The middle of Richard Lester’s three major Sixties films, The Knack won Woodfall the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It has been somewhat controversial since, though most of it is still very funny and inventive.
Tolen (Ray Brooks) has it. Colin (Michael Crawford) wants to have it. It’s the knack…of attracting women. Housemate Tom (Donal Donnelly) looks on. And into the mix comes Nancy (Rita Tushingham) just arrived in London from the North…
The Knack, based on Ann Jellicoe’s play, with the …and How to Get It subtitle added for the cinema, a was a landmark British film of the mid-1960s, a defining film of a London now swinging, reflecting new and more permissive attitudes towards sex. It’s still a film of dizzying visual and verbal inventiveness, assimilating a large number of influences both past – with several comic sequences and sight gags straight out of silent comedy – and present – Op Art is certainly there as part of the film’s look, even if only in the black and white striped bedsheets in the opening scene – it still seems fresh. Made between Richard Lester’s two Beatles films, it’s very much a capsule of its time, all this youthful exuberance counterpointed by a chorus of older folk who clearly don’t really approve and are maybe regretting a vitality they have themselves lost. The Knack won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, giving artistic approval to what was going on in cinema at the time, a gold stamp on changes taking place. (Compare that, if you will, with later Cannes wins of Sex, Lies and Videotape and Pulp Fiction, endorsements of new movements in American independent cinema.)
If Girl With Green Eyes is the most underrated and least seen of the eight films in this box set, at least it has been available on DVD and now Blu-ray. That’s more that can be said for Woodfall’s next production, One Way Pendulum, written by N.F. Simpson from his absurdist comic play and directed by Peter Yates, as that has not been commercially available in the UK since its cinema release in January 1965, and the most recent television showing that I can trace was in 1987. The Knack has certainly been higher-profile than that, but aspects of it have since become problematic.
Ann Jellicoe (1927-2017) entered the theatre as an actress, working in repertory and fringe theatre. In 1957, she entered The Sport of My Mad Mother to a playwriting competition run by The Observer and won a prize. The play was staged at the Royal Court in 1958 and Jellicoe was invited to join the theatre’s writers’ workshop, the only woman there at the time. The Knack premiered at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge, in 1961, transferring to the Royal Court in 1962, and was a considerable success. Although Jellicoe went on to write many other plays, The Knack is the best-known of her work by far. It’s also her most adapted play: the present film version was preceded by a version for Norwegian television in 1964, and there have been later versions on television in Denmark in 1970 and in Spain in 1989. However, Jellicoe did not adapt The Knack for Woodfall’s film, becoming the only then-living author of the source material not to do so. Charles Wood wrote the screenplay.
Lester, born in 1932 in Philadelphia, had entered American television in 1950. He moved to London and worked as a television director. He met Peter Sellers and began to work with him regularly, at first on The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d (two old pre-decimal pence for those not of a certain age) for ITV, the first real attempt to translate the radio hit The Goon Show to television. This continued with the short The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film, shot over two Sundays for £70 (including £5 to rent a field). It was Oscar nominated and was a favourite of the Beatles, resulting in Lester being hired to make A Hard Day’s Night. By that time, Lester had made two features, It’s Trad, Dad! (1962) and The Mouse on the Moon (1963). As well as his film and television work, Lester also directed commercials, often using them to try out ideas in his feature projects.
To put The Knack in further context, it came in the middle of an astonishing burst of Lester creativity. A Hard Day’s Night was made in March 1964 and in cinemas in July of the same year, and The Knack’s premiere at Cannes was less than a year later, on 13 May 1965. It opened in British cinemas on 2 June (in London at the Pavilion) and Help! followed on 29 July. As well as making three feature films in that time, he continued to make commercials and presumably slept some of the time.
