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Memory and the Movies: 1960s Cinema-going in Britain

AlfieFor many, 1960s Britain was full of women in miniskirts and men in flares. The colours were vivid and the sound of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones was in the air. This is how 1960s Britain is often remembered. The country was, as Time Magazine commented, ‘swinging.’

Except, of course, that it wasn’t. While London was certainly a hub for fashion, music and art, the thrills of the capital must have seemed very remote elsewhere in the country. In recent years there has been a growing awareness that much of Britain came late to the 1960s and that the 1950s, in a cultural sense at least, persisted for many years after 1959.

In cinema, this was certainly true. The ‘kitchen sink’ dramas, including films such as Look Back in Anger (1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and A Taste of Honey (1961), offered grim depictions of an austere 1950s for working-class youths in the North and continued to be made into the 1960s.

As this cycle waned during the 1960s the ‘Swinging London’ films emerged, painting the city as a place where authority and morals were crumbling in the face of a seductive but at times damagingly shallow youth culture. While the Beatles starred in frothy, harmless comedies, such as A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), elsewhere the glamour of Swinging London was tinged with uncertainty in Darling (1965), Alfie (1966) and Blow-Up (1966). However, despite the concerns they articulated about the age of free love, rebellion and youth, these films still traded on its glamour.

British cinema produced two competing versions of the 1960s. On the one hand, life was tough and gritty; on the other, it was vibrant, dazzling and more than a little sexy. As a result, we might well wonder what happened when Swinging London films were screened in economically deprived areas where their glamour was unrecognisable. What did audiences in affluent areas make of the kitchen sink dramas? Did they even watch these films at all? In wider terms, what did cinema-goers of the time make of films produced outside Britain, including Hollywood productions and European releases?

As part of UCL’s Cultural Memory and British Cinema-going of the 1960s project, I’ve been visiting large cities, small towns and remote villages across the UK to find out all about what it meant to go to the cinema in the sixties. From the large audience that gathered in a sweltering room in London’s Cinema Museum during the height of summer, to the small group of locals I met aboard the Screen Machine travelling cinema in Tomintoul in Scotland, the public has responded to the project with great generosity. With almost 700 respondents’ memories now represented within our growing archive, we are preserving their experiences for future generations to explore and enjoy.

However, memories are strange creatures indeed and what they are telling us is often not exactly what we expected to find. While box office statistics tell us that European cinema was largely overshadowed by UK and US production during the 1960s, in memory exciting, innovative films from iconic directors such as Truffaut, Fellini and Wajda seem to hold particular significance. Similarly, while much of the academic writing about this period focuses on stars, genres and directors, the people I have met so far largely seem to recall the atmosphere of the cinemas much more clearly. It is the smoky haze caught in the projector’s beam, the romance of the back row and the strange, chemical taste of Kia-Ora that lingers most strongly in memory.

Location also plays a large part in how we remember films. This is true of the cinemas themselves, be they the grand old picture palaces, with ornate foyers and upper balconies, or the rundown ‘flea pits’ that offered reduced ticket prices in return for uncomfortable seating. It is also true of the towns and cities in which people went to cinemas. In London, for example, the plethora of cinemas that were available meant that cinema-going could be both a local, everyday activity and a special event if it involved a trip to the larger West End cinemas, where different, often more spectacular films would be showing. In northern Scotland, the people I met told me a very different story, where seeing a film frequently meant anything up to a day of travelling. Cinemas were scarce during the 1960s in some of the areas I visited and it was thanks in large part to the locals’ dedication that they managed to watch any films at all. Of course, the increasing dominance of television seems to have changed all that, but even then audiences seem to have recognised that cinema-going is not the same thing as watching a film and the small-screen experience was often found to be lacking.

The audience members who have shared their cinema memories with the project frequently talk about the glamour of the venues, the spectacle of the films and the smells, tastes, sounds and other sensations of their cinema visits. What has stuck me most is that this response to cinema-going seems to frame the experience as a type of intangible magic, a collection of conscious and unconscious feelings provoked by the spaces, places and behaviours that are associated with watching films. Though half of Britain’s cinema screens closed during the 1960s, this aspect of a visit to the cinema is something that television could not replicate and it kept those that remained operational afloat.


