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.

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.


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


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