Woodfall - A Revolution in British Cinema: Look Back in Anger Review

This is the first of eight reviews of the BFI's Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema box set, reviewing the films in chronological order. To read the other reviews, please click on the tags below.

In the history of British cinema, as with other countries, particular production companies and studios loom large and soon become associated with particular types of film. You know what you mean by an Archers production, or a Hammer film, or one from Ealing Studios, though in the latter two cases, they made films in a wider spread of genres than the ones they are usually remembered for. Add to these Woodfall Productions. It was founded sixty years ago, and between 1959 and 1984 released twenty feature films. Some of these are now classics of British cinema. Others are now rarely shown, but that doesn't mean they aren't worthy of reassessment. Eight of them are in this box set.

What makes a Woodfall film? The company was set up by Tony Richardson, John Osborne and Canadian film producer Harry Saltzman specifically to make the film of Osborne's play Look Back in Anger, and was named after the Chelsea street where Osborne then lived. Of those twenty feature films, all but two are based on pre-existing sources, either from the page or the stage, with the two exceptions (1968's The Charge of the Light Brigade and 1970's Ned Kelly) based on historical persons and events. Woodfall soon became associated with a realist aesthetic, “kitchen-sink” as it was called, with their films often set in the regions outside London and the Home Counties. Advances in technology, with more lightweight cameras and faster (black and white) film stock, and some influence from the French New Wave which was attracting notice at the time enabled the films to leave the studios and get out into the streets and countryside. The films often had a directness in language and in subject matter that pushed at the boundaries of censorship of the day. It also created its own stars, often from backgrounds similar to those of the characters they played, Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Rita Tushingham among them.

By the mid 1950s Great Britain was emerging from a long period of post-war austerity, and a younger generation was growing up that was beginning to chafe at the restrictions placed on them: a culture of deference, of stifling emotional responses, not least sexual ones, under a thick veneer of respectability. Things were changing, and the old order was showing its cracks, in the era between the Suez crisis (more of that when I get to The Entertainer) and the beginning of the Sixties as we know it. This dissatisfaction found its way into the works of new playwrights like Osborne, Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, Arnold Wexler and new novelists like Kingsley Amis, John Braine, Stan Barstow, John Wain, and some, like David Storey, who wrote for both media. The film industry certainly took notice. Many of the sources for the earliest Woodfall films came from the work of those writers emerging in the 1950s who had quickly become known as the Angry Young Men. And they were almost all men: female writers on similar themes, such as the playwrights Shelagh Delaney and Ann Jellicoe, came along a little later, and their most famous plays became Woodfall films in their turn.

Plays such as Look Back in Anger must have seemed very fresh in an era of drawing-room comedies and conventional “well-made plays”. It was a play about life as it was lived now, a play about something that mattered. Voices from the previously little-audible working classes were beginning to be heard. As with any movement, many of the novelists and playwrights would have likely made their name anyway, but being dubbed an Angry Young Man probably gave them a boost in their early careers. Some of these names still have currency today, even if for just one or two works. Others, some of them highly feted in their day like John Wain, are now largely out of print. Some of the established playwrights the movement reacted against, such as Terence Rattigan, have more recently been re-evaluated. Plus ça change.

In Look Back in Anger, Jimmy Porter (Richard Burton) lives with his wife Alison (Mary Ure) in a small flat. Also lodging with them is Jimmy's partner in a market stall Cliff (Gary Raymond), who tries, often unsuccessfully, to keep the peace. University-educated, Jimmy lashes out in frustration at all around him, especially Alison but also her friend Helena (Claire Bloom). But when Alison becomes pregnant, it's time for a reckoning.

John Osborne was born in Fulham in 1929. After leaving school, he began work as a journalist but soon became interested in the theatre, both as an actor and originally as a stage manager. He started to write plays, and his first two, The Devil Inside Him (cowritten with Stella Linden) and Personal Enemy (cowritten with Anthony Creighton) were produced in 1950 and 1955. In 1951, he married the first of his five wives, Pamela Lane. By the middle of the decade, this marriage was breaking down, and this fed into Look Back in Anger, which he wrote in seventeen days in a Morecambe deckchair, where he was acting in rep. The play was widely rejected by theatrical agents, but it found its way to George Devine at the Royal Court, who decided to take a gamble on it. It became Osborne's first solo play to be produced, and opened on 8 May 1956. Tony Richardson was the director and Jimmy was played by Kenneth Haigh. Cliff was played by a young up-and-coming actor, Alan Bates. Playing Alison, as she would later do on screen, was Mary Ure. Osborne and Ure began a relationship which resulted in his second marriage. Devine has a small role in the film, as the doctor who confirms to Alison that she is pregnant.

