Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960)
Kes (Ken Loach, 1969)
“Don’t let the bastards grind you down…. What I’m out for is a good time. All the rest is propaganda.” (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)
To say that English film underwent a significant shift from the mid to late-fifties would be an understatement. The industry that had previously produced genteel drawing-room comedies and middle-class dramas suddenly shifted into a rawer and more immediate idiom, that of the working-class cinema movement. Although the movement can be viewed as our own counterpart to the French New Wave and the postwar Italian neo-realism movement typified by De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, there was much about it, particularly in its obsession with social inequality, that was distinctively English, and it fed off similar pre-war attempts at realism as well as the documentary tradition. Films, television plays and theatre all developed a new voice, rough and frequently angry, but also often lyrical. With directors such as Reisz, Richardson, Schlesinger, and Loach, a new era in English filmmaking had begun, and although lighter entertainments continued to be produced, a realistic perspective on working people's lives had been brought to bear.
Two of the most famous films of the age, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, starring Albert Finney and Shirley Anne Field, and Kes, starring David Bradley and Colin Welland, are representatives of a genre which included such films as Room at the Top, This Sporting Life, A Taste of Honey, and the television play Cathy Come Home. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, based on the book by Allan Sillitoe (a major literary impetus behind the movement; his The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner was also made into a film) deals with the day-to-day life of Arthur, a rugged, brooding lathe operator who covertly resents both his employer and his mistress’s husband. Brilliant black-and-white photography and a typically late-fifties Johnny Dankworth score enhance the portrayal of working class Nottingham, with its hard-grind factory life and pub escapism contrasting sharply with one another. Albert Finney’s “method” performance as a typical working-class antihero is effortlessly natural, and is matched by the cool knowingness of Shirley Anne Field as Doreen, his eventual girlfriend.
It is good to be reminded of a time when films had a point, and were able to couch it in non-didactic terms. Ken Loach especially is one of the grand old stalwarts of the working-class film movement, continuing to make searingly reproachful studies of the hardships faced by the poor, especially the young, into the heartless post-modern age. Kes is a good example of this, a harrowing film based on a book (Barry White’s exceptionally perceptive A Kestrel for a Knave) that is equally fine. As a case study of the effects of a detrimental social environment on a child and the ways in which this environment prevents the child from reaching its potential, it is brilliant. The symbolism of the kestrel, which can fly free within a circumscribed sphere, contrasts tellingly with the pinched and cold home environment of the schoolboy Billy Casper who loves and takes care of it. Although often a difficult film to watch, it is a fascinating document from a time when the cinema could effect social change, instead of merely entertaining (for example, Loach’s own Cathy Come Home succeeding in re-igniting the debate in Parliament on homelessness).
In many working-class films there is a deliberate contrast between the conditions of life in the town (“those dark satanic mills” of the unofficial national anthem) and the surrounding countryside. This is especially pronounced in Kes, with Billy’s frequent escapes to the countryside first to observe kestrels and then to fly his own bird deliberately juxtaposed with his ghastly experiences at school and his dysfunctional home life. It can also be observed in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in the shape of Arthur’s fishing expeditions, which, for him, are unusually contemplative and contrast sharply with the aggressive way he behaves in the town.
Both films are extremely interesting sketches of different aspects of working-class life, one from the perspective of a factory worker, the other from that of a disadvantaged schoolboy. There are significant differences between the films, however. Arthur has more personal resources than Billy and a support network of extended family that is not available to the child. And although Arthur’s social environment leaves much to be desired. he is, in many ways, the architect of his own misery, while Billy Casper is a victim, pure and simple. There is a contrast here between the more complex moral outlook of Reisz and that of Loach. However, both films underline the effects of life in towns on their poorer inhabitants, and each is a slice of life from its time: pungent, raw, and unsparing either of its characters or its audience.--Isabel Taylor