Social Realism and the ‘British New Wave’

By Chris Gallagher

Social realism is one of the defining characteristics of British Cinema but what is it and how do we classify it? A focus on the everyday gives the audience an experience in the authentic and shows the world and society for what it truly is. It’s a gritty representation of the world using techniques developed by the early British documentary movement.

A specific emphasis on the working class, showing the British public a vision of themselves, defined the working class realist movement. Working class realism was first explored through a series of films produced in the 1950’s and 1960’s in what has been described as the ‘British New Wave.’

This ‘Kitchen Sink Realism’ as it would be known, showed the working class as angry and in the midst of social change. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) sees the working class protagonist, Arthur Seaton, unwavering in his determination to have a good time and not be trapped within his working environment. The comradeship of the ‘all in it together’ mentality of the war years was replaced with individuality in a developing consumer culture.

The actions of the ‘Angry Young Men’ in these films could be seen as a reaction to the consumer culture that was engulfing Britain at the time. The urbanization of the country would lead to alienation of the working class and a sense of extreme anti-establishment ideals, characterized by Arthur Seaton’s internal monologue at the beginning of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

“I’d like to see anybody try to grind me down. That’d be the day.
What I’m out for is a good time. All the rest is propaganda.”

The British ‘New Wave’ gave a realistic representation of the working class within British Cinema. No longer content with just being a cog in the industrial machine, these characters openly dissented, participated in casual sex and alcohol, focused on their social lives over their work. An underlying realist approach made the characters seem genuine.

Thatcher’s Britain

Working class realism in Thatcher’s Britain of the 1980’s would focus on the collapse of industry in a time of social and economic change due to heavy unemployment and poverty. The iconic images from the 1960’s of bustling factories were replaced with abandoned waste grounds and decaying council estates.

The loss of industry effected traditional working class gender relations as the males, unable to remain the breadwinners in the household, became, to an extent, castrated. The theme of masculinity is explored in working class realist films throughout the 1980’s as the traditional working class role of the male is questioned. In a film like Business as Usual (1987) we see a reversal of gender roles.

The psychogeography of the majority of working class realist films of the 80’s is in the north of England, a territory ravaged by the destructive legislation of Thatcher’s government. The realist movement in British Cinema was an important form of political filmmaking, as the plight of the working class was exposed for all to see.

Cool Britannia And The Popular Realist Film

The realist films of the late 80’s and early 90’s continued to focus on a widening economic gap between the class systems and how society was dealing with life post-Thatcher. The traditional working class realist films were gritty and realistic, struggling for commercial success due to the themes and tone of the films but that would change in the 1990’s.

Investment in UK film by the US studios saw American and British co productions such as Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Notting Hill (1999) become commercially successful. These films would play on the US idea of ‘Britishness’ lacking any detailed insight into class, gender relations or the exhilarations of urban modernity.

These commercially successful US/UK co. productions would influence a new kind of working class realist film, a popular, more mainstream version. The Full Monty (1997), Brassed Off (1996) and Billy Elliot (2000) share the same concerns and themes as traditional working class realist films but are focused on a more optimistic outlook. They focus on the ‘community spirit’ of working class areas but with no real insight into class politics or agendas.

The popular working class realist film posses’ similar iconography to the traditional style, they are generally set in the industrial hub in the North of England and deal with Thatcher’s Britain, somewhere where strikes and unemployment are commonplace. They focus on collective action, not in a political sense but more community spirit.

Where a Ken Loach film integrates the political plain at the time and the struggles of the working class in a grittier and darker tone, a film like The Full Monty shows the working class as a metaphor for the state of the nation at the time. In this instance the New Labour entrepreneurial spirit, as the steel workers are seen to regain their self-respect by becoming strippers.

New Wave Legacy

Working Class Realism is an important staple of British Cinema. Since the 1990’s we have seen different creative visual representations of what it means to be working class in modern day Britain.

The work of Shane Meadows has seen a poetic interpretation of working class life that essentially embodies realist aesthetics but allows the audience to actively seek their own understanding of the subject in a more expressive way. The practice of Ken Loach, which hasn’t changed since his early work of the 1960’s, is a more traditional take on working class realism that is a ‘strategy of observation, rather than involvement.’

From the traditional approach of Ken Loach to the contemporary look of Shane Meadows, we see that realist techniques and style may change but the defining message of the struggle of the working class remains the same. It’s an important message that needs continually updated.

Realism in British Cinema is as important today as it was during the British ‘New Wave’ of the late 50’s and early 60’s. The realist movement has helped to map Britain visually and in a pragmatic way through the films they have produced. The social and political characteristics of the realist films help to tap into the psyche of the nation at a specific time.

One thought on “Social Realism and the ‘British New Wave’

  1. How do you feel the series of This is England has worked in keeping Social Realism a factor in their narrative, giving that the series has spanned a period of time over almost a decade, do you think they it has become second tier subject matter.


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