highlighted foreign shorts), and some later films inspired by them. Even after fifty years, the films on these discs are still arresting, entertaining, and often deeply moving. The accompanying superbly-written notes by Christophe Dupin and the thoughtful documentary about Free Cinema, Small is Beautiful, provide new insight into the films.
Bearing in mind Lassally's caveat about seeing too much of a 'movement' in these films, it is clear that the tone noted by the film-makers in the first programme predominates over the three programmes: a belief in human worth, the significance of the quotidian and its detail, and a definite -though restrained—optimism.
The first Free Cinema programme
O Dreamland (1953), directed by Lindsay Anderson and shot by John Fletcher, is uncharacteristic of most Free Cinema films (including Anderson's own) in the queasy view it takes of working-class pleasures. Shot in the Margate funfair Dreamland, the film assembles a nightmarish visual and aural patchwork of impressions that sometimes makes the viewer suspect a certain type of middle-class condescension at work; the entire montage seems intended to convey not only material poverty, but cultural sterility as well. In the latter respect, it points towards Nice Time (1957), a documentary made by two French film-makers (Claude Goretta and Alain Tanner) in Piccadilly, which was part of the third Free Cinema programme.
Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson's Momma Don't Allow (1956), by contrast, is vibrant and largely upbeat, superbly photographed by Walter Lassally. It is one of the many sympathetic Free Cinema portrayals of the emergent teenage culture of the late fifties, following the dull, workaday lives of a group of teenagers --a butcher's boy, a dentist's assistant, a train janitor— who come alive during the evenings in their local jazz club, to the music of the Chris Barber band (featuring a very young Lonnie Donegan). One of the most telling incidents in a film full of keen human insight is the arrival of a group of upper middle-class revellers, who prove unable to jive and are forced to stand, smiling helplessly, on the sidelines while their social inferiors dance rings around them. The narrative in the film is kept simple and minimal so as to allow the viewer to focus on the dancing, all performed by the real-life regulars of the club. And what dancing it is.
Lorenza Mazzetti's Together (1956) narrates the experiences of two deaf-mutes in the East End of London. While the most ambitious of these films in terms of length and detail, and with a few affecting and poetic sequences, it generally lacks tension and direction. This is connected to the generally alienated view that it takes of the East End, which clearly derives from the director's own feeling of isolation as a foreigner in London at the time. Christophe Dupin in his notes comments on the influence of Italian neo-realism on this film, and its plangent fatalism certainly seems to owe something to De Sica.
Despite the joyousness of Momma Don't Allow, it is not surprising, therefore, that the critic Gavin Lambert detected sadness as the underlying theme of these films. The atmosphere was to lighten significantly in the third Free Cinema programme.
Anderson's Wakefield Express, which had been made in 1952, and marked the first occasion on which he worked with Lassally, is ostensibly a film about the operations of a local newspaper in the West Riding of Yorkshire. While there is much about the actual process of printing a newspaper, this idea, as Dupin remarks, serves as a vehicle for an broader examination of the life of the communities it serves. With his lyrical visual sense, Anderson turns the special occasions of any town, such as rugby matches and war memorials, into a poetic meditation on community life.
The absolute masterwork of this programme, and arguably the greatest Free Cinema film of all, is Anderson's extraordinary Every Day Except Christmas. With Lassally's insightful and artistic camera-work, a sensitive script written by Anderson and beautifully read by Alun Owen, and superb, specially-written music by Daniele Paris, this film covers a day --or rather, a night and morning—in the lives of the porters at Covent Garden market. A paean to the dignity of labour, it dwells on the skill and delicacy involved in their various tasks (the care with which boxes of flowers are opened and emptied, the dexterity necessary for constructing fruit displays, and so on) and the interactions between them and their early morning customers, a range of bulk buyers who range from grocers to old flower ladies, some of whom can remember the Victorian age. The film's great achievement is that it captures not only the detail of the work itself, but also the social life that had developed around this extremely arduous existence; the social observation of the scenes in the night cafe where the workers enjoy a cup of tea and animated conversation is extraordinary. Rather surprisingly, this 1957 winner of the Venice Film Festival's Documentary Grand Prix was actually sponsored by the Ford Motor Company, as the first in their 'Look at Britain!' series of documentaries.
The sixth Free Cinema programme
Refuge England (1959), directed by the Hungarian refugee Robert Vas, is semi-autobiographical, capturing the oddness of London as seen through the eyes of one of the many Hungarians forced to flee the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising.
