Independent Artists: An Oral History

By Laura Mayne (LauraJaneMayne)

Independent Artists, headed by Julian Wintle and Leslie Parkyn, was a film production company which operated in Britain from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, but was perhaps most active in production between 1958 and 1963. I recently interviewed Christopher Wintle, son of Julian and Emeritus Senior Lecturer at King’s College, who became responsible for managing the company’s outstanding business affairs following the death of his father in 1980. Christopher’s memories of his father’s company, taken along with some choice archive material, builds a picture of an outfit which is has been long forgotten in film scholarship, but which was, at least for a brief period, a major player in the industry.

Independent Artists had links with a number of companies – it was a satellite of Bryanston, the consortium founded by Michael Balcon and Maxwell Setton in 1959 which sought to protect the interests of independent producers at a time when the industry was dominated by two companies, Rank and Associated British. From its early beginnings it had also enjoyed a close financial relationship with Rank, and, like Hammer in the 1950s, had tried to secure its position by looking for deals with US companies for international distribution. In 1958 Wintle and Parkyn took over Beaconsfield studios, and it was then that the IA operation began in earnest. Julian Wintle’s wife Anne Francis writes in her memoirs that: “At the time, Julian recollected, people thought that he and Leslie were mad to embark such an undertaking… In fact the gamble was immensely successful. For the next five years they were in steady production, with only four idle days.”[i] At Beaconsfield, Wintle and Parkyn produced everything from television drama to comedies like The Fast Lady (Ken Annakin, 1963) and Father Came, Too!  (Peter Graham-Scott, 1963) horrors like Sidney Hayers’ Circus of Horrors (1960) and Night of the Eagle (1962), moving from science fiction with Unearthly Stranger (John Krish, 1963) to social realism with Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963).

Beaconsfield Kine

Article on Beaconsfield in Kine Weekly, 1960

The company was among the last to produce the super-low budget one-hour films which formed the supporting part of the double feature cinema programme (in essence, ‘B’ movies). These films were usually tightly-scripted crime thrillers which for a number of reasons (not least of which was rising production costs) ceased to be commercially viable in the mid-60s.  But these films served a useful purpose for the company, filling up gaps in the studio schedules and serving as a proving ground for new talent. Made on budgets of £22,500 (higher than the average for a ‘B’ movie, which ranged from £15,000- 20,000) IA’s offerings were fairly high-calibre, and managed to get distribution on the Rank circuit at a time when distributors were beginning to doubt the quality of the ‘B’s and their popularity with audiences.

ia1Lobby card for House of Mystery (Vernon Sewell, 1961) – a ‘B’ feature.

The ‘B’ movie was definitively dead by 1963, but television had already long taken over where the one-hour films had left off, with staple crime dramas filling up the schedules – so a move into television was perhaps natural for IA at this point. As Christopher recalls:

They [Independent Artists] decided to make a series of The Human Jungle, with Herbert Lom, and it was a very interesting subject because psychoanalysis was very much in the air. Each episode would represent a different mental problem, and you’d have something like 52 minutes to work with (allowing for commercial breaks). It took up, really, where the B movie left off, I would say, because the experience of working at those very tight scripts for these one hour films knocked back into working on these 52 minute films.

They were very tightly controlled, and it came with audience research – for example ‘thou may not have a conversation that lasts 45 seconds, because people will turn off’  – plus you always had to have something just before the commercial breaks to keep people coming back. Incidentally, he [Herbert Lom] only allowed himself to be filmed from one side of his profile and not the other, because he only liked one side of his face and not the other! And that’s worth remembering if you see it.

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Lom’s best side.

In addition to the ‘B’s which were filmed at Beaconsfield, Independent Artists produced a number of comedies, sci-fi thrillers and horror films. Circus of Horrors follows the gruesome and sadistic experiments of a plastic surgeon as he remakes disfigured women into the stars of his show, and stands as a particularly memorable example of early exploitation cinema, shot in lurid colour and featuring a cast of voluptuous female characters in skimpy outfits. Night of the Eagle is a more suspenseful thriller, shot in black and white and dealing with themes of witchcraft, scepticism and post-colonial anxiety, while Unearthly Stranger is a gloriously silly science fiction thriller featuring a terrified scientist who is unaware of his wife’s extra-terrestrial origins. The Fast Lady (Julie Christie’s second film), and its loose sequel Father Came, Too! were more of the school of the classic British comedy, dealing with the trials of a young man and his overbearing father-in-law. Waltz of the Toreadors sees Peter Sellers starring as as a womanising General and follows his attempts to contain the damage wreaked by his seedy private life. There were pragmatic benefits to investing in a variety of productions – even though, at the time, this may have been seen as a somewhat scatty approach – as the profits from films like The Fast Lady and Waltz of the Toreadors helped to offset some of the loss generated by IA’s final film, Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life.