Rita Tushingham had played Nancy in the Cambridge and London stage productions, so there was no question she would reprise the role on screen. Lester wanted to cast a less-typical male sex symbol as the arch-seducer Tolen. Ray Brooks had had small roles in films in the previous decade, but this was his first lead role. He continues to act to this day, though other than this his best-known roles were on television, in Cathy Come Home in 1966 and a two-year stint in Eastenders. Michael Crawford had acted since childhood, but it had been his role on TV in Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life (a BBC series, part of the satire boom that had begun with Beyond the Fringe and That Was the Way That Was) that led Lester to cast him. Inevitably, with hindsight, there are reverse-echoes of one his most famous television roles: his vocal inflections do sound Frank Spencer-ish at times. As Tom, Yorkshire-born Irish actor Donal Donnelly was the oldest of the four, and had been in films since 1957. The central quartet are ably supported by a cast of British character actors, with Charlotte Rampling and Jacqueline Bisset making their first screen appearances as extras. Lester has a cameo as an annoyed bystander. Assheton Gordon’s production design and John Barry’s jazz-inflected score are other pluses.
Making his feature debut as cinematographer was David Watkin, although he had shot the title sequence of Goldfinger the year before. Born in 1925, he originally wanted to be a musician, but his father declined his request for a piano and lessons. After his war service, he entered the film industry as a camera assistant at the Southern Railway Film Unit, which later became part of British Transport Films. We have already seen examples of his documentary work in Lancashire Coast and Holiday, both shot in colour in 1957, on the Entertainer and Taste of Honey discs respectively. He went freelance in 1960 and worked on commercials, which is where he met Lester. Although Watkin became known for his colour work – winning an Oscar and a BAFTA Award for Out of Africa, two decades later – it’s a pity that he entered feature films just as black and cinematography was in decline, at least in mainstream wide releases. His black and white Scope work in Mademoiselle, made in 1966, is masterly. The Knack has a very wide range of registers, from near-documentary (aided by the addition of captions in certain scenes), to surreal flights of fancy. Much of the middle section of the film takes place in a room painted bright white (genuinely so – it hurt the eyes when cinema lights were shone on the walls) against which the blacks and greys of the characters stand out. Tolen and Colin are colour-coded in this black and white film: Tolen in sharp black suits and sunglasses, with black hair and sideburns, while Colin is all greys – the John Major of his day, as Lester later said.
The film was a considerable success, and its attitude to sex, free and easy and fun (though clearly not so for Colin), catching a mood, as Tom Jones had done, in a London that was about to swing and a society that turned permissive. While homosexuality had been A Problem only a few years before, Tom gets a throwaway line which sums up a new casual attitude, in some parts of society at least. When asked if he is a homosexual, Tom replies, “No – thanks all the same.” However, many men saw the sexual liberation of the time as a licence to have more sex, with the women implicitly being asked to put out and put up with it. With changing times, this part of the film has become more problematic, especially the extended sequence in the final third where Nancy goes around the house and the streets outside shouting “I’ve been raped!” and “Rape!”. A television showing on Channel 4 in 1987 – the first time I saw the film – attracted complaints, and the film has had a latterday reputation for sexism, and consideration since by both male and female critics that it is not. To call the film sexist is to suggest that it endorses Tolen’s philandering and Colin’s wish to do the same. It doesn’t: they’re as much figures of fun as anyone else, the creations of a woman initially, not to forget. And Nancy certain turns the tables on Tolen. The “rape” sequence is a visual tour-de-force as much as any other in this film, but it’s undeniably uneasy viewing now.
The Knack ends the BFI’s box set, comprising eight of Woodfall’s first nine films. It marks a turning point in the company’s history. Later films were, with notable exceptions, less successful, as a company which had defined much of its country’s cinema for seven years went a little adrift as that country changed. Woodfall became basically Tony Richardson’s production company, as nine of the eleven more films they made were directed by him, up to The Hotel New Hampshire in 1984, made in America from John Irving’s novel. There’s one future British classic in Woodfall’s filmography, Ken Loach’s Kes from 1969. The other films are interesting if flawed work, including Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and a return to Henry Fielding, Joseph Andrews (1977), and others which have vanished into obscurity, not available on DVD let alone Blu-ray and not having been shown on British television for decades now. Although Richardson died in 1991, Woodfall as a company still exists, though today solely as the copyright holder for the first seven films in this box set.
This is the ninth and final disc in the BFI’s Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema box set, released in separate Blu-ray and DVD editions. A checkdisc of the former was received for review. The disc is encoded for Region B only. The Knack was passed uncut by the BBFC for a X certificate (sixteen and over) and is now the reason for the 15 certificate borne by the box set. Captain Busby The Even Tenour of Her Ways was passed in 2018 with a U certificate.
The transfer is in the ratio of 1.66:1, scanned from a 35mm fine-grain element by MGM and supplied to the BFI. Some shots are very tight at that ratio in this transfer, with some of the end credits almost disappearing off the top of the screen. There is some damage visible, especially around what is likely to have been the end of the second reel and beginning of the third. Some parts are definitely a little soft – though that may well be down to the source – but much of it is sharp and detailed, and the grain natural and filmlike.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0. Nothing untoward here, with the dialogue, sound effects and music score well balanced. English subtitles for the hard of hearing are available for the feature only.
The extras begin with a commentary by Neil Sinyard, who is much in evidence on this disc and is the author of a study of Richard Lester’s work. He does an able job of talking through the production of the original play, and locating the film in Lester’s career. He sees the middle of a trilogy with the two Beatles films, one counterpointed by a second trilogy later in the decade (How I Won the War, Petulia, The Bed Sitting Room) when the Sixties dream was turning sour and turning into disillusionment. Sinyard also addresses the aspects of the film which are now controversial, and for a time made the film all but unshowable, especially in the USA. Although some critics did have reservations about the film at the time, none of them were about this part of the film. There are no dead spots, and Sinyard does pack in a lot of information in a relatively short (85 minutes) running time.
Neil Sinyard interviews Richard Lester (58:37), recorded at the BFI Southbank in London in 2017. Sinyard This talk is referred to on the disc as “British Cinema in the 60s”, and fortunately Lester, now in his mid-eighties, doesn’t live up to the saying that if you remember that decade you weren’t there – he was, and he does. He talks about his early career and how that led to the films he made in the 1960s which, as suggested above, can be seen as two trilogies, with an excursion to Hollywood and the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in between. If, he suggests, A Hard Day’s Night shows four young men who can communicate with each other without speaking, The Knack has three young men and a woman who can certainly talk to each other but communication is lacking.
Lester features again, this time from 1967, in Now and Then (17:46). This was a series of interviews by the London-based Canadian broadcaster Bernard Braden, who – Face to Face style – stays off camera while he asks the questions. The original plan for Now and Then was to interview leading personalities in various fields (arts, politics, business, sport and so on) once and then again two years later to see what had changed for them in between. About 330 interviews were conducted between September 1967 and June 1968, but the project was never completed and the interviews never broadcast. In 2008, they were donated to the BFI. Lester’s interview is, like the others, unedited: clapperboards appears at the start and in the middle and at one point Lester has to repeat one answer because of sound problems. This was recorded just after the premiere of How I Won the War, a satirical anti-war film rather less well received than Lester’s previous work, featuring John Lennon in his third screen role for him. Lester seems to have the sense that the premiere hadn’t gone well, and he turned out to be right. He talks about the use of comedy for serious purposes and as an alienation effect, and his work on commercials as trying out ideas for his feature. He had just made a commercial which, he says, informed his thoughts on his next feature, title not then fixed but which became Petulia. He also adds that Ann Jellicoe declined to adapt her play and dislikes the film, possibly due to his and Charles Wood’s process – to write something initially far removed from the original, but gradually in rewrites moving back to the feelings and the elements they had been drawn to in the first place. The same method was used in How I Won the War, of which Wood again wrote the screenplay.
Rita Tushingham talks, in the third part of a new interview (10:36), about The Knack, with quite a few anecdotes of both the stage production and the film. When the play was on tour before arriving at the Royal Court, reactions varied considerably. In Bath, for example, much of the audience was shocked and Tushingham could hear the sounds of seats going up as people walked out.
“Staging The Knack” (1:56) is a brief interview with Keith Johnstone on the staging of the first performance of the play. There is much prompting from the interviewer (Alan Cox) but Johnstone does say a few things, including the claim that the play had a poor third act but Jellicoe would not rewrite it.
