British Cinema History Research Project


Cinema has always been a kind of a mirror that reflects the processes taking place within the society. The changes in the social and cultural spheres that took place within post-war Great Britain were fixed in the films produced at that time. The primary objective of this part of my paper is to discuss how two different decades of British cinema development – 1950s and 60s – represented British social and cultural life. What is more, the differences and changes between these periods are going to be revealed.

Before actually analyzing the films in two periods, one should mention that a particular feature of both decades is the removal of cinema from the state of dreary austerity to complacent affluence, which was probably conditioned by the changes within the society itself. Moreover, some experts claim that the change that took place was enormous. That is why I am going to conduct my analysis of British films shot in 1950 and 1960s along with the general study of the societal processes typical of that time. What is more, in the course of my analysis I will be seeking to pursue some of the themes and issues that arise in the 1950s. Then the period of 1960 will be discussed in its relation to the problems of the society.

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British Society in 1950s and 1960s

The post-war time eventually brought the expansion of business and consumerism. After the years of austerity and reduced availability of luxuries and goods, there came the time when the middle class started to live wealthier. This is the general feature typical of both periods discussed. Clearly, there were some peculiar things characteristic of each of them.

As for the middle-classes in 1950s, this group of people took advantage of increased employment and opportunities provided by the mixed economy. These new employment opportunities significantly changed the character of gender relations, thus putting into question the basic assumption that a woman should be merely a housewife. As a result, the biggest change of those times was an increase in employment of married women in part-time jobs. According to the numerous research, the trend caused significant changes into society, transforming the gender relations between different groups of people. (Ashby & Higson 2000)

1960s brought some changes into the cultural sphere. The current research indicates that these were new times that finally resulted in the dissatisfaction of the young people with the official policy of the state. There appeared angry men who criticized the processes that took place within the society. Among them were many young writers, such as John Braine, John Osborne and Alan Sillitoe. (Hill,1995))

British national cinema

The development of British cinema was largely affected by Hollywood. The best critical analysis of the major issues that affected British film production is present in the research conducted by Sarah Street. The main value of this research the author’s ability to provide the reader with the analysis of the relationship that exists between British cinema and British society. (Ashby & Higson 2000)When conducting this analysis the author is actively using such notions as ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ cinema. In the course of her research Sarah Street demonstrated that the British cinema had both national and multinational characteristics. A particular attention in Sarah Street’s book is paid to the analysis of the film politics. The main feature of the film is that it establishes the difficult context within which British producers and directors have worked. In addition, the research con ducted by Sarah Street indicates that British film-making, production and distribution remain to be the subjects defined by money issues. This idea forced Sarah Street to conduct a financial analysis of the issue. I addition, the author conducts a careful examination of the major genres associated with the British films. (Murphy, R. ed. (2000).

In the course of her research Sarah Street came to a conclusion that the British film industry was largely defined by economic boundaries. The major problem of those times was under financing of the films. (Hill, 1995)

The other important research implication is that producing films which may not necessarily involve British themes or preoccupations. The other important issues covered in the research often included financial and labor participation from other countries. The film industry is largely influenced by the cultural conception of what we mean by British films. This cultural conception largely influenced the extent to which British cinema resembled the nationalistic characteristics of the period. Of particular importance for the people is to familiarize the sense of belonging which is shared by people from different social and regional backgrounds. (Murphy, R. ed. (2000).

According to the author, the British cinema of those times largely reflected a whole list of important tendencies that governed the society of those times including gender and sexuality; race; class, education and occupation. When to delve deeply into the essence of the cinema I can say that it is inflected with a multitude of different connotations. Very often these connotations imply on the presence of a jingoistic, nationalist imperative. This imperative often challenges the traditional view on the British cinema which is seen as the embodiment of the national characteristics. In general, I can say that the British film styles and themes have not been totally uniform in their attempts to approach the cinema from one single point.