father-came-too-movie-poster-1964-1020233231

Father Came, Too! (Peter Graham-Scott, 1963)

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Press book for Unearthly Stranger (John Krish, 1963)

This Sporting Life may have seemed like an odd choice of project for a company which had hitherto specialised in features with a clear commercial appeal, but it is worth remembering that the New Wave cycle of ‘kitchen sink’ dramas had been immensely popular with audiences in the late 50s and early 60s. Following on from successes like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960) and A Taste of Honey (Tony Richardson, 1961) there was a tremendous amount of interest in This Sporting Life, which culminated in a bidding war for the rights to adapt the original novel by David Storey. In the end, it was Rank who won the rights and who passed the film over to IA. As Christopher notes, this kind of film was new territory for the company:

My father – he was at heart a popular entertainer, and to be dragged into social realism and to these left wing film makers was not his natural habitat.

Anderson was also a risky choice for director, having never directed a full-length feature, a fact which also generated a considerable amount of anxiety:

Lindsay was not a known quantity to my father. There was interest in the fact that This Sporting Life was hot property. They brought in Karel Reisz because they had originally thought of Karel to direct it (because he had done Saturday Night and Sunday Morning). Karel was there to hold Lindsay’s hand, so to speak… Karel was a fallback. And Karel didn’t know anything about producing so my father got one of the staff producers, Albert Fennell, very competent, and he helped with the production. And my father oversaw that – Leslie Parkyn wasn’t involved very much at all. 

Lindsay could also be a volatile personality, which contributed to nervousness on both sides, but Wintle was keen to provide the creative conditions which would best suit the skills and temperament of the director (even though this approach was far from cost-effective):

They had to deal with the personality of Lindsay Anderson and what they did – they said because it was a small studio Lindsay could rehearse his actors as if it was the theatre. Now, if you’ve got 70 or 80 people sitting round day after day and people aren’t doing a thing – that is a luxury which is rarely accorded to anyone. Having said which, it was the triumph of the film because the way they saw it was that it was it was a series of duets in a small parlour, and the effect of having those rehearsals [on the finished film] was just sensational.

Christopher retrospectively considers This Sporting Life to be the the best thing IA produced, though at the time it turned out to be a box-office disappointment:

 When they had made this film they thought that this was going to be the crowning achievement of British social realism – or the kitchen sink, as it was called. So they booked it into Leicester Square, extending the normal booking period from three weeks to four, and they had terrific expectations, especially after the press show because the press came out and said it was marvellous and they were very excited. Now, my father was then sat by the phone when it opened to the public the following day… but it was perfectly clear after a few days that the public were not flocking to it. And for a small company it was a mighty blow, even thought here was funding from Rank etc.

So, given the high expectations for the film’s success, why did it fail to attract the crowds?

I have two thoughts about it. First of all, it’s personal and inevitable but I did think when I saw it through that it was slightly too long. If they were able to bring it to a swifter conclusion it would not have a quality which it has in my view, which is that it is slightly too remorseless, too downbeat, and that doesn’t make for popular cinema. And secondly, it was the last gurgle of the kitchen sink, and quite honestly the public didn’t want that – it had run its course from about 57 to 63, really.

After the commercial disappointment of This Sporting Life, IA moved out of Beaconsfield and Wintle moved into television, beginning work on The Avengers just as the series was on the cusp of becoming an international hit. It had been a black and white taped show which was now moving to 35mm film, and Wintle was brought in to oversee this transition. However, there were initially some issues with the production, including, as Christopher recalls, some tensions on set over the casting of Elizabeth Shepherd as Steed’s partner:

They had some problems casting Diana Rigg. She wasn’t the first choice, actually…they had a woman (I must be careful of how I handle this) called Liz Shepherd, Elizabeth Shepherd, who was going to do it, and she had very strong idea about what she wanted to do with the character (she wasn’t going to be called ‘Emma Peel’, she was going to be called ‘Jackie Blade’) and I remember snooping in, listening to the casting conference going on in my father’s flat about this, and she was being very determined. But I think I’m right in saying that they were filming an episode in which she had to be lowered in an open coffin into the ground, and suddenly Patrick Macnee got clods of earth and threw them at her. He couldn’t stand her.

