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Social Problem Films

British cinema and postwar social change

Main image of Social Problem Films

Although the term 'social problem film' could be applied to everything from James Williamson's pioneering social realism (A Reservist, Before the War and After the War, 1902) to Ken Loach films made a century later, it generally describes a number of films made between the end of the Second World War and the dawn of the 1960s. During this period, many British filmmakers began to explore subjects that might have been considered off limits in earlier decades, thanks to attitudes summed up by a notorious comment by Lord Tyrrell, President of the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC), in 1937: "We may take pride in the fact that there is not a single film showing in London which deals with any of the burning issues of the day."

In fact, the burning issues of the day were already being explored in such films as the Paul Robeson vehicles Song of Freedom (1936) and The Proud Valley (1940) and working-class dramas South Riding, The Citadel, Bank Holiday (all 1938) and The Stars Look Down (1939). The Proud Valley was the second film directed by Pen Tennyson, whose first, There Ain't No Justice (1939), suggested that he might become a leading specialist in the field, but he died tragically young. When war was declared in 1939, the need to present a unified image of national identity became all-important, and films were much less critical of the powers that be. However, films like The Lamp Still Burns (1943) and Launder and Gilliat's Millions Like Us (1943) and Waterloo Road (1944) contained vivid depictions of how the war affected the lives of ordinary women.

These last two were made for Gainsborough, much better known for its glossy costume melodramas. However, head of production Edward Black was very interested in social dramas, a philosophy continued by his successor-but-one, Sydney Box, who took over in 1946. Good-Time Girl (1947) was a study of the causes of female delinquency that also incorporated trenchant criticisms of the official treatment of juvenile offenders. Two years later, Gainsborough's Boys in Brown (1949) was set in a borstal, whose governor (Jack Warner) constantly found his liberal instincts challenged by financial restrictions and the refusal of some of his charges (notably a sneering Dirk Bogarde) to co-operate with his rehabilitation programme.

Warner and Bogarde resurfaced two months later in The Blue Lamp (1950), a film that looks quaint today - its long-running TV spin-off was the cosy Dixon of Dock Green (BBC, 1955-76) - but which made a far bigger splash at the time thanks to its portrait of what the introduction defined as a new breed of violent young thug, rejected by the established criminal underworld for being too reckless. The fatal shooting of PC Dixon became a turning point for the genre, a step beyond which even the fearsome razor gangs of Brighton Rock (1947) had not been prepared to go.

The Blue Lamp was produced by Ealing, which succeeded Gainsborough as the leading producer of British social problem films. Studio head Michael Balcon, previously a father figure (socially and professionally) to Pen Tennyson, encouraged his staff to incorporate social criticism into their films. This even permeated the studio's famous comedies, the best example being the collusion between management and unions to repress innovation in The Man in the White Suit (1951). Ealing also nurtured the careers of the producer-director team of Michael Relph and Basil Dearden, who would make many of the most important examples of the genre.

By the early 1950s, the social problem film had been established as a genre worthy of study in its own right. Although drawing on the conventions of other genres (especially melodramas and crime thrillers), the social problem film was distinguished by the way its subject was usually given as much weight as its stars or story: the films used individual human dramas to present a morality tale with wider social repercussions.

A significant obstacle, the BBFC's frequent objections to perceived criticism of established institutions (Good-Time Girl's 'approved school' scenes were heavily cut), was lifted in 1951. Following the recommendations of the Wheare Committee report, the BBFC began to take social context and artistic merit into account when assessing films. At the same time, they introduced the X certificate, restricting admission to those over sixteen but giving filmmakers much more freedom to explore adult-oriented subjects. The first X-certificate social problem film was Cosh Boy (1953), a drama about violent young criminals that also tackled unmarried teenage sex, pregnancy and abortion.

But its conclusion, in which the police deliberately delay their response so that sixteen-year-old Roy can get a thorough thrashing from one of his victims, underscored another characteristic of the 1950s social problem film: the sensationalist surface often concealed a reactionary core - as also demonstrated by the sexploitation melodramas The Flesh is Weak (1957), Passport to Shame (1958) and 'Beat' Girl (1959). If the film was more liberal in intent, it was often flawed by a naïve faith in the incorruptibility of British institutions: Boys in Brown is a good example of this tendency, as are many Dearden-Relph productions such as the probation service drama I Believe in You (1952), and Violent Playground (1958), about the juvenile liaison system.