Some of the films issued by Great Britain are concerned with the questions of national identity.
Sarah Street also demonstrated that throughout the century British cinema has got the reputation of being one of the most respectable and reputable sources of information. The major parts of British films were predominately dealing with British subject-matter at an overt level. The other important tendency of those times was the attempt of British film-makers to release the films which would be different from those generated in Hollywood. Still, Hollywood’s ascendancy remains to be felt in many of Hollywood’s films. Producers who deal with the issue were often caught in a perpetual bind: they had to make films suitable for both the British market and for international export. (Murphy, R. ed. (2000).)

Market decisions also defined the further pattern of British film industry further development. In general, market decision had a considerable influence on the manner people are perceiving film’s style, subject-matter and their own perception. When analyzing the issue it is very important to acknowledge the extent to which Hollywood is able to influence British audiences. In general, I can say that Hollywood was quite successful in implementing international standards and democratic values which largely influenced the British film industry. In general, the Hollywood factor remained to be acknowledged throughout the book by Sarah Street. The researcher accentuates her attention on the fact that Anglo-American film relations should be explored in an economic and political context.

Hollywood’s influence on British genre cinema significantly changed the character of the British star system.

Sarah Street makes a statement that the majority of British film production can be characterized as genre-related. Also, there is an ‘unofficial’ tradition of film-making. This tradition was surveyed in the course of the last two chapters of the book. The current research indicates that there is a whole range of possibilities that can be applied for British cinema. . (Ashby & Higson 2000)

British Cinema in 1950s and Changes in the Society

The social changes depicted above were reflected by the cinematograph. Among those things discussed within films were women’s experience outside the home, description of specifically women’s desires and issues, cold-war topics and the decline of historical and costume films. Instead more comedies were produced, the films started to focus more on social issues and such genres as science fiction and horror appeared. According to the research, ‘social contradictions which were concealed in wartime films were replaced by the new group of films that showed controversies of the present society’.
A peculiar feature of British films in the 1950s was its focus on marital and family situations. What is more, male psychological, sexual, familial and generational problems were the object of interest for the directors and public. At the same time, while the problems of women started to be discussed in the films, male parts remained dominant in the cinema. Specifically, men played protagonists while women were generally performing less important parts. (Murphy, R. ed. (2000).

To support the analysis conducted above, let us focus on the specific films of the period discussed. For instance, In the Horse’s Mouth can be regarded a fascinating starting point for a talk about 1950s comedy. This film is known to have helped to develop a sense of collectivism among people. According to the researchers, ‘it is infiltrated with the isolated sequences, the primary objective of which is to create and deliver a sense of audience community’. (Ashby & Higson 2000)

What is more, the film is considered to have reflected a constant tension between a form built on consensus and content built on alienation. This resulted in the fact that the traditionalists were rather negative of the film. Their main argument was the film disrupted the major social standards that governed our society. Despite this, a more liberal view on the film reveals that the film presented the TV watchers with a particularly different view on culture. To some extent, it depicted the shifting view on the society that suggested into people a greater equality of opportunity and a further movement toward a modern and peaceful post-war climate. Furthermore, a peculiar feature of the film discussed was it aimed depict the struggle of the competing discourses and ideologies. Finally, the combination of the two factors is likely to produce a whole set of the negative experiences. (Higson, A., 2003, p.7).

The other important factor that occurred during the 1950s, was related to the changes in the interrelationship between gender and modernity. They took place within the context of post-war Britain and were largely focused on the manner in which a woman was represented in the cinema of those times. The new genre that appeared at that time was a ‘marriage comedy’.

A case study of the 1951 film Young Wives’ was introduced with the aim to explore post-war ideas about the ‘companionate marriage’. These ideas were a reflection of the changes that took place in the ‘modern’ British society. In relation to this, female performance style underwent some important changes. What is more, the gendered negotiation of domestic space shown in the film largely reflected the ways in which the society was approaching the reality. To specify, anxieties about the ‘new’ and the ‘modern’ were related to how the female protagonists approached the life. Moreover, the film itself largely reflected the cultural consciousness of those times. However, the film was not successful within the public, maybe because it demonstrated the public that gender relations could have been challenged. (Murphy, R. ed. (2000).)

