Social Realist Film Theory

Social Realist (British New Wave) Film Theory

Something happened to British cinema at the beginning of the 1960s that brought down the old system of class pride, privilege and period dramas.


"Let's drink to the hard working people
Let's drink to the lowly of birth
Raise your glass to the good and the evil
Let's drink to the salt of the earth"

 here for a collection of British 'kitchen sink' drama.

Social Realist films normally represent true-to-life characters and locations. It refers to films with the serious representation and exploration of political and social issues.The lighting is normally ‘naturalistic’, which means it does not use lenses or soft lighting.  

Common themes of social realism include: 
  • Social injustice 
  • Racial injustice 
  • Economic hardship 
  • Working class as heroes 

Social Realist Film Theory

Origins and Development

Social Realist films originate in the 1950s/1960s but, in terms of their form and style, were influenced by the British documentary tradition of the 1930s, popularised by the GPO Film Unit (Nightmail) who ultimately became the Crown Film Unit at the start of WW2 (Fires Were Started, Britain Can Take It). 

In the 1960s, social realist films became critically and commercially successful and benefitted from the fact that television was only a feature in some middle-class households – people flocked to the cinema to see films like Billy Liar (1953), Cosh Boy (1953), Room at the Top (1958), This Sporting Life (1963), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and Kathy Come Home (1966).

Typically, original social realism was set in the industrial north but occasionally travelled south, as in the 1968 film, Up the Junction set in west London (Chelsea) and south London (Battersea). 

Fundamentally Up the Junction encapsulates what social realism was about – social class, alienation, frustration and fighting the system. Binary oppositions of social class were and are common with the 1950s/60s social realist films, which deliberately represent the different layers and divisions in post-war, industrial Britain. This was a time when the country was rebuilding and the manufacturing industry was at the heart of this process with slum clearance also high on the agenda, new homes and a new structuring of society post-1945 Welfare State provision under a new Labour government.
Social realist films were keen to show the effects on society and depict the problems endured by the working class and ‘underclass’ including homelessness (Kathy Come Home), unemployment and ambition (Billy Liar) and the inequalities of social class (Room at the Top). Ken Loach’s Kathy Come Home was so influential that it inspired the contemporary charity Shelter to be established, Billy Liar represented a young, idle, unemployed man who lived at home and to escape from the reality of his environment dreamed his life away - dream sequences included romantic conquests and leading troops into battle. The opening sequences of Billy Liar introduced audiences to a continually panning camera that moved through space and represented the demographics of the UK by showing the range of housing from low rise council flats to terraced housing to semi detached accommodations through to detached houses to mansions clearly showing the binary oppositions and divisions in society.Room at the Top represented an aspirational, working class young man from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ who is seen at the beginning of the film travelling with his squeaky shoes (signifying his poverty) to his new job in a fashionable part of the industrial north, Warnley (fictional town) where there are more chances and more prosperity. Immediately he sees a fashionable young girl who would ordinarily be considered way out of his league in terms of social class getting out of Lagonda and his friend remarks, “That’s not for you lad. Is that what you want, a girl with a sports car and a Riviera tan? He replies “That’s what I’ m going to get”.

This quote again typifies the many left wing, political narratives of early social realist films showing a frustrated, alienated but aspirational, male central protagonist who continually fights adversity and ‘the system’ to achieve his ends. Often called ‘Kitchen Sink Dramas’because of the primarily domestic locations and representations (audience identification) narratives could be seen to be slow moving and often bleak by contemporary standards and frequently encoded with a judgemental, moral outcome that reflected the ideologicalimperatives of the film maker. First broadcast in 1960 (in the middle of the social realist British film boom) and set in the fictional northern town of Weatherfield in Greater Manchester Coronation Street borrows heavily from the codes and conventions of the genre – ordinary working class protagonists are shown in recognisable situations (the pub, factory, at home in back to back houses) with the added soap opera conventions of hyper real, emotive storylines based around character. To these ends social realism is embedded in British culture with narrative themes not just focussing on social class but including poverty, family values, masculinity, manufacturing, industrial practice, and new structures in society.

