Carry on lampooning: sixties British cinema and the genre pastiche

Laura Mayne (@LauraJaneMayne)

What were the notable genres and trends of British cinema in the sixties? There were the genres important to the cinema of the fifties, like crime and war, which began to go into decline in this decade, and there were also genres which (like Frankenstein’s proverbial creation) were given a new lease of life, like horror and fantasy. The decade saw the continuation of the New Wave cycle which had begun in the late fifties and the birth of the Swinging London films, not to mention the peak of the British spy thriller, best represented on the international stage by agents James Bond and Harry Palmer. The sixties also saw a surge of movie pastiches, which grew significantly into the seventies and eighties. As many genre theorists will argue, when the conventions of a particular series or type of films become familiar and entrenched this necessarily leads to pastiche. And there are many elements of British cinema in the sixties that were becoming increasingly formulaic (Hammer horrors, for example) in order to capitalise on the already tried and tested success of a certain kind of film among a rapidly declining cinema audience.

One of the most critically evaluated trends of this period were the location–shot, realist films about northern life which began with Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top in 1959 and ended with John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar in 1963. The New Wave cycle is generally seen as having its roots in the British documentary movement of the thirties, Lindsay Anderson’s Free Cinema of the fifties, and a turn towards a new, rebellious working-class consciousness in the theatre and literature of this era. The films brought to prominence aspects of working class life and sexuality which had rarely been depicted onscreen, but they also gained a reputation for unremitting grimness, whilst their brand of candid realism became increasingly (and unfairly) dubbed ‘kitchen sink’. In 1961, Private Eye ran a satirical article about a fictional film called ‘A Taste of Living’, directed by one ‘Karl Ritzinger’ (a witty amalgamation of the names of New Wave directors John Schlesinger and Karel Reisz). Charting the development of the adaptation of this fictional film of a fictional book, ‘Ritzinger’ sends up the depressing nature of the novels and plays many of these films were based on, their grim portrayals of ‘The North’ and their pretensions towards ‘true’ representations of working class life:

taste

Within a matter of days we had the luck to beat Woodfall to the rights of Stan Blister’s little-known novel ‘A Waste Of Living’ – by a mere £50, as it turned out – and although we knew that the generally drab, pessimistic tone of the book would have to be changed for the screen, by changing the title and cutting the double-suicide ending, we felt that we had here the raw material of a really down to earth portrayal of life as it is actually lived in the North of England, by the great mass of the people who actually live there.

By the end of the decade the whole archetype of the ‘Angry Young Man’ railing against upper-class culture and conservatism was still ripe for parody – as can be seen in Monty Python’s classic ‘working class playwright’ sketch of 1969.

From the mid-decade the Carry On movies branched away from their tried and tested formula of sending up British institutions (the police force in Carry On Sergeant, the NHS in Carry on Doctor) to pastiches of great British cinematic genre staples with Carry on Cowboy (the western) Carry On Up The Khyber (the adventure/war film) and Carry on Screaming (horror). By exploiting British cultural traditions of the gothic, Hammer had hit upon a lucrative formula that appealed to an international as well as a domestic audience, a formula which Carry On Screaming skilfully parodies. Hammer’s increasingly familiar conventions also inspired other satirical riffs on their popular monster cycles, such as Roman Polanski’s Dance of the Vampires/Fearless Vampire Killers, which follows the adventures of a professor and his dim-witted apprentice who embark on a pursuit of vampires across Transylvania.
Fearless

Carry on Screaming (Gerald Thomas, 1966) and Dance of the Vampires/The Fearless Vampire Killers (Roman Polanski, 1967)

In the case of the Carry On franchise, the pastiches themselves became formulaic, and are today commonly referenced in popular culture through a series of shorthand innuendos and double-entendres which perhaps belie the satirical and anarchic humour of the films themselves.

James Bond became the most successful British franchise of the 1960s (Dr No was one of the highest grossing films of the decade) and Harry Palmer followed Bond’s success with a darker take on the Secret Service in The Ipcress File. The spy film is closely related to the crime and adventure genres, which were extremely popular in post-war British cinema, but it really came to occupy a distinctive genre of its own in the sixties. Bond’s overwhelming international popularity also inspired US parodies like Our Man Flint (1966) starring James Coburn. But one of the most well-known parodies of the Bond franchise is referenced more for its reputation as a haphazard, cautionary tale against the perils of over-budgeting than for its biting wit and satire. Casino Royale had a famously troubled production, and is one of the few films in our films database where the director can be referenced as ‘various’ – because there were 6, as well as a staggering 10 writers (7 of them uncredited). With this in mind, it’s no surprise the film feels so disjointed.

casino

Casino Royale (Various, 1967)

Of course, the great spoof of the British spy thriller is the Austin Powers series (which also draws a lot of its humour from the Carry Ons), and it’s no coincidence that Casino Royale is reportedly one of Mike Myers’ favourite films. But the Powers films also play on how our  image of the sixties exists in the public imagination, in terms of the fashion, the liberal morality and the largely media-constructed  fantasy of a vibrant, colour-supplement  Britain that few people outside ‘Swinging London’ actually experienced. Let’s also not forget that the Powers films were released at the tail-end of ‘Cool Brittania’ in the UK, in which shallow notions of the sixties were used to sell even shallower constructs of British music, fashion and art in the nineties.

Paul Thomson over on his blog 60scinema.net also cites the Powers series as an obvious spoof of the Swinging London films. Where the New Wave films made realism (or at least, a kind of realism) their defining aesthetic, the Swinging London films veer into colourful fantasy in their representations of the vibrant cultural scene emerging from the capital in the mid-decade. Many (like Blowup and Performance) critique the emptiness and superficiality of that culture, whilst Smashing Time really goes to town in its satire of Swinging London with a painfully colourful energy which at times almost seems like too much. ‘Swinging London becomes limping London when Rita “A Taste of Honey”  Tushingham and Lynn “Georgy Girl” Redgrave make the scene and have a Smashing Time!’ announces the poster for the film – a poster which the Powers series seems to draw upon in the promotional material for International Man of Mystery:

 smashing austin

Or is it just me…?

Was the sixties the new age of the cinematic spoof, and if so, why? One might argue that roots of this rise of the parody lay in the ways in which the self-contained one-studio franchise film (like Hammer and Bond) was solidifying and becoming commercially successful – but also increasingly tired and formulaic. One reason for this was that the comedy and horror genres tended to be popular among cinemagoers, and the industry was increasingly reliant on tried and tested formulas to offset risk at a time when cinema admissions were in sharp decline. This is one explanation, at least – feel free to carry on the conversation here in the comments section below or on twitter (tweet @1960sproject).

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One comment

  1. Excellent and thought-provoking post. I saw ‘Billy Liar’ on the big screen last night and was struck by the subversive and surreal exchanges between Billy and Arthur, with Tom Courtenay’s range of funny voices probably influenced by the Goon Show. There’s a slightly manic streak to the humour that seems ahead of its time, but the film itself seems like a transition between the 1950s authoritarian austerity and the Swinging Sixties, with Julie Christie (and her swinging handbag) dancing in from the new decade to offer some radical options. I wonder if this sense of a ‘changing of the guard’ – of changing, or transgressing, a boundary line – lies at the root of the desire to parody what had gone before, and that this was simply made more potent by the new style of satirical, subversive humour that was then emerging?

    Like

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