More Grit Please, We’re British

From Richard Burton and Ken Loach to Ricky Gervais and Shane Meadows. A look at Working Class Britain on Film.

There are two definite schools of thought when it comes to the working class and characterisation. The first school takes the track that a working class existence is counter-human and stifling, and thus characters are drawn and morose, never fulfilling their human potential for life until they are able to escape their social predicament.

The second, which can often be found coexisting in films with the first, says that the restrictive conditions of the working class are precisely the conditions to encourage diverse and rich characters, full of colour and spirit and verging even on caricatures- a tradition continued lately and most colourfully by the excellent TV series 'Shameless'. It is this second school of thought which seems to have influenced the early examples of the working class on film- prior to the creative revolution of the British New Wave in the late 1950s working class characters had largely been used for merely comic effect or worse as cannon fodder.

The first phase of the working class on film is the canon of gritty realist movies that have peppered British cinematic history for the productive years since World War Two, which seek to draw genuine portraits of working class existence, without necessarily offering a way out or at least failing in any attempt at a solution.

Lately Shane Meadows has been the king of such films, using the rich tapestry of characters supposedly created by the working class to create wonderful character-lead visions like 'This Is England', 'A Room for Romeo Brass' and 'Somers Town', where the focus is always predominantly on the relationships between characters but where class concerns are never far from the surface.

The origin of such realist films can be traced back to the British New Wave of the late 50s and early 60s and to the so-called "Angry Young Men" of the 50s, where the first examples of this unprecedented gritty realism and social commentary became a regular feature with films like Richard Harris' 'This Sporting Life' (1963), Tom Courtenay's 'Billy Liar'(1963) and Richard Burton's 'Look Back in Anger' (1959).

The New Wave was the first time that the working class was given a voice on film, just as the class began to gain some economic power - prior to the arrival of the new tradition of making working class characters central to the plot of the film, as I've said, characters were restricted to limited roles and were used more as a narrative device than a genuine focus of interest. Unfortunately for this progress, British film in the 1960s began to attract the almighty attention of Hollywood, who ploughed money into the industry on this side of the Atlantic, spelling an enforced hiatus for the working classes on film until Ken Loach arrived at the end of the decade with 'Poor Cow' and of course 'Kes'.

It was round about this time that the definition of class difference on film became far less obvious- during the British New Wave the working class was distinct on screen precisely because the intention of the movement was to give that class its own voice and identity, but as time progressed and class became less of a telling issue in Britain, replaced by race, sexuality and wealth as the predominant social quantifiers, the obvious class boundaries that separated working class and middle class characters on screen became far more blurred and indistinct. This dampening of distinct class boundaries perhaps reflected the parallel criticisms directed toward politicians about a declining sense of working-class unity and purpose in the wake of the Margaret Thatcher and post-Thatcher eras.

In fact, from this point onwards, the greatest focus for working class focused films became crime, as film-makers aligned the working class with the gangster sub-cultures that it had created in reality. Films like 'Get Carter','The Long Good Friday' and 'The Krays' twisted traditional morality codes and presented the crime lifestyle of the underworld as a means to escaping the working class for good.

This trend continued to entirely dominate until the influence of Channel 4's sub-company Film Four in the 80s brought about a return to the kitchen sink realism of the British New Wave of some thirty years before, but with added issues of conflict. Adding issues of sexuality 'My Beautiful Laundrette' (1985) and 'Dance With a Stranger' (1985) marked a new embodiment of the New Wave's original creative manifesto, with 'Mona Lisa' (1986) and 'Educating Rita' (1983) playing their own roles in the shift.

The majority of these new films focused upon the working class as a condition of adversity, to be endured or ideally, to be transcended from.

So how else does the movie universe suggest that its working class characters cast off the obviously restrictive shackles of their class predicament?

Firstly, there is a clear phase of films from the late 90s and early 00s which deemed the 'Working Class Condition' to be stifling and counter-individualist, as I've said, and even more specifically, as the enemy of creativity and artistic expression. Aspiration films like 'Billy Elliot' (2000), 'Little Voice' (1998), 'Brassed Off'(1996) and now even Gervais' 'Cemetry Junction' use the idea of a working class existence as the adverse backdrop for their main characters' aspirations and eventual positive transcendence.

For these type of movies, acqueiscence is an inhuman trait, and the working class is the instituition the largely creatively minded main characters need to move beyond. Interestingly, parents, and predominantly fathers play the personified role of acquiescene; in a tradition that 'Cemetry Junction' continues, they are held up as the anti-role model: the film says "follow the rules, stick to your allotted class, and this is what you will become". In a rather cruel turn, the second generation protagonists' inclusion in the working class is also painted as the continued failings of their parents.

There is of course a second side to the aspiration film: while some main characters are blessed with the ability to leave their working class background with a creative flourish, others are forced, or occassionally choose to take a far more seedy track to bettering themselves. Thus arrives the British Gangster film.

