Neither before or since has British cinema been so electrifying as it was in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when Room at the Top kicked off a new wave of realism that brought a sense of urgency and social awareness as well as a revivial of interest in British cinema after a decade in the doldrums.
The rise of “kitchen sink” realism (as it came to be quickly called) coincided with the rise of the teenager and young people in general learning that the older generation didn’t know it all, at the same time there was a rise in social and political demonstrations and ideas were everywhere.
The roots lay in the working class, social realist novels of authors like John Braine, Stan Barstow and Alan Sillitoe and on the theatre stage – the original angry young man John Osborne whose play Look Back in Anger had ignited a trend.
On screen The Man Upstairs (1958) could be said to be the first new wave film with its tale of the residents of a London boarding house but it was Room at the Top the following year that really caught the audience imagination. Based on the novel by John Braine and starring Laurence Harvey the movie pulled no punches in it’s depiction of life in a northern town.
Now it can be seen as something of a transitional film, but it certainly made an impression and paved the way for film-makers such as Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson, all then ensconced at the National Film Theatre, to begin making inroads – at the time all were making social documentaries that were beginning to be noticed with features the next natural progression.
Making the breakthrough
First to make the breakthrough into features was Tony Richardson who brought Look Back in Anger (1959) to the big screen having already directed Osborne plays on the stage. Richardson and Osborne formed their own production company, Woodfall, and had major hits with both Look Back In Anger (which starred Richard Burton) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Released in 1960 and directed by Karel Reisz the film starred Albert Finney and garnered acclaim and controversy in equal measure – never before had such a casual attitude towards sex and the nature of living for the weekend been so visible on screen.
Overnight the success of these movies changed British cinema forever – for the new vanguard of film-makers it was all about shooting on location, the grimier the better and eschewing the star name for the up and coming. Real life was the order of the day.
A Taste of Honey (1961 and again directed by Richardson for Woodfall) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962, Richardson again and a star making turn from Tom Courtenay) were also both major hits.
Meanwhile Lindsay Anderson only entered the fray in 1963 with the mesmerising This Sporting Life with Richard Harris as the troubled Rugby League player. Despite critical acclaim it wasn’t a major commercial success and hampered Anderson’s chances of getting a second movie made (something that only happened several years later with IF.)
Around this time John Schlesinger also made a name for himself as director of A Kind of Loving (1962 and starring Alan Bates) and then Billy Liar (1963 with Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie who still a couple of years away from proper stardom in the film Darling.)
1963 The rise and fall
By 1963 well over a third of the films made in the UK were about contemporary life and although it could be considered the golden year for the “genre” it was the year that also spelled it’s death knell and the man who brought it down was one of it’s guiding lights – Tony Richardson.
Richardson had decided to make a lavish, colour version of Swift’s novel Tom Jones. Unable to raise the finance in the UK he persuaded US studio United Artists to invest – the massive critical and commercial success of the Albert Finney starring movie meant that American studios were all over the UK with plenty of money to spend. Glamour was quickly back on the agenda. Meanwhile “kitchen-sink” realism found a natural home on television with the likes of The Wednesday Play and the later but just as influential Play For Today.
Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess
What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.
Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.
Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.
Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.
Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?
Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.
Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife
Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.
Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.
Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.
Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.
What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.
Famous guest stars?
The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.
Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.
Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.
Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.
The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.
Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.
Classic TV Revisited: The Royal
The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.
The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.
Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.
Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.
Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”
A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.
First broadcast: 2003
Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden
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