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Kitchen Sink Realism

Shades of Grey       


The New British cinema of the late fifties and early sixties, often labelled ‘kitchen sink realism’, was a movement coming from two perhaps antithetical sources. Firstly there were the filmmakers mainly from documentary backgrounds. Then there were the texts that were to become the basis for many of the films: contemporary plays and novels. Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson, John Schlesinger and Tony Richardson were the major filmmakers who explored Britain documentatively during the fifties, whether it was Schlesinger making Hyde Park or Terminus, Richardson co-directing Momma Don’t Allow with Reisz, or Anderson making O Dreamland, Thursday’s Child and Every Day Except Christmas. It was a movement described as Free Cinema, and its purpose was to allow for “experiments by young talent in film style, technique or subject”. This was Lewis Jacobs in an article published in The Documentary Tradition, adding that the movement’s aim was to “support ideas unlikely to find sponsorship under ordinary commercial conditions.”  The movement wanted to move away from the more ‘objective’ documentary filmmaking of John Grierson and others in the thirties, and while admiring the work, Nina Hibbin in a piece on ‘British New Wave’ in Movies of the Fifties, wondered whether “the ‘personalized’ view was sometimes patronizing or snobbish.” Perhaps some thought there was too big a gap between the filmmakers who were all from comfortably off backgrounds, and generally educated at Oxbridge, and the subjects of the documentaries, who were mainly working class. Momma Don’t Allow focuses on an evening out at a jazz club, following a butcher, hairdresser and a young cleaner, while Every Day Except Christmas shows night workers at Covent Garden market. We are the Lambeth Boys concentrates on working class youths from the titular locale, and we might wonder at one moment when they discuss the death penalty whether director Karel Reisz would have been better leaving them to it rather than intruding with a voice-over that contextualizes what they are saying. Were we really so very far from Grierson?

One wouldn’t want to make categorical links between the condescension perceived and the class differences between the subjects of the documentaries and the filmmakers, but what made kitchen sink realism interesting was partly the combination of the strength of working class voices meeting the filmmakers’ own ambitions. Most of the films were not only based on contemporary plays and novels, but on plays and novels by writers from the working class. John Osborne Stan Barstow, Alan Sillitoe, John Braine, Shelagh Delaney and David Storey were all in various ways connected either to working class life or a regional upbringing. But these roots can be exaggeratedly poor for effect, and it should be remembered that Osborne went to a minor public school, no matter if his mother was a cockney barmaid, while Storey attended the Slade school of Fine Art, and was brought up in the relatively salubrious Wakefield in Yorkshire. There was a feeling, however, that, for the first time in British cinema, working class voices were being heard. As Alexander Walker reckoned in Hollywood, England, writing on one of the first films of the wave, Room at the Top, released in 1958: “at that date it was a rarity to hear a regional accent on the lips of a British film star…”. By working from the novels and plays of people who were writing about the workers rather than the social elite, the subjects of the documentaries became characters in fictional worlds that more clearly allowed space for personal thought and feeling. Indeed a couple of them did so to the point of fantasy. Both Schlesinger’s Billy Liar and Reisz’s Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, coming nearer the end of the wave, even in the latter case after it, in 1963 and 1966 respectively, inserted scenes that were the products of the characters’ own imaginings. If before there was a feeling that working class life was to be presented peripherally, by the mid-sixties it could be shown centrally and even from an internally psychological perspective.

Some of the directors were more prolific than others, so their contribution to the movement was more pronounced. If we rule out Morgan as a work of strictly kitchen sink realism, Reisz’s contribution was limited chiefly to one feature film, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. He was someone who liked to work in a “painstaking, stamp-collector’s way…I like to have it all at my fingertips before I start. It is a form of fear I suppose.” (Hollywood, England)  Yet perhaps this work from an Alan Sillitoe novel, with Albert Finney in the lead role, is also the most emblematic film of the movement, the film that captures both the anger of the young man (to paraphrase the name of the literary movement that preceded kitchen sink and consisted of Osborne, Braine, Sillitoe and others), and at the same time the northern milieu. Set in Nottingham, with a script from Sillitoe, Albert Finney was maybe the ideal embodiment of the working class man doing well for himself but unlikely to make good. He earns by the standards of the community a decent living working in a factory, and still lives at home, but his selfish streak contains within it a stronger self-destructive one. Whether cheating with a work colleague’s wife (Rachel Roberts), or taking up with probably the prettiest girl in town (Sally Anne Field), Arthur Seaton’s swagger is what counts. He is a distant cousin of Marlon Brando’s figure in The Wild One when Brando’s asked what is he rebelling against and he replies “what have you got?”

