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How Woodfall Films Changed British Cinema Forever

I want to pay tribute to a film company that helped to change the direction and look of British film forever. Sixty years ago in Britain a film production company called Woodfall Films was formed.

Between 1958 and 1984, Woodfall would produce several films which would not only go on to become classics, but which would also have a huge impact on the future of British cinema.

These films would also herald the arrival of several young actors who would go on to become major stars. Albert Finney, Rita Tushingham and Tom Courtney all became stars thanks to their performances in a Woodfall film. 

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Rita Tushingham. One of the new faces of British cinema. Screenshot by me from A Taste Of Honey.

The production company was co-founded by director Tony Richardson(husband of Vanessa Redgrave and father to Joely and Natasha Richardson), producer Harry Saltzman (producer of the Bond films)and playwright John Osborne(Look Back In Anger). Woodfall Films ushered in a new and exciting era for British cinema. The films were daring and groundbreaking in so many ways.

Woodfall films tackled real life issues such as life as a working class member of society, sex, abortion, people wanting to better themselves, female independence and sexuality, marital problems, race, and youth versus the older generation.

Tony Richardson wanted to make films in a new way, he wanted to make films that reflected life as he knew it. He certainly succeeded in both areas in my opinion. The films look different from a visual perspective, and they also have a much more realistic and gritty tone than many other British films. The directors shot on location which added to the overall realism. The actors look and behave like people you could run into in your own lives. There’s no glamour or escapism to be found in these films.

            The famous shot in Girl With Green Eyes where a door is opened onto a real street. Screenshots by me.   

The Woodfall directors, producers, cameramen and actors were all trailblazers in helping to bring more realistic, unique and grittier stories and characters to the screen.  Woodfall made films which focused on the British working class.

There had been earlier films such as It Always Rains On Sunday, This Happy Breed, Woman In A Dressing GownMillions Like Us and Waterloo Road which had been realistic and focused on working and lower middle class characters, but the Woodfall films made such characters and realism their primary focus. 

Not all of the Woodfall films would become classics, but eight of them did and are the reason why the name Woodfall is remembered today – Look Back In Anger, The Entertainer, Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, A Taste Of Honey, The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner, Tom Jones(a cheeky and funny period romp), Girl With Green Eyes and Kes are all among the best of the so called Kitchen Sink films. 

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What’s all this? A couple sharing a bed? Shocking and daring stuff for this era. Screenshot by me from Saturday Night And Sunday Morning.

Ordinary people finally got the chance to see characters and events on screen that mirrored their own lives and experiences.Without Woodfall films, I  highly doubt that we would have gotten the likes of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh making films.

I also doubt that films like Room At The Top, This Sporting Life, A Kind Of Loving and The L Shaped Room would have ended up being made either. Woodfall films helped inspire future generations of directors and writers to make films that reflect their own lives and experiences. 

The first Woodfall film to be made was the 1959 adaptation of John Osborne’s play Look Back In Anger. Tony Richardson directed the film. 

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Richard Burton as Jimmy Porter, channeling all that rage into his jazz music. Screenshot by me from Look Back In Anger.

Look Back In Anger features Richard Burton delivering one of his most powerful performances as the first angry young man, Jimmy Porter. Passionate, complicated, angry and misunderstood, Jimmy must surely have been someone that many young men in the audience could identify with. This film focuses on a lower class man who is justifiably angry at the way his life has turned out, and also at how he is held back from bettering himself.

Both the film and the play shock due to the violent and complex relationship between Jimmy and his wife(played by Mary Ure in the film), and also because of the love hate relationship between Jimmy and Helena(Claire Bloom in the film). 

The third film, Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, would go on to become the most acclaimed and famous of all of the Woodfall films. A fresh faced Albert Finney delivers a remarkable performance in the lead role of the rebellious and angry Arthur Seaton. Arthur works in a factory and he hates it, he takes every opportunity he can to stick it to the establishment and the upper classes. Arthur also doesn’t care much for rules and traditions. The film is also rather daring in showing an affair between Arthur and a much older woman who is married (Rachel Roberts). 

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Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton. Screenshot by me from Saturday Night And Sunday Morning.

Saturday Night And Sunday Morning is also perhaps the ultimate working class film, as it so accurately manages to capture the life endured by millions here in the UK at this time and for a long time before.

It’s also through this film in particular that I am able to get a better sense of the way of life my parents and grandparents had before I was born. Both my mum and dad grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and they have both commented on the accuracy of the characters, the streets, homes, attitudes etc seen in this film and others.  

The fourth Woodfall film is A Taste Of Honey, and it is this film which I think is the most daring of the lot. This film focuses on Jo(Rita Tushingham) a teenage schoolgirl who is in a relationship with a black sailor(Paul Danquah)by whom she becomes pregnant. The rest of the film focuses on her dealing with the pregnancy with the help of her gay friend Geoffrey(Murray Melvin).

