Woodfall Film Productions was originally set up by the director Tony Richardson, the playwright John Osborne and the producer Harry Saltzman in the late ’50s in order to shoot an adaptation of Osborne’s play, Look Back in Anger. Richardson had previously been a leading figure in the Free Cinema movement alongside Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson and Lorenza Mazzetti. The movement’s short documentary films often focused on working class culture and when they progressed to making feature films it was a logical step for the Free Cinema directors to work on adaptations of social realist plays and novels. Woodfall didn’t just produce social realist films but their best known and best loved titles do fall into that category and are now regarded as classic “kitchen sink” films.
The British Film Institute has gathered eight of the company’s early films together in a box set entitled Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema. The years in which Woodfall operated were years that saw much change in Britain’s fortunes at both an international and a domestic level. At an international level, Britain lost most of what remained of its Empire as well as its standing as a world super power. Troubles abroad prompted a series of domestic books and plays that were increasingly inward looking and which cast a critical eye over the fortunes of the British working man who was fast becoming angry with his lot in life. These gritty stories of working class life were adapted into films that were shot on location and which often starred actors who possessed genuine regional accents. These social realist films would spearhead the so-called British New Wave and Woodfall produced some of the New Wave’s best and most enduring examples of the form.
Nearly all of the films included in the BFI’s collection are set in contemporary Britain and most of them feature working class characters and slice of life scenarios. The one exception is Tom Jones, which is a period comedy set in 18th century Britain. Incidentally, Tom Jones is presented in two versions here: the original cinema release version and a director’s cut version from 1989. The films are reviewed in the order of their original cinematic release dates. Each disc also houses extra features that serve to contextualise the films.
Look Back in Anger (Dir. Tony Richardson, 1959)
Jimmy (Richard Burton), Alison (Mary Ure) and Cliff (Gary Raymond) are sharing lodgings in London. Jimmy and Alison are married but their relationship is not a happy one. Jimmy carries a huge amount of anger regarding the unfairness of the world in general and, at a more personal level, the restrictions that his class placement in British society have placed on his socio-economic advancement. Having been rejected by Alison’s upper middle class parents despite being educated to a high degree, Jimmy takes his anger out on Alison, subjecting her to mental torture and, on occasion, physical hurt.
Alison is exhausted, at a low ebb and pregnant but she is reluctant to tell Jimmy since she appears to be looking for a way out of the relationship, if only temporarily. When she invites her old friend Helena (Claire Bloom) to stay without asking Jimmy, the dynamics of their relationship are changed and Jimmy’s behaviour becomes even more hurtful and reckless. Something will have to give.
Based on the play by John Osborne, Look Back in Anger is an intense relationship-based drama that has at its centre the kind of class-orientated conflict that would become a near constant presence in the films of the British New Wave. However, much of the time we have to take expository dialogue at face value in order to appreciate that the conflict unfolding onscreen is class-based. Richard Burton turns in a barnstorming performance as Jimmy and he makes it easy for us to appreciate that Jimmy is a hurtful brute, but Burton’s accent, diction and enunciation aren’t those of a working class man that any viewer at the time of the film’s release (or now, I’d wager) would recognize.
It’s true that in real life Burton was born of humble beginnings before circumstances took him on a path that saw him study acting at Oxford University. Along the way he developed a wonderfully distinctive voice and impressive elocution skills. Maybe we’re supposed to simply accept that something similar happened to Jimmy and his voice? If so, it kind of stretches credulity since the kind of social mobility that Burton experienced was – and to some extent remains – hardly commonplace. Similarly, while the trio’s rooms are messy and rundown, the jazz posters that adorn their walls give the impression that they might be lazy beatniks or mature students rather than poverty-stricken members of the working class.
Damaged by a traumatic childhood experience and seemingly unable to convert his educational achievements or his skills as a jazz trumpeter into a significant career, Jimmy owns and runs a market stall selling children’s sweets. Jimmy angrily but eloquently communicates his frustrations concerning his lot in life and the dismissive attitudes of the middle and upper classes but his preoccupation with his thoughts on these matters have turned him into a ranting boor whose outbursts are governed by a hairpin trigger.
