The greatest changes to society come after wars. In all honesty, wars themselves rarely cause for change, serving merely as a catalyst for it, by shaking the society’s structure to its core and weakening it, making it susceptible to the impending forces. Did British society really change after the Second World War?
The upper classes would certainly say yes. Their position in the hierarchy, their social role as curators of the British culture, as well as the Empire itself, were all badly damaged, they would argue. But would the worker agree? Did a safer workplace await upon his return from the slaughterhouses of mainland Europe, Asia, and Africa?
John Osborne, the first playwright to be called an angry young man by the press came from such a background and had combined elements of his life with fiction to write a play which initially divided the critics, but nevertheless made a forceful impact on the society as a whole. Look Back in Anger, first performed in 1956, is now considered a milestone in British theater, making a dramatic change from escapist plays which dominated the stage before.
Other writers followed suit, and what ensued was an informal movement of plays and novels which usually centered around adolescent men from working-class backgrounds, and their clashes with the rigid structure of the British society.
These films are usually centered on male protagonists, often adapted from literary works by the “angry young men” generation, anti-heroes whose personal struggles stem from the real or imagined conflicts with the society, authority, and the class system itself. Thus, often without being explicitly political, they decisively confront and challenge the status quo. They also demonstrate the emergence of the urban consumerist middle class, often criticizing their lifestyle and aspirations.
The success of kitchen-sink films at the box office as well as with professional critics testified to the need for a change felt by the public bored by conventional filmmaking.
1. Look Back in Anger
Osborne’s seminal play was adapted to film not long after its initial theatrical production. The initiator of the adaptation was Harry Saltzman, Canadian producer who was fascinated by the play, and who later found success in launching the Bond franchise. He urged director Richardson as well as Osborne to set up Woodfall Productions in order to produce the picture, although Osborne himself wasn’t interested in adapting his own text into a screenplay.
Richard Burton stars here as Jimmy, an educated but misadjusted young man who works a sweet stall at a market, a job far below his capabilities, as many believe. He is married to Alison (Mary Ure, repeating her role from the theater production) daughter of a colonial officer in India, and they both live in a squalid apartment off of his small pay.
A Welsh lodger, Cliff, who is also Jimmy’s partner, stays in their spare room. Jimmy’s poisonous tirades directed at anyone who wants to listen, but mostly at his wife whom he abuses mentally, provide us insight into the characters’ backgrounds. The plot is moved forward by the arrival of Helena (Claire Bloom), actress and Alison’s friend, who comes to stay with them for a while. An unexpected love triangle arises.
2. Room at the Top
The only film from the list that actually won an Oscar (two actually), even though many were nominated, Room at the Top was director Jack Clayton’s feature film debut. It is an adaptation of a novel by John Braine, who wrote it with Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami in mind. Interestingly enough, Mordecai Richler, the Canadian author who lived in England in the 50s, best known for writing Barney’s Version, was allegedly involved in adapting the novel, although his work is uncredited.
Set in the first years after World War II, the story follows Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) a former POW. With his parents killed in a bombing raid just several years before, there is nothing tying him to his home in Dufton, which to him equals a “lifetime sentence”, so he sets out to a booming town of Warnley, where he lands an accounting job with limited prospects.
Ambitious and calculating, he immediately sets as his main goal to reach The Top – a neighborhood of mansions and money, and everything that goes with it. Since his job doesn’t promise him adequate advancement opportunities, he sees one in Susan Brown, daughter of the town magnate, who is also an actress in an amateur thespian society. However, his lust also draws him to an older, married woman, which leads him to a series of unfavorable events.
3. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
Adapted from a novel by Alan Sillitoe, the film centers on Arthur (Albert Finney), a somewhat careless and rebellious young factory worker. He is sexually involved with Brenda (Rachel Roberts), the wife of one of his older colleagues, Jack, with whom Arthur has a cordial but less than intimate relationship.
However, he is also courting Doreen, a girl his age who isn’t as eager to engage in casual sex. Balancing between the two romantic interests, as well as attempting to hide the affair from Jack will prove to be a challenging task, especially when his relationship with Brenda is affected by the revelation of her pregnancy.
Unlike Jimmy from Look Back in Anger, or Joe from Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’s Arthur is a more relatable and sympathetic character.
4. A Taste of Honey
Adaptation of a play by Shelagh Delaney, by Delaney herself, is one of the rarer kitchen-sink films from a female perspective. It was lauded as an example of a successful adaptation from theater to film. This “angry young woman” wanted to show working-class people as different to the stereotypes seen before, with complex and dramatic, often difficult lives.
