10 great films set in the swinging 60s

It’s more than half a century since the Beatles movie A Hard Day’s Night helped put a swing in the step of 60s British cinema, heralding London’s emergence as the epicentre of hip fashion, art and music. Here are 10 of the best swinging London films that followed in its wake.

3 July 2014

By Thirza Wakefield

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

The mid-60s saw a turn in the tide for British filmmaking. The social-realist ‘kitchen sink’ drama predominated in the late 50s and early 60s – films like Look Back in Anger (1959) and Room at the Top (1959) about ordinary people in the north of England and the hard grind of working-class life. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and A Taste of Honey (1961) had their influences in the black-and-white photography of the French New Wave and the vérité style of Free Cinema.

By the mid-60s, all eyes were on London – the swinging capital of the world – where radical changes to social and sexual politics were fanned by a modern youth. Britain was undergoing a cultural revolution – symbolised by its pop and fashion exports, like Beatlemania and the miniskirt; the iconic status of popular shopping areas, the King’s Road, Kensington and Carnaby Street; the political activism of anti-nuclear campaigns; and sexual liberation.

Film followed, as the compass needle swung back away south to the capital. The swinging 60s ushered in a more mischievous, spirited cinema. It saw a surge in formal experimentation, freedom of expression, colour, and comedy. It attracted a new type of director of the likes of fashion photographer Michael Sarne (Joanna) and Richard Lester, who moved into film from radio comedy.

Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) – starring the Beatles at the height of their fame – has a hop-skip kinesis to fit the swinging 60s. Going behind the scenes with the band as they prepare for a London concert, the film keeps pace with the band members as they outrace “potty” fans and send a search party for Ringo who wanders off with a book. 

More than half a century after the release of this influential musical film, we turn back the clock to find 10 more films that let in the light on swinging London. 

The Knack …and How to Get It (1965)

Director: Richard Lester

The Knack ...and How to Get It (1965)

Lester followed A Hard Day’s Night with The Knack …and How to Get It, an adaptation of a 1962 farce by Yorkshire-born dramatist Ann Jellicoe. It’s a parody – startlingly diagnostic for so early in the decade – of male arrogance in attitudes to women in this sex-expectant era.

To offset his lodger’s womanising, naive landlord Colin (Michael Crawford) resolves to rent the spare room to a “steadying influence”. His handwritten ‘To Let’ sign brings two new characters to the door: Tom (Donal Donnelly), whose campaign to whitewash the muddy-water ‘brown’ of on-trend 60s décor has cost him his room at a boarding house; and trusting northern girl Nancy (Rita Tushingham), looking for London’s YWCA.

Lester’s lion-training scene sees Nancy cornered in the whiteout spare room, subjected to a demonstration of the lodger’s whip-cracking competence with women. With its suffocating close-ups and frenzied to-fro cutting, it provides a powerful argument that the predator lurks in culturally approved promiscuity.

By the finish, though, the tables have turned. Tushingham’s climactic scatting of an almost Dadaist ‘Rape!’ monologue opens the lid on the slipperiness of sex talk and the latent hypocrisies of sexual license.

Darling (1965)

Director: John Schlesinger

Darling (1965)

It’s an unexpected sadness of John Schlesinger’s film about the rise of model Diana (Julie Christie) that – even with the added advantage of elegant attire and connections in high-class society – she cannot outmanoeuvre the three men in her life as Nancy does hers in The Knack.

Or is it because she has these things? Admittedly, Diana isn’t as pure-hearted or principled as Nancy. Although it’s love that attracts her to television writer Robert (Dirk Bogarde) and friendship to gay photographer ‘Mal’ (Roland Curram), it’s a future-oriented motivation that fastens her to influential advertising executive Miles (Laurence Harvey). Her succumbing to the temptations of bigger, better possibility – possibilities uniquely attainable in this era of increased social mobility – poisons the well.

The disjunction of sound and image is a feature of the swinging 60s film. Diana’s untrustworthy narration of the story of her life – executed with exceptional subtlety by Christie, who deservedly won an Academy Award for her performance – counterpoints the reproduction of her face in photographs for magazines. Darling subverts the iconography of ‘The Face’ and the It Girl particular this era. Even as early as the opening credits, a poster of her face with bland expression is pasted over a billboard campaign for humanitarian aid.

The Pleasure Girls (1965)

Director: Gerry O’Hara

The Pleasure Girls (1965)

Gerry O’Hara’s second feature unfolds over a single weekend, and follows dimpled Sally Feathers (Francesca Annis) – fresh from the country “like a new-laid egg” – as she settles in with girlfriends in a house in Notting Hill. The film’s jaunty opening song (which O’Hara hated for its glibness) paints London as a free-for-all promised land: “Where the parties and the boys are, where the music and the noise are.”

“Welcome to the sweet life. Big joke,” broods lugubrious housemate Marion. She’s pregnant by her chiseller boyfriend, who – before the weekend’s out – will pawn her brooch for gaming chips before paying for the agreed-on abortion.

But Marion’s not the only one. Sally knows instinctively it’s love she should be wary of – not Neville’s firework parties or the “dreadful beatniks”, to paraphrase her Daddy. All optimism on arrival, soon enough a romantic encounter with the charismatic Keith (Ian McShane) threatens to disrupt the modelling course she starts the coming Monday.

Still with teddies tucked in their beds, the girls are underprepared for the freedoms of sexually liberated London, and the bad sorts that shark its depths. (Klaus Kinski is one such character, an oily, slum landlord modelled on the real-life Peter Rachman.) For all its darkness, The Pleasure Girls is a lively, entertaining film; a tender, tactile study of friends who pull through the lessons of the libertine scene with dignity intact.

The Party’s Over (1965)

Director: Guy Hamilton

The Party’s Over (1965)

The Party’s Over (made in 1963 but held back by the BBFC until 1965) is less forgiving of its cortège of beatnik characters, who stew in their boredom and skulk a blackened London, cratered by the Blitz. Directed by Guy Hamilton, who would move on to gloss-coat colorific violence in his Bond movies of the 70s, it’s a black-and-white morality tale about the party-power of hot-blooded youth, whose volatility vents in suicide, partner-swapping and necrophilia. 

Falling in with Chelsea gang The Pack, the film begins with Hitchcockian foreboding, as the cries of a partygoer, hanging by his fingertips to the ledge of a high French window, go unheard. Unheard by all but two, that is – menacing gang leader Moise turns his back on the man in provocation of The Pack’s prize peacock, Melina, the runaway daughter of an American magnate. When Melina disappears the following night, her fiancé Carson – a clean-cut square arrived from America to bring her home – must sift through a raft of unreliable reconstructions for the facts of her probable death.

Stirred about by a seedy jazz score and Oliver Reed’s glowering performance as Moise, The Party’s Over is a witches’ brew of depravity.

Blowup (1966)

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

Blowup (1966)

Common to many of these films is the theme of escape: escape from the commotion and surfeit of the city into surrounding country or abroad. Sally and Keith drive into the country for a walk in the woods in The Pleasure Girls, and Darling’s Diana finds in Italy an antidote to the pace of London life.

When Michelangelo Antonioni’s fashion photographer takes off into to the comparative escape of a gated city park, he emerges again as witness to a murder. Back in his studio, making blow-ups of photographs of the incident, he tries to build a temporal narrative from sequential images – but the bigger picture won’t come. The longer he spends, the farther he gets from the facts of the event he witnessed but did not see behind the cover of his camera. His imagination billows to fill in the blanks in the lead up to the film’s conclusion, when a mime-show tennis match proves the perceptual middle ground between seeing and believing. Thomas sees, collects and throws back to the Lindsay Kemp-style mime troupe an abstract ball that is and isn’t there.

Blowup’s wide-shot crime-scene green, silent but for the rustling wind, is a snag in the fabric of London, a loophole or aperture. Blowup – the director’s second colour film after Red Desert (1964) – was perhaps the first film released in the 60s to formally explore the fissured psyche and instability of image in the decade of free will.

Alfie (1966)

Director: Lewis Gilbert

Alfie (1966)

For East End wide boy Alfie Elkins (Michael Caine), a woman is a commodity. A jack of all trades, he’ll try for an affair with whoever steps into the path of his present employment, be it street photography or chauffeuring. Not until he goes with an older, well-heeled American (Shelley Winters) does Alfie get a taste of his own medicine.

Alfie’s cocksure narration to camera invests the character with a certain charm, even as he’s ’orribly chauvinist. As when he’s dabbling with Sheffield girl Annie (Jane Asher) – whose crying after sex sets him thinking, after he wheedles an apology from her: “Alfie, I said to myself, she’s as human as you are.”

Among Alfie’s most enduring scenes is a brawl at a local pub, which gets out of hand along to a brass band and real-life publican Queenie Watts singing ‘Goodbye, Dolly Gray’. Another is the protracted backstreet abortion administered to the married Lily; all the more scourging a watch for its context. Abortion was made legal in Britain 1967 – the year after the film’s release. The sight of his lifeless baby moves Alfie, untypically, to tears, but – as he tritely puts it – “not for him – he was past it; for my bleeding self”.

Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966)

Director: Karel Reisz

Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966)

“You’re a class traitor, Morgan, that’s what you are,” says Morgan’s mother (Irene Handl), who raised her son on hammer and sickle and worships Marx for a hearth god. Morgan (David Warner) has taken leave of politics, fixed instead on winning back his upper-class wife Leonie (Vanessa Redgrave), who’s leaving him on account of his erratic behaviour.

Summoning all manner of unusual ruses to delay their separation (a bomb, loudspeakers, a gorilla suit) and Leonie’s easing out of their marriage into another to the wealthy Charles Napier, he’s set back some way by the efficacy of the divorce courts. “I got my decree nisi in 20 minutes flat,” she vaunts to Morgan, sitting beside her; she naked in the bath. “All pink and slippery like a peeled shrimp,” he observes, before they sleep together. Leonie’s veering between warmth and indifference would be toying in another era.

