The British New Wave: 5 Movies About Gritty Brits

british new wave saturday night and sunday morningBefore 1960, most films about the British working people showed them in a patronising, if affectionate way. They always worked hard, paid their bills, and endured hardship with a grin. Apron-wearing matriarchs hen-pecked their husbands, and terrified prospective sons-in-law. Men returned from work to enjoy a wash in the sink, followed by a frugal meal. If they were lucky, it would be accompanied by a beer, after which they would smoke a pipe or cigarette, gazing into a coal fire.

They were the salt of the earth, serving their country in war, working hard in peace. Their aspirations were modest, perhaps a small garden, or an allotment, where they could retreat from the nagging wife, and grow some prize-winning vegetables. They would often keep pigeons, breed rabbits, or have a few chickens in a run out the back.

They wore a tie at all times, even when doing heavy work, and got the bus to their jobs, or cycled, as they could rarely afford a car. The high-spot of their week would be a visit to the pub, returning home with friends, to sing some songs around an old piano.

Women were long-suffering, usually unattractive, and mothers to at least three children. They took in washing, did part-time cleaning jobs, or managed small shops. They hoped for better for their offspring, perhaps an office job for the daughter, and technical school for the son. But the need for a contribution to the household generally forced children into the same jobs as their parents, at age fourteen or fifteen. A good example of this type of film would be This Happy Breed, directed by David Lean in 1944, and produced by the distinctly upper-class Noel Coward, based on his own play. The film is a cinematic history of Britain from 1918 to 1939, seen through the eyes of two families in a South London suburb. Although the families in question would probably be better described as middle class, based on their jobs and lifestyle, the characters are played with a distinctly working-class feel. In 1956, the lightweight film Sailor Beware explored similar domestic themes, and starred the formidable Peggy Mount, as the no-nonsense female head of the household.

By 1960, society was undergoing a radical shift in Britain, and the films being made began to reflect the new ideas and changing morals of what would come to be described as the ‘Swinging Sixties’. Given the fact that most films were made to entertain and to provide escape from the real world, it must have seemed unlikely at the time that audiences would want to go to the cinema to see hard lives similar to their own portrayed realistically on screen. However, most of these new realistic and gritty films were well-received then, both by cinema-goers, and critics alike, and many have gone on to be rightly regarded as classics of modern British film-making.

Woman In A Dressing Gown (1957)

Although released before the 1960s, this film showed how attitudes were beginning to change. Set in an ordinary London family, Yvonne Mitchell gives an award-winning performance in the title role, as the housewife who just cannot cope with everyday chores, and her responsibilities as a wife and mother. Not for her, being the staunch heart of the family. Everything is too much trouble and life just gets on top of her. Whether not managing to prepare a breakfast for her working husband and teenage son, forgetting to go shopping, and failing to regard her appearance, she is portrayed as lazy and ungrateful, spending all her time in the dressing gown of the title.

Her long-suffering husband (Anthony Quayle) suppresses his anger and gets on with his job, though he finds himself attracted to one of the young women at work (Sylvia Syms), and they start an affair. His son (Andrew Ray) is keen for the family to stay together, and tries his best to act as if all is normal. However, Quayle’s girlfriend puts pressure on him to leave his wife and he decides to tell her the truth, news which devastates her and her son. She resolves to win him back, and tells him to bring his girlfriend for a meal, so that she can convince them both to end the affair, and forget about a divorce.

In scenes in which Mitchell plays well enough to soften the heart of the hardest viewer, we see her pawn her engagement ring to buy luxury items, have her hair done, and get new clothes. She is caught in the rain, drops her shopping, and all her good work is undone. Instead of continuing with her plan, she gets drunk and falls asleep. When her husband arrives with his girlfriend, she becomes aggressive and angry, and throws them out. In many films, that might be the end of the story. But this was 1957 and depression was rarely talked about, and almost never shown in films, or on TV. Ultimately, Quayle cannot bring himself to desert his family and returns to a cautious welcome, and an uncertain future.

Room At The Top (1959)

By 1959, with the feel of the 60s soon to be realised the following year, this film of the novel by John Braine looked at the changes in class going on in the UK at the time, despite being set some years earlier. After World war Two, it might have seemed that little had changed. However, better wages, the National Health Service, and the beginnings of the Welfare State were shifting existing attitudes.

This film follows the ambitions of Joe Lambton, leaving his dreary industrial home town, to work in a clerical job in a more affluent town for the Town Council. Laurence Harvey embraces a role that he might well have seemed unsuitable for, and gives us greed, corruption and moral ambiguity, with all his talents on show.

Joe soon realises that it will be necessary for him to climb the social ladder of this small town if he is ever to get on in life. He soon makes a play for Susan, the attractive daughter of the local bigwig, Mr Brown, and the naïve young girl falls for his charms. But Brown is unconvinced by Lambton, and sees through his plans for advancement. Unable to separate the couple, he finally sends his daughter abroad in a last effort to keep her away from Joe. With his girlfriend and potential meal ticket no longer around, Joe quickly sets his sights on the wife of another wealthy local man, Alice, played by Simone Signoret, the French actress. She is unhappy, and Joe does not hesitate to exploit her situation. Alice readily accepts his advances, falling madly in love with the younger man. When Susan returns from her travels, Joe tries his best to get back with her, and this causes heartbreak for the older lover. When Susan gets pregnant, her father tries to buy off Joe, and get him out of town, but he refuses. He wants the prestige of the wealthy wife and the family connections that come with her. Reluctantly, Brown agrees to the marriage to save his daughter the shame of being an unmarried mother.

When Alice discovers the news, she succumbs to despair and heartbreak. Following a bout of heavy drinking, she is killed when she crashes her car. Even though Joe is genuinely distressed by this, he still goes through with the wedding to Susan. This working-class boy isn’t about to miss out on his chance to succeed.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

The sixties arrived with a realistic look at life in the industrial heart of Britain. The young man in this film, Arthur (Albert Finney), is all too aware of the pointlessness of his life and has little time for his parents or bosses. He is prepared to accept the repetitious drudgery of his job as a machinist, counting the items he has made, working out how many he has to get through, to get a high wage. His sole aim in life is to have a good time and he works hard until Saturday night, when he can go out on the town, drinking, and having a good time.

He has an attractive girlfriend, Doreen (Shirley Anne Field) but wants more, so also has an affair with the older wife of one of his workmates, the unhappy Brenda (Rachel Roberts). Brenda becomes pregnant with Arthur’s child, something scandalous at the time. He goes to see an older relative to ask her advice about procuring an abortion, which was not only frowned upon then, but illegal. However, Brenda refuses and decides to keep the baby, confessing the affair to her husband.

The cuckold decides to get revenge and enlists the help of some others, who give Arthur a bad beating after catching up with him at a local fair. Arthur is admitted to hospital with his injuries, and Brenda and her husband stay together, leaving Arthur to decide on a future with Doreen, never able to see his unborn child, or Brenda, again. This film was well-received at the time, and considered by many to be the forerunner of the ‘British New Wave’. It boasts an impressive cast of some of Britain’s best character actors. As well as the leads, we can also see Colin Blakely, Norman Rossington, and Avis Bunnage. Albert Finney would go on to become one of the leading film actors of his age and win many awards.  The violence, sexual themes, and discussion of abortion got the film an ‘X’ certificate (18) from the censor.

The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner (1962)

A story of disaffected youth and choosing rebellion over conformity, this film stars Tom Courtenay as Colin. He is a runner, a pastime he uses to get away from his motiveless life, and to concentrate his thoughts. He has a disabled father, an avaricious mother, and no intention of following in the footsteps of either. He has little respect for them, or their life, and is determined not to work in the same factory as his father and end up like him, crippled after years of toil.

Flashbacks are used to fill the back-story. We see Colin involved in petty crime, and arrested for a robbery. He is sent to a borstal, a prison for younger offenders. The regime is hard, and the guards are harsh to the detainees.

However, the warden is keen on using sports to raise the profile of his institution, and soon realises that Colin is an accomplished runner. There is a forthcoming competition against Ranley, the local private school, and the warden is determined to have at least one success over the upper-class sportsmen in that prestigious school. He gives Colin the easiest jobs in the prison, even allowing him outside the boundaries to practice his running. This quickly puts the runner into conflict with the other inmates, who resent the favouritism shown to the newcomer.