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Jo arguing with her mum’s latest man(Robert Stephens)in A Taste Of Honey. Screenshot by me.

This film also shows us that the younger generation(so often depicted in this time as bad or lacking responsibility)have more sense and decency than the older ones. Jo’s mum(Dora Bryan)is someone who should know better and should be being a good mum, but instead she leaves her daughter to her own devices and is sleeping around and thinking of herself. In many ways Jo is the adult and her mother is the teenager. 

This film shows us that adults are not perfect and don’t always do the right or moral thing(the opposite of what we are so often told is the case when we are kids). The film also depicts a homosexual character who becomes in many ways the hero of the story and a very likeable character, this was quite daring due to homosexuals being largely vilified in society at the time. I like how this film depicts Geoffrey as simply being the normal man that he is, and that it just so happens that his sexual orientation is different to other peoples. His personality rather than his sexuality is what is focused upon in the film. 

My favourite of the Woodfall films is Girl With Green Eyes. Based on the trilogy of novels by Edna O’Brien, this film focuses on the love affair between the young Kate(Rita Tushingham)and the middle aged Eugene(Peter Finch).

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Eugene and Kate have a talk. Screenshot by me.

It’s a daring film, based on a daring book, set in Ireland and focusing on a girl who is having sex outside of marriage and who is going against convention and the dictates of religion in so many ways. I like it because it focuses on sex and relationships from a female perspective. The film is also very moving and features terrific lead performances from Rita and Peter. A young Lynn Redgrave lends solid support as Baba, the outgoing friend and flatmate of Kate. 

Many of the Woodfall films have become very well known here in the UK. I’m very aware that they may not be all that famous in other parts of the world. I highly recommend them all to you, not only because they are good films, but because they visually capture a time,place and a way of life that is just starting to disappear over here.

I hope anyone who has never seen any of these films will seek them out. Remember as well that these films ushered in a new way of filmmaking, Woodfall helped to make it acceptable to make more films like the ones they were making. 

Have you seen any of the Woodfall films? What do you think of the films? 

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British Cinema, Noir

Brighton Rock (1947)

In 1947, two films were made on opposite sides of the Atlantic ocean. One film starred Richard Widmark, the other film starred Richard Attenborough. The performances of these two men in these films would set both of them onto the path to stardom.

Widmark and Attenborough’s performances in these films also showed us the full extent of their acting talents. They also both played characters who were equally scary, evil and nasty pieces of work. Widmark’s film was Kiss Of Death (this was also his film debut). Attenborough’s was an adaptation of a 1938 novel by Graham Greene. The film was called Brighton Rock. It has since become regarded as one of the best British films of the era. It is also a cracking British Noir.

The realism of the actors performances, coupled with the fact that Brighton Rock was shot on location on the Brighton sea front, all helps to give this film an extremely authentic look I think. I also love the grimy and gritty look that the film has about it.

America was leading the way in Film Noir at the time this film was made, and some would say the US was leading the way in film making in general in the 1940’s. Over here in Britain we were also making some films that could easily rival, and in some cases surpass, those films coming out of Hollywood. This is one such film.

Unlike the American filmmakers who were hampered by the Breen Office and the Production Code, British filmmakers of the time tended to be able to get away with showing more violence, or alluding to things like sex and violence in more detail on screen. This film is one which is greatly aided by being able to show and insinuate more than American films featuring a similar story would probably have been able to.

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Pinkie. Screenshot by me.

Growing up in the 1990’s, I was so used to seeing Attenborough as the kindly grandfather figure on screen that I found it to be quite a surprise to catch him in this film and see him playing someone who is such a violent, heartless, wannabe gangster.

I think his performance in this film is right up there with his terrifying performance in 10 Rillington Place. It really is one of his very best performances.

As the violent Pinkie, Attenborough is very edgy and he conveys a barely repressed rage that is just waiting to be unleashed. He steals every scene he is with his expressions alone. His youthful appearance works to the films advantage I think, as it makes Pinkie’s acts of violence seem all the more shocking when they occur. 

The film was produced by the Boulting brothers. The Boulting’s were identical twins who worked on a number of British films including: Thunder Rock, The Magic Box, The Family Way and Seven Days To Noon.The film was co-written by Graham Greene and Terence Rattigan. John Boulting directed the film. 

The body of a man called William Kite is discovered in a gravel pit. Kite was the leader of a local gang. The Police believe he was killed by a rival gang after speaking to a newspaper reporter called Fred Hale (Alan Wheatley). Hale wrote a crime expose piece which led to Kite’s name being published.  

Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough), the baby faced and youngest member of the gang, assumes Kite’s position and becomes the new leader of their gang. Pinkie is aided by the ice cold and loyal Dallow (William Hartnell), the ageing and loyal Spicer (Wylie Watson), and the giggling Cubitt(Nigel Stock).

Pinkie and his men go after Hale to kill him for what happened to Kite. They catch up to him aboard a horror train ride on Brighton Pier where Pinkie kills him. This stunning sequence is a highpoint in the film and is truly unforgettable. The horror imagery in the ride is very scary, the lighting is superb and I think it is used to great effect.

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Ida. Screenshot by me.

Hale’s death is ruled a suicide. Ida Arnold (Hermione Baddeley) doesn’t believe that for one moment. Ida knew Fred and she was with him just before he got on that ride. She isn’t afraid to put herself at risk to find out the truth. Ida sets out on her own to do some investigating to get to the truth.

With Ida sniffing around, rival gangs causing trouble, and the Police keeping an eye on what’s going on, Pinkie becomes more and more paranoid and violent. He also soon becomes as big a threat to his friends as he is to his sworn enemies. 

Naïve waitress, Rose (Carol Marsh)is a potential witness to Pinkie’s crime. To shut her up and keep an eye on her, he woos her and then marries her. She is a very innocent and fragile woman, and as the film goes on she seems to be heading ever closer to a breakdown. Pinkie treats her like rubbish. He makes a mistake in not heeding the warning he gets from Dallow about not mistreating Rose. 

The performances in this are excellent. Attenborough goes full psycho and is utterly chilling as Pinkie. If you have never seen Richard Attenborough play evil before, then you really do need to watch this film. He makes us see that his character wants to be number one, and he wants this at the expense of all else. He craves power and he enjoys violence. He also doesn’t seem to care who is on the receiving end of his violent outbursts. This man is a cold hearted thug.

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Dallow. Screenshot by me.

William Hartnell (the first Doctor Who)steals all the scenes he is in as Dallow. Hartnell often played heavies in British films, his performance here is one of his very best I think. He more than convinces as a hard man who does have a moral code when it comes to women. He too is a nasty piece of work, but he takes no pleasure from what he does, he does it because it’s a job and it’s what he is good at. Deep down he is actually not all bad.

Hermione Baddeley was one of the greatest character actresses of the classic era. In this film I think she may well have been given her best role. I think it’s a real shame she didn’t get more substantial roles. As Ida, she is loud, outgoing, funny, strong and very determined. I like how she is really the hero of the film. I think it’s nice to see an older woman get such a strong role in a film too.  

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Hale. Screenshot by me.

Alan Wheatley is memorable as the terrified Hale fleeing for his life. He more than convinces as the terrified and desperate man on edge, running away from Pinkie’s gang with all the speed that his legs can muster.

Wheatley had the sharp and thin features that I think would have made him the perfect choice to play Sherlock Holmes. He was a fine character actor and is terrific in this film.

Carol Marsh makes you want to yell at her character, to shake her out of her wide eyed adoration of the vile Pinkie. She is so naïve and very easily led. Marsh does a superb job of playing this girl who refuses to accept that Pinkie is all bad. She is something of a doormat, but you can’t help but feel sorry for her anyway. There is a childlike innocence about her. 

The book (which I’ve yet to read)apparently had more religious overtones than the film and was full of Catholic guilt. The film doesn’t focus so much on that, but there are a couple of moments where this can be picked up on if you’re looking for it. Religion also rather heavily features in the unforgettable ending scene. 

This is a thrilling, engrossing and a gritty flick that is a real character piece. Everyone in the cast gets their chance to shine.  

My favourite scenes are the following. Ida questioning Rose at the café. Dallow warning Pinkie not to touch Rose. The finale on the pier. Hale meeting a terrifying end on the ghost train ride. Ida and Hale meeting in the bar. Pinkie making a recording of his voice to Rose and in it telling her just what he thinks of her. Dallow telling Rose that she should ask Pinkie for some new clothes. The final scene with the message on the record.

The film was remade in 2010. The remake sadly pales in comparison to this one. Why oh why do people keep insisting on remaking classic films? Most of the time the original is way better than the remake, so why bother doing it? I recommend you stick with the 1947 version and enjoy a cracking example of British cinema at its very best. 

What are your thoughts on this film?

 

 

Silent Film

Shooting Stars (1928)

For my first ever blog post(so excited to be joining the blogging community), I would like to discuss this British Silent film. I saw this for the first time last year, and I have to say that I was only sorry that I had never seen it sooner!

The film is funny, touching, interesting and is also quite suspenseful.I also love how the title of the film is later cleverly revealed to have two meanings.

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Mae and Julian share a kiss. Screenshot by me.

Director Anthony Asquith perfectly captures and conveys the magic and power of film. Given how well the film is put together, it is remarkable that this was his directorial debut.

