Woodfall - A Revolution in British Cinema: Tom Jones Review

Squire Allworthy (George Devine) returns home to find a baby boy in his bed. Banishing the servants he suspects of having produced the baby, he raises him, named Tom, as his own. But people sense this foundling was born to be hanged... Tom (Albert Finney) grows up to be a young man very attractive to the women around him. He desires Sophie Western (Susannah York) and she him, but because of his illegitimacy they cannot marry and Squire Western (Hugh Griffith) wishes her to marry Blifil (David Warner, his film debut). Blifil, knowing that Sophie has no love for him, wants Tom out of the picture...

Tom Jones marked a turning point, not just for Woodfall, but for British cinema as well. The company's previous films had been a key part of a British new wave, derived from the novels and plays of a generation of post-War writers, often from working-class and regional backgrounds. Theirs was a realism – and also, at times, a lyricism – of the kitchen sink, in black and white. Three years into a new decade, Tom Jones came along – still an adaptation of a novel, but one from two centuries before. And it was different: it was in colour, and it was a comedy. It was fun.


Another element, of course, was sex. According to Philip Larkin, sexual intercourse began in 1963, rather too late for him. One of its markers was the release of the Beatles' first LP – in March of that year, three months before Tom Jones premiered. Sex had certainly featured in British films up to then, though more as an acknowledgement that characters had had it rather than showing them doing it. But Saturday Night and Sunday Morning had rustled feathers by having a man and a woman in bed, clearly having known each other in the Biblical sense and having enjoyed doing so – and she was married to another man, too. Jo's encounter with a man (one of a different race, no less) in A Taste of Honey caused her pregnancy. But, even so, such carnal adventuring still seemed problematic. However, change was on the way. Ian Fleming's James Bond novels had given us a hero with quite an eye for the ladies, and in 1962 there was the first film version, Dr. No, one of whose producers, Harry Saltzman, had been one of Woodfall's founders. As the saying went, men fantasised about being Bond and women of being seduced by Bond. Tom Jones, as played by Albert Finney, was a not dissimilar figure in historical costume. Again we don't see him do the deed, but there's no doubt that he has done the deed, and the prospect of doing such deeds is very much on his mind, and the minds of the women in his life as well. There's a metacinematic nod to the audience – by no means the only one in this film – where the narrator (Micheál Mac Liammóir) tells us that he'll draw a veil over a scene before it exceeds what the censor would allow. Later in the film, the famous scene where Tom and Mrs Waters (Joyce Redman) share a meal, the camera cutting back and forth between them, has an undeniable sexual subtext. In fact, it's barely sub. This was in fact the point where the censor nearly did intervene, of which more below. The Sixties had begun.

Another Woodfall co-founder, John Osborne, wrote the script from Henry Fielding's novel of 1749, a favourite of his and Richardson's, much condensing the 350,000 words into a screen time of just over two hours. It was his only work for the cinema (other than the 1995 England, My England, which he co-wrote with Charles Wood) not based on one of his own plays. Tom Jones was in preparation while Tony Richardson was making The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and Oswald Morris – who had photographed Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer for Richardson – was set to be the cinematographer. Morris visited Richardson and Walter Lassally on location for Loneliness and was rather taken aback by the use of an often handheld camera more usually used for news and documentary work. Morris doubted that Tom Jones could be made in colour using the location-based methods that Richardson and Lassally were using, and tried to persuade Richardson to go back to the more traditional studio-plus-location way of making films. So there was a parting of the ways, and Lassally took over as the cinematographer of Tom Jones.


