Upon discovering that this lecture, ‘Sex and the swinging sixties: A history of British cinema’, was to be delivered by Professor Duncan Petrie of the Department of Theatre, Film and Television, I knew that it was something not to be missed. This wasn’t a study of an underground risqué collection of films, but rather a lecture which thoroughly traced the entire decade of the 1960s, its revolutionary spirit and how it used film as a mirror to society, but also an instrument of change in the United Kingdom.
The lecture analysed every aspect of the times – not surprising given that it was the product of three years of research. This was especially helpful for an international student like me, who also were born long after the ’60s. Professor Petrie’s presentation was full of iridescent and somewhat star-filled stills from the films, which managed to communicate the mood of the times very clearly. It also left a sense of a time of limitless freedom and a twisting and turning of the film form, one which I am not sure we have witnessed for a while now. Following the careers of renowned British actors and directors of the time, a trend was drawn; the ever-greater breaking of boundaries with each consecutive film. Thus if in 1962 it was permissive to just talk about an abortion in a film let alone show it, as they did in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), by the end of the decade films included graphic material as well as controversial topics. From the international hits such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and the James Bond franchise (1962-), through the everlasting local classics A Taste of Honey (1962), Billy Liar (1963) and Here We Go Round The MulberryBush (1968), to the avant-guard experiments that were Modesty Blaise (1966) and Performance (1970); all of these pieces of cinema experimented relentlessly in trying to depict what had once been taboo.
The notion of permissiveness did not mean cheap exploitation – it was so much more. It was a sincere and joyful playfulness with aesthetics, which Professor Petrie stressed was a reinvention of traditional narratives, rather than some short-lived rejection of them. In the paraphrased words of Martin Scorsese: cinema is a question of what is in and out of the frame. Directors like Michael Powell and David Lean simply brought controversial subjects to the front and centre of the frame, recreating, much like their French and Italian colleagues of the time, the basic understanding of cinema’s limits, giving greater expression to variety of themes. It is not hard to see how every great modern film owes something to that groundbreaking mode of filmmaking. A curious fact is that behind this cultural revolution stood a lot of big Hollywood financing, which ceased by the early 1970s due to the collapse of the studio system. This brought an end to the rigorous and exciting atmosphere of ‘the pendulum years’. You can only imagine the level of output if mainstream Hollywood was on board.
After the main lecture we progressed to the 360° demonstration space in the Ron Cooke Hub. This attraction was definitely worth visiting as on display was a collage of favourite moments from the films discussed and many more. I managed to speak to Professor Petrie about his opinion on the most important thing that young filmmakers can take from that era, to which the answer was: “A spirit of experimentation, of possibility.” And on that note, I strongly recommend that every artist tries to rediscover the British classics from the last century and get inspired by something they find transferable to our modern era.
The programme for the Summer 2017 open lectures can be found here. Image source: Mtres.co