The two key scenes here are probably an early sequence where Seaton drinks another man (Colin Blakely) under the table but as a consequence falls down the stairs, and a later one where he gets beaten up by squaddie friends of his cuckolded work colleague. The preceding moments in each sequence capture the arrogance of a man that fails to see the difference between the self-aggrandizing and the self-destructive. In the former scene, he wins the bet no matter the cost to his liver, and shows in the latter that his married lover is besotted by him, which he sees as more important than escaping from the husband’s friends who give him a beating. The egotistical gains made seem weak next to the damage he does to himself. In his autobiographical work, Raw Material, Sillitoe would say of someone he knew that “he could not see beyond the limits of his own conflict”, and Seaton’s problem here is that he cannot see that for all the momentary gains he makes defending what he perceives as his honour, there is a wider world mocking his  efforts at self-definition. If the film is narratively book-ended by the drinking game near the beginning and the beating near the end, it is visually book-ended too. In the opening shot Reisz shows us the factory space and closes in on Seaton working a machine. At the end of the film Arthur’s at leisure, in the fields at the back of the housing estate with Field’s Doreen in close up, before the film shows them walking away into the distance. Seaton’s life probably won’t get much better than it already is: a modest income that will be eaten up by a wife and children, and with a woman who is unlikely to become any prettier than she happens to be at the moment he walks back to town with her. It would be unfair to regard the film as condescending, however. It is more that Sillitoe and Reisz show a man who thinks he is more in control of his life than he happens to be, and does not have the wherewithal to see the bigger picture  that is the film we are lucky enough to be watching.

Room at the Top preceded Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by a couple of years, and indicates if there are moments in Reisz’s film where Seaton lacks a brain, there are many moments in Jack Clayton’s where Joe Lampton lacks a heart. Lampton can see much more clearly than Seaton the class structure, and is determined to work his way up it, even if his feelings are more for an older French lover than the daughter of one of the richest men in the town in which he works. Adapted from John Braine’s novel, but directed by Clayton whose general work did not at all share any of the preoccupations of the movement, it starred an actor (Laurence Harvey) who was born in Lithuania and known for epics like Knights of the Round Table and King Richard and the Crusaders. It was Clayton’s debut film, and before it he had worked not in documentary but as an associate producer on Alexander Korda films, the sort of cinema the young filmmakers were reacting against. This hardly makes it a bad film, but it seems to contain more narrative devices than most of the others, and has a clearer narrative arc and slightly more melodramatic elements than some. When Lampton loses his temper with his French lover (Simone Signoret), it seems more plot mechanics than astute behavioural observation. As he berates her for appearing nude as an artist’s model, so the film creates a moment which allows the characters to break-up, and then exacerbates the mechanical with the rich daughter becoming pregnant. The film is more nuanced than these manipulations suggest, but the narrative craft of Room at the Top can’t easily be extricated from its conventions. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a less immediately engaging film, but tries to find its purpose through the originality of Arthur Seaton, where Room at the Top does so through the more readily archetypal. Joe Lampton is the traditional man on the make, the person who arrives from a small town to a large city and wants it all. There may be some irony in the notion that this place is not London, Paris or New York, but the principles behind Joe’s ambitions remain the same. More than fifteen years later Clayton would go on to adapt The Great Gatsby, a story about a man who makes it also, but, like Lampton’s, the victory is pyrrhic.