Fifty-five years on, the look of Tom Jones might seem less unusual, but it's fair to say that the film looked nothing like the historical epics of the time or recent past – such as, for example, Lawrence of Arabia, 55 Days at Peking and the three-strip Cinerama feature How the West Was Won, all of which were in British cinemas when Tom Jones premiered. Richardson and Lassally established the principle that if the costumes and dialogue was properly in period then the filmmaking style could be as modern as they liked. Shooting on Eastmancolour stock, Lassally softened the look of the film by having a net (just one, torn into two pieces) in front of the lens for the whole shoot. The only exceptions to this were some shots taken by the second unit, and they do stand out as a result, especially in high definition. But generally, the hues are more pastel and the colours intentionally don't pop the way they do in many a Hollywood Technicolor film. By being in colour, Tom Jones is something of an outlier in Woodfall's filmography, because it seems that Richardson, especially, otherwise favoured black and white while it remained commercially viable. Certainly his next three films, The Loved One (1965), made in America, and the Woodfall productions Mademoiselle (1966) and The Sailor from Gibraltar (1967) were all monochrome. Woodfall's film of 1968, Inadmissible Evidence, from John Osborne's play and directed by Anthony Page, was the only English-language film released by a major studio in black and white that year, made in the face of opposition from distributors, and it marked the end of monochrome cinematography as an continuous cinema tradition. From then on, in commercial cinema at least, colour was the norm, with black and white films occasional exceptions.

Like many filmmakers, Richardson had been influenced by the French New Wave of the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly in their use of lightweight cameras and faster film stocks and shooting largely away from studios. Another aspect of the works of Godard and Truffaut and others was their cinephilia, their homages to the film masters of the past. While, by necessity, their works tended to be restricted to smaller audiences due to being in French, Tom Jones was one of the films where such techniques found their way to a wider public. The opening scene, where baby Tom Jones is found, is shot like a silent film, with intertitles and only John Addison's harpsichord-based score on the soundtrack. With the opening credits, a more conventional soundtrack takes over, along with Mac Liammóir's narration. Richardson at times indulges in a lot of camera trickery - speeded-up motion, freeze frames, wipes between scenes – and has his characters break the fourth wall on several occasions. At one famous point, Tom preserves the modesty of the woman he is with by blocking the camera lens with his hat.

Tom Jones was shot over fourteen weeks, with Richardson often encouraging improvisation from the cast, beginning on 27 June 1962 in Cranbourne, Dorset. Squire Western's house was a combination of Steepleton Manor and Cerne Abbey, with the grounds of another stately home, Melbury House, providing the location for the stag hunt. Interiors were shot in London. Colour cinematography demanded more light than black and white did, so Lassally devised various ways to light his scenes, often reflecting sunlight off polystyrene boards. He and his operator Desmond Davis frequently used handheld cameras on location, with the stag hunt being shot from both a low-lying vehicle and a helicopter.

Richardson, as his own producer, was perhaps too close to the material, and continued editing past the point where other directors might not have, convinced the film was a failure. The British Board of Film Censors offered the film an A certificate (allowing accompanied children, the same certificate Dr. No had) if Richardson would cut one of the shots in the eating scene, of Mrs Waters's fondling an oyster in her mouth before swallowing it. Richardson refused, and so the film was given an X certificate with sexualised oyster consumption left intact,  restricting it to those aged sixteen and over. The British reviews, after the film had its Royal World Premiere at the London Pavilion on 26 June 1963, would not have consoled him, as they were almost all negative. However, critics in France and America were much more favourable, and – not for the first time and certainly not for the last either – British cinema audiences disagreed with their critics, and the film was an immediate success. Albert Finney, who was on a 10% share of the profits, became a millionaire. A Welsh singer called Thomas Woodward took his stage name from the film.


Tom Jones played at the London Pavilion for just over a year, leaving to make way for the Beatles's first film A Hard Day's Night. By that time, initial critical disdain had become award celebration. Tom Jones won BAFTA Awards for both Best British Film and Best Film from Any Source, and for Osborne's screenplay, with nominations for Albert Finney and Hugh Griffith both for Best British Actor and Edith Evans for Best British Actress. Before this, the only Woodfall film to trouble the Oscars had been The Entertainer, a Best Actor nominee for Laurence Olivier. However, Tom Jones changed all that, picking up ten nominations and winning four, for John Addison's score, Osborne's script, Richardson's direction and for Best Picture. Finney was nominated for Best Actor, Hugh Griffith for Best Supporting Actor and the film has the unique distinction of having three nominees for Best Supporting Actress, for Diane Cilento (as Molly Seagrim), Edith Evans (as Miss Western, the Squire's sister) and Joyce Redman. The film was also nominated for its colour Art Direction and Set Decoration, but not for Lassally's cinematography. The success of the film marked a turning point in Woodfall's fortunes, with Richardson courted by Hollywood and going there to make his next film. People remarked that there had been a “family” atmosphere on Woodfall's productions up to that point, but this would soon be over.