Psycho (1960)

Psycho (1960)Directed by Alfred HitchcockShown: Janet Leigh (as Marion Crane)In cinema, the 1960s didn’t begin with a bang but with a scream. Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal horror film shocked audiences and critics alike. Even over fifty years later, Psycho is still as disturbing as ever and has been heavily borrowed from and referenced in the intervening decades. Much has been written about the exceptional editing, camera work, music and narrative devices that Psycho deploys, but it is less widely known that it had a significant impact on cinema-going habits. To ensure that viewers experience the film as he intended, Hitchcock asked that audiences be seated from the very beginning of the film, suspending the usual programme of rolling screenings, whereby patrons could arrive in the middle of a showing, watch the second half of a film and then stay to catch up on the bits they had missed. This didn’t end overnight, but Hitchcock certainly put the first nail in the coffin of that type of cinema experience.

A Taste of Honey (1961, UK)

Taste_of_Honey_01While 1960s Britain is most often remembered for its glamour, the cultural revolution and increasing liberalisation, it wasn’t like that for everyone. In the north of England in particular, life remained hard and the lights of London must have seemed very distant. Cinema played its role in shedding light on this disparity. While the ‘Swinging London’ films were popular, the British New Wave, which began in the 1950s and depicted the lives and struggles of northern working-class families, also drew significant audiences and accolades. A number of these films discussed abortion and, perhaps to a lesser extent, homosexuality long before they were made legal in 1967. A Taste of Honey is the quintessential example and remains difficult but fascinating viewing.

Jules et Jim (1962)

scene-from-jules-et-jim-1-001It wasn’t only Britain that had a New Wave during the 1960s. European cinema more broadly underwent something of a transformation and nowhere more so than in France. The French New Wave, a group of influential filmmakers that included Jean-Luc Goddard and François Truffaut, experimented with film form and began to confront social issue through cinema in a more direct manner. Jules et Jim is one of the many achievements of this movement, making innovative use of a range of film techniques, including freeze frames, voiceover narration and wipes. More than any other European film of the decade, it is Jules et Jim that has lingered in the memories of the project’s respondents.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962, UK)

lawrence_of_arabia_47-1920x1200With television providing an increasingly credible threat to cinema’s place in the lives of many Britons, the film industry began to suspect that, in order to compete, it would have to offer something more. Declining audience figures during the 1960s produced fresh interest in the power of new technologically-mediated thrills to lure people back into the cinema. Lawrence of Arabia is a prime example. David Lean’s epic made spectacular use of a new widescreen, high-resolution format known as Super Panavision 70. The 70mm format provided the film’s prints with greater clarity and produced an image broad enough to immerse the audience in the film’s world to a greater extent than ever before. Lawrence used this technology to fantastic effect, treating vast spectacles of the shimmering desert. Alongside Technicolor, Super Panavision 70 allowed the filmmaker to capture some of the most spectacular images audiences had seen. At a time when most television sets had small, black and white screens, Lawrence of Arabia truly gave its audience a reason to return to the cinema.

8½ (1963)

140_box_348x490_originalWhile the British and French New Waves often dominate discussion of European cinema in the 1960s, Italy produced a series of exciting offerings that drew attention across the continent. Federico Fellini’s 8½, named as a result of the fact that he considered himself to have made seven and a half films before this production, is another film that plays with style, form and content. It received two Oscars, one award from the New York Film Critics Circle and domestic recognition from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalism. It was screened outside of the competition at Cannes, but secured the Grand Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival. While Italian cinema didn’t undergo the same high profile rejuvenation that its French counterpart enjoyed during the 1960s, 8½ showed that the country was still producing extraordinary films.