The 1956 John Osborne play, Look Back in Anger again is a genre template that allows audiences to understand the preoccupations of writers and film makers from that period – a film about what seems a doomed relationship and marriage, notions of family and the ensuing difficulties of living in cramped accommodation punctuate the narrative. The terms ‘angry young man’ was coined as a result of the film and very much reflects the classic social realist central protagonist who feels the weight of the world is on his shoulders. Grainy visual representations often shot in black and white anchor the problems and difficulties the characters are enduring. Low production values typify social realism but some were ultimately distributed in the US in the hope that American audiences would buy into theBritish cultural representations. Hand held cameras were often used to show realism (new technology at the time) and the films often experimented with focus, types of shot, camera angle, editing, lighting and contrast. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (based on an Alan Sillitoe’s novel) introduced audiences to Arthur Seaton played by Albert Finney; a machinist at a local factory who is disillusioned with his life and wants something more than the day to day grind of making a living, seeking promotion and providing for a family. He escapes through heavy drinking and womanising and eventually gets Brenda, a woman married to his co worker pregnant. After asking advice about abortion (illegal at the time) Brenda refuses and her husband finds out about the affair. Arthur is badly beaten and assured he will never see Brenda again, or his soon to be born child. Moral resolution(common) sees Arthur begin to see the error of his ways discussing the prospect of marriage and setting up home together with Doreen, his long suffering girlfriend.
Contemporary Social Realism

Although 1950s, 1960s Social Realism was critically and commercially successful the films made at the time are now viewed as ‘independent’ in the way their offered an academic, intelligent exploration of British culture. This was at odds with the more mainstream, mass target audiences who saw the films at cinemas in the 50s/60s as entertaining – this may in part be due to some degree of British star marketing in terms of actors but also their popular literary origins and racy, sometimes sexualised storylines. Contemporary social realism that remains faithful to its ‘independent’ conventions tends to have a more niche, educated, older target audience, 35-55 with a male skew who utilise theircultural capital and knowledge of social realism as a historically successful but challenging genre in terms of narrative content. As I will develop the audience of social realist texts over the last 20 years has diversified to appeal to a younger demographic.

Stereotypically, institutional factors that underpin pure contemporary social realism include low production values, limited distribution (as with Fish Tank, 2009 this can mean only 40 screens) and often made with the assistance of Film4 and the UK Film Council (now the BFI) e.g. This is England (2006) and Looking for Eric (2009). Shifty(2008) was made with the assistance of the Film London Microwave Scheme where the filmmakers agreed to keep the production costs under £100,000. As of writing (February 2012) this scheme still exists with the increased budget of £120,000. Social realism tends to attract younger, up and coming directors and often is distributed by small independent distributors like Optimum, Metrodome, Artificial Eye and Momentum. Directors like Shane Meadows (This is England, Somers Town), Saul Dibb (Bullet Boy) and Noel Clarke(Kidulthood script and Adulthood writer and director) have shot to prominence working within the genre.

Homage however must be made to the septuagenarian directors of British social realism who have remained faithful to its origins over four decades – Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. Loach’s social realism pedigree includes Kathy Come Home (1966), Poor Cow (1967),Land and Freedom (1995), Sweet Sixteen (2002), Looking for Eric (2009) and Route Irish (2010) set in Liverpool focussing on the consequences suffered by private security contractors after their involvement in the Iraq War. Loach’s films are very much thematic looking at key areas such as state brutality, the harsh treatment of native populations and the exploitation of the ‘underclass’. Loach is seen as being more overtly political than Leigh who has a reputation as a romantic humanist, focussing on the lives of characters that are often female compared to Loach’s more male gendered narratives. Mike Leigh has worked extensively in television (social realist drama is a strong broadcast genre)and the theatre while his critically acclaimed social realist film texts include Secrets and Lies (1996), Vera Drake (2004), Happy Go Lucky (2008) and Another Year (2010). Chronologically the films explored working class family values, 1950s abortion, a 30 something living in London and old age.
Critics would say that Loach and Leigh resisted the temptation to afford their films widerHollywood distribution and have remained faithful to British traditions unlike a number of more commercially successful films. Before Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speechthe most ‘successful’ British film of all time was seen to be the social realist film, The Full Monty (1997) but the key fact here was that the film was hybridised with comedy and widelydistributed by 20th Century Fox – this meant that although the film did well at the box office most of the money went back to the distributor with little return to the British film industry. Along with Trainspotting it did make a star of Robert Carlyle but the screenwriter,Simon Beaufoy remarked strongly at the time that he had penned a challenging social realist narrative about the decline in the UK manufacturing industry (represented by the steel industry in Sheffield) with subsequent unemployment affecting family values and family structure. What actually happened was Fox Searchlight came along and dumbed down the narrative to give it wider appeal including in America, insisted on an identifiable upbeat soundtrack and clear 3 act resolution via a happy ending. Hype even included Prince Charles replicating one of the dance scenes in a Sheffield dole office (Job Centre). Beaufoy however went on to success of his own responsible for the screenplay for Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours (2010) both directed by ‘2012 Olympics director’ Danny Boylewho himself has flirted with social realism over the years.