Not all social problem films dealt with criminality. Frieda (1947) examines Anglo-German relations in the immediate postwar era. Dance Hall (1950) depicts social conflict through a portrait of four young women and their contrasting lives at home and on the dance floor. Mandy (1952) explores the impact of a child's deafness on both her family and the institutions charged with her care. The Brave Don't Cry (1952) returns to Proud Valley territory in its treatment of a Scottish mining disaster. Labour relations were the subject of both the comic The Man in the White Suit and the tragic The Angry Silence (1960), while racial prejudice was a significant element of both Sapphire (1959) and Flame in the Streets (1961).

Homosexuality was the last 'social problem' to be explored in detail. Made in the wake of the publication of the Wolfenden Report. Victim (1961) depicted two onscreen acts of heroism: the first by the barrister Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde) in being prepared to reveal his sexual orientation at a time when homosexual acts were illegal, in order to break up a blackmail ring, and the second by Bogarde himself, the first major star to play an explicitly gay character in a British film.

But by the early 1960s, the era of the social problem film was largely over. Many of its concerns had been adopted by the British New Wave, whose films generally offered a more complex picture of working-class life than the issue-based caricatures of the social problem films. When coupled with much greater interest on the part of British television in tackling similar issues and the massive social changes of the decade in general, the social problem film rapidly lost box-office appeal, and was more or less defunct in its traditional form by the middle of the decade.

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of 'Beat' Girl (1959)'Beat' Girl (1959)

Cautionary tale about a respectable girl turned sleazy stripper

Thumbnail image of Angry Silence, The (1960)Angry Silence, The (1960)

Melodrama about union intimidation, starring Richard Attenborough

Thumbnail image of Blue Lamp, The (1949)Blue Lamp, The (1949)

Classic Ealing police drama that introduced PC George Dixon

Thumbnail image of Boys in Brown (1949)Boys in Brown (1949)

A progressive Borstal governor tries to reform his boys

Thumbnail image of Brave Don't Cry, The (1952)Brave Don't Cry, The (1952)

Drama-documentary about a Scottish mining rescue team

Thumbnail image of Brighton Rock (1947)Brighton Rock (1947)

Graham Greene thriller with Richard Attenborough as a vicious gangster

Thumbnail image of Cosh Boy (1953)Cosh Boy (1953)

The first British X film: a controversial study of juvenile delinquency

Thumbnail image of Flame In The Streets (1961)Flame In The Streets (1961)

Melodrama dealing with race relations and mixed-race romance

Thumbnail image of Frieda (1947)Frieda (1947)

Ealing social problem melodrama about postwar anti-German prejudice

Thumbnail image of Good-Time Girl (1948)Good-Time Girl (1948)

Gainsborough melodrama about a girl's descent into ruin

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

Melodrama of unemployment and poverty in 1930s Salford

Thumbnail image of Man in the White Suit, The (1951)Man in the White Suit, The (1951)

Ealing classic with naive inventor Alec Guinness up against British industry

Thumbnail image of Mandy (1952)Mandy (1952)

Powerful portrait of a family struggling to cope with a deaf child

Thumbnail image of Passport to Shame (1958)Passport to Shame (1958)

Melodrama about a cabbie befriending a girl caught up in the white slave trade

Thumbnail image of Sapphire (1959)Sapphire (1959)

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

Thumbnail image of Victim (1961)Victim (1961)

Dirk Bogarde stars in the first serious British film about homosexuality

Thumbnail image of Violent Playground (1958)Violent Playground (1958)

Powerful drama with Stanley Baker as a juvenile liaison officer

Thumbnail image of Yield to the Night (1956)Yield to the Night (1956)

Diana Dors stars in a powerful anti-capital punishment film

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Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Bogarde, Dirk (1921-1999)Bogarde, Dirk (1921-1999)

Actor, Writer

Thumbnail image of Dearden, Basil (1911-1971)Dearden, Basil (1911-1971)

Director, Producer, Writer

Thumbnail image of Dors, Diana (1931-1984)Dors, Diana (1931-1984)


Thumbnail image of Relph, Michael (1915-2004)Relph, Michael (1915-2004)

Producer, Director, Writer

Thumbnail image of Tennyson, Pen (1912-1941)Tennyson, Pen (1912-1941)


Thumbnail image of Warner, Jack (1896-1981)Warner, Jack (1896-1981)


Thumbnail image of Ealing Studios (1938-59)Ealing Studios (1938-59)

Film Studio, Production Company

Thumbnail image of Gainsborough Pictures (1924-51)Gainsborough Pictures (1924-51)