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Portayal of Working-Class Life in Different Film Movements

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2582 words Published: 29th Jul 2021

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Throughout the British post-war period (1950s-early 60s), the nationalist cinema movement of the British New Wave emerged representing a new and different approach to filmmaking and its representation of the working-class; more specifically, the youths and ‘teenagers’ of said period. However, the politically motivated drive of this movement saw a conflict of interest with that of the mainstream media’s portrayal of British working-class society. It is therefore necessary to establish the contextual grounds of this movement; here I will briefly discuss the political, historical and auterial context and debates to better understand and articulate the nature of this essay. I will then take an original approach, utilising the methodology of historical and cultural analysis and the acknowledgement of the auterial style of the ‘Angry Young Men’ in various ‘Kitchen Sink Realism’ films. This will enable me to illustrate the auteurs intended representation of working-class youths/ juveniles in this movement of films alongside similar scholarly views of those such as Phil Wickham. My initial thesis towards the outcome of this essay leads me to believe that working-class youths/ juveniles are represented in a realist fashion, where they are portrayed as both immoral yet possessing redeeming qualities to give them depth and appear more human.

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In the post-war period, the media and political system pushed towards the idea of an ever closing class divide through the raising of wages for all, this in itself maintained the divide and drew curtains over the idea that it still existed. This newfound boost in shared wealth leads to the appearance of the media coined term and demographic, the ‘teenager’: the consumerist centred societies new target demographic market of youth with newfound excess affluence[1]. The emergence of this saw British cinema take a more postmodernist approach to its filmmaking as political cinema, where elements of realism- ‘Kitchen Sink Realism’- was an ideological drive to a new wave of filmmakers nicknamed the ‘Angry Young Men’ (this name was too shared with the protagonists of their work). These ‘Angry Young Men’ strived to give an accurate representation of working-class society, reflecting their own experiences as members of the middle/ working-class in order to defy the medias farce portrayal of the class system at the time. They drew on the ideals of a realistic portrayal of the class system, on a more socially conscious intent; having a similarly shared focus on the newly emerging social demographic of the ‘teenager’/ youths in their films[2]. Katherine Whitehorn similarly shares the personal memoir of life in the post-war period, outlining the illusion the media ­­­wished to portray and how the ‘Angry Young Men’ of literature brought to light this farce:

“Much of it may have been an illusion – it took books such as Jean Colin’s You Never Had it So Good to make people realise the extent to which the state simply hadn’t solved all social problems, and articles such as Gavin Lyall’s on the slums to show us that they hadn’t all been bombed to extinction and replaced by neat, clean council houses with indoor lavatories. Those came later”[3].

One film notable for its representation of working-class youth is the adapted screenplay form a novel of the same name, Saturday Night And Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960). Reisz illustrates a realistic perspective to the main protagonist, Arthur (Albert Finney); here he is represented as a complex character whose moral and ethical stance on the situations he encounters is varied. He is shown as a surprisingly liberating yet socially immoral person. While he may have excess affluence as seen where he shows off his abundance of clothes to Doreen (Shirley Anne Field), he is however self-aware to his powerlessness in the grand scheme of things, reflecting contextually to the masking of the still existent class divide. Statements of Arthur’s such as “what I’m out for is a good time” or “don’t let the bastards grind you down” don’t see him as a societal problem, but a socially liberating figurehead for his perseverance and accuracy in representing the working-class in fact terms.

Finney’s portrayal of Arthur is also notable in winning him the British Academy Award for performance, further ingraining the impression that his performance had a depth such as the representation of his character as a charismatic presence, owing to much of the film’s success[4]. As Phil Wickham has noted, “It was the first real look at an industrial working-class that was no longer a victim to be stroked and pitied; now people had money in their pockets and with it more freedom”[5]. It is therefore clear that a realistic tone is put forward to the film’s representation of working-class life. Its naturalistic freshness of subject matter and cast alongside gritty, onset locations brings authenticity and therefore a more realistic approach to the film[6]. For example, the use of long shots and lack of close-ups of the locations such as the factory distances the audience from the lives the working-class and outlines the escapist nature to their work conditions. The factory workers are not represented as individuals but as a group of anonymous spiritless people. They work like robots, starting and stopping work when told to functioning only as background. As Anton Sutandio states “This provides a documentary-like, realistic way of life of the working-class, cut on the other, with the focus solely on Arthur”[7]. Reisz portrays the working-class life of youths as a moral struggle, as their fabricated freedom through affluence is ironically contrasted with their powerlessness in areas not just in the workplace, but society as a whole.