Other British social realist films that attracted American distribution include Brassed Off(1996) about the decline in the coal mining industry and the life of a colliery brass band distributed my Miramax, Billy Elliot (2000) again set at the time of the miner’s strike with violence on picket lines, distributed by Universal Studios and Made in Dagenham (2010) distributed by Paramount about the Ford sewing machinists strike of 1968 focussing on equal pay for women. All films were punctuated by an upbeat soundtrack, humour andentertainment values, higher production values, a more simplified, single stranded narrative and wider distribution. It has to be stressed however that many contemporary social realist films attempt to follow the genre template as close as possible by simply ‘tweaking’ the representations to offer a more modern narrative like London to Brighton(2006), Fisk Tank (2009) and Junkhearts (2011). Although not a commercially successful genre in America and embedded as a British tradition it must be remembered that there have been some critically acclaimed US social realist films like Milk (2008) and Precious (2009) that followed the conventions of the genre in terms of narrative developing narrative themes of ‘political homosexuality’ in 1970s San Francisco and in Precious rape, incest and notions of abuse, poverty and dysfunctional family set in current day Harlem.
Bullet Boy (2006)

Bullet Boy was written and directed by Saul Dibb (as a first time director) in 2006 who then unusually went on to direct the high production value historical drama The Duchess two years later. The narrative focuses on gun and gang crime in Hackney, east London and stars Asher D from the urban musical collective, So Solid Crew from south London and exploresmulticulturalism as a key narrative theme, violence and the idea and effect of ‘learnt violence’ within an urban setting.

Asher D is a classic social realist, frustrated angry central protagonist who has recently been released from prison who has a young brother (Curtis) who looks up to him as an aspirational role model but who is ultimately killed in a violent attack – the narrative involves Ricky’s (Asher D) involvement with gangs and as in many social realist film offers moral closureshowing Curtis throwing a gun he has been hiding into the river signifying him turning his back on gun crime. This is England offers similar closure with Shaun throwing a George Cross flag into the sea symbolising his turning his back on racism.

Bullet Boy was produced the BBC Films and distributed by Verve, independent distributors. Typically for social realism it had limited distribution but did secure £450,000 takings at the UK box office; unusual for independent British film which normally relies on the theatrical release to market the DVD with money coming in as a ‘revenue drip’, not a stream. The UK Film Council’s New Cinema Fund provided some funding for production while the P and A Fund (Prints and Advertising) provided a small amount for advertising and distribution which may have helped the film receive a creditable box office – adverts targeted clubs and urban areas with a poster campaign that reflected the limited budget.

After early festival screenings in 2004 the film received viral hype as one of the first films (there have been several since) that tackled gun and gang crime in Britain’s inner cities – this created press coverage and word of mouth marketing up to the film’s release. Naturalised representations again referenced original social realism with on location shooting in Hackney and a contemporary take on urban life as a USP. On the film’s release it was distributed to 75 screens with a combination of independent cinemas and cinemas in urban areas taking the film after advertising in daily national newspapers (linking with news stories about gun crime), a selective London Underground advertising campaign and extensive use of radio stations linking with Asher D and the music of So Solid Crew.

Bullet Boy is an outstanding example of a contemporary social realist film that maps theoriginal genre template onto more up to date representations but also reflects an independent film that is both culturally and institutionally British reflecting changing British society, regionally and nationally and showing a British ‘way of life’ but also a film that is produced, funded and distributed in the UK.

Raymond Williams (British Professor, 1921-1988) 
Samantha Lay (British Professor.