The most popular genre of 1950s was comedies. Usually poems were aimed at criticizing the traditional British institutions. In the most part of the cases British institutions served to be an example of a microcosm of British society as a whole. Giving the critique of the British society is often depicted in the comedies of Norman Wisdom, Launder and Gilliat, Ealing Studios and the Carry On team. The common list of themes includes the following:

  1. Ideological impetus from fears about state power and a mistrust of bureaucratic structures
  2. The review of persistence of social class
  3. Preoccupation with sexual repression (Sarah Street, p. 78)

Norman Wisdom worked in the variety tradition, frequently playing ‘little men’, clumsy working-class characters who have no special charismatic qualities, but who nevertheless succeed in exposing upper-class hypocrisies and petty bureaucrats. Although Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat had directed and written a wide range of British films since the 1930s, their 1950s comedies are particularly distinctive for their critical reappraisal of esteemed British institutions. (Barr, C., 1999) An institution which was ripe for comic examination was the girls’ minor public school, awash with eccentric teachers, senseless traditions, excessive sportiness, appalling facilities, poor academic results, sexually repressed schoolmistresses, sexually precocious schoolgirls and a headmistress who is Margaret Rutherford or, in the 1950s St Trinian’s series, Alastair Sim in drag.

The Happiest Days of Your Life (Frank Launder, 1950) exposed the common watchers to the major sexual controversies of the time. A boy –school headmaster cannot find a common language with the girl school schoolmaster. The first has to share the Nutbourne College for Boys premises with an evacuated girls’ school. The main mistake was made by a Ministry of Education. The problem described in the book is being referred to as ‘a sexual abberation’. In the course of his initial meeting with the girls’ tweedclad headmistress, Miss Whitchurch, the school master of the girl school shows her antagonistic relation to the master of boy’s school. The research indicates that the subsequent comedy is derived from the basic situation. The controversy takes place at two single-sex schools. Further complications are introduced to ensure that both Miss Whitchurch and Mr. Pond belong to the category of people who have to impress important visitors. (Higson, A. (2003).

The comedy shows how parents and governors give their children separate synchronized guided tours. Many of these tours often conceal the presence of pupils of the opposite gender. After some time the plan goes horribly wrong and ends in the collision between boys and girls. The chaotic spectacle of collision that involves fighting boys and girls makes the public laugh. (Murphy, R. ed. (2000).

The Happiest Days of Your Life is the film that was set in the immediate post-war period. The film pays a particular attention to criticizing bureaucracy. The film refers to bureaucracy as the topical currency of the present day. The film shows that inefficient bureaucracy serves to be the target of the Ministry of Education. This organization is being responsible for the mix-up which Mr. Pond. Mr. Pond belongs to the list of people who was reported to initially blame the nationalized railways for the major part of the fallacies. (Barr, C., 1999)

As for the traditional public school ethos, this ethos is filled with a whole list of the absurdities, prejudices and anachronisms. In many cases all these issues are seen as the subject of gentle satire. The other important research implication is the visiting parent showed a great degree of concerned about the future fate of the girls. According to the research, boys and girls are recommended to mix together with each other.

The visiting parents are concerned with the problem that their girls should not mix with the representative of the ‘other classes.’ This opinion was presumably shared by Mr. Pond and Miss. Whitchurch. (Barr, C., 1999) When to analyze the film we can see that the author of the film is concerned with the number of gender and class issues. Mr. Pond and Miss Whitchurch belong to the group of people who secure their pupils’ co-operation in the tours.

The traditional tension is built on a whole list of synchronic lapses. When to review these lapses it becomes increasingly obvious that the girls will start cooperating with each other.

The film shows how people relish cohabitation and new experiences. The same thing can be told about the older generation which is frequently viewed with horror. As for the pupils, they often represent the category of people who are looking for the changes. When to look at the end of the film, we can see that another school has been relocated to Nutbourne. What we can see in the film is a horrified Miss Whitchurch and equally horrified Mr. Pond who become frightened at the very idea of having the mixed classes. The humor effect is brought with the idea that people should start a search for posts that would teach ‘natives’ in Tanganyika. What we have in the final outcomes is the film that criticizes the film’s critique of outmoded educational institutions. (Higson, A. (2003).)

