Last week the British Film Institute (BFI) launched a season of screenings on Working Class Heroes at the South Bank in central London. The films selected offer a wide range of film representations of the British working class over the last six decades from classic films such as Poor Cow and Billy Liar in the 1960s through to less well known examples such as Samantha Morton’s The Unloved of 2009.
Class has featured a lot in events held by the BFI this year. In April, the Institute hosted an event that launched a collection of the Woodfall Films from the 1960s, including classics such as Kes, A Taste of Honey, Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner, and Saturday Night Sunday Morning. These were breakthrough productions featuring working-class characters as core participants rather than as bit players to add common, often humorous colour to films. Equally important, they also were often produced or written by working-class talent such as Shelagh Delaney who wrote the novel A Taste of Honey and adapted the book for the film script. She talked about her work and her class background in a 1950s interview, though the clip is dated not so much by Delaney but by the middle-class accent of the interviewer.
The Woodfall films and others from the 1960s broke through class stereotypes and reflected the huge range of working-class life in post-war Britain. Films such as Saturday Night Sunday Morning told the story of an angry alienated bicycle factory worker, Arthur Seaton, played by Albert Finney. It showed Seaton in his workplace, at home and at leisure and was filmed on location in pubs, clubs, and in real factories in the Nottingham of 1960. In Kes, made towards the end of the decade by Ken Loach, fourteen year old Billy Casper captures, raises, and trains a kestrel hawk as a way of escaping his everyday life. Set in the Yorkshire coalfield, the film reflects everyday life as cold, hard, tough, and unforgiving, a world away from the swinging sixties and trendy London Carnaby Street of popular historical imagination. Indeed, many of the Woodfall films act as a powerful counternarratives to the idea of the 1960s as some kind of social and economic nirvana.
What matters most about the BFI’s recent attention to class is that it does not engage in cheap nostalgia, safely celebrating the working class from five decades removed. Rather, the BFI seems to have gone out of its way to ask critical and searching questions about the portrayal, reflection, and involvement of working-class people both in front of and behind the camera. BFI curator Danny Leigh introduced the BFI’s Working Class Heroes season earlier in the year with a thoughtful podcast on class and British cinema reflecting on its 1960s golden age as well as the contemporary situation. One of the big issues in the British arts generally is the way the creators and audience are often white and middle class. A series of interventions have highlighted the barriers faced by many working-class origin actors as well as directors and script writers. In a recent article in The Guardian, Room at the Top?, Leigh notes the woeful underrepresentation of working-class stories, explicitly comparing the situation today with the legacy of 1960s cinema such as the Woodfall films.
In a revealing interview, working-class actor Maxine Peake discusses the discrimination she had experienced across her career. She talks about being brought up in a Salford household with very few books or wider cultural capital. Her breaks came from a drama group at a Unitarian church and the influence of her communist uncle who was a veracious reader and working-class autodidact. Peake tried to get a place at drama school in the UK, but she was rejected many times. She finally won a funded place at the highly prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London. Peake’s story reveals a combination of commitment, talent, and luck. She attributes her luck in part to entering the industry at a time when greater levels of funding were available to people from working-class backgrounds. She also recognises that she has been fortunate in the types and quality of roles she has been offered, which give her vehicles to portray working-class life. This includes playing one of the central parts in the UK version of the television series Shameless, set in the same area in which she grew up. But like Leigh in his article, Peake is less positive about the opportunities for younger actors from working-class backgrounds. A combination of factors have conspired to restrict the talent pipeline, beginning with less funding for the arts generally and a restriction on the school curriculum, which tended to downplay or cut altogether arts subjects. There is also the growth in unpaid internships in arts companies, which tend to favour those with private incomes who can afford to live in arts centres such as London.
The point Leigh, Peake, and others make is that the film industry, and the arts more generally for that matter, are a complex ecosystem where class plays an important part in shaping what gets made and by whom. So while the celebration of working-class film talent in the distant past is crucially important, even more important that a series like the one just opened at BFI shows what is possible when working-class people act in, create, and enjoy films by and for themselves.