That said, there are times when Jimmy’s forthright attitudes towards such matters result in moments of tender affinity. For example, when an Indian clothes trader called Kapoor (S. P. Kapoor) arrives on the market, Jimmy befriends him and apologises for the actions of the British in their Empire territories. Jimmy also uses his friendship with Kapoor to criticise Alison’s father, who was a colonel in India, and Alison’s own snobbery, which is detected when she shows little inclination to engage with Kapoor and other working class characters, let alone get close enough to shake their hands. When Jimmy and Alison go to the cinema, a colonial adventure film is being shown and Jimmy causes a scene when he starts ranting at the screen.
Burton’s intense acting comes close to overshadowing everybody else’s efforts at times but Mary Ure and Gary Raymond do a good job of ensuring that the weak Alison and the submissive Cliff never disappear into the background of their scenes with Jimmy. Claire Bloom excels as Helena, a character who initially seems to be strong enough to stand up to Jimmy. Donald Pleasance has a very effective guest spot as the droll and faintly odious market inspector Hurst who has it in for Jimmy and can’t wait for an excuse to revoke Kapoor’s market licence. In one telling exchange of dialogue, Kapoor reveals that he came to Britain for a better life because the caste system had dictated that he was classed as an outcast and an untouchable at home. Jimmy’s reaction to this seems to indicate that he feels that he’s talking to somebody that he has much in common with.
In terms of location work, the film’s market scenes are among its best. These scenes are chockful of naturalistic non-actors and it’s also in the market that we encounter characters that we can recognise as being genuinely working class.
All told, Look Back in Anger has a pretty depressing narrative. It remains a well-made and compelling enough film but overall it lacks the magic that would make director Tony Richardson’s later film about class conflict – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – such an enduring classic.
‘Working Class Heroes: The Stories that Changed British Cinema’ is a recent Q&A session held at the BFI featuring Rita Tushingham, Tom Courtenay, Joely Richardson, Jez Butterworth, Paris Lees and Danny Leigh; ‘George Devine Memorial Play: Look Back in Anger’ is a segment from a stage version featuring Gary Raymond; ‘Oswald Morris Remembers Woodfall’ features an interview with the acclaimed cinematographer; ‘Ten Bob in Winter’ (1963) is a reasonably interesting short film about a cash-strapped young man that is distinguished by the inclusion of an ethnic lead character; trailer; stills gallery.
The Entertainer (Dir. Tony Richardson, 1960)
Archie Rice (Laurence Olivier) is a fading Music Hall star and an undischarged bankrupt who is trying barely able to keep his showbiz career alive via a low key show that is playing in a theatre in the northern seaside town of Morecambe. His showgirls haven’t been paid for weeks and he has other pressing problems to contend with: his wife Phoebe (Brenda de Banzie) is stressed and highly strung and has been forced to take a part-time job at Woolworths, his elderly father Billy (Roger Livesy) is critical of the way Archie is risking the family’s future by refusing to give up his financially precarious career and one of his sons, Mick (Albert Finney), has been posted to Egypt on his national service at the height of the Suez Crisis. Archie’s youngest son Frank (Alan Bates) is loyal to his father and he’s picking up extra cash by playing the organ at a local ballroom. In addition, Archie’s estranged London-based daughter, Jean (Joan Plowright), has arrived in town with the express intention of talking some sense into her father.
When Archie starts an affair with Tina Lapford (Shirley Anne Field), a young runner up in a beauty queen competition that he hosted, he is able to cajole her rich parents (Thora Hird and Tony Longridge) into agreeing to bankroll a big new show by promising to make Tina a star. All of Archie’s problems seem to have been solved but his luck doesn’t hold out and he soon finds his life spiralling out of control amidst a whirlwind of deceit and personal tragedy.
The Entertainer is set at a pivotal moment in Great Britain’s history. The Suez Crisis in 1956 effectively brought Britain’s influence as a major power on the world stage to an end. The embarrassment that the country suffered due to Egypt’s defiance effectively ensured that calls for independence would soon be issued from what remained of Britain’s once wide-reaching imperial empire. The changing mood of the nation is captured in conversations that take place within the Rice family. Daughter Jean and others are anti-imperialist and are tired of having their young relatives sent off to fight in dangerous far-flung regions of the world. Mick doesn’t mind going to Egypt and has plans to sign up to the Armed Forces full time when his national service comes to an end. Jean’s upperclass fiance Graham (Daniel Massey) is all for taking a big money job opportunity in Africa that will undoubtedly involve exploiting the locals and their resources.