The Servant (1963, UK)

servant,_the_poster02During the 1960s, Britain was changing. Perhaps not as much or as rapidly as we tend to think, but society was becoming increasingly permissive and the days of deference to authority were waning. The Servant speaks to the question of what the nation would become now that society had moved beyond the formalised and rigidly hierarchical structures of the 1950s and before. Dirk Bogarde plays the new manservant of a wealthy Londoner, but soon he is exploiting his master’s weaknesses in a psychosexual tug of war for dominance over the house and each other. With its nods towards homosexuality and the crumbling class system, The Servant negotiates the shifting values of the era, but seems ill at ease with Britain’s newly emergent character.

Goldfinger (1964, UK/US)

15589_goldfinger_or_goldfinger_1600x1200_(www_GdeFon_ru)While the James Bond franchise began in 1962 with Dr No, it didn’t truly find its feet until 1964, when Goldfinger introduced many of the tropes and motifs that 007 films would now be unimaginable without. The eccentric henchmen, the lengthy sequences before the films’ credits and the fantastical gadgets all started to take shape here. Perhaps more importantly, the film was an incredible financial success and set box office records around the world. With all of its flamboyant flourishes, fast pace and sexually suggestive content, it also made an appeal to 1960s youth culture. These various achievements secured the franchise’s place in film history and gave a significant boost to the UK’s film industry.

Help! (1965, UK)

help-beatles-in-austriaAlthough thought of as primarily a musical phenomenon, the Beatles had a significant impact on television and particularly cinema. During the 1960s they appeared in three silver screen releases. Help! is the second, following 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night and preceding 1968’s animated film Yellow Submarine. In many ways it also marked the peak of the Beatles’ early careers. They attended the premiere in June 1965, having just returned from a tour of France, Spain and Italy and on the cusp of setting off for another tour, this time of America. This was a time before any of their later troubles came to the fore, with protests in Japan, religious outrage in America and a tense, violent retreat from the Marcos-controlled Philippines awaiting them the following year. However, in 1965 Help! presented the group at their best. Funny, silly and packed full of classic melodies, this is a film that captures the spirit of Beatlemania, which was such a powerful force in 1960s popular culture.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

bonnie___clyde_8Given that Hollywood dominated US, British and many European box offices during the 1960s, it is a little odd that thus far the only American film on this list has been Psycho. Perhaps that is due to my own personal interpretation of what 1960s cinema was, or perhaps it is because America produced many of its most interesting films later in the decade. Drawing significant inspiration from the style of the French New Wave, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde brought a new energy to Hollywood. Replete with violence, sexuality and amorality, the film depicts the notorious bank-robbing lovers’ flight from justice and their eventual downfall. Its unprecedentedly graphic violence and supposed glamorisation of murder, which would have seen it fall foul of the Motion Picture Production Code in earlier years, caused much concern on its initial release. However, its impact was far-reaching, opening the gates for more daring and graphic content in Hollywood, a trend that helped to shape much of the American cinema we watch today, and, for a while at least, inspiring younger audiences to adopt the killers’ fashion sense.

The Graduate (1967)

large_SCC_GRADUATE-THE_2D_BR_I-1Just four months after Bonnie and Clyde came another American film that was heavily influenced by the recent developments in French cinema and which would push the boundaries of acceptability in Hollywood. The Graduate did not follow Bonnie and Clyde in terms of violent content, but instead broached another taboo subject, namely intergenerational romance. This, too, would have fallen foul of the Production Code, but by the late 1960s Mrs Robinson could seduce Benjamin all she pleased. The film is still frequently referenced within popular culture (most recently in an episode of Doctor Who, of all places), which is a testament to both its quality and its capacity to challenge audiences. European cinema certainly underwent a revolution of sorts during the decade, but after Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and a number of other daring US releases that rounded off the 1960s, Hollywood would never be the same again either.

About Matthew Jones

Dr Matthew Jones is the Research Associate on the ‘Cultural Memory and British Cinema-going of the 1960s’ AHRC-funded research project based in UCL’s Department of History. He and the project’s Director, Dr Melvyn Stokes, would like to invite readers to take part by sharing their own memories of cinema-going during the sixties. If you would like to share your memories with the project, please visit www.ucl.ac.uk/cinemamemories or email cinemamemories@ucl.ac.uk.

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