This is England? The Working Class in British Cinema from A Taste of Honey to The Selfish Giant
In the United Kingdom of 2013 we are told that we are living in austere times but it’s just a temporary thing right? That games console your son wants for his birthday? Your daughter’s dancing lessons – ‘cos she’s going to be a star one day right? Well pay your bills, put a little aside each week and you’ll get there. There is always a brighter tomorrow if we keep our noses clean and to the grindstone. In the fifty-plus years since Shelagh Delaney declared that she wrote A Taste of Honey because she wanted to ‘address social issues that she felt were not being presented’, how much has really changed?
If we look for an answer to the tradition of great British movie making in the genre of ‘gritty’ working class films, from Delaney’s seminal tale of class, race, gender and sexual orientation to Paddy Considine’s no-frills Tyrannosaur or Clio Barnard’s critically acclaimed reworking of the Oscar Wilde story The Selfish Giant, we may wonder what is so different now. But who cares? These are just great films right? We can indulge our sense of righteous injustice and revenge-lust as we cheer on Shane Meadow’s calculating killer Richard as he stalks his pray across the bleak estate-scapes of Derbyshire in Dead Man’s Shoes, or marvel at the cinematic skills of Ken Loach as he captures perfectly a Barnsley boy’s schooldays in his masterpiece, Kes. But just as Loach may be accused of losing his edge with the decidedly toothless Angel’s Share – ‘The best British movie since the last one!’ – so do we demand authenticity.
If we’re serious about films, living as we do in an era of university degrees offering vocational courses in screenwriting, filmmaking and film production, then we must acknowledge that the integrity of our art is paramount, and if it’s going to be made in England, well what have you got? Do you really want to see a trouserless Colin Firth shimmying along a window ledge in the lazy remake of Gambit, or will it be the heart-rending inability of Tom Courtenay’s Billy to break free in John Schlesinger’s peerless Billy Liar that inspires? If Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, written by the great Alan Sillitoe is just a film; if Andrea Dunbar’s majestic Rita, Sue and Bob Too is just a film, then The Satanic Verses is just a book, Blasted is just a play.
British cinema since the 1950’s has provided untold inspiration for the would-be filmmaker but it may also be viewed as a rich source of social and cultural history. The ‘kitchen sink’ dramas of Shelagh Delaney’s era were borne out of the groundbreaking socially realistic theatre of John Osborne, Harold Pinter and Delaney herself, who adapted the screenplay for a Taste of Honey from her own play and located her characters in the bleak Manchester satellite town of Salford; Delaney and director Tony Richardson thus creating the template for the backdrop of many of the classic films that were to follow. As post-war Britain drew lines that would delineate not only class and status in the bright new world of consumer culture, the geography of the country itself was redefined and an influential lineage of filmmakers, playwrights and writers emerged from the industrial towns of the North.
Of course the working classes of Britain are not just confined to the North of England but somehow, in the world of cinema, between life and art where something is lost, something is gained, this often seems to be the case. There is indeed ‘a tradition’ of films that define ‘working-class culture’ and in which, perhaps, we define ourselves and others according to the paradigms of the genre. But with the odd exception, the curve ball of Chris Morris’s Four Lions for example, where is the British movie of the Asian, the Afro-Caribbean and the Eastern European? Is it that as much as we may claim to celebrate cultural diversity, inclusion and equality, we are still a country divided? Or are we a country divided and ruled?
Has there indeed been a return to the ‘Victorian values’ of Margaret Thatcher’s capitalist dream? Consider the obsequious, apprenticeship-chasing wannabe, willingly ridiculed and abused by the great industrialist espousing ‘hard graft’ as he inspires treachery and betrayal. How about the worthy, cap-doffing recipient of a few thousand pounds from the ‘philanthropic’ benefactor’s ‘secret’ millions as he condescends to ‘give a bit back’? Such is the fare of British ‘reality television’ all in the name of entertainment, and if we’re talking about reality in British movies: Angel’s Share anyone? Or perhaps things have never changed that much? How dissimilar to the unpaid internships of Charles Dickens’ era are the ‘work placements’ of today? Of course the would-be filmmakers amongst us would jump at the chance to work for our cinematic role models, for nothing if necessary, but just how long is that bright tomorrow in coming?
And so, As Mike Leigh grows old gracefully with Another Year, Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent as Tom and Gerri Hepple look out from their allotment-in-the-rain shelter across a past in which they worked hard and made it; a past in which others were not so lucky and the slightly tweaked characters of Lesley Manville’s wounded Mary and David Bradley’s lost-at-sea Ronnie find their own kind of shelter at the Hepple’s table. But what of the future – Paddy Considine and Shane Meadows may be the heirs to Leigh and Loach’s crown but what of Andrea Arnold and Clio Barnard? Meadows’ England is not of course the only England and although Considine suggests in Tyrannosaur a moral life after the death of a Christian England, it is perhaps Barnard’s revision of Wilde’s tale in which the promise of a an afterlife is supplanted by the intimation that we must look to ourselves for redemption and love in a new England, a new Britain, of community, equality and peace.
What do you think? Leave a comment.