The British class divide is also highlighted here. In a flashback, Jean recalls her work at a youth centre for underprivileged kids and the arguments that her work provoked with Graham. The pair then go to see Mick off at a train station before arguing about Graham’s job-chasing in Africa. The viewer becomes aware that the content of this sequence is a flashback as director Tony Richardson employs a plethora of canted shots and overly-stylish angles that signal the drama and trauma that Jean has attached to her memory of events.
Elsewhere, Richardson captures some great documentary-like footage of the general public enjoying a typical holiday in a northern seaside resort of the time. There’s footage set on the beach and sea front, at a number of fairground attractions around the town and at a nearby holiday camp. Towards the end of the film Richardson captures the popular annual Blackpool illuminations. Frank’s work at the ballroom results in some interesting location footage too.
On paper, The Entertainer doesn’t sound like the most appealing of films but it’s actually an expertly crafted and brilliantly acted show. It’s a credit to all concerned that a drama that is centred around a now forgotten and outdated form of entertainment – the British Music Hall – still has the power to involve and move audiences in 2018. That may be thanks to Laurence Olivier’s quite incredible performance as Archie. He’s a liar, an unfaithful cheat and a fantasist who probably has a psychopathic personality too. He’ll literally do or say anything to keep his ailing career limping along. Performing and seeing his name in lights is like an addiction to him.
His intense need to be recognised as a working entertainer – and the number of precarious plates that he’s prepared to spin to keep his dream alive – lead to a really compelling and at times quite exciting and suspenseful drama. When things start going wrong for Archie, the viewer is fully immersed in the unnerving series of events that take Archie on an ever downwards spiral. I wouldn’t be surprised if Martin Scorcese had the latter portion of The Entertainer in mind when seeking inspiration for the fast-paced finalé of Goodfellas (1990) that sees Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) suffer a similarly intense and involving decline in personal fortunes.
Oswald Morris’ crisp black and white cinematography captures the film’s narrative well and Woodfall’s resident soundtrack score composer John Addison turns in some of his best and most appropriate sounding cues. In fact all of the film’s technicians are at the top of their game here and director Tony Richardson does a fine job of channelling their efforts into a truly unique and thoroughly entertaining British film. It might not be as aggressive in tone or as modish in outlook as the likes of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner but The Entertainer still stands as one of Woodfall’s best productions.
George Devine Memorial Play: The Entertainer – Sequences one and two’ are excerpts from a stage production that focus on Archie Rice’s stage routines; ‘O Dreamland’ (1956) is Lindsay Anderson’s short Free Cinema documentary about Margate’s famous amusement park; stills gallery; ‘Panoramic View of the Morecambe Sea Front’ (1902) is a two and a half minutes long Mitchell and Kenyon actuality that takes in the seaside town where The Entertainer was shot; ‘Parade on West End Pier, Morecambe parts one and two’ (1901), ‘Parade on Morecombe Central Pier’ (1902), ‘Morecombe Promenade and Winter Gardens’ (1901), ‘Morecambe Pier’ (1900) and ‘Scenes by the Stone Jetty, Morecambe’ (1901) are more of the same from Mitchell and Kenyon. ‘Morecambe Carnival’ is an uncredited short actuality of a similar vintage while the similarly themed ‘Lancashire Coast’ (1957) is a longer film (16 minutes) and in colour.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Dir. Karel Reisz, 1960)
Review discs of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning were not made available. This is perhaps Woodfall’s best-known and most critically acclaimed film and coverage of it will undoubtedly be readily found elsewhere for those who need an introduction.
A Taste of Honey (Dir. Tony Richardson, 1961)
Jo (Rita Tushingham) is an awkward schoolgirl who is being brought up by a feckless single parent, Helen (Dora Bryan). Helen is a 40-year-old party girl who needs to have a man in her life and she’s currently being pursued by the amorous Peter (Robert Stephens), who is eight years her junior. Peter is only after one thing and he reckons that the snarky and petulant Jo gets in the way of his fun. Left to her own devices, Jo has a brief affair with a young black sailor, Jimmy (Paul Danquah), whose ship is temporarily in dock. When Helen and Peter get married, Jo lives with her gay friend, a student called Geoff (Murray Melvin). They function as a caring couple but things become complicated when Jo discovers that she is pregnant with Jimmy’s baby.
A Taste of Honey is one of Woodfall’s and the British New Wave’s most interesting films on a number of levels. In the first instance, it’s a narrative that’s told from a woman’s point of view and is driven by the actions of its female characters. Furthermore, it boasts authentic female authorship, since the film is based on Shelagh Delaney’s social realist play of the same name (Delaney adapted the play for the screen in conjunction with director Tony Richardson). Secondly, it features early, interesting and sympathetic representations of black and gay men. Life has been hard for Jo and she can be acerbic and hurtful to those around her for no apparent reason. But she sees Jimmy and Geoff for the people that they are and does not make judgements based on their race or sexuality.
Shot primarily on location in Manchester, A Taste of Honey features much in the way of bleak landscapes. Walter Lassally’s excellent black and white cinematography captures all manner of rundown working class housing districts and rough post-industrial work areas. When Peter takes Helen, Jo and a couple of his chums on a trip to Blackpool, Richardson and Lassally successfully capture the frenetic and fun experience of a daytrip to the “Las Vegas of the North”. There are lots of documentary-like shots of normal folk going about northern seaside town activities here – going on fun park rides, entering the hall of mirrors, watching exotic attractions, swanning around the promenade and so on – all underscored by some driving rock ‘n’ roll music.
Elsewhere Lassally captures activities set in pubs and dance halls. There’s a nod towards the emergent youth culture of the time when Lassally’s camera takes in a gang of Teddy Boys who are watching an Easter parade in Manchester and in the plot point that has Geoff buying a pair of modish shoes from the shop that Jo works in.
For all of its grittiness, there are sections of A Taste of Honey where the film projects a curiously innocent ambience. Local children play a big part in the film’s mise-en-scène and Jo and Geoff actually befriend a local gang of kids. When Jo and Geoff take a bus to the countryside for a day trip out, the kids spontaneously follow them. In addition, John Addison’s soundtrack score features some incongruous sounding cues that come across as overly fussy, light hearted and near comedic in tone. There is some humour in the film but not as much as Addison’s music would suggest.
Addison also works a children’s song or two into the mix and these serve to remind us that the film’s main characters are very childlike too. Jo, and to a lesser extent Jimmy and Geoff, are no more than children themselves really. Indeed, when Jo asks Jimmy to empty his pockets it’s revealed that he carries a toy car about his person. And Helen and Peter are childlike in their immaturity. Helen won’t hold down a job or take responsibility for the proper upkeep of her daughter. She’d rather party and be kept by fancy men. And Peter is immature in his sexist attitudes. He views Helen simply as a sex object that can be bought for his pleasure and gratification and he gets upset when he doesn’t get what he wants from her.
The acting here is generally very good but Dora Bryan steals the show as Helen. Helen is both a survivor and a pragmatist and Bryan gets to deliver some really punchy dialogue as well as some drolly delivered observations about her lot in life and life in general. A Taste of Honey‘s focus on female protagonists differentiates the film from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner but its class-based narrative and mise-en-scene make it a natural companion piece to those two films. A Taste of Honey‘s technical aspects and production values compare well to those two films too. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner might be Woodfall’s best social realist “kitchen sink” films but A Taste of Honey ranks very closely behind them.
A commentary track featuring Rita Tushingham, Murray Melvin and Dora Bryan; ‘Walter Lassally Video Essay’ has the acclaimed cinematographers offering commentary on key scenes from A Taste of Honey; ’50thAnniversary Q&A with Rita Tushingham, Murray Melvin and Walter Lassally’ (2011) does what it says on the tin; ‘A Taste of Honey from Stage to Screen: A Journey with Murray Melvin’ is a fascinating piece in which Melvin (who appeared in the original stage production) highlights the important part that regional theatre played in terms of giving the working class a true voice and representation in the arts in Britain during the ’50s; ‘Rita Tushingham on A Taste of Honey‘ is a recent interview; ‘Holiday’ (1957) is a lively short (18 minutes) documentary about the many attractions and experiences that a visit to Blackpool offered; stills gallery.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Dir. Tony Richardson, 1962)
Review discs of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner were not made available. This film probably runs a close second to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in terms of popularity and critical reaction and coverage of it will undoubtedly be readily found elsewhere for those who need an introduction.
Tom Jones (Dir. Tony Richardson, 1963)
In 18th century England the Allworthy estate is rocked when Squire Allworthy (George Devine) returns to the home that he shares with his spinster sister Bridget (Rachel Kempson) and finds a new-born baby in his bed. It’s duly explained that the baby belongs to a servant girl, Jenny Jones (Joyce Redman), and a local barber, Partridge (Jack MacGowran). Both are banished from the locality and the baby, christened Tom Jones, is adopted by the squire and brought up as his own. Bridget eventually marries and has a son, Blifil. When they reach adulthood, Blifil (David Warner) is jealous of Tom Jones’ (Albert Finney) popularity within the estate and beyond and he plots his cousin’s downfall so that he will inherit all of the Allworthy estate.