Tom Jones was by far the most commercially successful of Woodfall's films, but Richardson continued to dislike it. By 1989, the film had been out of circulation for a while, due to its rights changing hands more than once, and by then the shortcomings of some Eastmancolour stocks had become apparent, namely that they were prone to fading. Given the opportunity to restore the film, Richardson decided to re-edit the parts of it he was dissatisfied with, shortening the film by seven minutes, and also remixing the soundtrack into Dolby Stereo. Details of what he removed are on the IMDB under the “alternate versions” tab. Both versions of the film are included in this box set.

THE DISC

Tom Jones is both Disc Six and Disc Seven of the BFI's Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema box set, which is released in separate Blu-ray and DVD editions. Checkdiscs of the former were supplied for review. The director's cut (121:21) is on Disc Six and the theatrical cut (128:28) is on Disc Seven. The discs are encoded for Region B only. To read the reviews of the other films in this set, click on the tags below.

The box set carries a 15 certificate, though both cuts of Tom Jones were passed in 2018 at 12. The film's censorship history in the UK is more complex than most. As mentioned above, it was passed at X in 1963, though the restriction to adults certainly didn't harm its box office. The BBFC website does still record cuts to the film, as it did in 1971 when the film was resubmitted. The Board had by then revised their classifications, with X now meaning eighteen and over, and Tom Jones was given the new AA certificate, admitting fourteen-year-olds. Video submissions in 1991 and 2003 were also cut, both rather leniently passed at PG. This meant that Tom Jones was the only Best Picture Oscar winner commercially available in the UK still cut by the BBFC. The reason for these cuts are a scene of a cockfight, deemed illegal under the Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act of 1937. However, on the BFI's submission of both versions in 2018, the BBFC waived the cuts. The material in question is at the beginning of a shot (at 76:55 in the original cut and at 71:34 in the director's) and isn't, in actual fact a cockfight, or at least we don't see one take place on screen. In the words of the BBFC, “two fighting cocks are held in front of each other. There is no cruel goading to fury, and an implied cockfight is not shown.” The stag hunt was also faked, and a few horsefalls in the film were conducted in such a way as not to fall foul of the law.

The transfer is in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1 for both versions and derives from a 4K from the original negative and from 35mm interpositives and internegatives, done for the Criterion Collection. This does capture the look that Lassally created for this film, with much less saturated colours. Some things are due to the methods of production, such as some grain in some of the lower-lit sequences, for example the day-for-night sequence that follows the opening credits. As we are closer to the original negative than a 35mm cinema print would have been, opticals and process shots (such as those wipes) show a resolution change to the shots immediately before and after them. As Lassally points out in his interview (see below), everything he shot was diffused by means of a net in front of the lens, so undiffused shots from the second unit - he gives some examples - do stand out.

The soundtrack is the original mono for the theatrical cut, and the remixed Dolby Stereo track for the director's cut. The latter puts Addison's score into the surrounds, and also has quite a few directional effects as well, particularly noticeable in the stag hunt. Hard-of-hearing English subtitles are available on both versions. Honor (Patsy Rowlands) gets her name misspelled as “honour” (62:02/57:53). At 93:16/87:42, Miss Western speaks a line of French (“Je vous méprise de tout mon cœur” “I despise you with all my heart”) which the film leaves untranslated but the subtitles don't.

The extras begin on Disc Six with an interview with Albert Finney by Michael Billington, held at the National Film Theatre in 1982. An extract from the same interview is on the Saturday Night and Sunday Morning disc. This plays as a second audio track, ending somewhat abruptly at 34:51. This is more a career overview than specific to Tom Jones, as Finney talks about the start of his career and his preference for the cinema screen over television. With his earnings from Tom Jones, he set up his own production company, which he jokingly called Memorial Films (as in the Albert Memorial). When the company reached the stage of opening an office, one of the first visitors was someone pitching designs for headstones. Finney then discusses his directorial debut, Charlie Bubbles, from a script by Shelagh Delaney.