The play was not initially a success, with initial reviews being dismissive of it until famously Kenneth Tynan in The Observer proclaimed its merits. Since then, Look Back in Anger is an example of a title of a creative work that has passed into the English language. (My favourite reference to it would be the headline about cutbacks to the library service in Essex: “Book Lack in Ongar”.)

With the setting up of Woodfall Productions, and the film version of the play, it was inevitable that Tony Richardson would direct. Cecil Antonio Richardson came from Shipley, Yorkshire, and was a year older than Osborne. He had begun as a theatre director, but had also directed for television (including a now-lost ITV Play of the Week production of a shortened version of Look Back in Anger, broadcast on 28 November 1956). He had become involved with the Free Cinema movement, co-directing the 1956 documentary short Momma Don't Allow with Karel Reisz, set at a jazz club and prefiguring the opening of this film, with Jimmy as a jazz musician. Many of the lessons and techniques of Free Cinema, not forgetting the people involved in it, would inform later Woodfall productions and similar films made elsewhere. (For more about Free Cinema, see the BFI's DVD box set, reviewed here by Anthony Nield.)

The script was written by Nigel Kneale, with Osborne credited for “additional dialogue”. Given that this is such a dialogue-driven play and film, you have to give Kneale as well as Richardson credit for making it as cinematic as it was. The opening credits come up with Jimmy playing trumpet in a club jazz band, and it's a full six minutes before there is any spoken dialogue. One of Jimmy's most famous lines in the play (“There aren't any good, brave causes left”) was removed by Kneale. The subplot where Jimmy tries to defend an Indian stallholder (S.P. Kapoor) was an addition, as was the character of Ma Tanner (Edith Evans).

As this was the first Woodfall film, and Richardson's feature directing debut, it does precede the methods of later films. It was shot in a studio (Elstree), and although it is set in Derby, little of it was actually shot there: the market scenes were mostly filmed in Deptford, in London. The cinematographer was Oswald Morris, thirteen years older than Richardson. Morris had trodden the traditional film-industry path from runner to clapper boy to camera operator to cinematographer. In later Woodfall films, DPs with less traditional backgrounds, such as Walter Lassally would come to the fore.

Many young rebels become lifelong mavericks, but too often today’s Young Turk is tomorrow’s Boring Old Fart. It was Osborne’s fate (as it was Amis’s and others’) to mutate from an Angry Young Man to a Reactionary Old Man. You can see why high-powered actors were and are drawn to his plays: Osborne’s powerful gift for rhetoric often makes up for a shaky dramatic structure. But the society that Jimmy Porter railed against in the mid-Fifties no longer exists, Porter’s rhetoric still survives but he comes over as a self-pitying whinger. That could be excused in a man in his early-to-mid twenties, as in the play, but Richard Burton (thirty-three at the time) is simply too old for our sympathy. That’s a pity, as otherwise it’s a powerful Burton performance as he was born to deliver dialogue like this. (And that’s why he excelled almost a decade later in another stage adaptation, Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, where he was of the appropriate age.) In particular, his treatment of the women in his life – Alison and Helena, the latter initially despising him but later succumbing to his charms and becoming his mistress – is most charitably described as pre-feminist. Osborne's best-known plays are still revived and there were several film versions of his work. Osborne was to return to Jimmy Porter, now in middle age, in his final play, Déjàvu, in 1992, but it was not a success. He died in 1994 at the age of sixty-five.

Look Back in Anger is a well-made and well-acted film of a play that shows its age. Tony Richardson does his best to make the play cinematic, but a filmed play it remains. It had its premiere on 28 May 1959, in the presence of Princess Margaret at the Empire, Leicester Square. The film was nominated for four BAFTA Awards – Best British Film, Best Film from Any Source, Best British Actor for Burton and Best Screenplay – but did not win any.


This is the first disc in the BFI's Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema nine-disc box set. There are separate Blu-ray and DVD editions, and checkdiscs of the former were received for review. The disc is encoded for Region B. The box set also includes an eighty-page book. I will discuss the parts relevant to each film in the appropriate review, and the other contents in the last review, which will be of The Knack...and How to Get It. The box set carries a 15 certificate, though Look Back in Anger, rated X and hence restricted to those sixteen and over on its original release, is now a PG.

