The British New Wave was a movement among young British filmmakers of the late 1950s and early 1960s who had grown up watching American and European art films and were inspired to make more of their own.

The term “new wave” was coined by critics, who noticed similarities between this movement and the French New Wave of the late 1950s.

Both movements shared an emphasis on social realism and naturalism, as well as a tendency to focus on working class characters and settings.

British New Wave Cinema

What Is British New Wave Cinema?

The British New Wave was a movement in filmmaking in the late-1950s and early-1960s.

It is notable for helping to bring European art house cinema to the United Kingdom, as well as helping to bring greater freedom to UK filmmakers.

The term “British New Wave” was originally coined by critics around 1958, as a way to distinguish the British film industry from Hollywood.

The movement is considered a rebellion against the conventional film production style of the time, as well as a reaction against the popular genre films of the late 1950s, such as epics and expensive musicals.

British New Wave films were based on social realism and tended to focus on working-class characters, often within hostile or otherwise oppressive conditions.


Because many British New Wave films were made outside of studio control, studios rarely wanted to distribute them.

Because of this, they were often shown in small specialty theaters or at film festivals.

While the British New Wave is often referred to as “kitchen sink realism,” not all films fit into this category.

Several directors, such as Michael Powell and Carol Reed, are considered part of the movement without having made realistic films.

The key characteristics of British New Wave Cinema include:

  • An emphasis on the gritty, often grimy reality of life
  • The use of nonprofessional actors with naturalistic performances
  • A focus on social issues and marginalized groups (e.g., immigrants)
  • The use of location shooting to capture authentic regional accents and settings
  • An emphasis on realism over artifice and stylization

What Is British New Wave Cinema?

Most people consider the British New Wave to have started in 1956 with the release of Room at the Top.

The film, which is based on the novel by John Braine, follows Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey), a poor Englishman who works his way up from poverty to success through hard work, perseverance, and ambition.

Made for £200,000 but grossing nearly £2 million in its initial run, Room at the Top was a massive hit in England, helping launch the careers of director Jack Clayton and actors Harvey and Simone Signoret.

In 1959, Tony Richardson’s Look Back in Anger opened in London theaters.The film’s dark portrayal of working-class life prompted some critics to label it a realistic take on the angry young men of Britain’s postwar generation.


How The British New Wave Began

The British New Wave was a movement in filmmaking that started in the early 1960s and lasted until the late 1970s.

It brought an unprecedented level of realism to British cinema, using handheld camera work, natural lighting and improvised acting techniques.

The movement came to be associated with the Free Cinema movement, and its leading figures included Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz. The new wave emerged from British cinema’s “Golden Age,” which lasted from the end of World War II until about 1958.

During that time, the British film industry produced a number of popular, award-winning films that received critical acclaim at home and abroad, including:

  • A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
  • The Red Shoes (1948)
  • The Third Man (1949)
  • The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)
  • The Cruel Sea (1953)

But just as Britain’s Golden Age was drawing to a close, a new generation of directors who had come of age during the war were beginning to make their own films.

They were influenced by French New Wave cinema, which had introduced many innovations into filmmaking in France over the previous decade or two. These included low-budget independent productions filmed on real locations, hand-held cameras, and jump cuts.

Kitchen Sink Cinema

The name comes from the saying “everything but the kitchen sink”, which usually means that every possible thing has been included.

It’s a little different in filmmaking, because we use “kitchen sink” more to describe a story than anything else. And in British New Wave, it’s something of a literal term.

Many people associate it with being made by working-class filmmakers, or being about working-class people, so there’s a bit of overlap with “social realism”.

However, it can mean any story where everything is thrown in — even if it isn’t always realistic.

There isn’t always a clear definition of what counts as kitchen sink cinema — and lots of films are called “kitchen sink dramas” by critics but don’t have all the elements that you might expect.

For example, Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush (1968) is often called a kitchen sink film, but it isn’t really a drama.

British Social Realism

In the 1920s and 1930s, a group of British artists known as the Social Realists turned their attention to the plight of the working class in Britain. They focused on subjects such as poverty, crime, and alcoholism.

This movement was a reaction against the established artistic world. The emphasis was on realism and honesty – and painting what they saw.

Towards the end of the 19th century, many artists had been influenced by Impressionism. They stressed recording what an object looked like in natural light without any attempt to enhance or change it.

By the 1920s, some artists wanted to go further than Impressionism and show how society affected people’s lives. Social Realist paintings were often shocking or disturbing because they showed everyday scenes from ordinary people’s lives.

These artists wanted their paintings to shock people into recognising that these problems existed in Britain at this time.

Another important British New Wave film was 1958’s The Wind Cannot Read, a film that belongs in every serious cinephile’s collection.

The Wind Cannot Read is a visually stunning and emotionally engaging work about a young Indian man serving in the British Army during World War II. This film is important because it was the first UK production directed by a non-British (in this case Indian) filmmaker, Shakti Samanta.

Made by a group of filmmakers who were at odds with their own country’s cinematic output, the British New Wave is an interesting experiment because it occurs during the early stages of the “angry young men” movement (see also kitchen sink realism).


You could say that both movements represent a kind of boredom with traditional artistic forms and conventions, which is why both are deeply connected to French cinematic trends of the time.

In essence, both movements were fueled by disappointment with England as it stood at the time – as evidenced by films like A Taste Of Honey and Saturday Night And Sunday Morning.

