Greatest changes to a society come after wars. In all honesty, wars themselves are rarely cause for change, serving merely as a catalyst for it, by shaking the society’s structure to its core and weakening it, making it susceptible to the impending forces. Did the British society really change after the Second World War?
The upper classes would certainly say yes. Their position in the hierarchy, their social role as curators of the British culture, as well as the Empire itself, were all badly damaged, they would argue. But would the worker agree? Did a safer workplace await upon his return from the slaughterhouses of mainland Europe, Asia, and Africa?
John Osborne, the first playwright to be called an angry young man by the press came from such a background and had combined elements of his life with fiction to write a play which initially divided the critics, but nevertheless made a forceful impact on the society as a whole. Look Back in Anger, first performed in 1956, is now considered a milestone in British theater, making a dramatic change from escapist plays which dominated the stage before.
Other writers followed suit, and what ensued was an informal movement of plays and novels which usually centered around adolescent men from working-class backgrounds, and their clashes with the rigid structure of the British society.
It was not long after their breakthrough that their dramatic potential was recognized in film, which started the so-called New Wave of British film. This marked a radical change both thematically and stylistically from the customarily produced romantic or war films. In the period between the late 50s and the mid-60s, most New Wave films chose to deal with adult topics in an earnest and realistic manner, at the same time shifting the focus to underrepresented provincial and proletarian characters.
This choice of subject matter was ubiquitous in art at that time, and the same label already applied to a school of realist painters was attributed to films: kitchen-sink realism.
These films are usually centered on male protagonists, often adapted from literary works by the “angry young men” generation, anti-heroes whose personal struggles stem from the real or imagined conflicts with the society, authority, and the class system itself. Thus, often without being explicitly political, they decisively confront and challenge the status quo. They also demonstrate the emergence of the urban consumerist middle class, often criticizing their lifestyle and aspirations.
The success of kitchen-sink films at the box office as well as with professional critics testified to the need for a change felt by the public bored by conventional filmmaking.
New Wave films later expanded their scope regarding both subject matter and style, but social realism remained a strong idea in British cinema, influencing authors like Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, or, in newer times, Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsey. Loach in fact, started within the movement, but the term itself is more tightly bound to a particular generation, and their connection to the “angry young men” movement.
1. Look Back in Anger (Tony Richardson, 1958)
Osborne’s seminal play was adapted to film not long after its initial theatrical production. The initiator of the adaptation was Harry Saltzman, Canadian producer who was fascinated by the play, and who later found success in launching the Bond franchise. He urged director Richardson as well as Osborne to set up Woodfall Productions in order to produce the picture, although Osborne himself wasn’t interested in adapting his own text into a screenplay.
Richard Burton stars here as Jimmy, an educated but misadjusted young man who works a sweet stall at a market, a job far below his capabilities, as many believe. He is married to Alison (Mary Ure, repeating her role from the theater production) daughter of a colonial officer in India, and they both live in a squalid apartment off of his small pay.
A Welsh lodger, Cliff, who is also Jimmy’s partner, stays in their spare room. Jimmy’s poisonous tirades directed at anyone who wants to listen, but mostly at his wife whom he abuses mentally, provide us insight into the characters’ backgrounds. The plot is moved forward by the arrival of Helena (Claire Bloom), actress and Alison’s friend, who comes to stay with them for a while. An unexpected love triangle arises.
The film version introduced several new appearances whose primary function is to illustrate the societal issues. Being a pioneer of kitchen-sink movies, its poetic and style differ slightly from most of the other films in the movement. It is not overly realistic, especially when it comes to Jimmy’s angry Shakespearean tirades or the overly-dramatic and exceptionally unpleasant romance.
2. Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1958)
The only film from the list that actually won an Oscar (two actually), even though many were nominated, Room at the Top was director Jack Clayton’s feature film debut. It is an adaptation of a novel by John Braine, who wrote it with Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami in mind. Interestingly enough, Mordecai Richler, the Canadian author who lived in England in the 50s, best known for writing Barney’s Version, was allegedly involved in adapting the novel, although his work is uncredited.