Shepherd had already filmed one-and-a-half episodes, and money had already been spent, but it was becoming increasingly clear that she just wasn’t right for the part. Apparently relationships on and off set were far better following the casting of Diana Rigg, who was not to play ‘Jackie Blade’ but ‘Emma Peel’ – a name chosen by a press officer working on the series who decided the female lead had to have ‘Man Appeal’ (‘Man Appeal’ = ‘M – Appeal’, thus ‘Emma Peel’). Wintle was partly responsible for taking the Avengers to a worldwide audience within two years, with 30 million viewers in 40 countries.

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‘M’ – Appeal

Independent Artists’ activities between 1958 and 1963 spanned the whole spectrum of film and television production, and a look at their varied slate can provide an insight into the state of British independent production in this era, but it can also offer up a fascinating snapshot of popular British cinema in the early 1960s. Given the company’s diverse production interest and its links across the industry, it’s clear why it deserves a more thorough accounting in the annals of British cinema.

[i] Anne Francis, Julian Wintle: A Memoir (Dukeswood, 1984) p. 85.

*Images of Unearthly Stranger and House of Mystery publicity materials courtesy of the CATH Research Centre at DeMontfort University.

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2 comments

  1. This is a very useful history and an entertaining read. I confess to remembering seeing several of these films at the time.

    Just one observation re the concept of the ‘B’ movie in British cinemas. At one point you suggest that IA’s B pictures “ceased to be commercially viable in the mid-60s” and then later you state “The ‘B’ movie was definitively dead by 1963”. Certainly, based on the interview material these statements make sense re Independent Artists. However, the Edgar Lustgarten 30 minute film series ‘Scales of Justice’ was still getting into cinemas up until 1967 and the 60 minute series of Edgar Wallace stories only ended in 1965. As I’m sure you know these were Merton Park productions and presumably this was the last of the short crime films.

    My query is what do you actually mean by a British B movie? I can remember films that might be called ‘Bs’ later than 1967 and possibly into the 1970s. These would be one-off productions rather than series. In my experience of distribution in 1971 the common circuit cinema practice was still to have two features. This was not a double bill unless both features were recognised as A features. Therefore the second film was in effect a B film or ‘supporting feature’. A minimal amount of research suggests that these supporting features might be American, ‘international’, dubbed European or documentaries – but some were certainly British feature films. Perhaps this was the beginning of the modern practice of low budget independents producing Bs as one-offs rather than companies consistently using small scale studios like Merton Park or Beaconsfield? It’s quite difficult to pin down the time when cinemas switched ‘definitively’ to single features as standard. Was it in the early 1980s? Is that when the Bs actually disappeared?

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    • Thank you for your comment! You make a few very interesting points. To address the first one, by ‘British B movie’ I mean the cheap one-hour films which were made by British producers and studios up until 1964 (I believe the Edgar Wallace anthology was among the last of these to be made). Although these films were shown after this time in cinemas, they were not produced by British companies. This was because, with rising production costs, it would have been difficult to make these films for less than £20,000. However, they were sold to exhibitors at fixes prices and as such did not recoup box-office money – hence, they were just no longer viable to make.

      However, the double feature WAS still the preferred mode of exhibition. Exhibitors would, I believe, tend to show old B movies in the second half of the double bill, or buy in American B movies, or show a mixture of travelogues, documentaries and cartoons. Indeed, as film running times got longer, it became more common (from the mid-1960s) to show a long first feature and a mixture of shorts to pad out the programme, rather than two films.

      However, regarding the supremacy of the double feature, here’s where it gets a bit sketchy: Though the double-feature was losing the complete dominance it had held over the cinema programme until the 1960s, it still continued to be favoured by many cinemas into the 1970s and 1980s. Some would show two films, a main feature and a B movie. Others would show two ‘first’ features together (a ‘co-feature’) like in the case of some of the Hammer double bills.

      Truthfully, though the British B movie ceased to be commercially viable in the early 1960s (really, only a few companies were left making them at that point) I have no idea when the double feature or supporting feature was no longer commonplace. It would be interesting to find out.

      On that note, If you remember seeing some of these films when they were released, I would like to point you in the direction of this project, which is similar to but unaffiliated with ours: http://www.derbytelegraph.co.uk/Bygones-Memories-cinema-going-1960s-wanted/story-28107805-detail/story.html

      The memories of people like yourself are extremely useful for historians looking to understand viewing habits of cinema-goers in the 1960s!

      Like

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