Also on the disc is a new interview with Vanessa Redgrave (10:12). She was associated with Woodfall by being married to Tony Richardson from 1962, although she did not make a film for the company until The Sailor from Gibraltar, directed by her husband in 1967. That was the year they divorced, Natasha and Joely Richardson having been born before then. Her younger sister Lynn had a small role in Tom Jones and a larger one in Woodfall's next film Girl with Green Eyes, and their father Michael had been top-billed in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. She also had an influence on Tom Jones by suggesting the silent-movie-pastiche of the prologue. This interview is more of a fond reminiscence of her late ex-husband than anything about the films, but she clearly still has good feelings about Tony Richardson.

Next up is a curious item from 1954, a short (1:03) extract from The USSR Today, a Soviet-based, and largely Soviet-propagandist, newsreel series which ran from 1953 to 1964, dubbed into English for showing outside the country. This captures a conference in Moscow to commemorate the two-hundredth anniversary of the death of Henry Fielding. Clearly he was big in the USSR. Also on this disc is the trailer for Tom Jones (2:52) and the first part of a self-navigating stills gallery (4:02).

Disc Seven begins with an item not related to Tom Jones but more specifically to John Osborne, and also to Albert Finney: another extract from the George Devine Memorial Play. Devine, at the Royal Court, had served as a mentor for Osborne and many other playwrights. Following Devine's death in 1966, the Royal Court put on an evening of extracts from many of the plays he had produced at the theatre. Peter Whitehead filmed the dress rehearsals with two 16mm cameras, one shooting in colour and one in black and white. This extract (6:48) is from Osborne's 1961 play Luther, which was later filmed in 1973 by the American Film Theatre, with Stacy Keach as Martin Luther, an angry young man of the past. Here we see Albert Finney in the role, as he had been in the Royal Court's original production.

Next is an interview with Walter Lassally (24:31) a combination of a 2016 interview by Peter Cowie and a 2004 piece where Lassally talks to camera. The difference of twelve years is startling: 2016 was the year Lassally turned ninety and he is noticeably frailer, but his memory is clearly sharp. As with his video essays on the Taste of Honey and Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner discs, this is of considerable interest to those interested in filmmaking, particularly cinematography, possibly drier for a more general audience. Lassally talks about how he came to make Tom Jones, of Richardson's parting of the ways with Oswald Morris. He discusses the challenges of making a film on a much larger scale than before, and in colour as well. He also discusses his use of diffusion and his development of a day-for-night technique more realistic than the blue tinting often used before then. Lassally had became involved with the Greek film industry, in particular with the director Michael Cacoyannis. In 1964, his black and white work on Cacoyannis's Zorba the Greek won him an Oscar. For the rest of his career, he tended to work away from the mainstream, becoming a regular collaborator with Merchant Ivory. His autobiography, Itinerant Cameraman, published in 1987, is well worth reading. Late in life, he made his acting debut in Before Midnight and he died in 2017 at the age of ninety.

Also on Disc Seven is a second stills gallery (3:37) and the trailer again (2:52).

The BFI's book contains an essay by Dr Josephine Botting, covering the film's inception and production and its success, despite Richardson's misgivings, drawing on the reminiscences of those involved, including editor Antony Gibbs and actor Peter Bull, who played Thwackum. Bull remembered the big party in Chelsea for the cast and crew before they all decamped to Dorset. Botting also locates the film at the start of a boom era for British cinema, which was kept afloat almost to the end of the decade by foreign investment, American especially. And when it went away, British cinema slumped. The book also contains notes on and credits for the extras, those on the George Devine Memorial Play and The USSR Today by Vic Pratt.

You can order Tom Jones (1963) from one of these retailers
Film
8 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
5 out of 10
Overall

Winner of four Oscars including Best Picture and a huge commercial success, Tom Jones is fresh and funny to this day.

8

out of 10

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