Hand in Glove: The Smiths, Morrissey and ‘kitchen sink’ cinema

The first Morrissey biopic, England Is Mine, doesn’t contain any of his music, but his work is rife with references to British film. Here we look at how his solo songs and the music of The Smiths drew inspiration from working class screen stories.

Image from Morrissey's album Southpaw Grammar

England Is Mine is a new biopic about the early life of Morrissey. It takes its name from ‘Still Ill’ by The Smiths, and it’s the first time the singer and his music career have made it to film, although no Smiths songs are featured.

It’s only fair that Morrissey should be the subject of a movie, given the number of times he has plundered cinema for inspiration. Dialogue from French films (Les Quatre Cents Coups, Bande à part, Pépé le Moko), Italian films (several films by Pasolini) and American films (Alice Adams, The Subject Was Roses) has been directly sampled, adapted and reinterpreted throughout his discography, particularly during his time with The Smiths. Yet it is British cinema that has influenced his music the most.

There are too many to list here, but special mention must go to Cicely Courtneidge’s rousing chorus of ‘Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty’ from The L-Shaped Room (1962), which kicks off The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead album with suitable gung-ho irony. The samples he chooses range from a child’s rhyme from Eight O’Clock Walk (1954) on ‘The Teachers Are Afraid of the Pupils’, a woman crying from The Blue Lamp (1950) on his cover of ‘Moon River’ and a loop of Kay Kendall asking “What’s your name?” from In Which We Serve (1942) on ‘Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning’. All add an eerie ethereal quality to the music, as lines from yesteryear haunt the songs.

Composite of The Smiths singles covers

British cinema bled into the art of The Smiths’ music videos. Footage from The Leather Boys (1950) featured in the promo for ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’, while the great British director Derek Jarman, who shared many of Morrissey’s anti-establishment views, directed the music videos for a handful of their 1980s hits. Many of The Smiths’ singles artwork consisted of stills from British films.

The five films below had an acknowledged influence on Morrissey who, despite being born in 1959 and therefore too young to see these features on their initial cinema release, clearly adores cinema from the 1950s and 60s, with a particular love for works about English working-class lives, unappealingly dubbed ‘kitchen sink drama’ by lazy critics. The main characters in these films aspire for a better life, away from the limited, conformist society around them. Some of the characters escape their humdrum lives, some don’t, and it’s not hard to draw parallels with Morrissey’s own life.

The threat of Morrissey’s talent being repressed by the world around him dominates the new biopic, which doesn’t shy away from Morrissey’s arrogance and superiority complex. While Morrissey continues to be as controversial as ever, there is no denying his expertise at blending cinema into his music to create astonishing work.

Charles Laughton in Hobson's Choice (1954)

Hobson’s Choice (1954) – inspired ‘Sheila Take a Bow’, available on Louder than Bombs (1987)

“Boot the grime of this world in the crotch, dear

And don’t go home tonight

Come out and find the one that you love and who loves you…”

The film

Before his Oscar-winning epics, David Lean made a string of excellent British films, including Hobson’s Choice (1954), an adaptation of Harold Brighouse’s stage play. The latter is the most underrated film in his canon, a sparkling Salford-set comedy about a grotesque drunken shopkeeper (Charles Laughton on volcanic form) and his three daughters, one of whom (Brenda De Banzie, in her best role) rebels against her monstrous parent, finds a husband (John Mills) and sets about stealing her father’s business.

The song

‘Sheila Take a Bow’ was The Smiths’ highest charting single in the UK, reaching number 10. While the relationship to Lean’s film is hardly explicit – the brief brass band music that opens the song is taken directly from a key scene in Hobson’s Choice – the no-nonsense call to arms to seize life and find love is apt. A message on the brass band’s banner, “Beware the wrath to come”, was used in the vinyl etchings for The Smiths’ 1986 single ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’.

We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959) – inspired ‘Spring-Heeled Jim’, available on Vauxhall and I (1994)

“Spring-heeled Jim slurs the words:

‘There’s no need to be so knowing

Take life at five times the

Average speed, like I do’ ”

The film

A key documentary from the 1950s Free Cinema Movement, We Are the Lambeth Boys is a fresh and exhilarating journey through a few days spent with members of Alford House Youth Club in Kennington, London. It was directed by Karel Reisz, who went on to make some of the key films of the next decade, including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966).

