The successes of the wartime cinema suggested that the cinema of Great Britain had reached a new level of maturity and was poised to flourish and possibly escape from the shadow of Hollywood. There were some notable successes, including two films adapted from Graham Greene (1904–1991) novellas. One, Brighton Rock (John Boulting, 1947), starred a young Richard Attenborough (b. 1923) as Pinky Brown, the teenaged leader of a gang of Brighton thugs. The second, The Third Man (1949), directed by Carol Reed (1906–1976), was a thriller set in divided postwar Vienna and starred Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles; some have claimed it as the greatest British film of all time. Yet while the immediate postwar years held a great deal of promise, the cinema of that era did not necessarily live up to the expectations for it. By the 1950s the British market was effectively controlled by two firms, Rank and Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC). Additionally, cinema attendance declined from the peak of the war years. As indicated by Rank's increased intervention in Gainsborough, consolidation meant that costs could be reined in, so that while money was still lavished on quality films being made by bigger-name directors, the bulk of the company's output was material that would fill out programs in Rank-owned theaters. Rank also hoped to make greater inroads into the American market and saw the bigger-budgeted epics as a means of achieving this. A number of Britain's key directors in effect became independent contractors to Rank, and producing such films as Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes and David Lean's (1908–1991) Brief Encounter along with his subsequent success, Great Expectations (1946).
Most key personnel left Gainsborough after Rank began his interference in 1946. Rank named Sydney Box the new head of Gainsborough, hoping that Box could continue the studio's commercially successful tradition of melodrama. Box, however, was more interested in social realism, and the period of Box's leadership, in which he was hampered by a myriad of organizational problems, saw a dramatic decline in the studio's box-office appeal until Rank closed Gainsborough in 1950. One key personnel move made by Box during his short tenure was the appointment of his sister, Betty Box (1915–1999), to head of production at Gainsborough's Islington studio. While she struggled under difficult conditions, Box established herself as a significant producer, and once Gainsborough closed, she continued to work for Rank at Pinewood Studios. Her biggest success was with Doctor in the House (1954), the first film in a long-running series. Doctor in the House starred Dirk Bogarde (1921–1999), whose success in the title role helped establish him as the "Idol of the Odeons." Bogarde dominated the British box office and popularity polls through much of the 1950s, reprising his Doctor role in three sequels as well as starring in another Betty Box–produced film, A Tale of Two Cities (1958), an adaptation of Dickens's novel. Bogarde's later career was marked by more serious roles, beginning with Victim (1961), the first British film to deal explicitly with homosexuality, and including Joseph Losey's (1909–1984) The Servant (1963) and Accident (1967).
Bogarde's popularity in the 1950s was tied to his involvement in genre films, which had become a commercial staple of the British market. Ealing Studios under Michael Balcon had emerged from the war with a continued focus on representing national character. The studio had a highly favorable financing and distribution deal with the Rank Organisation that afforded it a great deal of autonomy, so it was Balcon's personal vision that largely drove the studio. It was in the genre of comedy, and specifically the emergence of what came to be known as the "Ealing Comedy," where the studio truly flourished.
As Britain's most famous producing-directing team, Powell and Pressburger divided critical opinion between those who demanded social realism within cinema and those who supported an auteurist vision. With the rise of auteur theory in journals such as the UK-based Movie , the work of Powell and Pressburger received a more positive critical reevaluation. At the box office, the duo's fantastical, mystical tales enjoyed great success.
A pair of propaganda films, 49th Parallel (1941) and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), early in World War II won them admiration. In 1943 they established their own production company called the Archers, for which they made a succession of popular and significant films. The first was another propaganda film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), but as it was critical of the British military leadership, it was frowned upon by the War Office as well as by Winston Churchill.
A tale of modern-day pilgrims, A Canterbury Tale (1944) opens with a shot that suggests a Chaucerian past but then pans up to an airplane flying overhead. The film combines the duo's trademark stylistic flair with mysticism. That mysticism returned in "I Know Where I'm Going!" (1945), a romance shot in the Scottish islands with the war kept in the distant background. After the war the team continued to explore the exotic and fantastic with two classic melodramas, Black Narcissus (1947), about nuns establishing a religious community in the Himalayas, and The Red Shoes (1948), based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale about a ballerina torn between the composer she falls in love with and her tyrannical balletmaster. Both films enjoyed international success and were a key part of the brief postwar boom in British cinema. After 1949 the pair began making films for Alexander Korda, and the Archers name disappeared. Although they had some moderate successes as they tried to help Korda crack the international market, their success was nowhere near that of the previous decade. The pair went their separate ways after Ill Met by Moonlight flopped in 1957.
