Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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.
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee