Has the recent stream of films set against the backdrop of the industrial north given us a new movement to rival the legacy of the British New Wave?
There’s something rather familiar about the opening scenes from Brassed Off. A montage of images of miners hard at work, finishing their shift and setting off for home at the end of the day, walking back home towards streets of terrace housing set amongst an industrial northern landscape. The similarities with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning are undeniable, and the parallels do not end there. Brassed Off is just one of a number of recent films that pay homage to the cinematic triumphs of the 1960s British New Wave. But can we see these recent films as a new movement depicting northern working class life, or are they simply one off tributes to the glory days of 1960s British filmmaking?
In recent years there has been a return to a traditional style of filmmaking that combines a sense of gritty documentary realism and social conscience, with a sympathetic protagonist – and an individual story with a collective message. Mark Herman’s 1996 film Brassed Off, Peter Cattaneo’s The Full Monty (1997) and the recent hit Billy Elliot (Stephen Daldry 2000), have captured the imagination of audiences. They have offered a return to a style of filmmaking that portrays the struggle of the working classes set against the stark backdrop of an often overlooked industrial north, presenting a working class hero struggling against the odds to escape from the harsh reality of their surroundings. Their success has once again provided a voice for working class northern Britain.
The 1950s and 60s saw a country still enjoying post-war economic affluence, full employment and a new sense of opportunity and change. A new film movement emerged that reflected the shift in ideology and experience, gave the industrial working class a voice for the first time and showed that working class life was as complex and emotionally charged as any other. Films such as Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1958), A Kind of Loving (John Schlesinger, 1962) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960) broke new ground with their unflinching examination of the hopes and ambitions of young people struggling to make sense of new identities, and their attempts to break out of their constraining circumstances.
The New Wave examined the isolation of the working class from political and economic decision-making and the psychological alienation of struggle, a tradition that continued through the hard-edged realism of the work of Ken Loach and Alan Clarke. The films of the British New Wave also focused on the individual, and explored contemporary issues through the eyes of a sympathetic hero, producing an engaging tale framed by social issues. Many of the films of this time were adapted from contemporary novels, which had also broken new ground by adding a working class voice into the traditional literary framework. This poetic literary influence can be seen on the screen, as the personal struggle of the hero competes with the harsh northern industrial landscape. The fragility of the relationship between Vic (Alan Bates) and Ingrid (June Ritchie) in A Kind of Loving, warmly and delicately handled by Schlesinger, is equally as powerful as the spontaneous feel of northern realism that runs through Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
These elements can also be seen in the recent spate of contemporary films that have focused on the working class north. This north, however, is in stark contrast to the post-war industrial strongholds of the 1950s and 60s.
The success of Billy Elliot served to inject a little energy into the British film industry, with the focus once again on a working class hero, indicating that the strength of British cinema perhaps lies in its ability to both challenge and entertain. The economic and social landscape may have altered since the 1960s, but the core principles remain the same.
There is a role once again for the angry young man. The working class hero is still present, and there is a sense of an individual story being told within a wider picture of social change. The Full Monty concentrates on Robert Carlyle’s Gaz, who feels empty and disenfranchised, and often angry. It’s his big ideas that become the focus for the film. Billy Elliot follows the dream of one boy, with community and family tensions serving as a compelling backdrop, and Brassed Off uses a network of main characters, giving more of a suggestion of collective and universal struggle.
The themes of sexuality, masculinity and identity are also integral to the plot. The divisions between men and women, and the loss of masculinity are examined closely in The Full Monty, and Brassed Off highlights the separate struggles facing the women of the village as Grimley Colliery closes. Billy Elliot wants to dance, and faces a battle against prejudice against what is seen as a feminine dream. Room at the Top The decline of industry, the loss of jobs and a way of life and social upheaval are continuous themes running through these northern towns. This change inevitably leads to a loss of identity. Whilst Arthur Seaton battled against conformity, and Billy Fisher daydreamed his way through life, today’s working class heroes are struggling to come to terms with a social upheaval thrust upon them by a callous economic climate. They are not just searching for their identity; they have had it snatched away from them.
The realistic, documentary style locations are still as gritty as ever. Drab and colourless terrace houses line the streets; characters live in tatty council houses and bed-sits. Local people are integrated into the cast. Just as Karel Reisz used Nottingham locals in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Mark Herman has the Grimethorpe Colliery Band making up the numbers in Brassed Off. Furthermore, love and marriage also feature strongly. Just as our angry young men of the 1960s feared commitment and marriage, their contemporaries are not so keen either. The breakdown of marriage also features heavily as pressures eat away at all aspects of characters’ lives.
Inevitably, there are frustrated endings, again suggesting parallels with real life. The pit closes and the Grimley Colliery Band disperse, men lose their jobs, we never do discover if the men of The Full Monty ever find work or happiness. Only Billy Elliot seems to do well for himself. Other social factors have also been introduced, with issues such as homosexuality addressed more openly in The Full Monty and Billy Elliot. Race has also been tackled through other films with a northern setting such as Bhaji on the Beach (Gurinder Chadha, 1994), and East is East (Damien O’Donnell, 1999.) This serves to strengthen a tradition of highlighting difficult and unfamiliar issues in the same way that the New Wave broke new ground previously. Also, the visual flair of the 60s New Wave is still in evidence. There is a sense of poetic style that adds to the emotional intensity on the screen. The hauntingly beautiful music of the brass band is poignantly played over scenes of the pit being voted into closure in Brassed Off, the energy and excitement Billy Elliot reveals as he dances in his bedroom is touching to watch, and the emotionally awkward scenes between Gaz and his son in The Full Monty which bring tenderness to the film. The focus on comedy also highlights effectively the pathos of the subject matter, and lends an emotionally charged contrast. These films may appear more populist than their 1960s equivalent, but they have their own stylistic touches that recreate the subtlety of the New Wave directors.
These contemporary films highlight the human tragedy of economic and political change within a working class, northern locale, with the loss of family life, divisions, and the sense of pride and identity. Now it’s not just the young men that are angry, it’s the whole community. There is a stronger sense of collective struggle, but the issues raised are still familiar to the contemporary viewer. Just as one could identify with the aspirations of Joe Lampton in Room at the Top, or the rebellion of Arthur Seaton, the modern working class film raises the issues of unemployment and the breakdown of traditional northern communities, an unfortunate feature of contemporary life.
Billy Liar The British New Wave changed the face of cinema, and the working class hero was now an acceptable face on the big screen. However, Thatcherite politics and the decline of the national industries during the 1980s produced a new wave of social change to examine on screen. Unemployment, recession, identity, a shift in gender roles, and multiculturalism have entered the social agenda. Filmmakers are not afraid to tackle these issues. The cinema of post-Thatcherite Britain has an altered political and social agenda, as the post-war boom of possibility has given way to economic downturn and industrial wastelands. While our 1960s protagonist had an attainable dream of escaping his limited surroundings, our modern day hero feels he doesn’t have the same opportunity. The economic climate may have altered, but the principles remain the same. The resurgence of the past few years has only served to strengthen the acceptability of a changing northern backdrop and a working class hero as the face of British cinema.