Tom’s fondness for the local ladies eventually costs him the affections of his true love, Sophie Western (Susanah Yorke), while also making an enemy of her bullish father, Squire Western (Hugh Griffith). The scandal gives Blifil the ideal opportunity to discredit Tom in the eyes of his father and our hero is duly banished from the Allworthy estate. After setting out to seek his fortune and establish a new life in London, Tom soon finds himself caught up in a series of misadventures that usually revolve around his interactions with the fairer sex.
Tom Jones was made at a time when American studios were beginning to invest heavily in increasingly expensive British films. As such, the film greatly benefited from United Artists’ financial interest and its big budget is readily evident on screen. The casting of quality actors, great looking period costumes and sets, grand set pieces involving lots of extras and bravura camerawork, an abundance of animal wrangling and so on make Tom Jones look like an expensive and fairly epic production. However, much of the film’s visual grandeur is diminished by the producer’s choice of aspect ratio. The tight 1.66: 1 aspect ratio used here cramps much of what is presented onscreen. With so many mobile and busy long shots of the British countryside and other key locations playing such a big part here, Tom Jones would surely have benefited from a fully widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35: 1.
The film was a huge success but one has to wonder how much of its success relied on the received idea that Tom Jones was going to deliver on its promise to be a bawdy and titillating sex-filled comedy. There’s actually no sex or nudity here. Just as Tom’s first amorous encounter with Molly (Diane Cilento) is about to get underway, the film’s narrator interjects to explain that in the interests of decency and out of respect to the censor there will be no sex depicted onscreen. That must have been a disappointment for some given the newly permissive outlook of the ’60s. Truth be told, there’s very little in the way of successful comedy on offer here either.
The film’s prologue seeks laughs by employing a silent movie-like aesthetic (dramatic music, expressive acting and the use of inter-titles instead of voices) but there’s nothing particularly clever or funny going on during this sequence. Early on in the film there are a few fairly saucy double entendres present but this approach is toned down and then dropped quite quickly. Interestingly, Patsy Rowlands, who went on to become a regular member of the Carry On films’ team (the kings and queens of the double entendre) is cast as Sophie’s cheeky maid, Honor.
There are also a few moments in the film where Tom or one of the other main characters will turn to look directly at the audience in a Brechtian manner in order to actively seek acknowledgement of a witty line or an ironic plot twist. Having film characters break the fourth wall in this way is fun enough in itself but it’s not done regularly enough here for it to have any great meaning or for it to become a memorable and distinctive part of the film’s identity. It just kind of happens randomly. Tom Jones‘ narrative eventually descends into an admittedly quite clever farce that makes great use of coincidences, misunderstandings and long forgotten family secrets. The film’s score works hard to convince us that what’s happening onscreen is funny but it really just amounts to generic period harpsichord muzak and the like.
If we’re looking for positives in Tom Jones, it falls to the aforementioned production design and the performances of its actors. When Albert Finney hits the right film and the right role, he is undoubtedly an acting force to be reckoned with and one of Britain’s best thespians. His iconic role in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning established a strong public image for Finney but, to his credit, he refused to be type cast and his acting CV consequently features some really diverse roles. On paper, Tom Jones doesn’t read like one of Finney’s most natural or compelling roles but it’s hard not to be won over by his lively performance here. David Warner is perfect as the mean-spirited and scheming Blifil and Susannah York works well as the pretty love interest Sophie. But perhaps the real joy here is having the acclaimed character actor Hugh Griffith playing a really meaty role and getting a good bit of camera time. These days Griffith is largely remembered for his sometimes quite small roles in cult British horror and science fiction films from the early ’70s, so it’s a real treat to see him given space to develop the character of Squire Western here.
While Tom Jones is hardly a political film its content does riff on the mood of the times. A historical variant of the British class system is very much in evidence onscreen and some might argue that little had really changed between the time of Tom Jones‘ 18th century setting and the date of the film’s production in 1963. Elsewhere, some members of the British army are seen behaving in a less than proper way when Tom crosses paths with them during one of his adventures. And an extended sequence that features hunting with dogs successfully highlights the barbarity of blood sports in general. Tom Jones is a curiosity that doesn’t really work as a period sex comedy and whatever great appeal it may have had at the time of its release has been lost to time. However, those with an interest in Woodfall, the actors involved and British cinema of the ’60s more generally will find some small rewards here.
