Look Back in Anger

When I was a kid, the Liverpudlian comedian Mick Miller used to tell a joke I still regard fondly to this day. He’d stand on stage before the microphone and say “And now, name that film”. He’d then turn his back to them and, looking over his shoulder at the audience, he’d begin to mouth a series of obscenities with a violent expression. “It was Look Back in Anger” he’d conclude to much laughter. I don’t even think I knew what Look Back in Anger was at the time, I just knew the joke was funny and a little bit naughty.

If I could time travel back to the 1980s and meet my young self I could tell him/me that Look Back in Anger was a realist play by John Osborne from 1956. It tells the story of the talented jazz trumpeter Jimmy Porter, a fiercely intelligent young man of working class origins who has married ‘above his station’ in the shape of the upper middle class Alison. The pair live together in a cramped attic flat in a Midlands town with their amiable lodger, a Welshman called Cliff, attempting to act as a referee between their many bouts of marital disharmony.  A love triangle develops when Helena, Alison’s impervious, aristocratic best friend, surprisingly succumbs to Jimmy’s contentious charms.

The play was an semi-autobiographical piece, concerning Osborne’s own unhappy marriage and cramped living conditions with his actress wife, Pamela Lane, in Derby. It’s blistering nature is both a fine testament to the author’s strength of feeling about his lot, and the fact that he penned the whole thing from a deckchair on Morecambe Pier in little over a fortnight – a surprising place for the genesis of a realist genre in theatre (and subsequently film) that was to become known as ‘Angry Young Man’. Starring Kenneth Haigh (who would go on to play another classic ‘angry young man’ Joe Lampton in the 1970s TV sequel to John Braine’s Room at the Top, Man at the Top), Alan Bates and Mary Ure, and directed by Tony Richardson, the play premiered at London’s Royal Court on the 8th May, 1956 where it was warmly received by…well, just a handful of critics really. Most people hated it, but Kenneth Tynan described the play as “a minor miracle” and even went on to state that “he could not love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger”, whilst Harold Hobson heralded it as a “landmark of British theatre”. With audiences and critics beginning to reconsider Osborne’s play and the rise of the ‘Angry Young Man’, it was inevitable that a movie adaptation would be made.

The Canadian producer Harry Saltzman – who would, just a couple of years later, go on to bring Ian Fleming’s  James Bond to the screen with his business partner Albert R. ‘Cubby’ Brocolli – was a fan of the play and saw the potential in adapting Osborne’s play for the cinema. Though he initially had little faith in Osborne’s insistence that the film should be directed by Tony Richardson, a theatrical director with no track record in cinema, he soon relented. The same could not be said of J. Arthur Rank who pulled out as a result, forcing Osborne and Richardson (with Saltzman’s encouragement) to set up Woodfall Films. The production company instantly became the prime mover in British New Wave/Kitchen Sink cinema, and is it the DVD boxset of their many seminal British new wave films that this release of Look Back in Anger hails from.

Saltzman did however dig his heels in when it came to casting. He believed that a star name was required to play Osborne’s anti-hero Jimmy Porter. This meant Haigh was out and no less a figure than Richard Burton was now most emphatically in; despite being, at the age of 34, a good nine years older than the character of Porter was meant to be, and unfortunately the hard drinking actor looks every inch of those years too. The brooding Burton may have accepted a significant drop in his fee to play Porter but it proved worth it, as the role quickly cemented his increasingly recognisable screen persona. Even today the image of him from this very film, dressed in check shirt and cardigan, holding a pint of bitter and staring with quiet defiance towards the camera, remains an iconic photo of the actor.

And yet, for me Burton is arguably the thing that makes this adaptation less than successful. Don’t get me wrong, I speak as a big fan of Burton, but his physicality and his angry pored, nostril flaring, snarling intensity makes Porter less than sympathetic for audiences. His Porter isn’t the mercurial upstart with a chip on his shoulder we can identify with, he’s more akin to an absolute bully. You need to fast forward thirty years from this film to compare him to Kenneth Branagh in Judi Dench’s production from 1989; Branagh’s Porter is a sublime study in aggression born from a kind of stifled desperation. He’s like a fly buzzing around the room, dodging the swipes of injustice and panicking, butting his head against the window of his prison. Burton always looks like he’ll smash his way through that window, but not before he does some serious damage to all and sundry. Porter is a character we’re meant to believe can’t help behave the way he does, and I just don’t see that in Burton’s performance.

It was Kenneth Tynan, the play’s biggest supporter, who advised Woodfall to open out the story to suit the cinematic medium, arguing that the action would be too stagebound for the big screen if it was all set in the Porter’s cramped and claustrophobic flat. Nigel ‘Quatermass‘ Kneale was hired to do this, with Osborne selling the rights to his story for just £2,000. Kneale set to work by taking Ma Tanner, a character only mentioned in the play, and placing her in the thick of the action. Played by Edith Evans, this character  helps address the (class) differences between Porter and his impassive bride Alison; his loyalty to the old woman forever being insulted by the aloofness he perceives from his wife. Getting out onto the streets, specifically the location shooting at Deptford Market –  showing Jimmy and Cliff at work on their stall and battling Donald Pleasence’s officiously snide market inspector – also helps to remove the trappings of the story’s theatrical origins and breathes fresh air into the proceedings. Despite this, many of the film’s most memorable scenes still play out in the Porter’s dreary flat, which is authentically brought to life by set designer Loudon Sainthill.

Only Mary Ure survived the journey from stage to screen, reprising the role of Alison that she had made famous. It’s easy to see why she won so many plaudits and praise; she understands that Alison is a complex young woman who requires our sympathy but knows just how to press Porter’s buttons. Her seemingly cowed silence is not necessarily martyrdom, but the only weapon she has against Porter’s vitriol. This ambiguity works wonderfully well with her delicate doll-like appearance. Claire Bloom co-stars as Helena and this casting at least ensures some tangible chemistry between her and Burton’s Porter, given that the actors had been conducting an on/off affair for several years by this point. The rest of the cast includes Gary Raymond as the likeable lodger Cliff and Glen Byam Shaw as Alison’s father and everything Porter despises. Familiar faces such as Nigel Davenport and Alfred Lynch (who were then with The English Stage Company that originally put on Osborne’s play) appear in smaller roles.

Look Back in Anger opened in the tail end of May 1959 during a rare London heatwave that must have served to amplify the fractious, prickly and restless nature of the drama that played out on the big screen. It was subsequently nominated for four BAFTA Awards, with Burton also nominated for a Golden Globe, but was resolutely unsuccessful all round. Nevertheless, Look Back in Anger established the kitchen sink genre in British cinema and what Woodfall would subsequently produce in this vein would grab the imagination of the public much more successfully. For me to – Look Back in Anger represents an important and significant breakthrough for the kitchen sink genre, but it was quickly usurped by greater productions (and this boxset’s bedfellows) such as The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The Entertainer, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and A Taste of Honey to name but a few.

LOOK BACK IN ANGER FEATURES ON BFI’S WOODFALL BOXSET – OUT NOW FROM BFI

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