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The British Hero by Michael Brooke
Introduction Stiff Upper Lips Working-Class Heroes Heroic Outsiders Heroic Failures The Antihero
Historical Heroes Literary Heroes Cultural Heroes Local Heroes    
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Working-Class Heroes
Still from This Sporting Life (1983)

This Sporting Life (1963)

Despite the cinema's audiences overwhelmingly being drawn from the working classes, it was not until well after the twentieth century's halfway mark that the notion of a "working class hero" became widespread or even plausible. Before then, even leading working-class roles were either seen as comic or sinister, or a last-minute plot twist would reveal them to have come from a socially elevated background - exceptions such as the scrupulously realistic Love on the Dole (1941) merely proving the general rule.

In 1956, John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger revolutionised English drama by focusing on a new kind of hero - Jimmy Porter, a working-class man who knew he was more articulate and intelligent than the people who looked down on him, and refused to accept this pigeonholing. The play's title became a label, Osborne being one of several "angry young men" who produced plays, novels and ultimately screenplays depicting proudly working-class characters trying to better themselves while remaining true to their roots.

The so-called 'British New Wave' of the late 1950s and early 1960s grew out of this movement, key titles including Room at the Top (1958), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), A Kind of Loving (1962), The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1962) and This Sporting Life (1963). By then, the media was full of real-life working-class heroes such as David Bailey, the unofficial inspiration for the photographer in Blow-Up (1966), an unmistakably working class character whose professional success was achieved on his own terms. New stars who emerged from this period included Alan Bates, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Albert Finney and Richard Harris, none of whom could plausibly have played leading roles in the drawing-room and Empire-fixated British films of the 1930s.

The "new wave" was over by the mid-1960s, but the revolution it inspired continues today - by the early years of the 21st century, it seemed almost compulsory for a British screen hero to have working-class origins. However, the British cinema has been slow to dramatise important episodes in working-class history, one of the few exceptions being Bill Douglas' Comrades (1986) about the real-life Tolpuddle Martyrs.

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