THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER

07:02:17

Running’s always been a big thing in our family, especially running away from the police.

Colin Smith (Tom Courteney) is a working class lad who, having robbed a bakery on impulse with his mate, ends up in borstal. The Governor (Michael Redgrave) notices Colin has a talent for running. With a cross-country competition against a local private school approaching, he sees the lad as a chance to gain kudos by beating the posh boys and bringing the cup home to Ruxton Towers Reform School.

It is based on a book by Alan Sillitoe, who also wrote the screenplay. Director Tony Richardson was associated with the Free Cinema Movement of the 1950s along with Karel Reisz and Linsay Anderson and their influence is evident in many films of the time. It was made by Woodfall Film Productions, which was set up in the late 50s by Richardson and the playwright John Osborne, originally to produce the cinema version of Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger (1959)Woodfall Films went on to make many other key British films, often tagged with the epithets British New Wave and Kitchen Sink Realism. These included Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961) and Kes (1969).

It all takes place between the end of the war and the blossoming of the 60s. England seemed a drab, damp place then, steeped in coldness and beholden to the class system. When the Governor realises Colin can run, he is rewarded with privileges and trust. The gates are opened and he is allowed to run on his own down deserted country lanes flanked by leafless trees and vestiges of snow.

Being an awkward, angular chap, his style is gangly and asymmetrical. We thought he looked a bit like Paula Radcliffe. During these solitary training sessions, his mind is free to dwell on life before reform school.

Told in flashback, we see the robbery at the bakery with Colin’s pal Mike (James Bowlam), how they meet a couple of girls (played by Julia Foster and the fabulously named Topsy Jane) who they take to Skegness, and finally how they are caught by the long arm of the Nottinghamshire law.

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There are one or two incongruous moments. For example a couple of scenes are sped up, presumably for comic effect. Personally I found these distracted from the overall mood. There are also moments of great visual flair, for instance Colin silhouetted against an open sky as the sun sets. The black and white cinematography was by  Walter Lassally.

The contrast of the claustrophobic confinement and regimented life in borstal with the freedom of the open road and the countryside is a key element on which the picture hinges. Colin always returns dutifully back after his runs, repaying the trust shown in him by his superiors, however his final act of militant rebelliousness is a kick in the teeth to conformity and the class system.

It was distributed by Bryanston Films, a company linked to several other Film Night favourites of British cinema.

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