Somehow, but the film itself partially depicts the situation with the public school. The primary objective of the film is criticizing the governors who are rejecting the idea of mixed schools. What we have as a result are two schools principals who express the fear at the very idea of having ‘newfangled theories’ of co-education and mixing classes.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is one more example of an intensely verbal black comedy. The main feature of this comedy is that it deals with questions of sexual repression and class society. When compared to the previous Ealing comedies this comedy has a much deeper psychological and symbolic meaning. The primary focus of the book is Louis Mazzini’s revenge. In fact this person decides to engage himself in the revenge against his aristocratic relatives. In general, the book has many unique feature of its own like elegance of style, coldness and laconic humor. (Higson, A., 2003)

The primary objective of Black comedy is to detract people from the reality of mass murder. The attainment of this goal is often concerned with an ironic twist of fate. This twist of fate finally leads to Louis’ arrest. The film shows that Luis is accused of murder he did not commit. He is acquitted, but on leaving prison he remembers that he did one great mistake – he left his memoirs in his cell. These memoirs contain detailed information about the murders that were committed by this person. (Barr, C., 1999)

A further irony of the film is delivered by means of voice-over narration. This narration is present in the texts that surround the memoirs of the film. The same thing can be told about the verbal precision and elegance of the text. This text is traditionally used to persuade people of their own superiority.

The 1960s

The 1960s is one more interesting decade of British cinema. This epoch brought the radical changes into how people are approaching sex and sexual attitudes. When to analyze this time span we can see that the Sixties there was actually very little evidence of films that contained explicit sexual scenes or depictions. However, 60s is known was the time of the great changes in the society. It was the time when the film industry has undergone the radical changes. These changes necessarily reflect changes in attitudes and any film-maker in the early Sixties. Many of the film producers of those times were willing to confront themes of sexuality in their films. In general, the whole time span was dominated by the prevalence of conservative values. In general, the films of those times were known for their tentative portrayal of the reality. (Barr, C., 1999)

The films of those times often “closed” many themes. For example, homosexuality was rarely discussed in the films. Showing homosexuality is often closely associated with perversion. For a long time showing the acts of homosexuality is the cinema was equaled to a criminal offence. (Barr, C., 1999)

1960 was the time of great changes. The enactment of legislation changed the perceptions of sexuality and normative behavior. These societal changes largely reflected the public. From that time on, the public started to acquire a new approach to such films. (Murphy, R. ed. (2000).)

To summarize this part of my paper I can say that 60s brought the significant changes into the manner people started to approach cinema. In the final outcome the confusion of the public was changed by the new attitude – calm acceptance of everything that is showed on TV.

The early Sixties also brought its changes into the issue. The examples may serve such films as Room at the Top (1958), Look Back in Anger (1958), A Taste of Honey (1961), A Kind of Loving (1962), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), This Sporting Life (1963) and Billy Liar (1963).


The analysis of the major tendencies in the British cinema shows that it has undergone a number of the important changes. The major part of these changes was caused by the social changes in the oscine. The final conclusion is that the societal changes of 1950 and 1960slargely shaped the cinema of some time. Such issues and gender restructuring, changing roles of man and woman, youth movement – all these issues were clearly depicted in the society.

Ashby & Higson ed (2000) British Cinema: Past and Present, London, Routledge
Barr, C. (1999). Ealing Studios, Berkeley: UCP
Higson, A. (2003). English Heritage, English Cinema, Oxford: OUP
Hill, J. (1995). Sex, Class & Realism, London: BFI
Murphy, R. ed. (2000). British Cinema of the 90s, London: BFI
Review of the 2007 Periodical Literature Related to the Period since 1945 and Relevant tothe
Study of British. Economic and Social History). HUGH PEMBERTON, University of
Bristol, UK, July 2008. Retrieved May 8, 2010, from

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