From Free Cinema To Kitchen Sink And British New Wave Cinema

The British New Wave (sometimes called the Free Cinema Movement) was a movement that took place in British cinema from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, following on from the kitchen sink realism of the post-war years.

It featured a new type of social realism with ‘kitchen sink’ drama, working-class life, and naturalistic dialogue.

The movement was a reaction against stylised cinematic techniques such as the use of studio sets and the employment of actors who were primarily celebrities rather than character actors. 

Many filmmakers associated with the British New Wave are known for their “angry young man” characters and their gritty realist pictures of life in Britain at that time.

The movement is widely considered to have ended by 1963; although some commentators have noted that certain themes and styles associated with it have continued to be influential in British cinema. The period immediately following the Second World War saw a great deal of social upheaval and considerable optimism about the future.

In 1945, unemployment stood at around 1 million and rationing was still in place. By 1951, however, unemployment had fallen to 500,000, which was thought by many to mark an end to austerity and poverty.

This was accompanied by rapid economic growth, leading to higher wages.

History Of British New Wave Cinema

The British New Wave was a movement in cinema that emerged in the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, and continued beyond. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘Second New Wave’.

Though there are no set characteristics which define this movement, it is generally seen as a break from, or reaction against, some formal qualities of British cinema at the time. 

In 1950s Britain, the industry was dominated by a “conspiracy of silence” censorship code popularly known as the Hays Code.

Major production companies invested heavily in their copyrights, such as Peter Sellers comedies, or adapted material from novels and stage plays.

They produced socially acceptable films that were funded on a large scale by American money, either through major studios or through independent producers who then entered into distribution agreements with the majors. 

These agreements were made because it was cheaper to distribute and advertise an established product than to develop new material.

Scriptwriters were not only reliant on their ability to write interesting material but also to make sure that no one complained about the subject matter because they could face being banned from writing future screenplays if they did so. 

British cinema found itself trapped in a spiral of declining audiences and under-investment during this period.

Top British New Wave Cinema Filmmakers

If you have been watching a lot of television over the last several years and are familiar with British television in the early 2000s, you may have seen some excellent work by directors such as Steven Knight, Paul Andrew Williams, Shane Meadows, Kieran Evans, Tom Harper and Gareth Evans. 

These filmmakers were all at their peak during this period and burst onto the film scene during its infancy.

In addition to these names, there are many others who have contributed to British New Wave cinema. In fact, it is not limited to just Britain but extends beyond to countries such as Australia and even Japan.

The films produced by these directors were quite different from those produced in Hollywood during this time period. They were gritty films that featured real-life characters living in a realistic world instead of larger-than-life heroes or villains.

These films have gone on to become critically acclaimed worldwide and found success at the box office despite their independent status. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t have any help though.

In fact, they got much of their funding from the UK Film Council which was founded in 2000 by the government.

Top British New Wave Cinema Films

There were numerous British New Wave films, but these are the best of them: 

The L-Shaped Room (1962) 

This is an early New Wave movie. It’s about a woman with a mental disability who has just given birth to her illegitimate son. 

She finds herself alone in London except for her baby and her sister, who also has a mental disability. 

They go from one apartment to another until they find one that will accept them. It’s a sad movie, but there’s some humor in it as well.

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

The Beatles starred in this film, which was their first movie. A lot of fans consider it the best Beatles movie ever made. 

The story follows the Beatles on a day of their lives as they travel to and from a concert while being chased by fans and the press. 

There are also a few subplots mixed in with some comedy and music, so it’s not just about the band itself. 

Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) 

This film is set in London during the height of the Vietnam War protests there. It tells the story of an Irish Catholic man who falls for his Jewish girlfriend despite their religion differences.

Importance Of British New Wave Cinema

The British New Wave was a movement in film that occurred from the mid 50s to the mid 60s. It was considered one of the two most significant British film movements (the other being the Ealing comedies).

The New Wave featured a group of filmmakers who were inspired by Italian neorealism. Their goal was to make films that would be critically accepted as art, and they wanted to influence society with their work.

The British New Wave began in order to revitalize an industry that had been dominated by the Hollywood film industry for many years. 

The British government gave financial support to this movement and allowed filmmakers such as Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson to take chances on controversial material.

The movement ended in the mid 60s because Hollywood regained dominance over the market. Steven Spielberg is an American director, screenwriter and producer who has contributed much to pop culture through his works in all three media.

Some of his most famous works include Jurassic Park (1993), Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). He is also well-known for his association with fellow filmmaker George Lucas, having co-founded Lucasfilm.

The End Of British New Wave Cinema

The end of the British New Wave was really the end of an era. It was the end of a movement that had begun in the late 1960s, with films such as Alfie and Georgy Girl, and had been going strong since the release of A Clockwork Orange in 1971.

The films and filmmakers that came out of that era were unique, and they all have their fans to this day. But they were not universally loved; some critics decried the violence and obscenity of some of those early movies, and by the 1980s, many in Britain felt that enough was enough.

The Cinema Audience Research Board, a company responsible for collecting data about movie attendance, found that audiences for British films had dropped by more than 25 percent between 1965 and 1976. 

This decline in popularity led to fewer grants for filmmakers from government agencies like the National Film Finance Corp (NFFC), which was started by the government in 1962.

By 1983, the NFFC was gone entirely, replaced by two separate agencies, namely The British Film Institute (BFI) and The National Film & Television Council (NFTC).

The NFFC’s disappearance marked a clear change in Britain’s attitude toward filmmaking.