Before teaming with Pressburger, Powell had directed the thriller Two Crowded Hours (1931), followed by numerous quota quickies. The producer Joe Rock then allowed Powell to make a film of his own choosing, The Edge of the World (1937), shot in the Scottish Hebrides, the locale to which he would return for "I Know Where I'm Going!" . Following the end of his collaboration with Pressburger, Powell made the notorious Peeping Tom (1960). The negative reaction to his somewhat sympathetic portrayal of a sadistic killer all but ended Powell's career, though some critics later hailed the film as a masterpiece.
Powell: The Edge of the World (1937), Peeping Tom (1960); Powell and Pressburger: 49th Parallel (1941), One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), "I Know Where I'm Going!" (1945), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), The Tales of Hoffman (1951)
Christie, Ian. Arrows of Desire: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger . London: Waterstone, 1985.
——, ed. Powell, Pressburger and Others . London: British Film Institute, 1978.
Gough-Yates, Kevin, ed. Michael Powell in Collaboration with Emeric Pressburger . London: British Film Institute, 1971.
Powell, Michael. A Life in Movies . London: Heinemann, 1986.
When Ealing Studios was sold to the BBC in 1955, Balcon unveiled a plaque that read: "Here during a quarter of a century were made many films projecting Britain and the British character." This sensibility is what
drove the Ealing Comedies and made them unique. They captured an almost quaint sense of Britishness, employing national stereotypes and placing realistic characters in unexpected situations, usually representing everyman's struggle against authority. Ealing had produced earlier comedies, but it was in 1949, with the successive release of Passport to Pimlico (directed by Henry Cornelius), Whisky Galore! (directed by Alexander Mackendrick), and Kind Hearts and Coronets (directed by Robert Hamer), that the Ealing Comedy tradition became firmly established. A number of successes followed, including Mackendrick's The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Maggie (1954), and The Ladykillers (1955) and Charles Crichton's The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). While the Ealing Comedies enjoyed success in both the American and Continental European markets, Balcon had hoped to produce films that would help to export his particular vision of British character. Charles Frend's biopic, Scott of the Antarctic (1948), and Basil Dearden's The Blue Lamp (1950), a crime thriller that had been a British success, failed to have the impact for which Balcon had hoped. As the British market declined in the 1950s, overseas markets became more important for the economic health of British studios. Balcon's inability to adequately gauge those markets is what inevitably led to the closing of Ealing Studios in 1955.
Another particularly British comic success has been the Carry On films, created by the team of producer Peter Rogers and director Gerald Thomas, which began with Carry On Sergeant (1958). This first film introduced the series's tendencies to poke fun at familiar British institutions, in this case National Service (which is somewhat akin to the American National Guard). As the series progressed, the humor became bawdier and the targets for satire extended beyond institutions and into other facets of British life, including familiar film and television genres in films such as Carry on Screaming! (1966) and Carry on Spying (1964). In many ways, once one gets beyond the sexual double entendres and other outlandish humor, the Carry On films seem to further Balcon's notions of "projecting Britain and the British character."
Carry on Screaming! and Carry on Spying spoof two other key genres to emerge in the 1950s and into the 1960s, the Hammer horror film and the James Bond spy thrillers, respectively. Hammer Films was established in 1948 when a company called Exclusive Films wound down. The managing director of Hammer was James Carreras (1909–1990), the son of one of Exclusive's co-founders. Carreras's attitude was that films were commercial products and thus needed to be profitable. He sought ways to cut costs while retaining quality, and the genre film was the answer. Horror was not the initial focus; rather, the company concentrated on producing films with characters already known to the audience, presuming that there would be a ready-made market. Characters were drawn from familiar radio shows and from well-known myths and legends, including figures such as Robin Hood and Dick Turpin. Later, using the familiar characters of Count Dracula and Baron Frankenstein, the studio established the genre for which it is best known. Following the success of a science-fiction-horror film, The Quatermass Xperiment (1955, directed by Val Guest), Carreras decided that Hammer should focus on another horror subject, leading to The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), directed by Terence Fisher. This was soon followed by another Fisher film, Dracula (1958), starring Christopher Lee. The company's continued willingness to adapt to the changing whims of the horror market, exploiting each subsequent trend, has kept it in business up to the present day, although it suffered through some lean times.
