Towards the end of the fifties, when the age of rationing had been replaced by the age of affluence and the trauma of Suez had registered in the British psyche as the final outburst of the now defunct imperialist tradition, a new mood began to seep into the cinema, urged on by the advent of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre. Room at the Top was a considerably over-rated film, conventional in its plot treatment and paper-thin in its characterisation, but it was based on a sour, celebrated first novel by John Braine, a disgruntled Northern librarian and one of a group of young writers labelled by the press as ‘angry young men’. It was regarded as the harbinger of a new approach to film-making, breaking one of the old censorship taboos by showing that the woman had actually enjoyed her orgasm (for that matter admitting that she had had one). The film coincided with the upsurge of discontent with Britain’s direction, distaste for the government and anxiety over nuclear involvement which produced the CND and the Aldermaston marches. Room at the Top, with its opportunist hero screwing the establishment of his northern town and the ill-owner’s daughter, provided a readily identifiable index of reaction for the suburban filmgoer.
1960: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
1961: A Taste of Honey
1962: Lawrence of Arabia
1963: Billy Liar
1969: The Italian Job
Many of the films that followed were more successful in exploiting this mood (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Billy Liar) but all had in common the reawakened hero who, far from being a nice boy, is compelled to protest against his society before its enveloping tentacles submerge his personality in sterile conformity. In British films this new hero was remarkably fresh. A decade earlier even such an impassioned rebel figure as Johnny in Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947) showed leanings towards gentility in his attitudes towards the Church and the heroine. Cinema now retains a fully imposed machinery of censorship, in its present form the British Board of Film Censors is anachronistic and over-protective. The multiplication of cinema clubs and other methods of evading censorship has tended to promote the very voyeuristic attitudes that the Board attempted to eliminate. The comparative freedom of television, even its ability to show films originally given ‘X’ certificates to family audiences.
1971: A Clockwork Orange
1972: Savage Messiah
1973: The Wicker Man
1974: Murder on the Orient Express
1975: Barry Lyndon
1976: The Man Who Fell to Earth
1977: A Bridge Too Far
1978: Death on the Nile
1979: Monty Python’s Life of Brian