Sounds of the kitchen sink: trad jazz and British cinema’s new wave

Chris Barber’s death is a reminder of trad’s key place n the explosion of a film style that moved to the music of the era

By Andrew Pulver

In the opening scene of the 1959 film of Look Back in Anger, Richard Burton, as “angry” icon Jimmy Porter, establishes his nonconformist credentials by indulging in a sweaty jazz-trumpet freakout as the local youth bop in a frenzy nearby. The scene is an invention of the film-makers – the original play takes place entirely inside a single cramped attic flat – but the took its cue from play-Porter’s fondness for playing a trumpet offstage, to wind everybody up.

Well, it was a smart move by the film-makers – director Tony Richardson and writer Nigel Kneale – to ally their pioneering essay in the film kitchen-sink realism with trad jazz, then at the height of its popularity in the UK. The death this week of Chris Barber is a reminder that the band we briefly see in Look Back in Anger (the film) is Barber’s Jazz Band, who had had a massive chart hit with Petite Fleur earlier in the same year. That’s Barber himself honking his ’bone next to Burton, and the band’s actual trumpet player Pat Halcox shaking Burton’s hand when he gets down from the stage.

Richard Burton in Look Back in Anger

At this distance, it’s a bit hard to appreciate how central trad jazz was to late 50s and early 60s youth culture, but British cinema connections with Barber are illuminating. A few years later Barber and his band would be the headline act for the 1962 cash-in It’s Trad, Dad!, released shortly before trad received its coup de grace from the Merseybeat bands. (The Beatles’ Love Me Do hit the Top 10 later the same year.) It’s Trad, Dad! is by no means a great film: with a plot thinner than Acker Bilk’s ties, it’s basically a series of music-act promo spots strung together with a let’s-put-a-show-on yarn featuring chart toppers Helen Shapiro and Craig Douglas. But it is the directorial debut of future new wave star Richard Lester, who fills out the nothingy script with a whole bag of tricks: fast motion, reverse spooling, meta voiceover, jokey miniatures, even a custard pie from off-screen.

At the other end of the British new wave boomlet, Look Back in Anger help to kickstart UK cinema’s attempt to catch up with its French and Italian peers. Richardson had directed the original stage production in 1956 so was well placed to direct the film adaptation. That key opening scene, great as it is, is really an upscaling of something else Richardson had already experimented on: the amazing short film Momma Don’t Allow, which he co-directed with Karel Reisz, filmed in the winter of 1954-55 and which saw the light of day as part of the landmark Free Cinema programme in 1956.

Continue reading