However, it needs to be acknowledged that none of the filmmakers associated with kitchen sink realism remained within its realm, and the filmmaker most closely associated with this type of cinema was not part of the wave at all: Ken Loach. Most of them used it as an opportunity to embark on a mainstream cinematic career, and maybe none more so than John Schlesinger. Schlesinger’s debut was A Kind of Loving, from Stan Barstow’s novel, a quiet account of a reasonable man finding himself in unreasonable circumstances after getting his girlfriend Ingrid pregnant. Both Lampton and Seaton could easily be referred to as selfish buggers, but when similar claims are levelled at Vic Brown (Alan Bates), the label doesn’t quite stick. Lampton is looking to get on and the clambering to the top means you often use bodies as rungs. Seaton might not be going anywhere, but his constant, piecemeal egotism means that everything is a challenge rather than an encounter. Vic looks like a man who cares, and Bates has the soft, slightly hurt look of a figure with a decent soul but a frustrated life, and the film plays the two off each other. Sometimes he is loving and affectionate; other times forceful and angry. As Ingrid and Vic set up home in the mother-in-law’s house, so the broader frustrations of a small-town existence and working as a draughtsman for the rest of his life are played out in the microcosm: in constantly watching his manners in the house of the right-winger who disparages unions and looks down on the working class. The film’s conclusion might be the most affecting of any of the films of its era: with Ingrid and Vic realising they care for each other, but with Ingrid obviously in love with Vic, and Vic unsure, perhaps, whether his muted feelings for his wife are because of a deep lack of interest or a superficial need to find their own place. Like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning it ends with the characters moving away from the camera, becoming small within the frame. These are characters unlikely to find room at the top, and it is no accident that Joe Lampton would be the product of a film sequel, Life at the Top, in the mid-sixties – here was a man going somewhere. The respectively noisy and quiet anger one finds in the leading characters in the Sillitoe and Barstow adaptations is that they probably knew they weren’t.

Schlesinger followed A Kind of Loving with Billy Liar, and the film shares the earlier one an interest in stunted lives, but explores it through a figure who is exuberantly mythomaniacal. Billy doesn’t only lie to others, though, he also possesses a parallel universe of fantasy that the slightest pretext will allow him to disappear into. Played by Tom Courtenay, Billy can be woken up out of his slumber by his bullying dad and immediately turn the father’s command that he get out of bed into an opportunity for fantasising about  Ambrosia, a state where Billy rules. The film was a move towards a facetiousness that British cinema would show in the mid-sixties, as if in deliberate contrast to the dour demands of kitchen sink, with films adopting the attitude and tone of swinging sixties London. It is a tone one finds in Nothing but the Best, A Hard Day’s Night, Morgan and Darling.

Darling was the film Schlesinger made after Billy Liar, and one might be tempted to attack Darling with some of the acerbity the film itself shows towards ambition, advertising, and metrocentric lifestyles. Commenting on the documentary Dirk Bogarde’s character makes where he asks “what is wrong with England?”, Pauline Kael says in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, “the film itself presents an answer just as silly and badly thought out as theirs, and yet seems to congratulate itself for having made such a clever, sophisticated statement about modern society.” Schlesinger would say many years later: “Darling is probably one of my least favourite films, heaped with honours though it was. I thought it was too pleased with itself.” (An Autobiography of British Cinema)  The party sequence in Paris seems too indebted to the decadent moments in Antonioni and Fellini, and the party scenes are much more interesting and exploratory in Schlesinger’s later Midnight Cowboy, set in New York, and where the caricaturing in Darling gives way to the documentative exploration of the underground scene which captures a Warholian moment in time. The bourgeois London milieu here was also more sadly and astutely captured in Sunday Bloody Sunday in the early seventies, written in fact by Kael’s colleague at The New Yorker magazine, novelist and film critic Penelope Gilliat, and there was always a sense in kitchen sink films, unlike in the French new wave (with the important exception of Alain Resnais) or the Italian movement of the early sixties, that the directors were reliant on solid collaborations with their writers. Darling would seem to lack this, with Schlesinger saying in the interview quoted above that his writer “Freddie Raphael…is smart and a bit of an intellectual snob; we had a run in on that film and he refused to come back to work until much later.”

The other two important figures in kitchen sink cinema were Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson. Richardson was the most prolific, and consequently must have seemed the most influential at the time, though none of the films he directed have aged quite as well as Schlesinger’s A Kind of Loving, Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Anderson’s This Sporting Life. However, without Richardson one might not have seen a movement shaping, as he directed five films within five years, and ended with a box-office hit that made a lot of cash for its production company (Windfall, producer of many kitchen sink films) and showed that the younger filmmakers could make money as well as a social point, no matter if the film happened to be an adaption of Henry Fielding’s mid-eighteenth century novel, Tom Jones.