Colin becomes increasingly uncomfortable with his privileged conditions and comes to resent the Warden, an upper-class man, played with some flair by Sir Michael Redgrave. On the day of the big race, Colin is due to compete against Ranley’s star runner in a five-mile race. The warden is confident of victory, and Colin starts well, and it’s obvious he could win with ease. During the run, we see flashbacks in the runner’s mind. Lectures from the warden, rough interrogation by Police, recollections of his uncaring mother. It all begins to overwhelm him. Close to the finish line, victory in sight, he just stops.

With this one simple action he shows the ultimate defiance, and uses the only power left to him. He refuses to win. No amount of screams from his comrades, or protestations from the officers and warden will get him to move. He just sneers his rebellion, directly into the face of the Warden. He has had his moment of triumph, and proved that although he may be incarcerated and subject to control by the state and society, he ultimately has some control over his own life.

His action has consequences. His privileges are removed, and his comfortable job taken away. He is sent to work hard in the machine shop, set to become just another inmate, no different to any other. He has chosen his side, and embraced his peers and class. In a world where decisions are mostly made for him, he has decided to change the game.

This Sporting Life (1963)

Directed by Linday Anderson, this film provided the first starring role for Richard Harris and earned him an Oscar nomination into the bargain. Again dealing with the aspirations of the working class to get a better deal in life, it tells the story of Frank Machin (Harris), shown as a hard-working coal miner in a grimy industrial city in the north of England. He is strong, aggressive, and a product of his environment. During a fight in a nightclub, Frank takes on some of the members of the local rugby club and gets the better of them all. This attracts the club’s wealthy owner, who sees potential in this rough young man – a potential he might be able to exploit, by using him as a player.

Professional Rugby was paid a lot better than coal-mining, and gave the player chances he would never get down a mine. Frank signs on and becomes a successful forward. The scenes on the field of play show the true nature of Frank. Violent, ignoring the rules, and doing anything necessary to succeed and win the game.

British new wave this sporting lifeHarris is perfectly cast, with just the right levels of emotion whenever they are called for, and he displays an understanding of the character, despite his own very different background.

His prowess playing the game is not matched by his difficult private life. He has an attachment to his widowed landlady Margaret, played by Rachel Roberts. She cannot return his affections however, as she is still distraught over the loss of her husband, who was killed in an industrial accident, leaving her to raise their children. She needs the money that Frank provides, and puts up with his advances and the occasional sexual encounters, but she is unemotional, and even appears not to like him that much. After a heated argument, he leaves the house to stay in a homeless shelter, showing that these institutions were still very much a feature of life in a supposedly affluent Britain during the 1960s.

The bored wife of the wealthy club owner sets her sights on Frank, thinking that he will be an interesting sexual diversion. She makes advances towards him, but he rejects her as his real feelings are still for Margaret. Resolving to see Margaret again and make it up to her, he is devastated to find her in hospital struck down by a brain tumour.

With Margaret dead, Frank’s life has little focus. Having rejected the wealthy woman and fallen foul of her husband in the process, he is left playing in the rugby team, no longer the rising star, and plagued by injury. He turned down the chance for greater success to be true to love, and to his roots.

Many similar films followed during this decade. Directors who are now household names made their débuts, and many of these young actors started out on the road to stardom. For audiences, they could see lives similar to their own, played out on the big screen. Locations they recognised, expressions they used themselves, and jobs they toiled at. The life they lived, previously in anonymity for the most part, was now out there for all to see. A new era in filmmaking in Britain had begun.


I retired, almost two years ago, then aged 60, and moved from a busy life and work in Central London, to Beetley, in rural Norfolk. After 22 years as an Emergency Medical Technician in the London Ambulance Service, followed by 11 years working for the Metropolitan Police in Control Rooms, it is going to take some adjustment to being retired, and not working shifts. My interests include photography, local and global history, and cinema and film. I have yet to find a home for my extensive DVD collection but look forward to revisiting many favourites, and discovering new ones.

29 thoughts on “The British New Wave: 5 Movies About Gritty Brits

  1. Your article was a pleasure to read. I learned a lot. The shift in film after WWII reflected in your examples reveals a lot about Northern British society and their disgruntled realities in the 60s.

    • Thank you very much Cindy. That is exactly what I was hoping to achieve, and it is most rewarding to read that in your comment.
      Best wishes from England, Pete.

  2. Some good choices there, unfortunately I am not sure what other great ‘Northern’ movies you could have included. The only modern movie that springs to mind is “The Full Monty” Although TV production is now becoming almost exclusively a Manchester club, movies still seem to be made in the south, in Ireland, or in the Isle of Man. Northern England is not a popular location, at least not for classic or ground-breaking films such as those above.

