Acting hard: working-class men and British cinema

When it comes to representations of working-class men on our screens, audiences and critics need to take the rough with the smooth, says Nia Childs, curator of our Acting Hard season.

5 September 2023

By Nia Childs

Sweet Sixteen (2002)

British cinema, like British society at large, has always been concerned with class issues – though not always those of the working classes. For a long time, middle, upper and officer classes tended to dominate screens, at least until the late 1950s and 60s. It was then that a slew of so-called ‘kitchen sink’ dramas, such as Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963), arrived to foreground working-class men and women: many of them angry and looking to escape the drudgery of working life, actively rejecting domesticity, or asking what the point of it all was.

The very definition of ‘working class’ is still highly complex, entangled with capitalism and gender politics, and it can shift and change as society progresses. Working-class men are often characterised by how much they are able to offer society, either as defenders of their country, providers for their families, or through their labour. They are often perceived as strong, never cowering in the face of adversity or showing weakness. They are physically (and sexually) able. Yet, over recent decades there has been an undeniable shift in perception that has pushed these men farther and farther outside of their communities, either as solitary figures or as part of a pack that seek to wreak havoc. 

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

By the 1980s, films such as My Beautiful Launderette (1985) and Mona Lisa (1986) were featuring working-class men who were operating on the fringes of society. My Beautiful Laundrette featured a interracial queer relationship between a South Asian man and a white former skinhead, while Mona Lisa featured an unlikely friendship between a hardened criminal and a sex worker – outsiders, indeed. Where their 1960s counterparts were often loveable rogues grappling with their position in life, British men in many 1980s films were often so disillusioned with the way things were that they’d opted out altogether.

This was the time of Margaret Thatcher’s ambitions for a classless society, with the incoming Conservative prime minister promoting the idea that anyone could succeed provided they were willing to put in the hard graft. In reality, the privatisation of public services, the selling of council housing stock, and the deregulation of industry put an incredible strain on the working class, pushing many into poverty. In postwar Britain, the working classes made up around 50% of the population, but now the divide between rich and poor was getting wider.

Against this tide, and at a time when British films were struggling at the box office, the arrival of Channel Four and its filmmaking subsidiary Channel Four Films in 1982 created a space for a more ambitious, radical kind of storytelling. Publicly owned but privately funded, as broadcaster and funder it was in a unique position to experiment with its programming, and to reflect a broader range of experiences across the UK. As such, their output – including both My Beautiful Laundrette and Mona Lisa – didn’t shy away from tackling such topics as racism, sex work and queer identities. A much more diverse picture of British masculinity began to be reflected back at audiences, even as anger, disaffection and anarchy increasingly came to dominate.

Raining Stones (1993)

It was during this era that director Ken Loach, never averse to controversy, made some of his angriest work. In Raining Stones (1993), Bob (Bruce Jones) is struggling for money as unemployment and work precarity renders him helpless. Unable to afford a proper communion dress for his daughter – a symbol of his dedication to his faith and his position in his community – he makes a catastrophic decision with deadly consequences. In his later film Sweet Sixteen (2002), Liam (Martin Compston) – a teenager preparing for his mum’s release from prison – wants so desperately to become a man of the world that he takes on the role almost as a performance, mimicking a type of masculinity that he’d come to understand as destined for him. But he’s too young to hold the weight of this burden, and his premature journey into manhood becomes more and more chaotic. What Loach has always done well is to shift the responsibility away from his protagonists: he asks us to consider the root causes of this disenfranchisement – namely, the ruling class.

By the turn of the millennium, however, working-class characters were becoming increasingly nihilistic and detached from politics, reflecting a society where – despite the prevailing optimism greeting New Labour’s election in 1997 – many working-class people continued to feel displaced from society. It was at this moment that ambitious indie director Nick Love and actor Danny Dyer, both from working-class backgrounds, first began to collaborate. Dyer had broken out into the mainstream with Human Traffic (1999), a film about a group of teenagers who found their purpose on the dancefloor on weekends. It made Dyer an instant poster boy for millennial-era hedonism. He and Love went on to work together on a succession of films in which girls, money and violence were all on the menu, as the only means by which to escape a life of drudgery and boredom. 

