British Universities Film & Video Council

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British Social Realism at the Movies

About the Author: Dr Sheldon Hall is a Senior Lecturer in Stage and Screen Studies at Sheffield Hallam University. He is the author of Zulu: With Some Guts Behind It – The Making of the Epic Movie (Sheffield: Tomahawk Press, 2005; reprinted 2006; 2nd edition due in 2014); with Steve Neale, Epics, Spectacles and Blockbusters: a Hollywood History (Wayne State University Press, 2010); Co-editor, Widescreen Worldwide (New Barnet: John Libbey Publishing, 2010) with Steve Neale and John Belton; and among the articles he has contributed to books and journals is a chapter on Straw Dogs in Seventies British Cinema (ed. Robert Shail, BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

Social realism has a privileged place in British cinema. Since its origins in the documentary movement of the 1930s, with its twin figureheads John Grierson and Humphrey Jennings, it has generally been the most critically venerated tradition in domestic filmmaking. Indeed, realism has sometimes been seen as the most authentically indigenous of all our cinematic traditions.

‘Documentary cinema was a tradition peculiarly British’, claimed Lindsay Anderson when presenting his own retrospective programme British Cinema – A Personal View: Free Cinema for Thames Television in 1986. This tradition he defined as being concerned with ‘making films out of contemporary reality’. When he and his contemporaries Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz – all former film critics – began making their own films in the mid-1950s, according to Anderson, ‘realism was the tradition they inherited’ and documentary the form they first embraced. Later, with such films as Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Richardson’s A Taste of Honey (1961) and Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963), the Free Cinema group moved into dramatic fiction. Though invariably adapted from the novels, short stories and plays of new writers such as Alan Sillitoe, Shelagh Delaney and David Storey, these films were nonetheless distinguished by sympathetically rendered working class characters and regional settings, often shot on locations far from the London-based studios favoured by more orthodox productions – innovations sufficient to have them labelled a British ‘New Wave’.

These were not, of course, the only realists to have flourished in British cinema. The war years, in particular, saw the fruitful cross-breeding of drama and documentary. Many of the filmmakers trained in the public service-oriented production units of the Empire Marketing Board and the General Post Office – figures such as Harry Watt, Pat Jackson and Alberto Cavalcanti – entered the mainstream industry to create what were in effect pioneering forms of ‘docudrama’, while the wartime propaganda and instructional shorts made by the Crown Film Unit gained wider public exposure than any non-fiction films before or since. Ealing’s Michael Balcon made a forceful distinction between ‘realism and tinsel’ as the options facing British filmmakers, with the former as the preferred choice for serious artists and dedicated public servants. The work of Humphrey Jennings in particular, who in films like Listen to Britain (1942) achieved a form both realist and poetic, observational and imaginative, served as a model for several generations of critics and filmmakers of what a distinctively British ‘art cinema’ might look – and sound – like.

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