Like Blowup, Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment explores the pressures exerted on the sensitive sensibility. The character of Morgan, also an artist, is never less than lovable; his frank, telegraphic communiqués of an abnormal state of mind endearing as they are funny: “I believe my mental condition’s extremely illegal.” The fantasies and surreal sequences that recur in 60s film, Morgan introduces outright: “Hello dream!”

Here We Go round the Mulberry Bush (1968)

Director: Clive Donner

Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1968)

The dye-tinted daydreams in Clive Donner’s Here We Go round the Mulberry Bush are the manifest fantasies of an adolescent boy, awakening to the sexual revolution. The film’s protagonist lives with his parents – on a housing estate in Stevenage, where he’s served up pink blancmange for breakfast and his Dad sulks if he can’t have quiet for the football results.

Here We Go round the Mulberry Bush is a younger lad’s perspective of the swinging 60s. With boyish charisma and a cracking smile, sixth-former Jamie (Barry Evans) confides his thoughts to camera. Frantic to lose his virginity and bemused by his lack of success, once he’s done it, he’s on to the next thing. “I’ve had enough of bits and pieces!” – he admits. He’s fallen in love with Mary, who – woman of her time – wants none of it: “I’m not a nun, you know.”

Much like Darling, Here We Go round the Mulberry Bush wears the influence of the Free Cinema and social realist films of the 50s, with the occasional unfiltered appearance by a non-professional actor. Shot on location in Stevenage, the film is a valuable archive of new town planning and of a time when kids played carefree and unlooked-for in the streets.

Joanna (1968)

Director: Michael Sarne

Joanna (1968)

Like an open-top tour-bus, this candied, Pop Art, spanking-colour masterpiece stops at every shelter on the swinging 60s route. A rare thing among these films, Joanna tells its story without irony or detachment, immersing the viewer entirely in a London of two speeds: whirligig, on the one hand, and a Scott Walker-scored latitudinal on the other.

Cute as a button, with a voice like a soap bubble, the eponymous Joanna (Geneviève Waïte) is an ingénue, less interested in her art studies than in sleeping around with as many partners as are willing. One could be forgiven for thinking Joanna as sticky-sweet as the blackberry jam that has leaked inside her suitcase, when she moves into a relative’s London home. But her outlook broadens over the course of the film, and even as of the beginning, we are typically off-balanced by the surreally violent visions of our heroine.

Contrived as a Broadway chorus line, vibrant as a screen print, Michael Sarne’s film mixes styles with abandon. Artifice is the ribbon that ties it altogether; appropriate, for a decade fixated with surface. Cumulatively, Joanna evolves a commentary on the consternating cultural and societal issues of the era, so deeply embedded in the fabric of the film it’s sometimes hard to see. A thoroughgoing examination of race, Joanna addresses first-generation immigration, discrimination, police brutality and interracial relationships.

Performance (1970)

Directors: Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg

Performance (1970)

When his gangster boss puts Chas (James Fox) in check for getting above his station, Chas twists the knife a little deeper. But when a beating turns to murder, he runs for cover from the inevitable backlash. Chas buries his head at the Notting Hill home of reclusive rock star Turner, played with beguiling maleficence by Mick Jagger in his debut acting role. In the perfect “little hidey hole” at 81 Powis Square, Chas is better placed to lose himself than ever he expected. For Turner has “lost his demon” and, apt to find it again in Chas, challenges the interloper to step into his world – a world of narcotics and ritual narcissism, where sex flows free and equal between androgynous bisexual lovers. 

Directors Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg delivered to Warner Bros not at all what they had asked for. The film’s explicit love scenes and Spirograph cinematography turned stomachs at a first test screening. But Cammell, who knew Jagger and Anita Pallenberg personally, only painted what he saw.

A Borgesian basement by day; by night, under influence of psychedelic mushrooms, Powis Square is an amaranthine laboratory where “nothing is true; everything is permitted”. As if back in Blowup’s darkroom, where light is processed into image, an alchemical game of dress-up causes the two men to merge identities – becoming one shared, expanded and expansive energy. A confronting film about masks, mirrors and the psychosis of identity, Performance is expressive of the free-falling freedom of the white man in the 60s.

Your suggestions

Bedazzled (1967) poster
  1. Bedazzled (Stanley Donen, 1967)
  2. Smashing Time (Desmond Davis, 1967)
  3. Deep End (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1970)
  4. Privilege (Peter Watkins, 1967)
  5. Georgy Girl (Silvio Narizzano, 1966)
  6. I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname (Michael Winner, 1967)
  7. The Magic Christian (Joseph McGrath, 1969)
  8. Up the Junction (Peter Collinson, 1968)
  9. Catch Us if You Can (John Boorman, 1965)
  10. Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (Peter Whitehead, 1967)

The 60s-set Faustian comedy Bedazzled proved the most popular choice when we asked you what we’d missed from the list. The Peter Cook-Dudley Moore original, mind, not the 2000 remake with Brendan Fraser and Liz Hurley. The 1967 satire Smashing Time also racked up the votes. As Phil Smith pointed out on Facebook, this was Mike Myers’ inspiration for the Austin Powers movies – none of which were anywhere to be seen, incidentally. 

BFI Player logo

Stream hand-picked cinema

A free trial, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Get 14 days free