Set in the first years after World War II, the story follows Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) a former POW. With his parents killed in a bombing raid just several years before, there is nothing tying him to his home in Dufton, which to him equals a “lifetime sentence”, so he sets out to a booming town of Warnley, where he lands an accounting job with limited prospects.
Ambitious and calculating, he immediately sets as his main goal to reach The Top – a neighborhood of mansions and money, and everything that goes with it. Since his job doesn’t promise him adequate advancement opportunities, he sees one in Susan Brown, daughter of the town magnate, who is also an actress in an amateur thespian society. However, his lust also draws him to an older, married woman, which leads him to a series of unfavorable events.
The main merit of the film is a frank depiction of the strained relationship between the upper and the working classes. Deliberately set just after the war, it shows the old forces still in play, and the ruthless young men aiming to usurp their position. It tackles the questions of sex, especially extramarital relations with a similar bluntness, which led to the film being given an X rating.
3. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960)
Adapted from a novel by Alan Sillitoe, the film centers on Arthur (Albert Finney), a somewhat careless and rebellious young factory worker. He is sexually involved with Brenda (Rachel Roberts), the wife of one of his older colleagues, Jack, with whom Arthur has a cordial but less than intimate relationship.
However, he is also courting Doreen, a girl his age who isn’t as eager to engage in casual sex. Balancing between the two romantic interests, as well as attempting to hide the affair from Jack will prove to be a challenging task, especially when his relationship with Brenda is affected by the revelation of her pregnancy.
Unlike Jimmy from Look Back in Anger, or Joe from Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’s Arthur is a more relatable and sympathetic character.
Although the importance of some kitchen-sink films partially lies in the choice to present detestable characters in order to prove a point of how rigid and unfair societal norms create such individuals, it was necessary as well to show the strife of ordinary people one can more easily identify with. Although his joys in life are simple, Arthur has a basic understanding of the worker’s predicament and the unfairness of his position.
The prospect of abortion, although the word itself was not explicitly used, is discussed throughout the film, which was a novelty at the time. Also, a short but intense violent episode adds a somber tone to the story, keeping the viewer from taking it lightly.
4. A Taste of Honey (Tony Richardson, 1961)
Adaptation of a play by Shelagh Delaney, by Delaney herself, is one of the rarer kitchen-sink films from a female perspective. It was lauded as an example of a successful adaptation from theater to film. This “angry young woman” wanted to show working class people as different to the stereotypes seen before, with complex and dramatic, often difficult lives.
The title gives away the mood of the film, promising us a glimpse into the lives of people who often get nothing but a short spell of happiness in their entire existence. Rita Tushingham plays Jo, a teen living with her alcoholic mother, Helen (Dora Bryan), who marries an oafish man on a whim. Jo is left pregnant from a casual encounter with a black sailor, and unexpectedly finds the tenderness she needs from a homosexual young man.
Despite the bleak setting, the film itself has a healthy dose of humor, mostly coming from the characters themselves, who resort to it as a manner of keeping it together in tough situations.
5. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962)
Marginalized characters are an important element of kitchen-sink works. They were given space that wasn’t given before, a chance to be seen as complex human beings, and their importance acknowledged. It was an opportunity to have their position understood rather than judged.
Tom Courtenay plays one such youngster, Colin, who was arrested for burglary and consequently sent to a borstal where the ideal of discipline appears to be modeled after the military. The governor who supervises the institution has gentlemanly manners and is keen on seeing the children adopt them too.
Upon realizing that Colin has a propensity for running, he persuades him to run on a competition they are organizing against a public school. Colin, however, with his animosity towards authority and his instinctive anarchism, finds it difficult to comply. Flashbacks help tell the story by revealing the protagonist’s background, in order to emphasize his personal tragedy.
Exploitation of the people by the state seems to be the key idea behind this film. It is in fact the interplay between class-based capitalism which creates such vulnerable individuals and populations, and the state’s cynicism in its approach to such people, that is the intended point of the film.