The final two items on the disc have no connection with The Knack, but share the film’s surreal comic feel. First is the final extract from the George Devine Memorial Play, put on at the Royal Court after Devine’s death in 1966. Devine had been a mentor to many playwrights, Woodfall co-founder John Osborne among them, and he had had acting roles in Look Back and Anger and Tom Jones. This production staged extracts from the many plays that had been performed at the Royal Court during Devine’s time, and the dress rehearsals were filmed by Peter Whitehead, using two 16mm cameras, seemingly one loaded with colour film and the other with black and white. It’s the black and white one which captured this extract with Alec Guinness (4:10) from Exit the King, by one of the major exponents of the Theatre of the Absurd, the Romanian-French Eugène Ionesco.
Captain Busby The Even Tenour of His Ways (16:16) is a definite oddity, a black and white 16mm short made in 1967 with funding from the BFI Production Board. It was directed by Ann Wolff and “devised” (as the credit goes) by Philip O’Connor from his own surreal poem. O’Connor also plays Captain Busby. There’s no plot as such, more a series of surreal gags featuring Busby chewing his beard, bouncing through a window and frowning at a ceiling. The second half features an altercation on a railway station platform, with the stationmaster played by Quentin Crisp.
Finally on the disc is a self-navigating stills gallery (2:06), with no trailer this time.
The essay in the BFI’s book is by, again, Neil Sinyard. Inevitably there’s overlap with his commentary, and to some extent his interview with Lester (which he quotes from). No film, for him, conjures up the spirit and, then, upbeat feel of Swinging Britain than this – and I wouldn’t disagree, though unlike him I don’t remember the Sixties because I was born in the middle of that decade. Sinyard discusses the film’s structure, quite a tight one despite the seemingly freeform, fireworks-going-off-in-all-directions surface, and points up echoes of two very different London films of the decade, The Servant, due to its dealing with power relationships, and Repulsion, for its female lead’s dealing with possible sexual threat, though in a much less extreme way. This leads on to a discussion of the film’s reputation for sexism, and subsequent arguments that it is not. As the middle of Lester’s “youth” trilogy, and change seemed on its way…but sadly, as Lester’s later films showed, that dream soon turned sour. The book also has notes on and credits for the extras.
As this is the final review of this set, I’ve left three other essays in the book to last, all more general views of things Woodfall. “Contemporary Young Pups”, by Michael Brooke, begins with the company’s roots in the Angry Young Men movement, though Brooke prefers to use the non-gendered term of his essay title, given that among the writers whose work became Woodfall films were three women, one – Shelagh Delaney – still in her teens when her most famous play was first produced. In fact, Kenneth Tynan, the critic who did more than anyone else to hail the arrival of this new generation of playwrights, was himself still in his twenties when Look Back in Anger premiered. The essay talks about the young protagonists of the films as well as the writers. Even Henry Fielding might be called an Angry Young Man of two centuries before, given that he was a controversial playwright while still in his twenties.
Melanie Williams’s essay “Creating the ‘Woodfall Look’” deals with the principal crew members other than the directors, who created a particular visual style for Woodfall’s films, despite the challenges of working primarily and later entirely on location, in particular the art director Ralph Brinton, the cinematographer Walter Lassally and the editor Antony Gibbs, all of whom worked on several of the films in this box set. That’s not to forget costume designer Jocelyn Rickards and the Woodfall newcomers of The Knack, David Watkin and Assheton Gordon.
Finally, Nicolas Pillai contributes “Machine Music: Work, Play and Jazz in British Cinema of the 1950s and 1960s.” Jazz was a very influential type of music when Woodfall started, and in fact Look Back in Anger starts with a jazz band. We shouldn’t also forget Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz’s Free Cinema contribution Momma Don’t Allow, which you will find as an extra on the Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner disc. In many of the feature films, jazz features not as background but as an articulation of the protagonist’s desires and frustrations. The second half of the essay discusses the non-Woodfall short Ten Bob in Winter, which is an extra on the Look Back in Anger disc.
These eight films, released between 1959 and 1965, ensure Woodfall’s place in the history of British cinema, responding to changes in society, reflected in the prose and plays of the time, and perhaps influencing that change in its turn. Given that only one of the twelve remaining Woodfall films, Kes, is available on UK Blu-ray, there’s certainly scope for a second Woodfall box set, though that is of course speculation on my part. I would certainly welcome it.
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