Woodfall - A Revolution in British Cinema: The Entertainer Review

North-West England, 1956. Archie Rice (Laurence Olivier) has been treading the boards as a comedian and song-and-dance man for decades, with never much success. He lives with his second wife Phoebe (Brenda de Banzie) and his father Billy (Roger Livesey), also an entertainer of old, and Archie's son by his late first wife, Mick (Alan Bates). His other son Mick (Albert Finney), has been called up to serve in Egypt during the Suez Campaign. Always short of money, Archie is full of plans and hopes for success which never comes. When his daughter Jean (Joan Plowright) comes to stay, things are brought to a head.

The success of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger on stage served notice that a younger generation was beginning to make its voice heard, and that voice was often in reaction to the older theatrical establishment. However, some of said establishment took notice. One of them was Laurence Olivier, who approached Osborne to ask: Look Back in Anger had been about an angry young man, so could Osborne write a play about an angry middle-aged man? Olivier was by then fifty-one and had been knighted in 1947. As well has his distinction as a stage actor, he had also acted in films since 1931, winning an Oscar for Hamlet in 1948, the film itself, which he had also directed, winning Best Picture. That was the middle one of his three Shakespearian films, following Henry V (1944) and followed by Richard III (1955), in both of which he also played the lead role as well as directing.

Osborne took up the challenge, and the result was The Entertainer, a three-act play which opened at the Royal Court on 10 April 1957, the production directed by Tony Richardson, who had been at the helm of the original stage production of Look Back in Anger. The Entertainer was soon moved to the West End, with the original Jean (Dorothy Tutin) replaced by Joan Plowright. That was significant for both Olivier and her, as in 1961 she became his third wife, a marriage which lasted until his death. Olivier's wish to connect to a younger, vital theatrical generation was successful, as Archie Rice soon became one of his signature roles. The play is one of Osborne's which has so far endured, and is still revived, most recently in London in 2016 with Kenneth Branagh as Archie Rice.

In 1959, Woodfall (a company set up by Osborne, Richardson and Canadian film producer Harry Saltzman) had released their first film, the big-screen adaptation of Look Back in Anger. They followed this a year later with this film of Osborne's play. Many of the same personnel returned. Nigel Kneale again wrote the screenplay, though this time Osborne is co-credited, and Tony Richardson directed, with Oswald Morris back as cinematographer. (Morris gets a namecheck in the film: a radio announcement refers to a “Sergeant Ozzie Morris”.) There was no question that Olivier would not reprise his stage role, and he was certainly thought a big enough name to do so – unlike as in Look Back in Anger, which had resulted in a too-old Richard Burton being somewhat miscast in the lead. The original stage Phoebe, Brenda de Banzie, played the part again, and Joan Plowright returned as Jean. The original Billy, George Relph, was unable to reprise his role (he died in 1960) so Roger Livesey was cast, even though he was only a year older than Olivier. Making their cinema debuts were Alan Bates and Albert Finney. Both Finney and Shirley Anne Field have said that their smallish roles in this film (Finney's was shot in just one night) were in effect their screen tests for Woodfall, and they indeed had much larger roles in Woodfall's next production, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – which in Finney's case made him a star. The film was shot on location in Morecambe, Lancashire, including the old Alhambra Theatre for Archie's stage routines, and in the studio at Shepperton.

The film is something of a period piece, set four years before its release, specifically during the Suez Crisis, which Mick has been called up for. That disastrous military campaign had been a particularly contentious issue between younger and older generations. An early flashback (shot by Richardson and Morris largely at a Dutch angle) details how Jean had gone on an anti-Suez protest march in London, and features her saying goodbye to Mick before he leaves for Egypt, and gives us some sight of her relationship with her fiancé Graham (Daniel Massey.) The play and the film can be seen as a metaphor for a British Empire in decline, with Archie's (possibly imagined) glory days as a stage entertainer long behind him. The play alternates scenes with Archie and his family with his music-hall routines. At one point this includes a representation of Britannia, but a rather down-at-heel Britannia with her breasts exposed. (That was enabled by stage censorship of the day allowing nudity as long as the woman in question did not move. In the film, no doubt in consideration of what the censor would allow, even in an X-certificate film, Britannia is in long shot.) Archie is someone living beyond his means – as he is an undischarged bankrupt rather proud of the fact that he has not paid income tax for twenty years, all financial transactions have to be signed for by Phoebe. He's certainly not always likeable: he frequently cheats on Phoebe (who seems to be battling depression and hitting the bottle as a result) and gets to the point where he is seriously considering leaving Phoebe for the much younger Tina (Shirley Anne Ford), whom he first meets when judging a bathing-beauty contest. It's no doubt a sign of the times that Tina's parents (Thora Hird and Tony Longridge, the latter uncredited) have no qualms about their daughter going out with a much older man, but Archie sees them as possibly financing his next stage venture. You can't help but judge him, but Osborne's writing and Olivier's performance means you can't avoid a sneaking sympathy for him. He may never be anything more than mediocre, but as he says, near the end of the film, “I have a go, I do.” And he does.

Although this is Olivier's film, as it was his play, Jean is at the heart of the film, and the audience's way in to Archie and his world. Plowright, in only her second screen role (she has an “introducing” credit) gives a fine performance, but there's a sense that all of Archie's family – his three children, the long-suffering Phoebe and his father Billy – are collateral damage in Archie's dysfunctional life. Yet it's a compelling dysfunction.

The Entertainer opened on 28 July 1960 at the Odeon Marble Arch. The film went on to be nominated for three BAFTA Awards – Best British Actor (Olivier), Best British Screenplay and Most Promising Newcomer (Plowright) – but did not win any of them. However, it did gain Woodfall its first Oscar nomination, for Olivier as Best Actor, though he lost to Burt Lancaster for Elmer Gantry.


The Entertainer is Disc Two of the BFI's Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema nine-disc box set, available in separate Blu-ray and DVD editions. A checkdisc of the former was supplied for review. (To read the other reviews in this set, please click on the tags below.) The disc is encoded for Region B only. The box set carries a 15 certificate. The Entertainer itself carried a X certificate (sixteen and over) on its cinema release but its “mild language and sex references”, as per the BBFC, now earn it a PG. The extras are all documentaries which have not been submitted to the BBFC, though Lancashire Coast was given a U certificate for cinema release in 1957.

The Blu-ray transfer is in the ratio of 1.66:1, which certainly some cinemas may have shown it in at the time, though Shepperton Studios listed the film in the trade press as in production in a ratio of 1.85:1. The transfer is derived from a 2K scan of the original negative and fine-grain positive by Fotokem in Los Angeles. The results aren't quite as sharp as Look Back in Anger (which derived from a 4K scan) is, and not as grainy as it maybe should be, though admittedly I hadn't seen the film before now. The blacks, whites and greys do seem true, as does the contrast and grain. Inevitably the contrast is higher in the stage scenes, as they are intended to look as if they're lit by theatre lighting.

The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered in LPCM 2.0. Nothing untoward here, as dialogue, music and sound effects are clear and well balanced. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available for the feature but not the extras.

These extras – with a Play All option - are archival items mostly relating to the part of the country where the location shoot of The Entertainer took place, particularly the Morecambe seafront. However, the first item on the disc takes us to another English seaside town. Lindsay Anderson made O Dreamland (12:46) in Margate in 1953, shot in 16mm with one camera, an audiotape recorder and a crew of two, Anderson and John Fletcher. Anderson at the time was a young (thirty in 1953) filmmaker who had been working since the late 1940s, at the time in documentary: his 1954 short Thursday's Children, made around the same time as O Dreamland, won an Oscar. He was also a writer, contributing to Sequence, Sight and Sound and the New Statesman, and producing polemics decrying contemporary film critical practices and calling for a new kind of filmmaking outside the current system. With likeminded filmmakers such as Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz, this became the Free Cinema movement, resulting in showings of their films and others from around the world at the National Film Theatre. (For more about Free Cinema, see the BFI's DVD set, reviewed for this site here by Anthony Nield.) The first Free Cinema programme, on 5 February 1956 at the NFT, comprised three short films: Together, directed by Lorenza Mazzetti, Momma Don't Allow, directed by Richardson and Reisz (and included in this set as an extra on the Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner disc) and O Dreamland. Anderson's film had been shelved after it was made. Far from being a celebration of the great British tradition of the seaside, it's quite a strange and disconcerting film indeed. There's no dialogue or narration, only music and some diegetic sound. The black and white 16mm photography is very grainy and probably intentionally makes Margate look quite unattractive. The tone is also quite macabre in places, particularly at the start where we go round a torture-through-the-ages exhibit, and with the punctuation of the film by the laughter of a mechanical drummer. Far from being affectionate, it's a cold and distanced film and it's not hard to sense a disdain at what it portrays. It's a singular film, but not an especially likeable one.

After that, we leave the South-East for the North-West, and six short films from Mitchell & Kenyon. Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon, based in Blackburn, set up their company in 1897, taking advantage of the new medium of the motion picture, which had been shown publicly by the Lumière Brothers only two years previously, in 1896 in London. Through the first decade of the new century, Mitchell & Kenyon specialised in short actuality films, “local films for local people” as their advertising put it, shot in particular towns by day and shown in the same town that evening, to an audience open to the novelty of seeing themselves on screen. Mitchell and Kenyon might have been forgotten if workmen in 1994 hadn't found hundreds of spools of their films in the basement of a Blackburn shop, which found their way into the hands of film historian Peter Worden who passed them on to the BFI in 2000. (There are four DVD compilations of Mitchell & Kenyon films available. For more information see the reviews on this site of The Lost World of Mitchell & Kenyon and Electric Edwardians: The Films of Mitchell & Kenyon by Anthony Nield and Mitchell & Kenyon in Ireland and Mitchell & Kenyon: Edwardian Sports by me.) The six shorts on this disc, all filmed in 1900 and 1901, are: “Panoramic View of the Morecambe Sea Front” (2:25), two called “Parade on West End Pier, Morecambe” (2:01 and 1:35), “Parade on Morecambe Central Pier” (2:35), “Morecambe Promenade and Winter Gardens” (2:22), “Morecambe Pier” (1:24) and “Scenes by the Stone Jetty, Morecambe” (2:13). These silent films are presented with music soundtracks. As ever with Mitchell & Kenyon's films, it's the details which fascinate, of life in my great-grandparents' time accidentally caught on camera. It's also an odd experience watching films like this in the certain knowledge that no one we see on screen is now still alive, and even more sobering is the thought that many of the young men we see would not survive the World War a decade and a half away. Lost world is right.

Much the same could be said about Morecambe Carnival (0:54), though as this dates from 1929, maybe some young people on screen are still with us and elderly. This short item (silent, with intertitles) was produced for Topical Budget (one of the major newsreel companies of the silent era, in business from 1911 to 1931) and only shown in Manchester and Liverpool. It's interesting to see that some of the local businesses which appeared on screen in Mitchell & Kenyon's day were still there in nearly three decades later.

Lancashire Coast (15:16) was made in 1957 – shot in colour by David Watkin – and takes us on a whistlestop tour of the county's attractions. The narration is, let's say, a little of its time, particularly when it marvels that young women were brave enough to go on the Blackpool rollercoaster. We also catch a glimpse of local celebrities such as comedian Arthur Askey and footballer Stanley Matthews (actually from Staffordshire, but playing for Blackpool at the time, and later to become the first footballer to be knighted). This is presented in 1.37:1, though given that this was a 35mm short film given a cinema release, it does show signs that it was intended to be shown at a wider ratio, though by eye no more so than 1.66:1. Certainly the opening credits' text is framed for widescreen.

Also on the disc is a self-navigating stills gallery (3:32).

The essay in the BFI's book included with this box set is by Vic Pratt, who takes us through Olivier's approaching Osborne (with quotes from the former's autobiography) through to the film's production and release. Pratt also talks about the film's difficulties with the censor: the producers wanted an A certificate but the BBFC held firm on an X. This caused some reaction in the press, with such a great thespian appearing in such adults-only fare. The reviews when the film came out were mixed, with most agreeing on the greatness of Olivier's performance but finding the subject matter rather tawdry and beneath such a great man of the acting profession. But, on the other hand, The Entertainer, play and film, gave Olivier the chance to reinvent himself and not be left behind as social change began to take hold of the country.

You can order The Entertainer (1960) from one of these retailers
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The Entertainer, from John Osborne's play, features an Oscar-nominated performance from Laurence Olivier in one of his great stage and screen roles.


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