Three of the films he directed between 1958 and 1963 possessed numerous kitchen sink elements. A Taste of Honey showed a young woman impregnated by a black sailor a little lost and lonely, who befriends a gay man and finds a makeshift place for her feelings after falling out with her drunken mum’s new beau. Look Back in Anger, adopted from Osborne’s play, had an angry young man, abusive to his wife, obnoxious with friends and always more agreeable with a trumpet in his mouth rather than letting words tumble out of his gob. Though people often regard kitchen sink realism as a movement formally without much distinction, the film’s first few minutes show Richardson in his debut attentive to form. After we initially see Jimmy (Richard Burton) playing trumpet in the club, we hear the music shift from the diegetic to the non-diegetic as we notice it playing on the soundtrack. Afterwards, as the film cuts from Jimmy in bed with his wife to the morning after, so the music segues smoothly into the sound of a train’s whistle. Meanwhile, in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, this adaptation of Sillitoe’s story offers the film in flashback as young Colin decides to throw a race. Colin’s a kid in a reform school and decides to stick it to the school by refusing to perform well for it. Like many a character in kitchen sink realism, Colin is a character with a self-destructive streak but equally, like many of the characters in the films, there is an underpinning sociological element that the films confront. Whether it is Joe Lampton, Arthur Seaton or Colin here, there is a social structure that makes one’s self-definition difficult, and often self-destructive gestures give more to the individuating self than successful social conformity. Richardson explores this through a narrative structure that justifies why he wouldn’t want to run for the school.

The most challenging film in the context of self-destruction and self-definition, and also the most formally innovative, is This Sporting Life. Director Lindsay Anderson reckoned novelist David Storey was more interested in soul states than realism, and in this adaptation Anderson manages at the same time to be faithful to the novel and faithful also to fresh possibilities in film as it adopts the novel’s convoluted narrative structure, offering fragments from central character Frank Machon’s mind. As Anderson says in John Russell Taylor’s Directors and Directions: “David Storey’s unique quality – and it is one I personally value above all others – seems to me a sort of elemental poetry, a passionate reaching-out…he seeks to penetrate the soul.” Working with a combination of flashbacks into Frank’s recent past as he goes under anaesthetic after losing his front teeth in a rugby game, and then later focusing on Frank physically recovering but painfully in love with his troubled landlady, so Anderson and Storey (who wrote the script) create a fragmented work that captures well a fragmented figure. Both utterly selfish and hopelessly needy, Machon is the most complex character in kitchen sink cinema, and Anderson’s form the most complex as he tries to capture much of Frank’s complexity. At one moment a rich woman who has designs on Frank points out his contradictory nature. Franks says he wants to use his money to help others, and this wife of the rugby club owner asks if that is why he bought himself a fancy new white car after signing on with the team. She points out well Frank’s contradictions, but this isn’t at all the same as saying he is a hypocrite. The latter would suggest a more simple-minded approach to character, and what interested Anderson and Storey is the soul state that finds contradictions and not hypocrisies. On many occasions in the film we see acts of generosity commingling with self-regard. When he gets the check for a thousand pounds to join the club, he wants the person who got him a trial to take a cut. At Christmas time he buys gifts for his landlady Mrs Hammond (Rachel Roberts) and her kids. Equally he can easily ignore this person who got him his break, and come close to breaking the jaw of his landlady when she doesn’t acquiesce to his demands.

It is true that Anderson is both subtle and obvious in his exploration of feeling and form. The scene in the upmarket restaurant with Hammond is cringing as much for the heavy-handedness of Anderson’s form as for the heavy-handedness of Frank’s behaviour, and a scene late in the film where Machon crushes a spider with his fist is out of symbolic melodrama. But equally the reasons behind Frank’s behaviour aren’t easily discernible, with his background remaining vague. Why, for example does he have an Irish accent rather than a northern one, why for such a vain man does he talk so openly to his friend (Colin Blakely) about his feelings, why does he sing a song about love when asked to belt out a number at a club? Some of the scenes might be predictable, but the character remains inexplicable.

This Sporting Life came out in 1963, the same year as Tom Jones, and while it was the year the wave was breaking on the shore, it also, with Anderson’s film, allowed the movement to arrive at its most significant aesthetic achievement, just as at the same time Richardson’s provided the movement with its biggest box-office success. The movement’s influence and importance cannot match that of Italian neo-realism and the French new wave, German Expressionism and Soviet Montage, but within the context of British cinema it remains important, and numerous directors from Loach to Leigh, from Lynne Ramsay to Andrea Arnold couldn’t deny its significance on their work. They might even occasionally find their work labelled kitchen sink no matter the consequent historical anachronism. In different ways they have added texture to realist film, but it would be unfair to insist that kitchen sink in the late fifties and early sixties didn’t have its own shades of grey – no matter if almost all the film were made in black and white.


©Tony McKibbin