‘The Guardian Interview: Albert Finney’ is an interesting audio-only interview from the early ’80s that is wonderfully wide-ranging and runs for 35 minutes; ‘Vanessa Redgrave on Tony Richardson’ is a 10 minute interview in which Redgrave offers memories of her former husband; ‘The USSR Today: Meeting to Mark the 200th Anniversary of Henry Fielding’ is a short film about a celebration concerning Tom Jones‘ writer; trailer; stills gallery; ‘George Devine Memorial Play: Luther’ is a segment of a stage play featuring Albert Finney; ‘Walter Lassally on Tom Jones’ does what it says on the tin.
Girl with Green Eyes (Dir. Desmond Davis, 1964)
Kate (Rita Tushingham) and Baba (Lynn Redgrave) are two former convent girls from the Irish countryside who are now sharing lodgings in Dublin and enjoying the freedom and excitement that the big city has to offer. They share a close friendship but that dynamic changes slightly when Kate becomes smitten with Eugene Gaillard (Peter Finch), a rich middle-aged writer who lives out of town. A series of chance encounters results in Kate and Eugene embarking on a relationship but things become fraught when Kate discovers that Eugene has an estranged wife and child. Equally, trouble brews when Kate’s father and her extended family are informed that she is seeing an older married man.
The source novel for Girl with Green Eyes was written by Edna O’Brien (who also wrote the screenplay) and, much like A Taste of Honey, this results in a story about females that can claim authentic feminine authorship. The Dublin setting makes for an interesting change of scene though it might also be the reason why class antagonism is less apparent in terms of the film’s narrative and mise-en-scene. Eugene is obviously very well off while Kate, in her job as a grocer’s assistant, is less so. But the antagonisms found here are less about money and more about other things: Kate is found lacking in terms of both education and the knowledge of culture that it brings and the kind of life experience that comes with age while Eugene possesses a surfeit of both. When his old friends – who are also in touch with his wife – pay a visit to the farm, Kate experiences frustrating feelings of inadequacy.
At a formal level, Girl With Green Eyes is one of the British New Waves most interesting films. Desmond Davis had much experience as a cameraman and he worked on a number of Woodfall productions before being granted the opportunity to direct his first feature film here. It’s clear that Davis was determined to make the most of his opportunity and he made a film that bears favourable comparison to the contemporaneous New Wave features that were being produced in other countries around the world. For example, the girls’ closeness and the great fun and freedom that they enjoy in Dublin is telegraphed in an impressive opening montage. Playful staging and frisky editing, that ties together shots of the flippant girls doing activities such as lolling around on their beds, taking a bath and descending a flight of steps in synchronised unison, results in a sequence that prefigures Vera Chytilova’s jaunty approach in the Czech New Wave masterpiece Daisies (1966).
Elsewhere Davis impresses with a sequence that bears the influence of Jean Luc Godard and the French New Wave. When Kate and Eugene are first establishing their relationship and asking each other the kind of questions that new partners tend to ask each other, Davis effects a cut between the end of each question and the start of its answer. At an audio level, the conversation appears to flow across the sequence’s shots in real time and makes perfect sense. But Kate and Eugene’s clothing and the locations seen behind them actually change from shot to shot indicating that the couple have actually carried the conversation on over a quite considerable series of dates. But while the disjuncture between the audio and the visual elements of this sequence is noticeable, it’s not the most jarring example of this anti-classical filmmaking technique that you will find.
Other sections that bring to mind the French New Wave include the use of a hand-held camera that follows Kate down a city centre main street as she spends time looking in shop windows. Another nice anti-classical touch occurs when Kate writes a letter to Eugene: we hear the words she is writing as an interior monologue but they also appear as superimposed scrawled handwriting that runs down the right hand side of the shot that actually shows her writing the letter.
There are also some interesting match on action cuts that work in an anti-classical manner too. For example, a sequence set in the woods ends with Eugene calling Kate and her running towards him and jumping for his open arms but the next shot – which shows him catching her – is set in the hallway of Eugene’s grand farmhouse. In keeping with other British New Wave films there’s a bit of focus on youth and popular culture here. In the requisite but fun scene set in a dance hall, the live band on stage look like Dublin’s answer to Freddie and the Dreamers.
