Many British films of the sixties were dark, dour and troubling, filmed in grainy black and white in bleak northern towns. Yet in some of the lesser-known films of the period colour and optimism emerges from the common scenes of densely populated urban centres. As crowded, outdated housing stock was knocked down and the old ways of living were replaced by a new consumer society, these films reflected the possibility of a brighter, more modern world.
Among the most swinging of a number of films set in Manchester in the sixties is Albert Finney's accomplished directorial debut Charlie Bubbles (1967), in which he also stars. Part road movie, part domestic drama and part whimsical fancy, it follows Finney's eponymous Charlie Bubbles, who has left his northern roots to forge a name for himself as a successful author in London, as he makes the journey back to his Manchester origins with a young American intern played by Liza Minnelli. Britain was undergoing big environmental changes at the time: whole areas of cities were being rebuilt to clear lingering Victorian and Edwardian slums and fill the gaps left by wartime bomb sites. In vivid colour, Finney and Minnelli tour the almost unrecognisable city where he grew up – driving past a marching band parading through wastelands of demolished terraced streets – and see the contrast with the new, high-rise, Modernist Manchester. The camera pans past Piccadilly Gardens, replete with five shiny red telephone boxes, en route to the then-new Piccadilly Hotel in Piccadilly Gardens where the characters stay in plush, wood lined rooms with views across the whole of the city. Modern Manchester looks vibrant and glamorous.
The White Bus, which also moves from London to Manchester and Salford and was released in the same year, was likewise based on the writing of Salford author Shelagh Delaney. In Lindsay Anderson's surreal short film version of The White Bus, the main character embarks on a magical bus tour around Manchester and Salford. Passengers are shown the old — vast, vacant plots of rubble — being replaced by the new — high rise blocks of flats on stilts in areas like Kersal, with a celebratory voice over by the guide about how tower block living will solve social ills. The film flits in and out of colour like a dream.
Similarly playful is the charmingly naïve musical Mrs Brown, You've got a Lovely Daughter (1968), which follows pop group Herman's Hermits as they aim to make a name for themselves by using the proceeds from racing their greyhound Mrs Brown to escape their claustrophobic lives.
The film starts by zooming over an aerial view of Salford – including sights such as the ship canal - before coming in to land in the dense, redbrick streets where three generations of Herman's family live on top of each other in the same small terraced house. Herman spends his days working for an advertising company trying to sell consumers things they don't yet know they want (including a comical pink hat), and the bright colours and patterns of the sixties fashions sported by the Hermits and friends are absurdly colourful next to the dingy brownness of the house, which looks almost Victorian in its drab clutter. Herman is a jaunty figure on a personalised yellow motorbike – with a side car for the dog, Mrs Brown, as he drives past rubble and blank plots of land amongst the remaining terraced streets.
In the sixties, the shortage of housing and poor condition of many existing homes meant mass building programmes were taking place. In the film, some of the Hermits spend their days labouring on building sites. Herman's mother enthuses: “They're ever so nice. There's 2,000 going up. 250 little nests in each block with a telly built right into the wall.”
One of the more traditional films of the sixties, A Kind of Loving (1962), also makes a direct link between quality of life and living environment. Draftsman Vic Brown, who at the start of the film is still living at home with his parents in a cramped hillside terrace in a northern everytown, repeatedly expresses envy at his recently married sister's light and airy new flat: “She's got a lovely flat, she's dead lucky.”
The film captures the frustration of relationships confined by young people having to live under the constant supervision of the older generation, yet at the end Vic and his young wife, who had been on the brink of divorcing, decide to make a go of it – dependent on a renewed commitment to moving out of Vic's wife's mother's house and finding a place of their own.
The sense that things were changing and the young would inherit a new, better world, starting with a better living environment and adequate housing for all, is explicit in the film London Nobody Knows (1967), one of the most intriguing films of the era. James Mason travels through a London that in many ways still seems Victorian, celebrating its quirks and traditions such as egg-breaking and street entertainment in quasi-documentary style. The film ends by looking to the future. A parade of close-ups of children's smiles is juxtaposed with shots of a wrecking ball swinging through the other side of London's past – old slums and tenements, which are described as “out of date, inefficient, taking up too much space”. Mason narrates “These kids finally seem to be given a decent break” as the camera shows the type of spacious new homes with green space that will be built instead.
Mason then says “there's no need to be too sad about it as, after all, most of Victorian London was fairly hideous and we can also console ourselves with the knowledge that the same fate attends our least favourite modern monstrosities”. This sentence proved prescient and the optimism of the period short lived. Many high-rise solutions to the evils of slums soon became run-down themselves. Tower blocks such as Kersal Flats, celebrated by the authorities in The White Bus, had problems of their own and now, too, are long gone, turned back into rubble.
© Nathalie Bradbury
This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 3 'BOOM & BUST