    • Thanks for your comment, it was most welcome. If I was considering another blog post about newer films on a similar theme, I might well consider work by Jimmy McGovern on television, some of the earlier Ken Loach films, and more recently, the work of Shane Meadows. He has taken a similar look at working-class life in the Midlands, and added comedy. alongside some very bleak and dark films.
      The film choice would include ‘Riff-Raff’, ‘Raining Stones’, ‘My name is Joe’, ‘A Room for Romeo Brass’, ‘Daed Men’s Shoes’, and ‘This Is England’.
      Perhaps I should write it! Best wishes, Pete.

  3. Pete, your four-paragraph introduction, which segued nicely to the subject of film, was brilliantly written. I am not familiar with these movies, though I know some of the actors. Of the films described, the one that most piques my interest is “The Sporting Life,” as I once attended a live performance of “Camelot” in which Richard Harris played King Arthur (the play was staged at Kansas City’s well-known Midland Theatre). (As an aside, I also saw a live performance of “Camelot” starrring Noel Coward at Kansas City’s famous outdoor venue, Starlight Theatre.) But getting back on the subject, these old black and white films were ridiculously hyped (from today’s perspective), but they were truly intense, expertly written, and featured fully developed characters played by actors with inimitable talent. Thanks for bringing them to my attention!

    • Thanks for your kind words David. As always, they are much appreciated.
      I don’t think that any of these films would really disappoint you. They are all different examples of young acting talent, and promising directorial skill, and show the way that British films would develop over the following years.
      Harris plays a very different character to his king in ‘Camelot’. For my money, he also gives a much better performance too.
      Very best wishes from England, Pete.

  4. Hi, Pete!

    I enjoyed this a lot. It’s always nice to get a historical perspective, it makes it so much easier to spot those details that might have gone unnoticed, and it definitively promotes an understanding for the sort of ground these filmmakers were breaking. Thanks for a great read!

  5. Great piece, Pete, and among my favorite time-and-place genres (“Sporting Life” is one of my all-timers”) Will have to see “Saturday Night, Sunday Morn” though, as I don’t believe I’ve ever gotten around to it. Rick

    • Thanks Rick. If you like ‘This Sporting Life’, I am certain that you will also enjoy SNASM. Finney gives a great performance, allowing that Arthur is not a likeable character. Best wishes from England, Pete.

  6. Good stuff, Pete. I’ve always been curious about why the country of John Grierson and Humphrey Jennings, arguably the country with the strongest documentary pedigree, came somewhat late to the party in terms of narrative realism. I mean, why didn’t the Brits invent new-realism? In addition to what you’ve mentioned, I think The Leather Boys is underrated. I suppose Ken Loach and Bill Douglas are the ones who picked up this mantle, with very different career trajectories.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments Jon. As with all these articles, I could have gone on all day, using many similar examples. I chose these as they sort of represent an escalation in themes, and very much paralleled ordinary lives at the time.
      I think that they came late as you put it, due to the stifling class system, that is still evident in this country to some degree, even now. Before that time, it was all-powerful, and films just reflected that reality.
      Loach was indeed to become the standard bearer after ‘Kes’, and over the decades since.
      Best wishes, Pete.

    • A keen observation on Pete’s article. Thanks for mentioning these two documentary greats. Grierson and his many followers were unabashed in extolling the virtues of the working classes, who they felt were ignored in films until then. And Jennings used a naturalistic style to record the stoic struggles of WW2 that was all the more profound for it’s utter lack of hyperbole. After the war, it seemed the Hollywood-influenced artifices of feature films came right back, at least until the era that Pete wrote about so well.

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  8. Good stuff, Pete. This is an important batch of movies here, and they definitely reflected the era. I find these films not very easy to get through, but perhaps that’s part of the point. Nicely done.

    • Thanks Simon. At the risk of sounding too parochial, I believe that these films reflect a very British experience. In many ways, they will not have the same impact on those with no life experience in this country.
      As for being hard to get through, I can see what you mean. Watching representations of ‘real life’ on screen always involves an element of having to enure unpleasant characters, in unattractive locations. As you rightly say, that is very much the point of the exercise, at least as far as the film-maker is concerned.
      Best wishes from Norfolk, Pete.

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