All in all, there isn’t too much to fault here. Girl with Green Eyes is a strained relationship-cum-slice of life film that succeeds in delivering precisely what you would expect from such a drama. It’s well acted for the most part but there are one or two cod Irish accents to be found here and there. Woodfall’s regular music man John Addison supplied the film’s soundtrack score and, in common with his scores for some of the other Woodfall films, there are sections where the soundtrack music plays a little incongruously. It just seems too jaunty and light for the subject matter in hand. Girl with Green Eyes hasn’t really retained the same kind of public profile that titles such as A Taste of Honey and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning have so I’ve no doubt that fans of Woodfall and the British New Wave more generally will be thrilled to find this interesting looking and reasonably compelling film included here.
A commentary track by Adrian Martin; ‘Rita Tushingham on Girl With Green Eyes’ is a recent interview; ‘Film Poetry: Desmond Davis’ is an interview with the cinematographer-turned-director that covers his career up to and including Girl With Green Eyes; ‘Food for Blluuusssshhhhh’ (1959) is a short (30 minutes) experimental film. The film was actually shot by a female director – Elizabeth Russell – a rarity at this time but it mostly plays like a bunch of privileged public school kids were awarded a grant to shoot an underdeveloped and uninteresting script. By contrast, ‘The Peaches’ (1965) is as clever as it thinks it is. This mildly experimental short film (16 minutes) about a beautiful and privileged young woman is hardly at home in a box set that is largely devoted to a time in British cinema when working class characters were being celebrated in a realistic manner. However, its art direction, its stylish cinematography by Walter Lassally, its dreamy soundtrack music and, in the end, its simply irresistible narrative – as intoned by Peter Ustinov coming on like he’s narrating an episode of ‘Mr Benn’ – make it a thoroughly enjoyable find. The film’s stars, Juliet Harmer and Tony Adams, were key faces on British TV during the ’60s; trailer; stills gallery.
The Knack… and How to Get It (Dir. Richard Lester, 1965)
A mild-mannered school teacher, Colin (Michael Crawford), is plagued by nightmares in which his lodger, Tolen (Ray Brooks), displays his superior ability to effortlessly attract members of the opposite sex. Colin decides that the house needs a steadying influence, which results in an eccentric “secret painter”, Tom (Donal Donnelly), simply moving himself into the room that Colin advertises. Tom’s habit of painting everything in his room white while dumping its furniture in a cramped hall way soon upsets Colin and Tolen. On a trip to secure a bigger bed that they hope will somehow improve Colin’s luck with the ladies, Colin and Tom run into Nancy Jones (Rita Tushingham), a northern girl who has just arrived in London and who is having no luck locating the YWCA. She accompanies Colin and Tom back to the house where a battle of wits is played out between Colin and Tolen as they both go about trying to woo her.
The Knack is a sex comedy that director Richard Lester made in between shooting his acclaimed films with the Beatles: A Hard Days Night (1964) and Help! (1965). There’s a sense of cheekiness in The Knack‘s dialogue, an abundance of incidental northern accents and an easily recognised sense of anarchic style built into the film’s formal properties that all bring to mind Lester’s work with the Fab Four but The Knack isn’t as pleasing as either of his Beatles’ vehicles. The Beatles’ films were fast-paced and featured a quick turnover of consistently funny gags and comedic set-pieces. By contrast, some of The Knack‘s jokes and comedic set pieces are stretched out to near breaking point and a couple of them really do overstay their welcome. So much so that The Knack feels like it would have functioned better as a leaner 60 minute TV play or a shorter supporting feature.
The Knack was one of the first high profile British films to reflect contemporaneous debates about the emergent permissive society and the film features much in the way of jibes at British attitudes towards sex and youth cultures. Television news shows of the time often sought out on camera pop vox opinions from the man in the street and Lester litters The Knack with cutaways to shots that feature supposedly real people commenting on the issues facing – or the activities being pursued by – the film’s protagonists. This generally amounts to stiff upper lip city gent types or salt of the earth working class types bemoaning the ills that come with “mods and rockers” and suchlike. Lester also works in some jibes that are aimed at the hypocritical attitudes of the moral majority when he includes scenarios which detail a city gent obtaining nude images of a young lady friend by ushering her into an instant photo booth, a gaggle of men stood watching schoolgirls in short skirts playing netball and so on.
