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How 1960s cinema gave Britain a glimpse of our future lives.

By Sami Moubayed, Special to Gulf News,Thinker

All human history, you might say, is the story of people not knowing what lies around the corner. The typical family snapshot catches the pathos of this ignorance very well: The 12-year-old schoolboy smiling on a seaside promenade in 1935 is unaware of his fate on a North Atlantic convoy six years later. But the art form that makes us most aware of this is the cinema. You enter a darkened hall to watch an entertainment you first saw 30, 40, 50 and more years ago. The story, the scenery and the characters haven't changed a jot -- they are as vivacious and pleasurable to watch, as "real", as they ever were. But many, if not all, of the actors are dead. The world beyond the screen has moved on unpredictably. The film forces the audience, or at least those in it who are old enough, to remember who they were and how things were when they first saw it.

No two films had a bigger effect on me when I went to see them as a teenager than Saturday Night and Sunday Morning , and Tom Jones . Both were adapted from novels, the first by Alan Sillitoe (published in 1958) and the second by Henry Fielding (published in 1749). Both starred Albert Finney. Both were British. Both bore the name of Woodfall Films, a new company set up by the playwright John Osborne, the young theatre director Tony Richardson and the film producer Harry Saltzman to make a film adaptation (starring Richard Burton) of Osborne's Look Back in Anger, the play that is said to have changed the course of British theatre.

I can't have known this history when I sat in a cinema to watch them, soon after they came out. In the case of Tom Jones I sat in several cinemas, because I was besotted with Susannah York. Recently, after an interval of more than 50 years, I saw Tom Jones , again at the British Film Institute, an overture to a season of Woodfall films. The film had won four Oscars, including those for best picture and best director -- Tony Richardson -- though nobody involved in the filming had expected such success. According to Richardson's memoirs, it was a thoroughly unhappy experience: Quarrelsome, rushed and, in the personage of the actor Hugh Griffith, almost unmanageably drunken. What I mainly remembered, York and Finney apart, was the film's pizzazz -- how it opens as a pastiche of a silent film, with title cards and frantic motion, and how Finney sometimes makes asides directly to the camera and therefore to us, the audience. A revolutionary step.

These innovations, thrilling in 1963, now look either too cliched or too clever for the film's good, and they detract from its real achievement in rendering 18th-century England as a greedy, rumbustious place where the better-off put no constraint on their appetites for food, drink, sex and hunting with dogs. The supper shared by Finney (as Tom) and Joyce Redman (as the libertine Mrs Waters) has become a classic of comic eroticism, though the film's greatest sequence in terms of pure cinematography is the five minutes devoted to the foxhunt. It was good this week to be reminded of its original effect: How the word "hunt", which had meant no more to me than pretty prints on pub walls, now conveyed something noisy, chaotic and dangerous, and infused with blood lust.

In its picaresque story and vibrant depiction of pleasure, Tom Jones prefigured the swinging 1960s. It was an early symptom of a new way of living; just as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning , released in 1960, hinted that an older way of living, one restricted by deference and social class, could soon be dying. Here Finney played Arthur Seaton, a rebellious young machinist in a Nottingham bicycle factory who despises his workmates for their meekness and sobriety, and pursues an affair with the wife of one of them, until she gets pregnant and he transfers his interest to someone younger and prettier. Karel Reisz, a pre-war refugee from Czechoslovakia, directed the film in black and white, and gave it the austere look of a documentary. Several scenes were shot inside Raleigh's workshops, where Sillitoe once worked.

Its simplicity and interest in veracity made Saturday Night a leading example of British new wave cinema (a genre to which Richardson contributed other films, such as A Taste of Honey and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner ). It was probably the first film to portray working-class life unsentimentally. Its opening is still arresting.

Imagine he were real: What would have become of him? The Raleigh company made its first bicycles in the 1880s, and 50 years later could boast that it owned the largest and most modern cycle factory in the world, with a 6,000-strong workforce. In the 1950s, it bought its rivals BSA and Triumph, and then in 1960, a year or two after Seaton joined, Raleigh itself was acquired by Tube Investments, which owned most other British cycle brands. The new company, known as Ti-Raleigh, lasted in British hands until 1987, when it was bought by a German bike manufacturer, Derby Cycle. A Dutch company bought Derby Cycle in 2012. Raleigh production in Nottingham ceased in 2003, when manufacture and assembly moved to Taiwan and Vietnam.

Seaton might have been lucky, and seen it through until the end. But only just. As it turned out, there was more around the corner than sex, drugs and rock'n'roll.

-- Guardian News & Media Ltd

Ian Jack is a Guardian columnist.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 5, 2018
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