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.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill


8