Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

From kitchen sink to fish tank

Siobhan McGuirk traces the history of social realism in British cinema as the genre starts to make a comeback

June 19, 2011
5 min read


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


  share     tweet  

Social realist art became popular in the Americas at the beginning of the 20th century, where Mexican muralists and Dust Bowl photographers documented working-class communities struggling against harsh social conditions. In Europe, early filmmakers recorded accessible, everyday scenes and documentary titles filled cinemas. In the UK, James Williamson’s A Reservist Before and After The War (1902) laid the foundations for a film movement, tracing a Boer War soldier returning to unemployment and poverty at home.

As further conflicts ravaged the continent, Humphrey Jennings’ wartime snap-shots Listen To Britain (1942) and later A Diary for Timothy (1946) glorified community coherence in factories, barracks and suburbia. Stylistically, these were precursors to the ‘Free Cinema’ movement of the 1950s, which drew inspiration and scripts from playwrights already inspecting the cracks in post-war society.

Kitchen sink

Leading director Tony Richardson described Free Cinema as ‘independent of commercial cinema, free to make intensely personal statements and free to champion the director’s right to control the picture’. His celebrated adaption of John Osborn’s play Look Back in Anger (1959) was hugely influential and bears the hall marks of ‘kitchen sink realism’, though now seems overly chauvinistic and stagey. His later films A Taste of Honey (1961), which addresses race relations and homosexuality through a female lead, and The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner (1961), in which Tom Courtenay’s juvenile delinquent asserts his individuality through sport, have better stood the test of time.

Inspired by the rebelliousness of Italian Neo-Realism and the French Nouvelle Vague, and liberated by the relaxation of censorship laws, Britain’s own ‘New Wave’ of filmmakers shot ‘angry young men’, along with a host of previously taboo subjects, into cinema halls. The popularity of the genre faded, however, as spy thrillers and swinging London-set art films captured the new zeitgeist of Cold War fears and the free love movement. Social realism was forced to find a new home, and became a television staple from the 1960s onwards. The BBC’s stand alone drama slots, The Wednesday Play and Play for Today, which between them ran from 1960 until 1984 gave early breaks to new names Ken Loach, Dennis Potter, David Mercer and Mike Leigh.

On the box

Some of the most vital examples of British social realism were originally commissioned and broadcast for the series, including Loach’s Cathy Come Home (1966), which stoked public outrage over the public housing system. His The Big Flame (1969) imaged a Marxist uprising by Liverpool dockers while Up The Junction (1965) made stirring arguments for the legalisation of abortion, provoking parliamentary complaints that the BBC was breaking it’s commitment to political impartiality.

The seminal 1982 series Boys from the Blackstuff was a spin-off from a stand-alone Play for Today written by Alan Beasdale. The Liverpool-set drama tackles unemployment head on and has been hailed by BFI as ‘TV’s most complete dramatic response to the Thatcher era… a lament to the end of a male, working class British culture.’ The stand-alone play format eventually faded, as channels began to invest in serials and, primarily through Channel 4, feature films.

In the 1990s, a new comedic-realism continued to probe the after-effects of Tory rule. In Brassed Off (1996), The Full Monty (1997) and Billy Elliot (2000), each part-funded by major British TV channels, male characters find self-expression in the arts while their communities struggle for cohesion and survival in the abandoned post-industrial north. Each is shot through with a mix of broad comedy and pathos, rejuvenating a genre that had been deflated by countless ‘by ’eck it’s grim oop north’ parodies. While Thatcher remained a prime target the Labour government was happy to support such ultimately feel-good fare.

New issues, new voices

A certain seriousness has returned in the last decade, where filmmakers like Andrea Arnold and Shane Meadows have made dark excursions to explore psyches damaged by loss, addiction, welfare state failure and war. It marks a departure from the nostalgic tone of Thatcher-era struggles, refiguring the genre for modern morasses.

Meadows breakthough feature 24/7 (1997) sees young hopes enlivened when a boxing club opens in a Nottingham housing project. He aim was ‘to show that, irrelevant of what situation working-class people are in, they’ll make the best of what they’ve got.’ Drawing on his own past, Meadows is adept at presenting the adult world through young eyes, as in A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) and Sommerstown (2008).

Darker themes including the emotional and psychological impact of war are explored in both Dead Man’s Shoes (2004), in which a soldier takes revenge on small time drug dealers in provincial England and This Is England (2006), where the shadow of the Falklands war looms large. The latter was made into an acclaimed TV series last year and follow ups are planned.

Arnold won an Academy Award for her stinging short Wasp (2007) before making Red Road, a slow-burning mystery addressing grief and redemption in a bleak Glaswegian housing block. Fish Tank (2009) is further evidence of her special ability to probe complex personal emotions while more broadly reflecting the disenfranchisement of modern youth. Between them, and other emerging names, the genre looks set to be revitalised.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright