Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning 1960
In the late 1950s and early 1960s Britain witnessed the birth of reality being brought to working class drama on the stage and screen: Look Back in Anger, Billy Liar, Room at The Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey and many more.
Rita Tushingham in Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey 1961 directed by Tony Richardson
It took the country by storm and the movement was a catalyst for a sparkling array of new socially committed writers on television, among them Jim Allen, Alan Clarke, Barry Hines, Dennis Potter, Alan Bleasdale and Jack Rosenthal. All brought the same sensibility to our television screens with productions that focused attention on the massive class divide in Britain.
The spectacle of the working classes quickly became a commodity for entertainment with popular series like Z Cars, Coronation Street, Brookside, EastEnders and the comedies Till Death Us Do Part, Steptoe & Son and The Likely Lads.
Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais The Likley Lads 1964
Johnny Speight's Till Death Us Do Part 1966
Ray Galton and Alan Simpson's Stepto & Son 1962
The soaps developed over-exaggerated scenarios and the comedies emphasised their endearing ‘cheeky’ characters.
I went to the National Theatre the other night to see Simon Stephens’ play Port. Set in 1980s Stockport, it unfolds as a series of movie-like scenes.
It tells the story of Racheal, a young working class girl and product of an alcoholic father and an absent mother. Racheal is left to negotiate life while attempting to look out for her increasingly delinquent brother. The play spans a ten-year period in which we see Racheal drift into a short-lived violent marriage, soulless jobs and many depressing events along the way.
Kate O'Flynn as Racheal and Mike Noble as Billy in Port
Critics have universally praised this production. But for me it was neither entertaining nor enlightening. I found it thoroughly depressing and relentless in its grimness. I sat there amidst a classic middle class London audience, mostly white, who tittered at every expletive delivered by the actors in exaggerated Manchester accents: “Fookin’ Conts” (laugh), “Fookin’ Wankers” (laugh), etc.
During the course of the drama we were presented with an array of under-lit, soulless interior and exterior sets. Within these spaces the cast delivers mostly banal and inarticulate mutterings. The characters lack any ambition and their inevitable path is preordained through poor education, prejudice and lack of opportunity.
Ken Loach's working class masterpiece, Kes 1967
If I compared this production with, for example, Ken Loach’s 1969 film Kes, a genuinely moving and disturbing look at the claustrophobic working class world that imprisons so many people, I would have to say that Port is everything that Kes was not: forced, sensational and unsympathetic. I felt nothing for any of the characters in Port. In fact, I actively disliked all of them. That is not a good outcome for a play.
The only moment of light (literally) in the play was a rather clichéd moment at the end when Racheal delivers a mini soliloquy to inform the audience that she wants to leave Stockport, go to college and pass exams to make a better life for herself. As she speaks her face is slowly bathed in a golden light and the play ends leaving us to believe that she will turn into Willy Russell’s Rita. Not a bit of it.
I could see little point in Port: there was no hope and no redemption for its inhabitants. It was just a two-hour glimpse into a bleak, impoverished world. A world that is entrapped in its own hopelessness. A world that the audience seemed completely insulated from, akin to watching caged monkeys going about their daily lives: amusing but pointless. The only thing I took away from the evening was that little has changed since the 1950s. Ignorance and a lack of opportunity, money or ambition keep the class system healthy and alive in Britain.
A year or so back, I gave a talk at a comprehensive school in Tipton, north of Birmingham. It is an area of high unemployment. As I travelled from the station to the school I was aware of the many closed shops; groups of young hooded kids, presumably bunking off school; and an alarming number of very young mothers pushing prams with cigarettes firmly clamped between their lips, all set against a pretty depressing backdrop.
My experience at the school was just as disheartening. Pupils arrived late, many seemingly disinterested and preoccupied, giving the impression that school was just something you have to endure, until you are released. I was simply a distraction. Just some posh bloke from London, there to talk about an area of work that they felt incapable of entering. During my talk, a girl at the front of the class was actually asleep throughout.
But I explained to them I wasn’t some posh bloke from London. I could relate directly to their world. I told them that I was brought up in an impoverished post-war council estate in Dagenham. A town cloaked in the shadows of the Ford Motor Company, the main employer that I, and all my classmates at the secondary modern school that I attended, were destined for. The faces of these Tipton school kids had the same acceptance of the inevitable. Most would stay and become jelly moulds of their own parents. Long-term unemployed, holding a life together on benefits and little else.
I finally managed to engage the kids, even perking the sleeping one up, with a workshop on creative thinking. We worked on a simple project and I could see very quickly that, with a bit of coaching, their brains were very capable of thinking laterally. There was a buzz of activity and an endless stream of questions. It was left that I would be sent the result of this little project and I would award the winner with a trip to London. There was much excitement and enthusiasm. However, in the event, the school never contacted me. And I can only assume that the project faded away beneath the grey Tipton skies.
Postscript to that Tipton school talk. Shortly after my visit it was turned into an Academy school run by the RSA, in a spanking new series of buildings. From what I hear it has improved enormously. As for that little girl asleep in the front row during my talk? Who knows? I just hope she isn’t pushing a pram around Tipton.