Similarly, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962) also encompasses similar elements shared with Saturday Night And Sunday Morning. Richardson illustrates the ideology of working-class youths as anti-authoritarian through his portrayal of the film’s protagonist; the young juvenile Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay). The film itself alternates with its title with some naming it Rebel With A Cause[8]; this in itself giving the direct impression that its revolves around themes of anti-authoritarianism, differing from similarly named Rebel Without A Cause (1955, Nicholas Ray) as it implies a mandate to the rebellion in the narrative; the mandate to show a socially realistic perspective of working-class life by the ‘Angry Young Men’.

At the end of the film, Colin stops in front of the finishing line. This shows Colin to not give the Governor (Michael Redgrave) the credit for his success as the authority figure who has given him the chance to run, instead, he proves his talent and stands by his anti-authoritarian principles. Wickham shares a similar viewpoint where he states “Colin refuses to conform to be a victim, thug or dupe of authority”[9]. In the scene when Colin is let out to run under no supervision, various long shots of him running alongside non-diegetic uplifting jazz music is played. The sense of freedom that Colin feels here is shown in the frantic way he runs and emphasised with the soundtrack, as the camera distances itself from him, he distances from the authority at the borstal. This is then followed by a medium close-up of his face as he slides down, allowing the viewer to see his perspective; the spinning sky above. This reflects Colin’s conflicted state of mind and his view of authority, as the heightened perspective and emphasise towards his imposed new freedom is illustrated to reflect his inner struggle with self-identity in an ever-changing society.

The lack of subtly represented in the film has been criticked by those familiarising it with the French New Wave such as François Truffaut; here he notes that “the films stylistic devices were considered too gimmicky and derivative and the anti-authoritarianism denounced as crude”[10]. For example, direct address to the anti-authoritarian ideals are illustrated when Stacey is beaten up, and the boys sing William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’. This is intended to give style to the scene as the Blak­­­ean song refers to the struggle with human identity and how the authoritative figures attempt to affect them; referring to the context of the film where the media intended to change the youth’s identity by merging them as a new demographic of the working-class. While there was a direct address to the messages of anti-authoritarianism within the film, it did manage to fulfil the ‘Angry Young Men’s’ ambitions in outlining their ideological ground point on society their films stood at. ­­­It is therefore clear to say that the film represents working-class youths/ juveniles as anti-authoritarian as their characters are suffering from an interior struggle with self-identity, reflecting the same ideological standpoint the ‘Angry Young Men’ aimed to represent of society at the time in reference to the emergence of the demographic of the young working-class individual.

However, Room At The Top (Jack Clayton, 1959) represents a different outlook on how the working-class youth reacted to the class system; where Saturday Night And Sunday Morning saw Arthur accepting his position in the class system, Room At The Top saw its protagonist Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) keen to leave it. The synopsis revolves around Joe, a working-class man who falls in love with two women; Alice (Simone Signoret) a married French woman, and the other Susan (Heather Sears) the daughter of a wealthy local industrialist. This narrative reflects the state of mind of the young working-class, a conflict between the will to escape by going with Susan for better economic prospects, or Alice the woman Joe is really in love with. Joe sadly ends up picking Susan, the agent of social mobility, choosing ambition over love.

In cooperation with my argument, Wickham states, “Britain at all levels is depicted as desperately holding on to class as a means of self-belief”[11]. This can be seen when Joe’s told to “stick to his own kind” by his relatives in the film, sharing the same ideals of Arthur in Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, exemplifying the idea that class is now one’s own idealistic belief and not just their placement in society. This illustrates the working-classes struggle to escape their class for the prospect of a better quality of living, the better choice economically but not emotionally. This saw a reflection of Britain’s own struggle in establishing class warfare in a time where its ambiguity of class’ existence was of mixed perspectives.

The way in which the British New Wave has represented working-class youths has taken a socially realistic approach, sharing with my initial impression of their representation. The ‘Angry Young Men’ behind this movements films have intended to illustrate their protagonists as not just a one-sided heroes/ villains, but instead, complex characters whose inner struggle reflect and represent the class-based struggle in Britain at the same time. They are therefore liberating characters whose anti-authoritarian principles help to illustrate a depth and surprising likeability. In my opinion, this helps to directly oust out the mainstream media and political world for their veil of illusion cast over post-war society. Here the lives of these ‘Angry Young Men’ and their ideological standpoint are not just reflected in their protagonists and narratives, but their use of representation enables their protagonists and narratives to too reflect British post-war society.


  • Powell, Danny. Studying British Cinema: The 1960s. Auteur, 2009.
  • Sutandio, Anton. ‘Ambiguous Depiction of the Working-Class in Two British New Wave Films: A Taste of Honey and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’. Accessed 27 October 2018. http://www.academia.edu/16495373/Ambiguous_Depiction_of_the_Working-class_in_Two_British_New_Wave_Films_A_Taste_of_Honey_and_Saturday_Night_and_Sunday_Morning.
  • ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)’. BFI. Accessed 28 October 2018. https://www.bfi.org.uk/films-tv-people/4ce2b6af19a0c.
  • Vermilye, Jerry. In The Great British Films, 178–205. The Citadel Press/ Lyle Stuart Inc., 1978.
  • Whitehorn, Katharine. ‘Katharine Whitehorn on Life in the 1950s | Society | The Guardian’. The Guardian, 11 October 2007. https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2007/oct/10/features11.g2.
  • Wickham, Phil. ‘BFI Screenonline: Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The (1962)’. Accessed 27 October 2018. http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/439950/index.html.
  • ———. ‘BFI Screenonline: Room at the Top (1958)’. Accessed 30 October 2018. http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/440778/index.html.
  • ———. ‘BFI Screenonline: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)’. Accessed 27 October 2018. http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/440628/index.html.


  • Saturday
  • Loneliness
  • Rebel
  • Room at the top

[1] John Hill, ‘British Society 1956-63’, in Sex, Class, and Realism: British Cinema, 1956-1963, ed. John Hill (London: BFI Pub, 1986), 5–34.

[2] Danny Powell, Studying British Cinema: The 1960s (Auteur, 2009), 12.

[3] Katharine Whitehorn, ‘Katharine Whitehorn on Life in the 1950s | Society | The Guardian’, The Guardian, 11 October 2007, https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2007/oct/10/features11.g2.

[4] Jerry Vermilye, in The Great British Films (The Citadel Press/ Lyle Stuart Inc., 1978), 192.

[5] Phil Wickham, ‘BFI Screenonline: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)’, accessed 27 October 2018, http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/440628/index.html.

[6] Vermilye, 193.

[7] Anton Sutandio, ‘Ambiguous Depiction of the Working-Class in Two British New Wave Films: A Taste of Honey and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, accessed 27 October 2018, http://www.academia.edu/16495373/Ambiguous_Depiction_of_the_Working-class_in_Two_British_New_Wave_Films_A_Taste_of_Honey_and_Saturday_Night_and_Sunday_Morning.

[8] ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)’, BFI, accessed 28 October 2018, https://www.bfi.org.uk/films-tv-people/4ce2b6af19a0c.

[9] Phil Wickham, ‘BFI Screenonline: Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The (1962)’, accessed 27 October 2018, http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/439950/index.html.

[10] Wickham.

[11] Phil Wickham, ‘BFI Screenonline: Room at the Top (1958)’, accessed 30 October 2018, http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/440778/index.html.


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