The title gives away the mood of the film, promising us a glimpse into the lives of people who often get nothing but a short spell of happiness in their entire existence. Rita Tushingham plays Jo, a teen living with her alcoholic mother, Helen (Dora Bryan), who marries an oafish man on a whim. Jo is left pregnant from a casual encounter with a black sailor, and unexpectedly finds the tenderness she needs from a homosexual young man.
5. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Tom Courtenay plays one such youngster, Colin, who was arrested for burglary and consequently sent to a borstal where the ideal of discipline appears to be modeled after the military. The governor who supervises the institution has gentlemanly manners and is keen on seeing the children adopt them too.
Upon realizing that Colin has a propensity for running, he persuades him to run on a competition they are organizing against a public school. Colin, however, with his animosity towards authority and his instinctive anarchism, finds it difficult to comply. Flashbacks help tell the story by revealing the protagonist’s background, in order to emphasize his personal tragedy.
The exploitation of the people by the state seems to be the key idea behind this film. It is in fact the interplay between class-based capitalism that creates such vulnerable individuals and populations, and the state’s cynicism in its approach to such people, that is the intended point of the film.
6. The L-Shaped Room
Leslie Caron, a star of such musical films as Daddy Long Legs and Gigi, turned to play a much more demanding role for this bleak picture adapted from a novel by Lynne Reid Banks. It is therefore another example of a break from the kitchen-sink tradition which was founded upon plays and novels of “angry young men”.
Caron plays Jane, a pregnant French woman who moves into the titular room of a London boarding house. While spending time there, she meets an assortment of outcasts, despite being initially reserved. She enters a sexual relationship with one of them, Toby (Tom Bell), a jazz musician and struggling writer, without revealing her condition to him in a fear of losing him.
She is inadvertently persuaded into having the baby by her gynecologist, after his remark that abortion and marriage are the only two options. She makes that decision, however, without proper deliberation and a plan for the future.
Due to mature content to an extent that was unusual at the time, the picture was considered controversial. However, one shouldn’t fall into error and think of it as a sexploitation flick. Its story is quite dreary and the depiction of marginalized people and their predicament is candid.
7. A Kind of Loving
The title of the film seems like a cynical constant reminder of the arrangement the presented couple has to settle for, as opposed to characters from romantic movies, who find that no obstacle is large enough for their powerful love. Unlike these idealized couples, Vic and Ingrid only seem to suffer more with each obstacle faced upon them.
Vic (Alan Bates) is employed as a draughtsman at a local factory. After his sister’s wedding, he sees Ingrid (June Ritchie) – a girl who works as a typist at the same factory – in the crowd outside the church. He is completely enamored by her, and he eventually musters courage to approach her during a bus ride home from work one day, under the pretext of forgetting his money for the fare. What starts as a casual relationship is soon dramatically changed when Ingrid gets pregnant.
8. This Sporting Life
Underneath all this violence, however, is a man with crude but nevertheless romantic desires directed at his recently widowed landlady, Margaret (Rachel Roberts). Her husband died in an accident at Weaver’s engineering company, and lost the right to a compensation due to the death being ruled a suicide. Their unfortunate romance is mostly marred by his boorish behavior and inability to articulate his feelings.
The structure of the film is especially interesting due to its use of flashbacks, similar to The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, but even employing one from the very start. They serve as a narrative device which effectively juxtaposes various points of Frank’s career and private life. In its essence, it is a story of exploitation and vulnerability masked as toughness.
9. A Place To Go
The Flints live in the crowded slums of Bethnal Green, between the bombed-out ruins and council flats. The father left his job to be an escape artist, the daughter is expecting and wants a place for her own little family, while the son is turning to crime under the influence of a local gangster.
Despite being conventional in its approach to many burning issues, its distinction lies in its choice of protagonists, as well as the inclusion of organized crime as a by-product of impoverished areas
10. Poor Cow
This is another film with a female protagonist, but its outlook is much less forgiving. Joy (Carol White) is a London woman who lacks opportunities to escape an abusive relationship. She has a son with Tom, her husband, and a petty thief (John Bindon), who abuses her occasionally.
When he goes to jail, there is a brief opportunity for her to improve her position by getting together with his friend. However, he – although tender to her – also gets arrested due to his criminal activities. She bounces from one place to another, each worse than the last, but eventually comes full circle.