New Wave Movement in 1950s: Analytical Essay

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Headed by Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, John Schlesinger, and Tony Richardson. The New Wave movement was a range of feature films, during the 1950s and 60s (1959-1963). That focus on drawing attention to the frustrations of a better-educated young society. Whilst emphasizing the reality of day-to-day life for the working class.

Coming at the end of a decade most would describe as “a doldrums era,” (The Open University, 2005) the New Wave films were seen as a total breath of fresh air by the British public. In a time when the class system was still very rigid, the New Wave films gave a ‘voice’ to the working class. That was, for the first time starting to gain economic power, due to the “high levels of employment that came after World War Two” (British Film Institute, 2019).

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Often likened to the ‘Angry Young Men’. A group of mostly working-class play writers and novelists in the 1950s, that looked to highlight conformity was out of fashion. The British New Wave movement used ‘kitchen sink realism’. Which looks to realistically depict the gritty lives of its working-class characters in their films. Bringing their audience's attention to issues such as “class, race, gender, abortion, and sexual orientation” (Wikipedia, 2019).

Directed by Tony Richardson, ’Look Back in Anger’ (1959) is considered by most to be the first film of the British New Wave era. The film is about a young married couple who are from two different sides of the British class system. Jimmy, a working-class man, is frustrated about his upper-class wife Alison’s ease of life. Having come from a rich family, he claims she has never had to experience “want, pain or suffering” (Sierz, 2008). The film shows many comparisons between the working and upper-class and emphasizes the frustration the working class seems to feel, having not been able to work their way up the socioeconomic ladder. The film does, however, end with Jimmy and Alison getting back together after a brief split.

In my opinion, ’Look Back in Anger’ does depict class and generational tensions accurately in Britain between the 1950s and 60s. The frustration Jimmy (who is young and W/C), shows towards Alison (U/C), illustrates how the young working-class have lost respect towards the older upper-class. They no longer recognize the past but instead want to promote a new, fairer society in which everyone has equal opportunity. This may be because young people at the end of the 1950s, “had a lot more freedom compared to when their parents were their age”. (Mackillop and Sinyard, 2003). This meant they had more opportunities to discover who they are and allowed them to form opinions for themselves.

Furthermore, the use of real locations in the film (rather than it just being shot in a studio). For example, outside Jimmy and Alison’ shared shabby attic flat. Helps to show the audience an accurate representation of what being a working class citizen was like at that time. The film also shows Jimmy and his friend, went to university but still end up running a sweet shop at a local market. This further emphasizes the difficulty working-class members of society had with making a living for themselves and the limited opportunities they received.

Contrarily, the fact that Jimmy and Alison get back together at the end of the film against all odds. May, be a way of Tony Richardson highlighting the fact there is hope for the working class. In the mid-1950s there was an economic boom in Britain, with a “demand for skilled labour and very little unemployment.” (Retrowow, 2018) The working class would see higher wage packets and perhaps a chance to move up the social ladder, to have a more affluent life.

Bryan Forbes’, ‘The L-Shaped Room’ (1962) took a very different view of how people from varying backgrounds got along in the 1950s and 1960s. The story is about a pregnant French women who move into a small room in London with several ‘misfits’. It concludes with her befriending the other residents as they help her as she goes into labour. In my opinion, a group of almost strangers helping out a person in need is very representative of the 1950s and 60s. With World War 2 still relatively fresh in people's minds, wartime values were still very strong. With respectability and trust being what some people believed “underpinned the fifties” (Kynaston, 2009). This can be linked to a new level of democratization that came with the war, as people from all walks of life shared its dangers and stories. There was a new level of respect towards one another and this is perfectly mirrored through ‘The L-shaped room. People who were labelled as the bottom of the barrel in society were willing to go out of their way and help someone out, even though there was nothing in it for them. This epitomizes Britain in the 1950s.

The term ‘New Wave’ is an “important metaphor,” (Michael Walford, 2007) that suggests the film movement wanted or was creating change. This change could be from the way that the working class had previously been depicted on screen in Britain. Then seen as expendable characters or just there for comic effect. The New Wave brought a sense of belonging to the working class, with the films being seen through their eyes. It was a welcome challenge to the ‘status quo that is a big reason for the success of the British New Wave Movement at the time.

Although, another reason for the ‘New Wave’ may also have been due to the frustrations of the young filmmakers (and the rest of young people in society) during this period of British cinema.

The frustration of a young man is shown in ‘The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner’ (1962), directed by Tony Richardson. A young man (Colin), is taken to a youth detention centre where he refuses to internalize the “liberal narratives of rehabilitation” (Sillitoe, 2013). Due to being a talented runner he is allowed/forced to race for the detention centre against other schools. As he is about to win the big race he stops just before the line and lets someone else win to the anger of his governor. After the race, he is punished and ignored by the governor yet he seems relatively content due to his “refusal to submit to authority” (Penner and Sillitoe, 1969).

The film ran into trouble at the time due to its, “clear anti-authoritarian agenda,” whilst the BBFC labeled it “blatant and very trying communist propaganda.” (Sillitoe, 2013) I do believe it is hard to argue against those statements. However, in my opinion, the film did accurately depict generational tensions in the 1950s and 60s. At a time when Harold Macmillan claimed the people of Britain had, “Never had it so good.” The now better educated, young people of the nation had a write to feel wronged and dissatisfied by a system based on class rather than meritocracy. After all, 10% of the population did hold 96% of wealth at the time. This frustration is shown in most of the films in the ‘New Wave’ era. The ‘kitchen sink realism’ style of filmmaking further indicates the growing voice and opinion young people had in society in the late 1950s and 60s.

The ‘New Wave’ filmmakers also imply a level of regional differences in Britain during the 1950s and 60s, compared to films that came before them. Prior to the movement, the majority of British films were shot in a studio and then voice acted by educated people in London. However, with the ‘New Wave,’ this changed dramatically, with location filming being used. The majority of films from the movement, such as Room at the Top, Look Back in Anger, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey, A Kind of Loving, This Sporting Life, and Billy Liar were all filmed in the midlands or north of England. This was because of the ‘kitchen sink’ style of filmmaking the New Wave wanted to implement. In which the directors wanted to emphasize the trials and tribulations of working-class life. By the ‘New Wave’ directors giving more attention to where a film was located, what actors were being used, and whether their accents fit to the north of England it opposed the “British cinema’s traditional marginalization of the region.” (Hanley, 2011) In my opinion, creating a better camaraderie with the people from the area. Relating back to and supporting the fact that people during the 1950s and 60s had higher levels of conformity and respect for each other.

In the latter films of the ‘New Wave’ era, there is a clear shift in how the working-class are portrayed. This is most likely due to the ‘boom’ of the British economy in the late 1950s.

In John Schlesinger's Billy Liar (1963), a working-class man (Billy) wants to get away from his ‘boring job’ and get out and see the world. Unfortunately due to the untimely death of his grandmother and his love interest with three girls, he is unable to make his dream a reality.

In my opinion, Billy’s confusion over the three girls in his life represents the confusion a lot of working-class citizens would have been feeling at the time. With the economic boom in Britain, came the chance for the working class to make a lot more money. This money gave them added opportunities and better living standards, helping them to move up the social class ladder. By moving out the working class, however, many people lost their identity and actually ended up not progressing at all. This is proven in ‘Billy Liar’ by Billy not getting on the train at the end to a new life but instead going back home.

It could be argued that the economic boom caused a split between the working class. This can be supported by ‘The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner’, as in the youth detention centre there is a “clear conflict shown between the rough, poor, unskilled working class and the respectable, aspirational, working class.” (British Film Institute)

To conclude, the ‘New Wave’ movement came about as a reaction to the past. At a time where there was a lot of uncertainty e.g. the Suez Crisis. The confidence a newly educated young, working class had in the upper class was dwindling. I believe Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If….’ (1968), often considered the final film of the movement. Perfectly mirrors what the 'New Wave’ era was all about. It was about a group of young people using their frustrations with society to confront the establishment. “Did the ‘New Wave’ solve any problems? Not really” (Lewczuk, 2019). However, I do think they are now a great historical archive that accurately represents a lot of the class, generational and regional tensions of the time.

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New Wave Movement in 1950s: Analytical Essay. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 24, 2024, from
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