Aspirations, and specifically those related to working class characters feature heavily in the British Gangster film tradition, particularly in faux-working class flicks like 'Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels', whose violent and surprisingly complex plot is based around the central premise of four working class nobodies aspiring to make it big in a card game. The most virulent working class commentary within a gangster movie is visible in Antonia Bird's 1997 offering 'Face', starring working class film stalwarts Robert Carlyle and Ray Winstone, which is a telling portrait of working class existence in post-Thatcher Britain.

Two of the genre's films that represent the pinnacle achievement for the morally repugnant aspirational working class heroes are probably the two best examples of the genre, some thirty years apart- 1970's original 'Get Carter' and 2000's modern classic 'Sexy Beast'. Both films present the working class thug done good- Jack Carter has managed to leave the same gritty streets of working class Newcastle that would see the death of his brother to work for some big-time gangsters in the Fletcher brothers, while Gary 'Gal' Dove is living the slow life in Spain having retired from the crime world.

Interestingly, and key to the idea of the amoral aspiration film is that both men are dragged back by their working class crime roots, Carter by a quest to avenge his brother's murder, and Gal by a menacing maniac in the shape of Sir Ben Kingsley's Don Logan offering one last job on the request of his boss- an equally menacing Ian McShane. The lesson seems to be that no matter what your sharp suits and Spanish villas say, if you choose to leave the working class by an amoral avenue, the departure will be impermanent.

This conflict between the two forms of working class characters which determined the arrival of the two different types of working class aspirational films is again also clearly visible as part of the British New Wave of the 50s and 60s, as discussed earlier. The later films of the movement began to concentrate on these inter-class conflicts, presenting a contrast between the bad apples of the class, like Albert Finney's Arthur Seaton in 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning' (1960) and Tom Courtenay's Colin Smith in 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner' (1962) and the wholesome and aspirational characters who represented their moral antithesis, such as Alan Bates' Vic Brown in 'A Kind of Loving'.

There is a further phase of British working class films that unfortunately glamourises violence in an vaguely unnecessary way. While I dont consider any of Guy Richie's films to genuinely portray the working class, because of the irretrievably fake way he paints his characters, the sentiment of glossy violence actually does shine through in many of his films (particularly 'Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels' and 'Snatch'). But it is the British Hooligan film that best plays with the idea of violence as some sort of perverse release for socially stifled characters- from early works like TV series 'The Firm' (laterly remade into a film), and ID to the newer wave of Hooligan movies that started with 'Green Street' and 'The Football Factory' and last year saw the releases of the aforementioned 'The Firm' remake as well as an adaptation of Kevin Sampson's 'Awaydays'.

For the working class youths involved their weekend "battles" are a perverse means of expression, and a release from the mundanity of their midweek lives and jobs.

'Awaydays' in particular should be commended for the way it takes this idea and makes it manifest on screen: while earlier examples like 'The Football Factory' and 'Green Street' glamourise the idea of hooliganism as a release from the working class condition without really exploring the morality behind such a choice (other than with inevitable come-uppance scenes at the end), 'Awaydays' has the moral conflict of that lifestyle running throughout it. We even see the contrast between types of aspiration, of good versus bad in the simplest sense, play out on screen as Carty and Elvis explore both sides of the coin, talking about creative aspirations while remaining sucked into the culture of violence that they are increasingly aware will end badly for them.

So-called social misery films like Gary Oldman's excellent 'Nil By Mouth' (1997), Tim Roth's 'The War Zone' (1999) and 'Made in Britain' (1982) use the same idea of violence as an escape, though the glamour is conspicuously absent. Here we see violent men, seemingly unforgiveable men who turn their aggression, whether violent or sexual against their families and other characters, but rather than being the mindless release of the Hooligan films, this violence isnt fetished or glorified, it is a disease- a curse of the working class characters who have to endure it.

Beyond 2000, the general film landscape changed once again, a newly invigorated focus on the hooligan film brought with it a reinvigorated focus upon the working class on film, and auteurs like Shane Meadows continued the gritty social realism that had been visible when the "Twelve Angry Men" of the 50s and the British New Wave of the turn of the 1960s first made their mark on British screens.

While there is an argument that the recent portrayal of the working classes in popular film has become somewhat less sharply drawn and more indistinct, hence the decision to set 'Cemetry Junction' in the 1970s when those distinctions were far more obvious. I believe that the working class remains a strong presence within British film. Though the quality of those films, in the wake of the Guy Ritchie effect, has dropped considerably there are still exceptional examples which manage to capture the public's attention, like 'Fish Tank', like Somers Town and like 'Cemetry Junction' itself which merely reinforce that rich tradition.

In summation, it becomes clear that the history of the working class on film is most heavily indebted to the British New Wave of the late 1950s- although they were maybe only half a dozen vastly important films, their legacy is visible throughout the rest of that particular history from the films of Ken Loach, to the diverse and rich British films of the 1990s, to Ricky Gervais' excellent new film 'Cemetry Junction'.

'Cemetry Junction' is at British cinemas now.

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