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Social Realism

The most 'typically British' of all film genres

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Better than any other genre, social realism has shown us to ourselves, pushing the boundaries in the effort to put the experiences of real Britons on the screen, and shaping our ideas of what British cinema can be. While our cinema has experienced all the fluctuations in fortune of Hollywood's first export territory, realism has been Britain's richest gift to world cinema.

As in France, where the 'actualités' of cinema pioneers the Lumière Brothers seemed to descend from the provincial realism of Gustave Flaubert, early British cinema picked up on the revelation of everyday social interaction to be found in Dickens and Thomas Hardy. In Rescued by Rover (1905), Cecil Hepworth caught Edwardian England at a particular moment. James Williamson's A Reservist before the War, and After the War (1902) offered a portrait of the Boer War serviceman returning to unemployment, and was one of the first films to emphasise realism's value as social protest.

In the years following World War I, it was widely felt that the key to a national cinema lay in 'realism and restraint'. Such a view reflected the tastes of a mainly south-eastern middle-class audience. Meanwhile, working-class audiences, it was said, favoured Hollywood genre movies. So realism carried patrician connotations of education and high seriousness. These social and aesthetic distinctions have become running themes in a cinema for which social realism is now associated with the arthouse auteur, while 'entertainment' plays at the multiplex.

Britain's contribution to cinema in the 1930s lay in a state-sponsored documentary tradition that would feed into the 1940s mainstream. Producer Michael Balcon revived the social/aesthetic distinction when he referred to the British industry's longstanding rivalry with Hollywood in terms of 'realism and tinsel'. Balcon, in his position as head of Ealing Studios, would become a key figure in the emergence of a national cinema characterised by stoicism and verisimilitude. Combining the objective temper and aesthetics of the documentary movement with the stars and resources of studio filmmaking, 1940s British cinema made a stirring appeal to a mass audience.

The 'quality film' mirrored a transforming wartime society. Women now worked in munitions factories and the services, mixing with men and challenging pre-assigned gender roles. Rationing, air raids and unprecedented state intervention in the life of the individual encouraged a 'one nation, one goal' philosophy. Target for Tonight (1941), In Which We Serve (1942), Millions Like Us (1943) and This Happy Breed (1944) smoothed away the tensions of a class-bound society in the depiction of factory life, the suburban street, the forces' mess. Historian Roger Manvell wrote: "As the cinemas [closed initially because of the fear of air raids] reopened, the public flooded in, searching for relief from hard work, companionship, release from tension, emotional indulgence and, where they could find them, some reaffirmation of the values of humanity."

In the postwar period, tensions between the camaraderie of the war years and the individualism of a burgeoning consumer society were characterised by what author Michael Frayn has called the 'Herbivore' instinct found in the traditional communities of Balcon's Ealing studio comedy, as opposed to the new 'Carnivore' instinct of postwar private enterprise. Films like Passport to Pimlico (1949) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1952) reiterated gentler patrician values in the face of growing corporatisation and 'Americanisation'. To see Ealing's The Blue Lamp (1949) alongside a contemporary Hollywood film noir is to witness the growing cracks in the postwar consensus.

Documentarist Humphrey Jennings had been responsible for consensus-building works like Listen to Britain (1942) and Spare Time (1939), which, looking at the British at play, forged a 'new iconography', influencing the 1950s Free Cinema documentary movement and the 1960s British New Wave. One of the strongest images of postwar British cinema is that of factory worker Arthur Seaton downing a pint in one at the end of another week in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). Related to, though independent of, the commercial mainstream, the New Wave was fed by the 'Angry Young Men' of 1950s theatre, the verisimilitude of Italian Neo-realism and the youth appeal of the French New Wave. Amid the smokestacks and terraces of regional life, Room at the Top (1958), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), and A Kind of Loving (1962) brought wide shots and plain speaking to stories of ordinary Britons negotiating the social structures of postwar Britain.

Thanks to the relaxation of censorship, characters had sex lives, money worries, social problems. British 'auteurs' like Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and John Schlesinger dealt with prostitution, abortion, homosexuality, alienation and relationship problems. Here were factory workers, office underlings, dissatisfied wives, pregnant girlfriends, runaways, the marginalised, poor and depressed.

The New Wave was symptomatic of a worldwide emergence of art cinemas challenging mainstream aesthetics and attitudes. Identified with their directors rather than with the industry, the New Wave films tended to address issues around masculinity that would become common in British social realism. The New Wave protagonist was usually a working-class male without bearings in a society in which traditional industries and the cultures that went with them were in decline. Directors from Ken Loach to Patrick Keiller, and films from Mike Leigh's High Hopes (1988) to The Full Monty (1997) have addressed the erosion of regional and class identities amid a landscape rendered increasingly uniform by consumerism.

Descendants of the realist flowering at the BBC in the 1960s, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh assessed the impact of the consumer society on family life, charting the erosion of the welfare state and the consensus that built it. Looking back, Loach's work seems to reflect the shift from the collectivist mood of the war years to the individualism of the postwar decades in its very form. Loach's films went from the improvised long-take naturalism of Poor Cow and Kes (both 1969) to the 'social melodrama' of Raining Stones (1993) and Ladybird Ladybird (1994), wider social issues now explored via emotional and dramatic individual stories. The breakdown of the collective consensus in postwar Britain seems to be captured in the tragicomic exchanges of Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet (1990), Naked (1993) and Secrets and Lies (1996). In these films, Leigh examined the fractures in domestic and social life wrought by divisive Thatcherite policies in an increasingly fragmented and multicultural Britain. If the New Wave short-sightedly blamed women for the blighting of British manhood, women in Loach and Leigh are often complex and powerful individuals.

In the 1980s, publisher-broadcaster Channel 4 attempted to cultivate a cinema audience for realism. Responding to the moralistic entrepreneurialism of the Thatcher years, 'Films on Four' My Beautiful Laundrette and Letter to Brezhnev (both 1985) followed characters from the margins as they attempted to stake a claim in the new order. As the funding environment grew more precarious, by the 1990s a formulaic 'triumph-over-adversity' narrative combining the streets and cityscapes of traditional British realism with the feel-good vibe of Hollywood individualism answered the challenge of reiterating a national cinema amid spreading multiplexes. Championed by the incoming post-welfare New Labour, The Full Monty (1997) came to epitomise a new and entertaining conception of British social realism. Meanwhile, more lethal and complex representations of men and women appeared in Gary Oldman's autobiographical Nil by Mouth, Antonia Bird's Face (both 1997), Shane Meadows' A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) and Carine Adler's Under the Skin (1997), adding shade to our best hope for a truly national cinema. Touted in the British press as yet another banner year for British filmmaking, 2002 saw important new films from Loach - Sweet Sixteen - Leigh - All or Nothing - and Lynne Ramsay - Morvern Callar, suggesting a national cinema with a genuine and vital commitment to the way we live.

Richard Armstrong

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Blue Scar (1949)Blue Scar (1949)

Welsh coalmining drama dealing with ambition, class and gender

Thumbnail image of Bronco Bullfrog (1969)Bronco Bullfrog (1969)

Poignant tale of juvenile frustration set in a desolate 1960s East End

Thumbnail image of Burning an Illusion (1981)Burning an Illusion (1981)

Pioneering black feature film about a young woman questioning her life

Thumbnail image of Fires Were Started (1943)Fires Were Started (1943)

Classic wartime documentary directed by Humphrey Jennings

Thumbnail image of Hindle Wakes (1931)Hindle Wakes (1931)

First sound version of popular Northern drama about social convention

Thumbnail image of It Always Rains On Sunday (1947)It Always Rains On Sunday (1947)

Robert Hamer's bleak portrait of life in London's East End

Thumbnail image of Kind of Loving, A (1962)Kind of Loving, A (1962)

New Wave film about a man torn between desire and responsibility

Thumbnail image of Last Resort (2000)Last Resort (2000)

Bleak, compelling drama about a young Russian refugee and her child

Thumbnail image of Life is Sweet (1990)Life is Sweet (1990)

Mike Leigh comedy about a dysfunctional restaurant-owning family

Thumbnail image of Like Father (2000)Like Father (2000)

Drama about an ex-miner's turbulent relationships with his father and son

Thumbnail image of Love on the Dole (1941)Love on the Dole (1941)

Melodrama of unemployment and poverty in 1930s Salford

Thumbnail image of Millions Like Us (1943)Millions Like Us (1943)

Launder & Gilliat film about the lives of women during World War II

Thumbnail image of My Childhood (1972)My Childhood (1972)

Bill Douglas' debut, about 8-year-old Jamie and a German POW

Thumbnail image of Nil By Mouth (1997)Nil By Mouth (1997)

Gary Oldman's disturbing portrait of a dysfunctional South London family

Thumbnail image of Poor Cow (1967)Poor Cow (1967)

Ken Loach's cinema debut about a woman's relationship with two criminals

Thumbnail image of Pressure (1975)Pressure (1975)

Britain's first black feature: a powerful portrait of inter-generational tensions

Thumbnail image of Raining Stones (1993)Raining Stones (1993)

Jobless Bob struggles to buy a communion dress for his daughter

Thumbnail image of Rescued by Rover (1905)Rescued by Rover (1905)

Animal rescue drama that was a major British cinema breakthrough

Thumbnail image of Reservist, Before the War, and After the War, A (1902)Reservist, Before the War, and After the War, A (1902)

Moving drama about a soldier's post-war poverty

Thumbnail image of Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1986)Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1986)

Raucous Northern comedy about a man's affairs with his babysitters

Thumbnail image of San Demetrio London (1943)San Demetrio London (1943)

Inspiring tale of wartime heroism based on a true story

Thumbnail image of Sapphire (1959)Sapphire (1959)

The murder of a black girl in London reveals widespread racial tension

Thumbnail image of Soldier's Return, The (1902)Soldier's Return, The (1902)

A soldier returns from the war and has to track his mother down

Thumbnail image of This Sporting Life (1963)This Sporting Life (1963)

Lindsay Anderson directs Richard Harris as a troubled rugby player

Thumbnail image of Together (1956)Together (1956)

Moving film following two deaf mutes through London's East End

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of British New WaveBritish New Wave

50s-60s films which reinvigorated cinema

Thumbnail image of Ealing at WarEaling at War

Ealing Studios' diverse and fascinating WWII propaganda films

Thumbnail image of Free CinemaFree Cinema

Groundbreaking documentary movement of the late 1950s

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Amber Collective (1969-)Amber Collective (1969-)

Film collective

Thumbnail image of Balcon, Michael (1896-1977)Balcon, Michael (1896-1977)

Executive, Producer

Thumbnail image of Leigh, Mike (1943-)Leigh, Mike (1943-)

Director, Writer

Thumbnail image of Loach, Ken (1936-)Loach, Ken (1936-)

Director, Writer

Thumbnail image of Reisz, Karel (1926-2002)Reisz, Karel (1926-2002)

Director, Producer, Writer

Thumbnail image of Williamson, James (1855-1933)Williamson, James (1855-1933)

Director, Producer, Cinematographer