By Andrew Graves

Five Leaves Publications. 184 pages. £9.99. ISBN 978-1-910170-62-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Let me make a confession. As a young boy growing up in a northern industrial town, and living with five others in the usual two-up-two-down, toilet-in-the-backyard house, I spent as much time as possible in the local cinemas.  I can’t recall exactly how many there were in total, perhaps thirteen or fourteen, five of which were in the town-centre, and the rest scattered around the side and back streets of the outlying districts.

I watched all the usual things in the mid and late-1940s – Flash Gordon serials, poverty-row westerns, Old Mother Riley features, Gracie Fields sing-songs, George Formby silliness – and as my tastes developed, and more and better films became available in the early-1950s, I continued to haunt the cinemas. What I have to make clear is that they were mostly American films that I chose to go to the cinema for. Looking back sixty or seventy years brings to mind a jumble of films that I saw and the fact that very few of them were British.  Only the occasional one like the gritty It Always Rains on Sunday surfaces from the mass of mediocre home-grown productions. I come across them now on YouTube and they admittedly can have a kind of nostalgic charm, primarily for their documentary value. The shots of streets with only a few cars, or of the docks when they were busy, evoke a lost world.   

Why did I prefer the Americans? There were some practical reasons. such as my fascination with westerns. Each week I studied the cinema listings in the local paper and made a note of where all the westerns were showing. There were plenty of them in those days, even if I excluded the weaker ones (Gene Autry, Roy Rogers) that I’d grown out of.  But I also went to see musicals, thrillers (including some that now appear in studies of film noir), and comedies. Whatever they were they certainly appealed to me more than the majority of British-made films that were circulating then. My liking for films from America can also probably be tied in with my growing interest in jazz and American writers.

But I was conscious of the fact that many of the American films were more stimulating (direction, lighting, music, scripts) than virtually anything produced in Britain. They were also more effective in many ways. Graves mentions the Frank Capra comedy, It Happened One Night, and points out that “in spite of its Hollywood escapism”, it also takes in “shabby buses, cheap boarding houses, and constant references to food, or lack of food. Penny-pinched mothers and hungry children lurk on the edges of this Golden Age classic, and the rich are presented as guileless or buffoonish”. It’s doubtful if anything like it could have been produced in Britain. It’s impossible to imagine the powerful “Remember My Forgotten Man” sequence from Gold Diggers of 1933” emanating from a British studio. Even if it had it would most likely have been censored.

Another reason was that most British films seemed to have nothing at all to do with my life. Did the American films? Perhaps not in a strictly physical sense, but they seemed to appeal to my state of mind. I might have been living in a very British working-class context, still in that old terraced house, with my first job at sixteen in a cotton mill before I decided that the army was a better bet, but my thoughts were usually elsewhere.

With that in mind, I didn’t recognise what few representatives of the working class crept into British films.  Usually relegated to background contributions as gardeners, taxi-drivers, and other non-descript roles, they did occasionally also crop up as cheerful female factory workers and chirpy Cockney corporals when wartime propaganda films were needed. I don’t recall them having prominent parts in the plots, and serious matters were the province of smart-suited managers and  carefully-groomed officers. A scene with a soldier arriving home on leave might show him greeted by a worn-looking wife surrounded by clamouring kids. A wartime song, “That Lovely Weekend”, runs through my mind and seems more suited to the delicate and sometimes doomed love affairs that handsome young officers and their attractive ladies might experience.

Andrew Graves in his stimulating study of how the working class have been portrayed on film, is less than enthusiastic about most early attempts to present accounts of life in the back-streets. He takes a close look at Love on the Dole, based on Walter Greenwood’s 1930s novel and set in Salford. He notes that the film does have stock characters, but that he was “gripped for at least a good chunk of the action” and further refers to “its distinctly naked form of grim monochrome melodrama”. One of the more interesting things about it is that it was rejected for general release when it was made, probably because of pressure from the government, and only went out to cinemas in 1941. It then wasn’t a popular success, which raises interesting questions about what audiences, particularly working-class ones, liked to see at the cinema. I’d guess they mostly wanted entertainment, and not visual re-enactments (drab surroundings) of what they could experience on a daily basis in their lives.

There were a couple of early-1950s British films that had a stab at portraying some aspects of working class life, though Graves doesn’t mention them. Hobson’s Choice and Hindle Wakes had their origins in the Manchester theatre of the early-1900s, and retained their popularity over the years. It’s perhaps arguable that Hobson’s Choice is as much about lower middle-class types, but one of the central characters is solidly working class and pushed into improving his lot by a strong-minded woman. And Hindle Wakes focuses on a mill-girl who has a fling with the boss’s son and happily turns down the opportunity to marry him. Their night together in a seaside hotel bedroom was, she says, just a bit of fun. I was reminded of it when Graves, discussing a more-recent film, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, refers to the actions of the two girls who see bedding Bob as affording “them a few laughs”. It is, he says, “a standpoint which few middle-class commentators would care to understand”.

Graves gives a good account of the “new wave” films of the late-1950s and early-1960s – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Room at the Top, A Taste of Honey, Look Back in Anger, A Kind of Loving, This Sporting Life and a few others - and it’s true that they did seem to be breaking new ground.  I have to admit that I always thought Room at the Top was about what I thought of as a working class square, and Look Back in Anger about an unlikeable, self-centred bore. It’s significant that their respective authors – John Braine and John Osborne – became extremely conservative as they got older.  But they probably always were.

When Graves moves into the period from around 1980 on, I began to wonder how much the working class label suited a lot of the characters in the films he mentions. If his descriptions are accurate, and I’ve no reason to doubt him, they often seem to lead aimless lives that revolve around drink, drugs, sex, and minor criminality. They rarely work, and that may be the fault of a society which has effectively abandoned whole groups of people in terms of providing any form of steady employment.  Working class communities often collapse when specific kinds of jobs are lost, as in mining, steel, docks, etc.  This points to an inherent problem in working class culture and communities. They may not have the resilience to withstand a sudden withdrawal of the support provided by continuities of employment. I think the result may be that younger generations who grow up without an awareness of the habits, practices and traditions of settled working class communities become what Marx would have described as a lumpen-proletariat. As such, their potential for achieving any change in their lives, whether on an individual or group basis, is bound to be limited.

Welcome to the Cheap Seats raises some provocative questions, such as why filmmakers are attracted to this lumpen-proletariat, if that’s what they are? Do they seem more “colourful” than the “respectable” working class and their situations can consequently be exploited for dramatic and entertainment purposes? It’s certainly a factor that has raised doubts about TV documentary surveys of people living on benefits, and angered residents who might rightly claim that those portrayed are not typical.