Another enduring British genre has been the cycle of James Bond films. While changing key actors over the years, including the lead on a number of occasions, and making changes that reflect shifting social and cultural norms, the series has remained relatively stable in terms of structure. James Bond, secret agent 007, represents a sophisticated, cynical, sexy, and stylish British masculine ideal. Starting with Dr. No (1962), directed by Terence Young, the series—based on the novels of Ian Fleming
(1908–1964)—has seen twenty official Bond films made as of 2002. The first actor to play Bond was a Scot, Sean Connery (b. 1930), who has remained a fan favorite. The ongoing significance of the Bond character, not only within Britain but also worldwide, was evident in popular debate in 2005 over the choice to play the next Bond; there was much dismay when producers opted for the Englishman Daniel Craig (b. 1968) for the role. The franchise started by producers Albert "Cubby" Broccoli (1909–1996) and Canadian Harry Saltzman (1915–1994) has created an enduring legacy within British cinema and around the world.
Saltzman came to the Bond franchise after having been a significant player in the emergence of a British New Wave in the 1950s. He had been a co-founder of Woodfall Films along with theater and television director Tony Richardson (1928–1991) and playwright John Osborne (1929–1994). The initial aim of Woodfall was to adapt the stage plays of Richardson and Osborne. Richardson's association with cinema involved friendships with some of the young writers from the influential critical journal Sequence , including the journal's co-founder, Lindsay Anderson (1923–1994), and Karel Reisz (1926–2002). It was with Reisz that Richardson co-directed his first film, Momma Don't Allow (1956), a Free Cinema documentary capturing the youthful energy of the Wood Green Jazz Club in North London. Free Cinema gained its name because it operated outside of the constraints of the commercial cinema. The name was originally appended to a showing of short films programmed by Anderson, Reisz, and Richardson, including their own work. The name soon came to apply to the work itself of Anderson and his cohorts. Significant to the success of Free Cinema was the funding the films received from the British Film Institute's (BFI) Experimental Film Fund. The BFI was involved in film production in Great Britain from 1952 until the closing of its Production Board in 1999. The fund was initially aimed at promoting technological development in film and supporting new filmmakers for whom other support would be hard to come by. By the end of the 1950s it was this latter initiative that became the primary focus of the Fund. The key figures of the Free Cinema movement were among the first to benefit from this initiative, which helped launch the careers of many notable British directors, including Ridley Scott (b. 1937), his brother Tony (b. 1944), Peter Watkins (b. 1935), Ken Russell (b. 1927), and numerous other figures who would make their mark on British and world cinema in the ensuing decades.
The approaches to drama of Osborne and Richardson closely matched the concerns of the Free Cinema filmmakers, and Richardson's films became a key part of the social realism movement. He adapted two of Osborne's plays, Look Back in Anger (1958) (a play that contributed to the coining of the term "angry young men" to describe the key players of the era) and The Entertainer (1960), before turning more resolutely to a realist aesthetic in A Taste of Honey (1961) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). These latter two films were part of the New Wave cinema referred to as "kitchen sink films," in reference to the frequency in which drab locations such as working-class kitchens appeared in the films as markers of class and place. These films tended to focus on the plight of working-class males as they came to terms with a shifting economy, moving away from heavy industry and toward consumerism. This was certainly the focus of Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), set (and shot) in Nottingham, whose main character, Albert Finney's Arthur Seaton, came to embody the epitome of the genre's Northern working-class male.
A key issue here was voice. While earlier films had represented the working class, the workers were—much as in Griersonian documentaries—spoken for or represented on screen by others, who spoke with theatrical pronunciations (often called Received Pronunciation [RP] English, or more colloquially, BBC English). In the British New Wave, real working-class lives and concerns were placed on screen. The relaxation of censorship toward the end of the 1950s, and the fact that these initial films were not as constrained as others by commercial interests, meant that authentic issues could be brought to the screen and authentic voices and dialects could be heard. This was a key era for the development of social realism in British cinema, helping to cement the importance of social realism as part of a national cinema in Britain.