The Football Factory (2004)

The most celebrated of these was the high octane, highly quotable hooligan film The Football Factory (2004), in which Dyer portrays a disenfranchised 29-year-old who gets his only kicks on the weekend as a member of a violent Chelsea FC hooligan firm. A smash hit with audiences, it spurred a number of low-budget imitations, many of them feeding a lively straight-to-DVD British indie scene, which itself offered a much needed foot in the door for the kind of working-class filmmakers too often shut out of the filmmaking mainstream. Love’s films are far less politically didactic than Loach’s – we’re not told that we need to decipher why these men enjoy being violent, we just know that they are. 

Another key film from this time is Menhaj Huda’s 2006 film Kidulthood, a youth movie featuring mainly Black, working-class teens indulging in heavy drug-taking, sex and violence, which seemed to reflect elements of real experience for an appreciative working-class audience. As with Love’s films, Huda makes no attempt to offer any sort of political commentary; these things happened simply because they did. Despite its popularity, however, critics were largely unkind, even horrified. As with The Football Factory, reviewers seemed to baulk at the fact that there wasn’t any neat conclusion to the events of the film; no commentary to explain the characters’ disenfranchisement. To be working class in an acceptable way is to contribute, to find meaning, to be part of society. And these characters weren’t interested at all.

I, Daniel Blake (2016)

It’s interesting to consider the unvarnished qualities of many of these characters in 2023, when the discourse around subjects such as sex on screen, portrayals of violence, or even characters who aren’t ‘good’ people, tends towards the puritanical – with no space for context or nuance. Then there’s the valid concern that to show a working-class person being violent is to play into an idea of working classness that is reductive and encourages prejudice. Even Loach, who has never been one to shy away from confronting the complexities of blue-collar life, has turned towards a calmer, more acceptable image of the working-class man in recent years. I, Daniel Blake (2016) features a central character – an unemployed joiner from Newcastle – who maintains a cheery disposition despite the powers-that-be conspiring to make his life an utter misery. It’s as if it’s assumed that audiences wouldn’t be able to accept Daniel if he wasn’t so decent. The critics loved it, of course. 

There’s a small group of directors working today, however, all from working-class backgrounds, who continue to provoke with their thornier depictions of working-class male identity. Most notable perhaps is Shane Meadows, the director of Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) and This Is England (2006), many of whose films have gained cult status, although he has worked exclusively in television since 2013. Gerard Johnson also explores the more abrasive elements of his male characters – most recently in Muscle (2019), a film about a jacked-up body builder with a dark past – as does director Philip Barantini, whose film Boiling Point (2021) features Steven Graham playing a substance-abusing restaurant chef. 

Blue Story (2019)

Rapman created a storm in 2019 with Blue Story, a feature-length adaptation of the rapper’s YouTube series of the same name. Similarly to Kidulthood, the film focuses on a story of Black, inner-city young men, but this time, there were lessons to be learned, with the director providing commentary on the perils of gang warfare through the medium of rap music. This tale of south London youth gangs was well received by critics, and became a box office smash despite it being banned from some cinemas for a time due to unfounded and racist fears that it incited violence in the screens. Some things don’t change. But films like these, which strongly connect with working-class audiences, remain rare, and things remain notoriously hard for working-class filmmakers.

There remains, as ever, a need for diverse, authentic depictions of working-class characters on screen. And part of that authenticity must come from allowing depictions of masculinity which may be harder to look at. Viewers shouldn’t expect a disenfranchised group of people to only ever be kind, nurturing, in touch with their feelings and politically engaged. The Acting Hard season at BFI Southbank this September is a celebration of such characters, and a tribute to the filmmakers who have chosen to confront the harder edges of society. One of the most important functions of cinema is to allow us the space to confront things that are hard to understand, if only we dare to look. 

The Acting Hard season runs at BFI Southbank in September.

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