The aspect ratio of the Blu-ray transfer is 1.66:1, though at the time non-Scope British features were more likely to be shot in either 1.75:1 or 1.85:1. This being a studio shoot, the studio reported in the trade press at the time that Look Back in Anger was being made in 1.85:1. As for the transfer, the blacks, whites and shades of grey in between seem true, and the contrast which is vital to monochrome is good. Grain is natural and filmlike.

The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0. It's certainly clear and the dialogue, sound effects and music (including jazz by an uncredited Chris Barber) are well balanced. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available for the feature but not the extras.

The extras begin with Working Class Heroes: The Stories That Changed British Cinema (48:39). This was a panel discussion at the BFI Southbank during its Woodfall retrospective season in April 2018. Danny Leigh chairs, and the participants included some who were there at the time – Tom Courtenay, Rita Tushingham – plus Joely Richardson (Tony's daughter by Vanessa Redgrave) and two with no direct connection to Woodfall, playwright and director Jez Butterworth and journalist Paris Lees. Butterworth says that the films were an early influence on him and his work, though he (born 1969) first saw them on television. Lees talks about the significance of films like this on working-class audience, even though her mother didn't see them at the time as only people with money went to the cinema. The panel discussion preceded a screening of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and Courtenay gets gently ribbed about his supposed rivalry with Albert Finney.

George Devine died in 1966 of a heart attack, The Royal Court, where he had been artistic director since 1956, set up an award in his name to encourage new talent and to raise money for this put on a show at the Old Vic on 12 June 1966 made up from extracts from many of Devine's previous productions, featuring the original cast if possible and compered by David Frost. The dress rehearsals were filmed by Peter Whitehead (who went on to make a defining documentary of the London of the time, Tonite Let's All Make Love in London), apparently with two 16mm cameras, one loaded with colour film and one with black and white, but the film was never finished. Four extracts are included in this box set. On this particular disc is one from Look Back in Anger (16:51), featuring the original stage Jimmy, Kenneth Haigh, and the film Cliff, Gary Raymond.

Oswald Morris died in 2014 at the age of ninety-eight, but he is represented here by an interview (24:02) from 1993. He says straight up that he came from a classical filmmaking background, and in many ways favours it, but he certainly had experience with shooting with portable (and sometimes hidden) cameras on location. He did just that on one of his earliest films, Knave of Hearts (1954), directed in London by Frenchman René Clément. He talks about his collaboration with Tony Richardson on both Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer. However, they had a parting of the ways when Richardson made Tom Jones. Richardson wanted to make the film in colour, his first, but Morris – who had had experience of shooting in colour – was against the idea, especially because of the greater lighting requirements of colour at the time. Eventually, they parted ways and Walter Lassally took over, though Morris still seems to be convinced he was right.

Ten Bob in Winter (12:08) is a short film from 1963, backed by the BFI Experimental Film Fund. It was written, directed and narrated by Jamaican-born Lloyd Reckord, and shot in grainy 16mm in Notting Hill. One of the two cinematographers was Gavrik Losey (first name spelt Gaverik here, son of Joseph and later a film producer). The film is a simple story of the journey of a ten-shilling (ten bob) note through the hands of three men, in an exploration of not racial prejudice but class prejudice in a small community, the Caribbean one in West London. Reckord (1929-2015) was primarily an actor (noteworthy as one of participants in the earliest known interracial kiss on British television, in 1959) and a theatre director, but stayed behind the camera in this, his film directing debut. He made one other short film, Dream A40 (1965), also backed by the BFI, controversial and BBFC-banned for its gay theme.

Also on the disc is a self-navigating stills gallery (1:32) and the trailer for Look Back in Anger (3:07).

The BFI's book includes an essay on Look Back in Anger by John Wyver. This begins by quoting Victor Perkins's dismissive comments (in his 1962 book, The British Cinema) on Woodfall Films, Tony Richardson and this film, and later comments that it remains a filmed play and a talky one at that, but Wyver goes on to discuss how the film is an interplay between film, stage and also television techniques. The book also includes credits for and notes on the extras on this disc – by William Fowler for the George Devine Memorial Play and by Katy McGahan for Ten Bob in Winter.

You can order Look Back in Anger (1959) from one of these retailers
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One of the most celebrated plays of its time transfers to the big screen, with a powerful performance from Richard Burton in the lead.


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