Tony Richardson and Woodfall Films: A Revolution in British Film
A month-long season at the BFI Southbank, April 2018
Reviewed by Lee Hill
From 1959 to 1963, director Tony Richardson became synonymous with “kitchen sink realism”. That catchphrase simultaneously celebrated and dismissed a new wave in British film. The wave first came to attention when Richardson and Karel Reisz screened their documentary short, Mamma Don’t Allow, as part of the 1956 Free Cinema programme at the National Film Theatre, now BFI Southbank. Thanks also to a precocious amount of work in student productions at Oxford, Richardson became part of The Royal Court Theatre, where he directed John Osborne’s two most famous plays, Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer.
As with his association with Free Cinema, Richardson’s Royal Court work deliberately broke away from class bound restrictions regarding subject matter, fear of censorship from the Lord Chamberlain’s office and middle brow notions of “the well-made play” that discouraged experimentation and innovation. Like many of his generational counterparts, Richardson’s ambition and energy could not be contained by working in one medium. Seeking a production model that would kickstart a brand of personal filmmaking as vital as work emerging in Italy, France, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Japan and even an America dominated by the big studios, Richardson, Osborne and producer, Harry Saltzman, who become rich for starting the James Bond franchise with Albert Broccoli, founded Woodfall Films to produce the film version of Look Back in Anger.
The subsequent legacy of Woodfall is explored throughout April in a retrospective at the BFI Southbank. Throughout its precarious history, Richardson kept the free cinema ethos alive in ways he and his co-founders could barely have imagined at the start. The glory days of Woodfall were clearly the early 60s, when the critical acclaim and international box office for Look Back in Anger, Saturday Night Sunday Morning (directed by Reisz), A Taste of Honey and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, made the social and emotional deprivations of a Britain still coping with post-war rationing and a shrinking Empire oddly sexy. These films introduced the world to actors like Albert Finney, Tom Courtney and Rita Tushingham as well as giving meatier roles to established stars like Richard Burton, Rachel Roberts and Laurence Olivier. Shot on location, using the kind of lightweight camera equipment more associated with documentaries or TV news coverage, the first releases by Woodfall boiled over with energy, immediacy and conviction with stories that revolved around mainly working-class characters.
In 1963, Richardson via Woodfall made arguably his most successful and famous film, Tom Jones, an adaptation of the Henry Fielding novel, and beat out the likes of Elia Kazan and Federico Fellini for the Best Director Oscar and also won the big brass ring, Best Picture. At which point, Richardson’s career and many of the Woodfall films that came after became not unlike the rest of the sixties – weirder, darker and divisive.
Richardson went to LA to make The Loved One (1965), a hallucinogenic adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh satire (scripted by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood at full tilt boogie), that was almost as a big “fuck you” to its backers, MGM, as Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) would be a few years later. Through Woodfall, now being run on a day to day basis by Oscar Lewenstein, a kind of avant-garde mini-mogul and life long communist, he then shot two films based on very non-English sources, Mademoiselle (1966), from a Jean Genet play, and The Sailor from Gibraltar (1967), from the Marguerite Duras novel of the same name. Both films stared Jeanne Moreau, who Richardson also had an affair with. As if to further prove he was no Hollywood sell-out, Richardson then contributed a Brechtian musical short starring his estranged wife, Vanessa Redgrave, to Red, White and Blue (1967), an anthology film made with Peter Brook and Lindsay Anderson.
When Richardson returned to seemingly more commercial material with The Charge of The Light Brigade (1968), the result was a defiantly anti-colonial kind of historical epic that was also widely read as an anti-Vietnam allegory. Unlike Tom Jones, The Light Brigade was a commercial flop and Richardson, as well as Woodfall, found it harder to get projects greenlit. This didn’t stop Richardson from working, but as his films failed to connect with both the mainstream or the new youth culture, Richardson’s brand of rebellion no longer seemed relevant and other directors, Nicholas Roeg and Ken Russell in particular, became the standard bearers for British cinema as the 60s morphed into the 70s.
However, the great thing about a retrospective is that it allows one to reassess the greatest hits of a director’s career as well as discover underscreened gems. Of the latter, readers are particularly encouraged to catch Laughter in the Dark (1969). Richardson reset Nabokov’s twisted tale of l’amour fou in swinging London, with Nicol Williamson as the obsessive lover and Anna Karina as the obscure object of desire. Woodfall also produced The Knack (and How to Get It), which garnered Richard Lester the Palme D’Or at Cannes, and is a near perfect snapshot of the pros and cons of one generation’s sexual revolution. Similarly One Way Pendulum (1964), shows off the versatile promise of a pre-Bullitt Peter Yates. While the tender pas de deux of The Girl With Green Eyes (1964), the debut of Desmond Davis (who would direct the fantasy blockbuster, Clash of Titans), features startling performances by Peter Finch and Tushingham.
Like a much hipper member of the British colony he poked fun at in The Loved One, Richardson spent most of his post-sixties life based in Los Angeles, where he was part of a charmed circle that included David Hockney, Ken and Kathleen Tynan, Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne, Isherwood and many others. He made some films he probably shouldn’t have (such as Joseph Andrews, a wan follow-up to Tom Jones), failed to secure financing for others such as a version of Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, but succeeded with such left-field surprises as A Delicate Balance (from the Edward Albee play), The Border with Jack Nicholson, The Hotel New Hampshire (under the Woodfall banner) and Blue Sky, which garnered Jessica Lange a Best Actress Oscar. When he died in 1991, he left a body of work in film, theatre and television that other British directors barely equalled in its sheer variety (if there was anyone close to Richardson of the same generation, it was someone like Mike Nichols). In the end, he proved his brand of realism was about making the films he wanted to and perhaps as importantly, having the time of his life in the process.
The month long BFI season, Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema, starts on 2 April 2018, along with special screenings and talks.
On the 28th May, the BFI will release DVD and Blu-ray box sets featuring many of the films cited above including a director’s cut of Tom Jones, and The Girl With Green Eyes.