Woodfall - A Revolution in British Cinema: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner Review
“Running's always been a big thing in our family, especially running away from the police. It's hard to understand. All I know is that you've got to run, run without knowing why, through fields and woods, and the winning post's no end, even though barmy crowds might be cheering theirsens daft. That's what the loneliness of the long distance runner feels like.”
Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) is in Borstal - a home for young offenders - after having been convicted of theft. Running is his main release from the grinding routine of the days in the workshop. He has a rare talent as a long-distance runner, so much so that the Borstal governor (Michael Redgrave) has hopes for Colin to win a cross-country race against the local public school. But Colin, aware that the governor is using him for his own ends, has other ideas.
Alan Sillitoe had a bestseller with his first novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. That set him up for a prolific writing career but it's fair to say that his debut remains his best known. Having said that, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, the title novella of his first short-fiction collection, comes close, no doubt because of the success and continuing influence of the film versions, and the fact that it has been a GCSE set text. Before the film of Loneliness, in 1961, there had been a radio adaptation on the BBC Third Programme (Radio 3 as was) with Barry Foster in the lead role.
After Tony Richardson had made A Taste of Honey, he, and Woodfall Film Productions, returned to Sillitoe for their next film, and Sillitoe wrote the script. When adapting a full-length novel to screen, often it's a matter of what is left out rather than left in, but when the source is a piece of short fiction, often what is left implicit or exists as backstory has to be fleshed out. So it proved with Sillitoe's story. The film begins with Colin arriving at Borstal, but the film continues along two timelines, the second one telling us how he got there. Not in the original story was his rivalry with Stacy (Philip Martin) and, in flashback, his relationships with his father (Peter Madden) and girlfriend Audrey (Topsy Jane). These helped to make Colin more sympathetic than some people found at the time – after all, Colin is in Borstal for committing a crime.
Richardson had previously made plain his distaste for working in film studios, even for interior scenes. With A Taste of Honey, he had had his wish in making a film entirely on location; it became the first British film with major-distribution funding to be shot entirely away from any studio. So once again The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was an all-location shoot, partly around Nottingham and Skegness, though Skegness beach is played by Camber Sands in East Sussex. The Borstal was played by a decommissioned NAAFI headquarters in Epsom, Surrey, and the running scenes were shot in Surrey woodlands. Richardson took inspiration from the films of the French New Wave, new lightweight cameras and faster film stocks enabling them to take their films out on to the streets and into the countryside. In this Richardson had a likeminded cinematographer in Walter Lassally, whose background was in documentary rather than the studio system, and with whom Richardson had worked with back in the days of Free Cinema (more of which below). Also New-Waveish were the use of jump cuts and the kind of unchronological narrative that would be associated with Alain Resnais in particular and, through him, back into the English-language mainstream later in the decade, the work of Nicolas Roeg being just one example. The jagged cutting back and forth in time at the film's climax is a tour de force from editor Antony Gibbs. The film ends on a freeze frame, a direct nod to the ending of François Truffaut's semiautobiographical debut feature, The Four Hundred Blows, another story of youthful rebellion.
Of course, the film would be nothing without the right actor as Colin Smith. Tom Courtenay (born 1937) had had two brief roles on television before this, but Loneliness was his film debut. Not the most conventionally handsome of actors (less so than, say, Albert Finney), he might have had a career as a character actor, but this film made him a leading man, which was consolidated a year later by his playing the title character in Billy Liar. Timing, as ever, was everything: the success of Woodfall's and other companies' films had created a market for stories from, and actors of, other backgrounds than the middle and upper classes. At a time when the younger generation was parting ways with the older one – something that would become more the case as the decade continued – different stories to tell, and different voices to tell them, came more to the fore. Courtenay, now in his eighties, is still active as an actor. He has said that while his performance as Colin Smith may lack something in technical polish, what he had was passion, and he's right. Michael Redgrave actually has the top billing, and is fine enough, as is James Bolam as Colin's friend and accomplice Mike. James Fox – two years younger than Courtenay – had been a child actor in the 1950s (as William Fox) but here made his adult screen debut as Colin's public school rival in the final race. Topsy Jane had only a brief acting career but does good work as Audrey, the last of her few cinema roles (she left the profession in 1965 and died in 2014). But it's Courtenay's film.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner opened on 27 September 1962, in the West End at the then single-screen Warner Cinema (now the multiscreen Vue) in Leicester Square. If fellow Nottingham resident Arthur Seaton had rebelled against authority but was still constrained by his circumstances, Colin was more overtly political: “I don't believe in slaving my guts out for the bosses to get all the profits.” John Addison's score frequently quotes from "Jerusalem" to clearly ironic effect. This was noticed even before the film was released, with one British Board of Film Censors (as was) examiner describing the film as “blatant and very trying Communist propaganda”, particularly as the protagonist was a thief. This was echoed by many of the reviews at the time, who found Colin's final act of rebellion pointless. While previous Woodfall films had done well with BAFTA Award nominations and wins, this time Loneliness had just the one: a win for Courtenay as Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles. Whether they liked the film or not, no one could dispute that.
Over fifty years on, that has fallen away, and the power of the film and of its lead performance remains. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner deserves its classic status.
