Rethinking 1960s British Cinema-going

Spend a moment imagining a busy street in 1960s Britain. What does it look like? What does it sound like? What are people wearing?

For many, the street will be full of women in miniskirts and men in flares. The colours will be vivid and the sound of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones will be in the air. This is how 1960s Britain is often remembered. The country was, as Time Magazine commented, ‘swinging.’

Except, of course, that it wasn’t. While London was certainly a hub for fashion, music and art, the thrills of the capital must have seemed very remote elsewhere in the country. In recent years there has been a growing awareness that much of Britain came late to the 1960s and that the 1950s, in a cultural sense at least, persisted for many years after 1959.

In cinema, this was certainly true. The ‘kitchen sink’ dramas, which offered grim depictions of an austere 1950s for working-class youths in the North, continued to be made into the 1960s. The production of these films, which include Look Back in Anger (1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and A Taste of Honey (1961) didn’t show signs of slowing until 1963 and didn’t really come to an end until 1970. In terms of this genre, the 1950s lasted a long time indeed.

As this cycle waned during the 1960s, it was replaced by a new wave of films expressing the cultural energy that is now commonly associated with the decade. The ‘Swinging London’ films, which were at their peak between 1964 and 1969, painted the city as a place where authority and morals were crumbling in the face of a seductive but at times damagingly shallow youth culture. While the Beatles starred in frothy, harmless comedies, such as A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), elsewhere the glamour of Swinging London was tinged with uncertainty in Darling (1965), Alfie (1966) and Blow-Up (1966). However, despite the concerns they articulated about the age of free love, rebellion and youth, these films still traded on its glamour.

British cinema produced two competing versions of the 1960s. On the one hand, life was tough and gritty; on the other, it was vibrant, dazzling and more than a little sexy. However, for many audiences watching these films, reality would have been quite different from either of these depictions. Swinging London was, after all, a phenomenon experienced by only a limited number of people in one small corner of the nation. Equally, post-war austerity had eased by this time, causing some to look on kitchen sink dramas as relics of the past. For many, life was still hard, but this wasn’t true for everyone. British cinema reflected a number of competing realities.

This raises several questions. Why do we now often collectively remember the 1960s as a time when Britain was ‘swinging’ when the reality for many was quite different? What happened when Swinging London films were screened in economically deprived areas where their glamour was unrecognisable? What did audiences in affluent areas make of the kitchen sink dramas? Did they even watch these films at all? In wider terms, what did cinema-goers of the time make of films produced outside Britain, including Hollywood productions and European releases?

These aren’t questions to which we have answers at the moment. However, the project on which Dr Melvyn Stokes and I are working hopes to shed some light on these issues. The AHRC-funded Cultural Memory and British Cinema-going of the 1960s project, which is housed within UCL’s Department of History, is being launched in a few weeks and will ask how and why we remember the films of this decade and what role visiting the cinema played in everyday life.

To do that, we need your help. The questions we want to ask can’t be answered simply by looking in books or digging through archives. We need to get in touch with people who went to the cinema in 1960s Britain and to ask them to share their memories with us.

From 12th March 2013, there will be a questionnaire that can be completed on the project’s website. This can also be emailed or posted in paper form to those interested in taking part. If you would like to get involved and contribute to the project, we would be very excited to hear from you.

To find out more, please get in touch in one of the following ways:

Email: cinemamemories@ucl.ac.uk

Website: www.ucl.ac.uk/cinemamemories

Telephone: 020 7679 7960

Dr Matthew Jones

3 thoughts on “Rethinking 1960s British Cinema-going

  1. Pingback: From London to New Zealand: The Global Reach |

  2. I recently obtained a copy of the U3A magazine Summer issue and read with delight the article “Were you there in the sixties…..”, I shall be completing the questionnaire. Swinging London often only occurred in film directors heads and on celluloid, here in the midlands and further north life carried on as normal.

    • Thanks for this, John, and also for contributing a questionnaire to the project. I’m really interested in how Swinging London films played outside the south east. I suspect there may have been a lot of reactions similar to yours!

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