Some of the commentary on the Brexit vote has centred on the disparity between voting patterns of older groups (leave) versus the younger pockets (remain). The United Kingdom’s decision to exit from the European Union has also resulted in several thought-provoking analyses of London’s neglect of the urban dispossessed from the country’s deindustrialised towns that have, in the words of Ian Jack, been condemned to oblivion.
“At one time, the country’s prosperity had been underpinned by the spinning, weaving, stitching, hammering, banging, welding and smelting that went on in the manufacturing towns; much of the country’s former character was also owed to them – non-conformist chapels, brass bands, giant vegetable championships, self-improvement, association football,” Jack writes. “Surely nothing as significant to the nation’s economy, culture or politics would ever emerge from them again?”
Karel Reisz’s debut feature Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) is set in one such manufacturing town, Nottingham. Adapted from Alan Stillitoe’s novel of the same name, the black-and-white movie is an early example of what came to be known as the kitchen-sink drama. This uniquely British genre includes films and plays that explore the lives of the working class, especially young disaffected males. The Angry Young Man archetype in Indian cinema owes a lot to this hyper-realistic genre, which gives expression to the anxieties, dreams and nightmares of the men and women toiling in low-paid jobs in factories and government offices and living in congested public housing. Their sole mode of escape seems to be the local pub, where they congregate for romance, brawls, music and discussions on politics and the economy.
The pub is where the anti-hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, played brilliantly by Albert Finney, repairs to after his day job as a machinist. Trapped by his hardscrabble circumstances, bored of his work, and filled with a directionless anger, Finney’s Arthur is a ticking time bomb.
Arthur is deeply and perilously involved with Brenda (Rachel Roberts), the wife of a colleague. But when Doreen (Shirley Anne Field) catches his eye, Arthur decides to settle for the same stifling domesticity that characterises his parents. The movie’s climax, in which Arthur and Doreen look at an under-construction public housing colony, is an image of both hope and despair. Arthur might finally move out of his cramped quarters, but the life that awaits him is hardly different from the one that his parents have experienced.
As Brenda presciently tells Arthur, “Liars don’t prosper.”
Albert Finney is perfectly cast as the tough-talking and easily enraged Arthur, whose memorable line, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” has found mention in several songs, including U2’s “Acrobat” from the 1991 album Achtung Baby. Arthur’s braggadocio is exposed in the scene in which he is chased by Brenda’s soldier relatives at a local fair. For all his grandiose statements and rasping remarks about his working conditions, Arthur is a doomed figure.
Reisz, a Czech refugee who moved to England in 1938, is well placed to capture Arthur’s disgruntlement and the insider-outsider status accorded to the young man and his community. Through real locations, authentic local accents and observational camerawork, Reisz conjures up an unforgettable portrait of a corner of England that feels disenfranchised from the goings-on in faraway London. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning works well as a history lesson on the social and economic conditions that have led to the Brexit vote. These murmurs of dissent that have been brewing for over 50 years seem to have finally exploded in a bewildering decision to leave the European Union and potentially jeopardise an economy that has neglected machinists like Arthur.
The kitchen-sink drama tradition, which saw such films as The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and This Sporting Life in the ’60s – has extended all the way to the present. Among the genre’s faithful practitioners is Ken Loach, whose best-known films include Kes and Riff-Raff, and who has continued to illuminate the deleterious effects of the market-oriented economy on the working class as recently as I, Daniel Blake (2016). The tradition continues through younger filmmakers such as Shane Meadows (This is England, 2006) and Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, 2009). This is England, in particular, is a fascinating study of skinhead culture. Shot mostly in Nottingham, the movie explores the workings of a group of adrift men and women through the frighteningly grown-up eyes of its youngest member, 12-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose). Clues to anti-immigrant sentiment, working-class alienation, and an aimless resentment that often erupts in violence are scattered all over this contemporary kitchen-sink drama. In the finest tradition of a genre dedicated to holding up a mirror to reality, it does not end well.