Vas is masterful at depicting the city through a stranger's eyes, showing how strange everything must look to a refugee. The film's impressionistic approach depicts the metropolis as enormous and baffling, and captures the new consumer culture in the West End (incidentally, a somewhat jaundiced view of consumerism seems to be a continual theme of Free Cinema films, regardless of their makers' nationalities). Most importantly, Refuge England captures the agonising uncertainty that goes with being a refugee, and forces the viewer to identify with it. Vas' use of melancholy Hungarian folk tunes simply but evocatively conveys the state of mind of the protagonist, expressively portrayed by the Hungarian actor Péter Timár, as, without any English, he drifts along the London suburbs attempting to determine which of four roads is the one in the address he was given at the refugee camp. The equally simple but poignant ending wordlessly conveys the relief of finally finding refuge.
Enginemen (1959), directed by Michael Grigsby, was made a group of young Granada technicians in Manchester who formed a Free-Cinema-like group called Unit Five Seven, which was not, however, inspired by Free Cinema. Like many Free Cinema films, Enginemen derives human drama from circumstances which initially sound unpromising: British Railways' switch from steam to diesel. The film shows this as an enormous and largely unwanted upheaval in the lives of the enginemen themselves, since it renders useless the various skills learnt over years of handling steam engines, and, in their view, diminishes the pride that came with such skills. Again, much like Every Day Except Christmas, it captures both the physical strain of the work itself -particularly in the tasks of shovelling and cleaning -and its sociability. The extraordinarily atmospheric cinematography serves to bear out some of the men's arguments in favour of the excitement of steam over diesel.
We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959) is one of the undisputed classics of Free Cinema, and an extraordinarily valuable document of working-class teenage life just before the sixties began to swing. Directed by Karel Reisz, shot with superb naturalism by Lassally, and accompanied by a classic Johnny Dankworth jazz score, it focusses on the experiences of a group of Lambeth teenagers who go to their local youth club every day, after school or work. There, the boys play sports, the girls do needlework, and both genders do artwork and join in group discussions, moderated by an adult. Although it is never explicitly stated, the teenagers' conversations about gang violence in the area, and heated debate about whether or not murderers should be hanged, combined with the commentator's insistence that more such clubs are needed, suggest that youth clubs' main function in areas like this was to keep teenagers off the streets and out of danger (or trouble).
In comparison with their parents' generation, these teenagers are clearly prosperous (one discussion concerns the merits of fifteen-guinea suits), but, while they may be beneficiaries of the post-war boom, they still face drudgery in their working lives, lightened only -as in the case of the teenagers in Momma Don't Allow—by their evening amusements. The sense of freedom that the weekend brings is beautifully conveyed by Dankworth's buoyant music.
In this film, the camera is especially aware of facial expressions, creating masterful studies of the boisterous and sometimes fraught interactions between the sexes, particularly of the boys' palpable fear when faced with the prospect of asking the girls to dance. By concentrating on its subjects' essential likeability and the harmlessness of most teenage pastimes, such as stopping into a chippie, it attempted to refute the popular image of teenagers as violent and dangerous.
The set includes a fabulous bonus, "Beyond Free Cinema," a collection of films made in the Free Cinema idiom after the movement officially came to an end in 1959. One Potato Two Potato, a charming record of children's street games in London, captures the seriousness of play from the child's perspective. It was made by Leslie Daiken, an Irish expert on children's folklore, who managed to coax wonderfully fresh and natural performances from his subjects. March to Aldermaston (1959) documents the famous CND march to Aldermaston to protest Britain's nuclear programme. Tomorrow's Saturday (1962), by Michael Grigsby, captures the traditional working-class life that still clung on, even in the sixties, in Northern textile towns, while John Irvin's Gala Day, (1963) captures the fun and anarchy of the Durham miners' gala.
The Vanishing Street (1962), another film by Robert Vas, was shot in the Hessel Street area of East London, an East End Jewish community slated for 'redevelopment'; Vas managed to preserve it for posterity just before the buildings were torn down. The film is a haunting lament for a disappearing community and way of life, using a variety of traditional Yiddish music --both uptempo and sorrowful-- to convey the vibrancy of the street's culture and counterpoint this with a sense of loss. One shot is particularly striking: that of an old man, sitting in the shop that he must close down, gazing mistily into the middle distance.
These wonderful films leave the viewer with many striking visual images, and with an extraordinarily detailed insight into postwar society and culture. For enthusiasts of new wave cinema, the set provides the missing piece of the puzzle in the style's development. --Isabel Taylor