The song

‘Spring-Heeled Jim’ contains a couple of long samples from We Are the Lambeth Boys – one in which the youths discuss a fight, another in which they debate the death penalty (despite their bravado and Teddy Boy looks, the young men in the film are actually very likeable). Morrissey often betrays a wry admiration for cocky masculine swagger, and the film marries perfectly with the song, a hymn to a womanising lad whose days of youthful vitality are numbered.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) – inspired ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’, available on The Queen Is Dead (1986)

“Take me out tonight

Where there’s music and there’s people

Who are young and alive”

The film

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

Karel Reisz’s first fiction feature remains a British New Wave classic. It’s based on the novel by Alan Sillitoe and launched the career of Albert Finney, who gives a tremendous performance as the charismatic Arthur Seaton, a man who, initially, seeks pleasure and escapism despite the restricted options open to him living as a lathe operator in Nottingham. An affair with a married woman leads to unwanted pregnancy, while his future with another young woman threatens to trap them both in a life of mundanity. The title of the Arctic Monkeys’ acclaimed album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not is a line from the film.

The song

‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’ is one of The Smiths’ most loved songs and borrows phrases from Sillitoe’s script, including a line referencing being hit by a double decker bus. Yet this is just the start of the influence Saturday Night and Sunday Morning had on Morrissey. He has cited it as one of his favourite films and his identification with the protagonist, stating, “when you’re like Arthur Seaton, from a working class background, you have to be very over expressive and you have to be overtly demonstrative in order to get anywhere and be heard… trying to get out, trying to get on, trying to be somebody, trying to be seen”.

A Taste of Honey (1961) – inspired ‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes’, available on Hatful of Hollow (1984)

“The dream has gone

But the baby is real”

The film

A Taste of Honey (1961)

While most of the British New Wave films focused on male protagonists, Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Shelagh Delaney’s masterpiece, set in Salford, centres on female characters, launching the career of Rita Tushingham as the immature, lonely Jo and offering comedian Dora Bryan her best ever role, as her selfish and irresponsible yet strangely sympathetic mother. Its frank acknowledgement of interracial sex and homosexuality (Murray Melvin plays Jo’s long-suffering gay best friend) were radical for the time.

The song

In typically brash Morrissey fashion, the singer proclaimed that A Taste of Honey was “virtually the only important thing in British film in the 1960s”, and that he knew the script off by heart. ‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes’, a song in which the fate of an unwanted baby is left ambiguous, references several lines from A Taste of Honey, some paraphrases, some direct lifts. It’s one of many Smiths songs that steals from the film – another explicit reference can be found in ‘Reel around the Fountain’ (“I dreamt about you last night. Fell out of bed twice”).

Billy Liar (1963) – inspired ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’, available on Hatful of Hollow (1984)

“This town has dragged you down

Oh, no, and everybody’s got to live their life

And God knows I’ve got to live mine”

The film

Billy Liar (1963)

The British New Wave is often associated with serious, downbeat drama, yet Billy Liar (1963) is a witty comedy filled with flights of fancy. Tom Courtenay stars as a young undertaker’s clerk who prefers to live in a daydream world rather than face the grim reality of life in a dull Yorkshire town, or risk the uncertainty that an escape to London with the free-spirited Liz (Julie Christie) offers.

The song

The story told in ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’, a dry critique of smalltown life and the bland inevitability of marriage, reflects some of the themes in Billy Liar, one of Morrissey’s favourite movies. It’s not the only song to have been influenced by the film. The jolly ‘Frankly, Mr Shankly’ echoes Billy’s botched attempt at resignation in the film, while the flight to the big city, sadly never achieved by Billy, is referenced in ‘London’ (“You left your tired family grieving / And you think they’re sad because you’re leaving”). The character of Billy Liar, a smart young man desperate to achieve success but hampered by fear and limited options, most closely reflects the depiction of Morrissey as seen in England Is Mine.

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