WELCOME TO THE CHEAP SEATS: SILVER SCREEN PORTRAYALS OF THE BRITISH WORKING CLASS
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
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
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
There were a couple of early-1950s British films that had a stab at
portraying some aspects of working class life, though
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.
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.