Truth be told, while there’s some clever wordplay and visual tricks present here, The Knack isn’t a particularly funny film. Some of Lester’s sight gags raise a wry smile and the funniest one probably plays out when Nancy is unsuccessfully seeking directions for the YWCA (something that she spends the first 40 or so minutes of the film doing). Nancy approaches a surveyor who is waving instructions to his assistant further down the street. When he then starts waving the directions to the YWCA to Nancy, his arm actions inadvertently direct his assistant to fall into an open cellar grate. One chase sequence where the protagonists interact with a long fence that is made of tall wooden gates (they chase each other into one gate only to then emerge from a different gate further down the wall) plays like an idea dropped from a Beatles’ film (funnily enough, similar scenarios involving the front doors of some terraced houses and a long hallway full of doors would appear in Lester’s Help! and George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine  cartoon respectively).
More pleasing is the way that Lester plays with film form and narrative here. When Colin is expressing his wish for a new lodger who might act as a steadying influence, he moans that “there must be monks just come to London with nowhere to stay …” which results in Lester cutting to an interior shot of a long distance coach that has a group of monks situated on its back seats. When Colin adds “or some young lady looking for a clean home…” Lester’s camera backs down the coach’s central isle to reveal Nancy sat a few seats in front of the monks.
Elsewhere, text appears onscreen when Tolen is giving Colin lessons in how to succeed with women and a variety of film speed and freeze frame tricks are used throughout. In terms of exteriors, acclaimed cinematographer David Watkin captures Swinging London and the capital’s heritage during street scenes that feature a number of iconic buildings and tourist attractions, including Buckingham Palace and the palace’s attendant guardsmen. Great art direction is employed for the inside of Colin’s multi-story house. The whole house is done out like an art deco dream. When Tom turns up and paints everything in the front room white and throws out all of the furniture, the room takes on an ultra modern and minimalist aesthetic.
Ray Brooks and Rita Tushingham were two of Britain’s most popular actors during the ’60s but there’s not much in the way of traditional acting going on here since everybody is essentially playing broad types: the cool but callous babe magnet, the naïve northern girl arrived in the big city, the shy schoolteacher and the eccentric celtic artist. Some well-purposed hidden camera work captures genuine members of the public apparently reacting to the protagonists’ zany activities out on the streets of London. Much of these activities are centred around Colin, Tom and Nancy transporting Colin’s new bed through the capital’s streets (by driving it on the road like a car) and waterways (by turning it into a boat).
The film’s final extended joke plays like Lester transformed his troupe into a performance art group and instructed them to articulate something meaningful about a serious issue. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether they succeeded. The show ends on a high with a superb set of end credits that sport impressive pop art visuals and some great Hammond organ led music. Promotional stills for The Knack – and its potentially groovy synopsis – might give the impression that it’s the most fabulous film of the psychedelic ’60s. Unfortunately, it’s not. There are some good individual moments to be had here but there are also long sections of the show that become something of a chore to get through.
A commentary track by Neil Sinyard; ‘George Devine Memorial Play: Exit the King’ is a short sequence from a stage play; ‘Captain Busby: The Even Tenour of Her Ways’ (1967) is a short (16 minutes) experimental film directed by Ann Wolff that is stylishly shot and distinguished by the fact that it stars Quentin Crisp in a sizeable supporting role. However, while it plays like a visual pastiche of a song that might have appeared on a contemporaneous Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band album, this remains a curiously uninteresting film; ‘Now and Then: Dick Lester’ is a fascinatingly candid period interview with Lester that focuses on the process of adapting a play or book for a film and his approach to filmmaking more generally; ‘Rita Tushingham Remembers The Knack…’ is a recent interview which also includes her memories of working in the stage version. ‘Staging The Knack…’ is a short interview with Keith Johnstone about directing the first stage version of The Knack; ‘British Cinema in the 1960s: Richard Lester in Conversation’ is an extended, compelling and wide-ranging interview (nearly one hour long) with Lester; stills gallery.
The picture and sound quality of all of the main features reviewed here is near enough excellent and it’s fair to say that these films have never looked better on home video. The box set also includes an 80-page booklet that features essays on all eight films. Tom Jones and The Knack are the weak links here but their presence does allow us to appreciate the ongoing development of Woodfall’s productions during the company’s early years and they are easily carried by the strength and quality of their companion features. As such, this pleasing collection is recommended as required viewing for anybody who is seeking to expand their appreciation of British cinema from the period or seeking an insight into the class structures that demarcate British society.