Poor Cows and Angry Young Men: 50 years of Kitchen Sink Drama

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The director Ken Loach and the theatre critic Michael Billington remember the dawn of the 60s well. “The 50s weren’t bleak and depressing,” spluttered Loach, listening to art critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston explain the grim postwar era that spawned the new British realist painters such as John Bratby. “It was great. We had just won the war!”

The scene was set for a lively re-appraisal of that remarkable time in British culture on last night’s Night Waves on BBC Radio 3. The era between the late 1950s and mid 1960s when bold working class protaganists — factory workers, rebellious borstal boys, funeral parlour clerks, pregnant school girls, and lonely miners-turned rugby players were celebrated in beautifully shot films.

In 1963 Nell Dunn published Up The Junction – her novel about the lives of a group of working class girls in south London and Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life – based on the David Storey novel – opened in cinemas. The film is regarded as a high point in the New Wave of British social realist filmmaking, but also a terminus in a way, for it was also a box office failure. 2 hours long, expressionistic in its beauty and its darkness, its ending is unremittingly bleak.

It’s surely no coincidence that the great British Social Realism-influenced film successes that followed all majored on humour and fantasy. Billy Liar the same year, used many of the same techniques of kitchen sink drama  – documentary style visual montages and voice overs, but it is the escapist fantasies (Billy imagining he’s machine gunning annoying parents, nagging girlfriends or employers) that make it so endlessly watchable.

Alfie, perhaps one of the most misunderstood films of the 60s, is a remarkably dark film about masculinity (including a back street abortion)  made not just palatable, but given its power, thanks to its cheery presentation and glossy style.

Film composer Neil Brand provided a fascinating insight into the powerful music scores that underscored the heroes’ struggles, or undermined them, with ironic comment. On a grand piano in the studio he unpicked the use of Jerusalem in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (also used in Peter Watkins’ documentary style Privilege) and the multiplicity of textures in Johnny Dankworth’s often mimicked swaggering theme to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. My highlight of the evening was probably watching Ken Loach’s smile, as Brand sang one of Donovan’s perfectly judged folk songs from the soundtrack to Poor Cow.

Ken Loach, film historian Melanie Williams and Michael Billington discussed the macho focus of many of the plays and films and how far it was fair to label plays such as Look back in Anger as ”misogynistic”. Billington made a bold defence and, pointed out the trail blazing work of Ann Jellicoe at the same time. Loach’s early films for cinema and TV stood out — Up The Junction and Cathy Come Home (both Wednesday Plays)and Poor Cow — for focussing so often on sympathetic portrayals of young working class women.

Both Up The Junction and Cathy Come Home contributed directly to the public and political pressure to legalise abortion and tackle Rachmanism and homelessness because of their harrowing perspectives on both issues. Interestingly, Loach quietly said on Night Waves that homelessless has returned as a great a scandal today.

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What’s still shocking is how often those X-rated films were deliberately marketed in a exploitative way for their supposed sexual content, at odds with the clear intent of their original writers and often directors. (Check out the This Sporting Life poster at the top) The DVD cover for Poor Cow still features a sensationalist poster of Carol White apparently posing for glamour photographers, even though the scene in the film is actually a disturbing one about her exploitation by leering men.

It perhaps explains why Loach revealed that he enjoys the film more now, years on from its release, with a distance from its mismarketing.  John Schlesinger’s A Kind of Loving — the most parody-like of the genre, features a sex scene in which only Alan Bates’ girlfriend is naked. There is something very current and reality tv like about the “sell” of those early films — Look! Working class girls stripping off.

The last part of our discussion brought us up to date. Loach and Michael Billington reflected in frustration on what they regard as the wallowing in 50s and Edwardian  nostalgia of current British television drama. The Hour as much as Downton Abbey. True we have Made In Chelsea as much as TOWIE, but the deification of Benedict Cumberbatch, talented though he is, is odd. Is he really representative of the cutting edge of young British actors? (Watch him in the astutely-observed 80s-set class drama Starter For 10 again for a jolting reminder of a more critical use of the public school type). Could a Michael Caine rise again to play officers and gentlemen? Or would he be trapped in soaps or playing butlers in period dramas as a number of actors from working class backgrounds have recently complained in interviews?

Murray Melvin, in 1961 the young star of A Taste of Honey, is proud of the fact that the new social realist theatre and cinema “gave the working classes back their dignity”, marking a break with the stock comedy servants and fools of earlier plays and films. In last night’s programme he provided an acerbic commentary on the way the working classes were treated as “exotica” by the middle class theatre going set at the Royal Court. Like Michael Billington, he believes the Establishment has fought hard then and now, to win back control of culture and who gets to play its great roles.

But in a media world where middle and upper middle class producers like Peter Bazalgette (recently appointed head of the Arts Council of England) made his fortune through the Big Brother bear pit filled with the vulnerable and ill educated  — people like Jade Goody — have we come full circle?

Or is watching all this with a sense of “irony” while tweeting about it, still the great justification, that explains it all away?

Further reading/viewing

You can listen again here to the whole programme. The Night Waves page also links to the BFI’s great website on the British New Wave and social realism with many film clips. Plus an earlier interview with Sylvia Syms and Melanie Williams about a lesser known female focussed drama — Woman In a Dressing Gown (1957)

A Taste of Honey (1961)  my previous print and radio interviews for The Spectator and Radio 4’s One To One with the stars Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin

One to One with Murray Melvin (Radio 4 interview 2012)

The Girl From The Black Country: Julie Walters on social mobility and kitchen sink drama

 

About Samira Ahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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