From James Bond to the Beatles, the New Wave to swinging London, the 1960s saw a resurgence in the creative vitality and international appeal of British cinema. This three-year AHRC-funded research project, in partnership with the British Film Institute, aims to instigate a major reconsideration of British cinema of the 1960s by focussing on the central tension between its reputation as a period of novelty and innovation (in line with popular understandings of the decade) and apparently contradictory evidence indicating a significant degree of continuity in both the industry and its products.
Historian Arthur Marwick has argued that the sixties constituted nothing less than a ‘cultural revolution’, an opinion which is widely shared by both enthusiasts and critics of the period. Yet recently this orthodoxy has begun to be challenged. Notably, Dominic Sandbrook has emphasised the importance of continuity over transformation, arguing that the decade is best understood not as a ‘dramatic turning point’ but rather a ‘stage in a long evolution stretching back into the forgotten past’ (2006: 794).
This tension between transformation and continuity is also evident in the British cinema of the era. For example, although the 1960s saw unprecedented levels of Hollywood involvement in British films and a growth in opportunities for independent producers, the industry continued to be dominated by the vertically integrated duopoly of Rank and Associated British.
Moreover, while the promotion and reviewing of British films emphasised a connection with the youthful vibrancy of other forms of contemporary British popular culture (such as music and fashion) – aided by a relaxation in censorship – certain new streams of film criticism that championed the director-auteur tended to reject the national cinema as staid and unadventurous.
And while the creative process was being enriched by the emergence of a new generation of British practitioners, as well as from visiting luminaries from the United States and Europe, at the same time, more established film-makers (among them David Lean, Carol Reed, Anthony Asquith, the Boulting brothers) and their styles of cinemas continued to endure.
Making substantial use of previously unexploited or under-explored archival collections at the British Film Institute (who as the project partner will play a key role in the wider dissemination of the research findings) and elsewhere, this project will focus on three related areas:
- The industry and its institutions
The research team based at York will instigate a critical analysis of the organisation and functioning of British film industry during the 1960s, focussing on changes and development in the industrial frameworks of production and distribution, the significance of independents, and the extent to which independents constituted a new and transformative entrepreneurial culture.
The team will examine the new opportunities created by Hollywood finance for the development of the independent production sector, as well as considering the nature of existing relationships between independent producers and indigenous companies such as Rank, ABPC and British Lion. The role of public support via the Eady Levy and the National Film Finance Corporation will also be considered.
This strand of the project is about fully understanding the economics that underpinned the resurgence of British film in the 1960s, beyond the received wisdom that the decade was dominated by Hollywood financing.
- The promotion and critical reception of British films
The York team will also lead on the second part of the project, which will involve critical analysis of how British films were framed by promotion and marketing and in subsequent reviewing at home as well as in certain key overseas markets (North America, Western Europe, Australia).
This will entail a consideration of how discourses of Britishness functioned to ‘brand’ films – either by associating them with aspects of contemporary popular culture (associated with modernity and youth) or alternatively via more traditional associations of British culture.
Variations across different markets will be identified and analysed as a means of understanding how British cinema addressed itself, both domestically and to the wider world, during this period when Britain was regarded as a cultural epicentre.
- The creative process
The research team based at the University of East Anglia will launch a critical analysis of the creative process of film-making during the period, focussing on the contributions made by different creative personnel (beyond the usual focus on director or writer), developments in production practices and the changing institutional, technological and aesthetic contexts of film production.
The influence of other cultural forms and industries – notably television, advertising, popular music and fashion – will be considered, with the relationship between cinema and television being given particular attention.
In addition to evaluating the significance of this cross media influence – or even media convergence, to adopt modern parlance – the tension between novelty and tradition will once again be investigated. This will be achieved through looking at the continuing significance of established film-makers, production techniques and aesthetic styles that continued to exist and how these sat alongside or interacted with more innovative trends.
The project sets out to generate new information, insights and understandings that will inform a number of research outputs, including two symposia (to be held at the Universities of York and East Anglia respectively), a conference (to be held in 2017), a project book, an edited collection and journal publications. The project will also seek to engage non-academic audiences in an accessible way that conveys both the appeal and the complexity of this key moment in Britain’s cinematic heritage.