This is Disc Five of the BFI's box set Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema, which is released in both Blu-ray and DVD editions. As with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, this is a repackaging of the BFI's existing disc, the Blu-ray first issued in 2009 (and reviewed for this site at the time by Clydefro Jones, here). For reviews of the other discs in the box, click on the tags below. The disc is encoded for Region B. The box set carries a 15 certificate. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was cut for a X certificate (sixteen and over) in 1962, and it's not known if those cuts remain in later releases. The film was later passed twice at 15, for VHS releases in 1990 and 1993, but has been a 12 since 2001. Momma Don't Allow was passed with a U certificate in 1959 and wouldn't get anything different now.
The Blu-ray transfer was supplied to the BFI by Warner Brothers and is in a ratio of 1.77:1. That's not a cinematic aspect ratio (or at least wasn't before the days of digital projection), but it's near enough to 1.75:1, which was and is one, and opened up a little from 1.85:1, which also is one. There's a default assumption that 1.66:1 is the standard aspect ratio for British films from the mid-1950s onwards, but the evidence from the trade press of the time suggests that they are just as if not more likely to be intended for 1.75:1, and 1.85:1 was not uncommon either. In fact, the trade press listed Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer, both 1.66:1 in this box set, as being shot in 1.85:1 at their respective studios. There's no listing for Loneliness, as it was an all-location shoot, but I suspect that one of the two wider ratios is the intended one, as at no point does the picture look unduly cropped. The transfer itself is something of a mixed bag, sharp and detailed in places, but softer in other, though as with A Taste of Honey this may have something to do with the source, especially given Lassally's use of different film stocks and penchant for shooting in natural light whenever possible. That also explains why some scenes are noticeably grainier than others.
The soundtrack is the original mono, presented as LPCM 2.0. Nothing untoward here, given that this is a product of British sound engineers' expertise, though some heavy regional accents may be an issue for non-Brits or those for whom English is not their first language. However, there are hard-of-hearing subtitles. Unlike newer BFI releases, there are also subtitles available for the extras including the commentary.
The commentary is, like the one on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, by Robert Murphy, with comments from Alan Sillitoe and Tom Courtenay recorded separately and edited in at particular points. Sillitoe talks of how he came to wrote the story and also how he adapted it for the screen, that being a process of adding material to reach a commercial feature running time, rather than removing it as he did from his earlier novel. Courtenay doesn't actually contribute a lot. The majority of the track is given over to Murphy, though he does leave a few pauses, and he does a thorough job of detailing the film's production and context, and its reception which, initially at least, marked a turning point with Woodfall's films and British critics. It's fair to say that they are now on the wrong side of history.
As he did on the Saturday Night disc, Walter Lassally provides a video essay (18:51). This begins in exactly the same way, with a narration over stills detailing Lassally's career, both before and after the films in this set, before Lassally takes over, with his voiceover playing over scenes from the film. Again, this is somewhat technical: fascinating to filmmakers, cinematographers especially, or those interested in the subject, possibly a little dry for others. He talks about his use of different film stocks – two different Ilford ones - and the camerawork – the fight in the Borstal refectory, for example, was filmed with a combination of one, possibly two, handheld cameras and fast tracking shots. He talks about his and Richardson's attempt at different registers for different parts of the film: much of it as documentary-like as possible, but with episodes of lyricism, especially in the running scenes. The whirling trees in those scenes were a direct lift from Akira Kurosawa's Rashômon.
Also on the disc is Momma Don't Allow (22:06), a short film from 1956 co-directed by Richardson and Karel Reisz and photographed by Lassally. It was made as part of the Free Cinema movement, with which Richardson (though briefly), Reisz and Lassally were all associated, as were other filmmakers such as Lindsay Anderson. Momma Don't Allow was one of the three shorts shown as the first Free Cinema programme at the National Film Theatre on 5 February 1956, along with O Dreamland, directed by Anderson (an extra in this box set, on the disc of The Entertainer), and Together, directed by Lorenza Mazzetti. Momma Don't Allow takes us to Wood Green, London, and Art and Viv Sanders' Jazz Club in the Fishmonger's Arms. Playing tonight are the Chris Barber Jazz Band, with Lonnie Donegan on banjo - before he struck off on his own, becoming a very influential guitarist and singer in the skiffle boom of the early 1960s. The film was shot in 16mm, on a spring-wound Bolex camera which only allowed a maximum shot length of twenty-two seconds, in the winter of 1954 and 1955 with a grant of just £425 from the BFI's Experimental Film Fund. There's a case that teenagers, as we currently think of them, and youth culture in general, didn't really exist before the 1950s, and this is something the film captures, working-class Teddy Boys and their girlfriends contrasted with “toffs” who had turned up for the evening. Momma Don't Allow is visually very rough and ready – and seemingly transferred from a rather beat-up source – but the lack of polish in the conventional sense is if anything rather the point. You can say much the same about O Dreamland, but Momma Don't Allow has a rather warmer and more sympathetic view of its subject matter than Anderson's film does of its. The film is presented in 1.33:1 and I don't doubt that's correct. Lassally talks about Momma Don't Allow in his visual essay (see above) and states that he received small royalty cheques for years afterwards, so the film did make a profit, not that it cost much in the first place.
The BFI's previous booklet, which includes an essay by Philip Kemp, has not been carried forward to this release. The book included with the box set has an essay by John Oliver, which takes us from Sillitoe's original story to the film's production and its harsh (if unjustified) reception from the critics. Oliver does acknowledge some flaws in the film, even though he considers it one of the finest British films of the decade. Also in the book are notes on the extras, including an extended one on Momma Don't Allow by Christophe Dupin.