Asquith would go on to direct many British classics such as The Winslow Boy(1948) and The Browning Version(1951). 

This is one of the best films about making films that I’ve ever seen. There is a great deal of realism about it and it has an almost documentary look. I also find it fascinating to be able to watch this and see how a Silent era film studio operated and see what went on behind and off the camera.

 The performances are very natural, they certainly didn’t come across as being over the top and theatrical as can sometimes be the case with some Silent film performances. I think this film would be a good gateway film to use to introduce someone to Silent films. 

I think that it must have been interesting, and even a little difficult and uncomfortable, for Silent era audiences to have sat and watched this film. This film destroys the illusion of film. Shooting Stars throws back the curtains and reveals the behind the scenes tricks used to achieve the magic of film. The film also shows us that actors may play friends and lovers on screen, but off screen and behind the scenes, co-stars may well hate one another, even though they seem friendly on screen.

This film also reveals to us that film is all about illusion. Despite us knowing it’s all illusion, we still believe and enjoy what they see up there on the big screen anyway. We get so caught up in the story and images up on the big screen that we can forget about our own lives for a few hours and focus on someone else’s experiences.

I would have loved to have been in the audience when this film premiered. I really wonder how people reacted to this one. Did it make them more interested in how films were made? Did things shown in this film spoil the enjoyment of watching films from this point on for some people?

The opening scene of the film is the perfect example of how this film shows us the tricks of the trade, and how it makes us realise that all is not as we are always led to believe on screen. The film begins with a romantic scene focusing on a woman in a blossom tree kissing a cowboy. What begins as a beautiful romantic scene quickly descends into chaos when a bird in the scene bites the woman.

                                Below are a few screenshots by me of the tree sequence.

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The director tries to persuade Mae to do another take of the tree sequence. Screenshot by me.

The woman screams, the camera pulls back, and we see that the woman is actually an actress, the tree is part of a film set, and that the scene we’ve just witnessed was being shot as part of a film.

We then pull back and are shown the soundstages of the studio, we see other actors and crewmembers walking around, and we see other films being shot on adjacent stages. This opening scene really stunned me the first time I saw it, I think it is such an ingenious way to open a film which looks behind the scenes of film making. 

The film starts off being very funny, but then it slowly turns very dark and suspenseful. The ending is very depressing and is there to show us that fame is fleeting, and that once great stars can very easily become yesterday’s news.

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Mae and Julian. Screenshot by me.

Mae Feather(Annette Benson)and Julian Gordon(Brian Aherne)are married. The couple are two of the most famous British film stars. Mae is a beautiful and self centred woman. Julian loves her very much though despite her many personal flaws.  

Mae begins an affair with the adored comedy actor, Andy Wilkes(Donald Calthrop), a man whose comic screen persona comes across to me as a mix of Chaplin and Keaton.  When Julian discovers their affair, Mae becomes so enraged that she decides to kill Julian, her plan ends up having some unexpected and disastrous results. 

Annette Benson is superb as the actress who destroys her only chance of happiness for a moment of passion. Annette is a very expressive actress and she really lets us see how her character is feeling and thinking through her expressions.

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Donald Calthrop as Wilkes. Screenshot by me.

Donald Calthrop is marvellous playing two very different characters, the comic character Wilkes is famous for, and as the elegant man ladies man who Wilkes is in reality when he is off the screen.

Brian Aherne has the hardest role I think, because he has to play Julian as being slightly dull, but also has to ensure he has our sympathy throughout the film I think he more than succeeds.

An actress called Chili Bouchier (who I’m unfamiliar with) also makes quite an impression as a glamorous co-star of Wilkes.

I would also love to somehow be able to see all three of the films featured within this film. Wilkes’s comedy film in particular looks like it would be great fun. I also really love the beautiful intertitle cards used in the film where Julian’s character rescues Mae’s.

John Altman’s bouncy music fits so well with the film. I think the music is very catchy and I always have the main theme stuck in my head for a bit when I watch this. 

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Julian and an audience enjoy a film he stars in. Screenshot by me.

My favourite scenes are the following. May and Julian walking onto Wilkes comedy film set and watching him perform. The beach sequence. The opening in the blossom tree. The ending. Julian watching the film at the cinema, and noticing the excited reaction of the boys behind him as they watch the film.

This film is a must see for Silent fans. This film has something in it for everyone to enjoy, and it does such a good job of showing us how the magic on the big screen is actually achieved.

If I were to pick one film to show to someone as an example of the power and magic of cinema, I think this film would be it. The film makes us feel for the characters, get caught up in their lives, desires and their actions. The film also has something in it for every viewer to enjoy. Most importantly this film reminds us all what a strange and wonderful thing film can be.