Image Credit: Curzon Artificial Eye
In the wake of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite storming both the box office and the awards circuit there has been much talk of the film’s brilliantly fresh and insightful commentary on class in South Korea. Undoubtedly, the reason Parasite struck such a global chord is due to it capturing some sense of the universally recognisable experience of living in a globalised, neoliberal economy. Still, while I enthusiastically support this commercial and critical turn of events for both foreign language and socially engaged films, it did make me wonder; where are the British class commentary films? After all, as any drunken student house party pontificator will tell you, we have one of the finest vintages, by which I mean most rigid and entrenched, class systems in the world. Surely we should be constantly churning out socially engaged films of a similar calibre to Parasite?
However, while many of the most commercially successful British films which touch on class in recent years have been heart-warming, ‘inspiring’ but ultimately toothless Brit-flicks, such as 2019’s Fisherman’s Friends, there is in fact a fertile history of socially engaged British cinema. In the manner of Parasite, it grapples with issues of class and inequality in a way which is entertaining and accessible without flattening the class narrative into a vacantly uplifting underdog tale of a sterilely aesthetisized regional working-class.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, British cinema had its own ‘New Wave’ (see, it’s not just the French that had an edgy New Wave in the sixties), which saw a surge in British filmmaking which addressed contemporary issues such as sex, gender, and of course class, in a new, exciting manner which represented a considerable break with the British film industry of the early to mid-1950s. These films are often grouped together under the labels of ‘kitchen sink drama’ or ‘angry young man’ film, yet while they have a distinct aesthetic - think rain-slicked cobbled streets, smoky pubs, cramped terrace houses - they are far from a homogenous mass.
Much has been made of Parasite’s straddling of genre conventions. The stereotype that immediately springs to mind of mid-century British social realism is that of an unrelentingly drab, gloomy atmosphere, with angry young factory workers storming around with no outlet for their frustration other than periodically yelling at their girlfriend and getting joylessly sloshed with the old men at their local pub. In reality, however, this diverse group of films plays with and subverts a range of genres in order to dig into its thematic matter just as effectively as Parasite would do six decades later.
For example, John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar from 1963, which is not at all easy to pin down in terms of genre, is perhaps best described as a fantastical comedy drama, which follows the thrilling inner life and stifling outer life of Billy Fisher. Billy is a bored young clerk living in a provincial northern town, who spends his fantasy life in the marvellous land of Ambrosia, in which he is general, king, author extraordinaire, magnificent lover, or whatever role he can use to artificially bolster his downtrodden ego. Billy Liar draws you in with its absurd, ostensibly frivolous antics, but ultimately carries a surprisingly powerful and poignant jolt which drives home the underlying cause of Billy’s escapism: his feeling of a fundamental lack of agency.
Other British New Wave films which vigorously defy preconceptions include Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), a swaggering, saxophone-fuelled insight into the life of Arthur Seaton, a factory worker who lives for the weekend and who sums up his belligerent, amoral but undeniably seductive code of conduct when he says “what I’m out for is a good time - all the rest is propaganda!” There is also A Taste of Honey (1961), the brittle and bittersweet story of Jo, a Salford teenager who becomes pregnant after a brief, naïve fling with a black sailor, and forms her own family unit with Geoff, an early example of a homosexual character in British cinema who is also essentially the moral and empathetic heart of the film. It may be almost sixty years old, but A Taste of Honey is remarkably ahead of its time in its nuanced portrayal of how race, gender and sexuality intersect with class.
Another rich seam of British social commentary can be found in the form of the now essentially extinct TV play. Many of Britain’s most influential socially engaged dramas of the 1960s were originally aired on The Wednesday Play, the BBC’s anthology series of television dramas which ran from 1964 to 1970 and brought urgent contemporary issues right into the nation’s living rooms.
Another Wednesday Play which is more overlooked but which I believe should be compulsory viewing for all university students is Dennis Potter’s 1965 Stand Up, Nigel Barton; although I warn you: it will swiftly reduce irredeemably middle-class undergraduates such as myself to squirming heaps of uncomfortable recognition. Potter subjects everyone to his intense scrutiny in the story of Nigel Barton, a miner’s son who wins a place at the University of Oxford and finds himself disillusioned with the meaningless world of the pretentious, blithely privileged students who surround him at Oxford, and yet unable to connect with his family back home without the university taint of condescension and exploitation creeping into his interactions with them.
All this detailing of British film’s illustrious socially engaged past leads us to the question of where next for social commentary in British cinema? Since the days of Billy Liar and Cathy Come Home social and economic inequality and housing insecurity have sharply increased with the casualisation of the labour market, while the looming spectre of environmental catastrophe casts a dark shadow on the comparatively petty yet still deeply-felt political upheavals of Brexit. Surely now more than ever we need cinema which rigorously engages with the social is - sues which we face. The old master, Loach, is still making didactic, determined films attacking the structurally entrenched inequalities of British society. However, important as these films are, a new voice is needed which can tap into this millennium’s unique air of uncertainty, in which class remains as entrenched as ever but is also party to vast changes in employment, housing and traditional political loyalties.
To capture this feeling of disorientation and unsure futures, I feel that modern British filmmakers could fruitfully turn for inspiration to what is probably my favourite British New Wave film; This Sporting Life , from 1963. In This Sporting Life director Lindsay Anderson forgoes conventional social realism for a woozily poetic take on the troubled life of Frank Machin, a miner turned rugby-league player. Anderson may not provide easily teachable lessons, but he conveys a haunting sense of Frank’s claustrophobic, brutal world which is not easily forgotten. The recent film that most reminds me of This Sporting Life is Bait by Mark Jenkin, from 2019, which in a similarly innovative, hypnotic yet utterly distinctive style, explores the difficulties of a modern-day Cornish fisherman, forced to deal with the impact of hordes of gentrifying Londoners and a shifting economic food-chain.
With the changes facing British society a new, revitalised form of socially engaged cinema is urgent and necessary and arguably, through directors such as Jenkin, already underway. This revitalised engagement must find its own voice and style, but would be made all the richer by drawing on the vibrant tradition of British socially engaged cinema, the vast majority of which is still arrestingly engaging and relevant today