For an aficionado of British social realism, Fish Tank (2009) is a bittersweet achievement. Andrea Arnold’s celebrated coming-of-age drama, set on an Essex housing estate, is a raw, pleading film. Focusing on working-class Britain, it offers an urgent portrayal of complex family relations. Its success is pleasing. A few years ago, this kind of film was extinct and filmmakers like Arnold were in danger of dying out. Yet the singular praise it received highlights how far social realism has become a marginal cinematic practice where it was once a dominant form.
It has not been abandoned entirely, but the imperative has changed. British social realism no longer implies a filmmaking style and narrative based on socialist principles and critiques of pervasive class divides. Instead, the genre has come to prioritise entertainment and voyeurism – and the British working class still lacks cinematic representation.
Kitchen sink to commercial interest
The popularity of the genre is tied to political context. It is rooted in John Grierson’s 1930s documentary movement, which aimed to use film as an ideological weapon to combat political apathy and encourage democratic cohesion post-Depression. Early social realist film was defined by Marxist perspectives. Genre-defining films such as Tony Richardson’s Look Back in Anger (1958) and Lindsey Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963) aimed to expose the effects of capitalism on troubled, working-class characters and assert socialism as the only solution for its narrative themes – unemployment, poverty, racism and exclusion. For all its prolific urgency, however, ‘kitchen sink’ realism was short lived and cinema audiences’ interest in British working-class existence waned during the 1960s.
The 1980s saw a renaissance, as Channel 4 sought to extend the representation and range of typical television characters and topics to include marginal groups and issues in society. The channel’s head of fiction, David Rose, was highly influential. As BBC head of drama, Rose had produced Play for Today throughout the 1970s and worked with Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. His Film on Four productions both reflected and opposed the political hegemony of the decade. Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Chris Bernard’s Letter to Brezhnev (1985) are typically anti-Thatcherite, critically illuminating the social impacts of government policy.
Channel 4 had been able to establish itself with socially provocative films via funding from levies paid by ITV companies. Under the 1990 Broadcasting Act, however, the channel effectively became a commodity. Desire to innovate and the need for advertising sales were at cross-purposes and as the commercial imperative became the paramount concern, content was compromised.
The New Labour effect
More profound changes occurred during the New Labour years, during which the three main independent film funders – FilmFour, the BBC and, in particular, the UK Film Council – increasingly operated to support substantially profitable transatlantic films. Privileged scripts sold America a sanitised, white, upper-middle-class version of England, which had been a hit in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). In Notting Hill (1999), the true ethno-social composition of a particular part of London is knowingly misrepresented in order to fit the mould.
Thus encouraged, filmmakers produced work from a liberal, middle-class perspective for liberal, middle-class audiences that was occasionally about, but not for, the working-class. Reflective of Blair’s mandate for a classless society – which, paradoxically, meant assimilation into a middle-class one – and supported by ministers riding a populist, sanitised wave of ‘cool Britannia’, films such as Billy Elliot (2000) became well-publicised, roaring successes.
The allegation that liberals view social realist films like intellectual issues in abstract thought raises questions about whose interest a narrative serves. Billy, a young Tynesider aspiring to be a ballet dancer against the backdrop of the 1984-85 miners strike, must ultimately relocate to the middle-class south to live happily. His embourgeoisement implies that working-class culture is incapable of nurturing a desirable mode of existence.
Black filmmaking was also co-opted into New Labour ideology, where a hegemonic version of what it is to be black British was fixed by accordingly compartmentalised arts funding. In Saul Dibb’s Bullet Boy (2005), for example, interesting, oppressed characters are presented without exploration or moral critique of the institutional system that produces their economic and social hardship.
While the work was celebrated as diverse, urban and worthy, black people arguably became the mere subjects of white middle‑class imaginations. Ethnic minorities featured, but did not strategise, reinforcing beliefs that issues raised in the film are cultural as opposed to political. This has a marginalising effect that seems to reinforce, rather than ameliorate, the otherness of the subjects, often conforming to media stereotypes and their obsession with gun crime. In the 1970s and 1980s, black filmmakers had used documentary realism to attack hegemonic media portrayals of black British behaviour in films such as Pressure (1975), Babylon (1980) and Territories (1984). These contrast significantly with Bullet Boy, which was suddenly aggrandised as culturally valid.
The derogatory representations of the 1980s have only become more sophisticatedly expressed. Black film is once again in need of an effective political alignment, and consideration must be given to whether social realism offers a more appropriate cinematic and sociological strategy than current race relations discourses.
The new imperative
British social realism is not just about portraying the working class in motion, taking hand-held cameras to the nearest council estate, or even a certain vernacular. It is the collective idea, and the lived experiences that proceed from this. It is about refocusing attention on the oppressive political and social frameworks that embolden coalition Britain and how these affect the troubled working-class characters we view. In our current context, it is not impossible to imagine a return to a cinema that has such a vital social role.
Already, there is a rising awareness about the lack of realistic working-class and ethnic minority representation in film. Directors such as Andrea Arnold and Shane Meadows (This Is England) are presenting characters conventional British cinema usually chooses to ignore, deny or patronise. Along with Ken Loach’s continued work, they represent the more credible, contemporary cinematic efforts to address social issues.
Yet Loach, who has demonstrated remarkable fidelity to socialist beliefs in his treatment of the working class, while enduring censorship and funding battles, remains the only practitioner at his level to take this approach in his films. Other filmmakers of a social realist persuasion need to make clear where their commitments lie, accompanying stated commitments to working-class representation and social reform with appropriate cinematic choices. They must defend their visions against commercial interest.
Art flourishes in times of austerity, and filmmakers now have fertile ground to make narrative-based comment. It is appropriate to contend that working-class films and stories must emerge most strongly at times of socio-economic distress.
Any renaissance in socio-political imperative focused social realism will be tempered, however, by financial pressure on the UK film industry. As the industry waits to see the film funding mandate handed to the British Film Institute by the coalition, the recent international success of films such as The King’s Speech (2010) and An Education (2009) may herald the return of British heritage film.
In terms of reviving the commercial viability and success of British cinema, these films have their place. Whether this will be paralleled with a body of films reflective of the re-emergence of working-class politics and visibility remains to be seen. The BFI, the BBC, FilmFour and Creative England can contribute by empowering those who are willing and able to meaningfully confront social inequality on screen. That they find the conviction to do so is in the interest of British cinema and society.
Read this alongside Siobhan McGuirk’s potted history of British social realism.
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
Greenwald speaks Trump, War on Terror, and citizen activism
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas