Where to begin with kitchen sink drama

A beginner’s path through the unvarnished grit of Britain’s kitchen sink classics.

22 June 2016

By Neil Mitchell

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

Why this might not seem so easy

Between the late 50s and the early 70s, a swathe of films were released that changed the face and course of British cinema forever. Synonymous with but not confined to the British new wave, the so-called ‘kitchen sink’ dramas that emerged in all their unvarnished, provocative glory presented cinemagoers with an unfettered, authentic realism that had largely been missing from British films up until that point.

Predominantly focused on the lives of the working classes, with broad regional accents thankfully intact, the kitchen sink films had no time for traditional, rose-tinted celluloid visions of England’s supposedly green and pleasant land. Instead, these raw human stories revolved around crumbling marriages, the drudgery of unskilled work, sexual orientation, stymied aspirations, backstreet abortions, disenfranchised youth, homelessness and gender, class and race discrimination.

This Sporting Life (1963)

Building on precursors to this distinct sub-genre of social realism such as Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) and J. Lee Thompson’s grossly undervalued Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957), kitchen sink films were populated by ‘angry young men’, frustrated housewives and angst-ridden teens, all railing against their lots in life.

If you’re unfamiliar with these films, and the stage plays and novels many of them were adapted or took their cue from, they may at first appear as the antithesis of big screen ‘entertainment’. To be put off by the uncomfortable themes, unglamorous urban locations and prevailing sense of gloom that, inherently, permeates kitchen sink films would, however, be a big mistake. These dramas crackle with angry energy, and reflect how grim life really was and, unfortunately, still can be for large parts of the population. They also gave us some of the greatest performances and most searing dialogue yet seen in British cinema.

Dour they may be, but they are also vital, edgy and progressive. Issues dealt with on a daily basis in real life were laid bare for all to see and the disadvantaged, downtrodden and invisible were given a voice that has since, rightly, gone on to be regularly heard. With the likes of Bryan Forbes and Tony Richardson behind the camera, Rita Tushingham and Albert Finney in front of it and John Osborne and Shelagh Delaney providing the source material, the classic period kitchen sink dramas are compulsory viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in the history of British cinema.

The best place to start

Considering a good number of the kitchen sink dramas are among the finest British films, you could reasonably dive in with any of the more famous titles. Perhaps the most pertinent starting point, however, would be the early output of Ken Loach. Given Loach’s recent Palme d’Or for I, Daniel Blake, now would be the ideal time to explore the films and TV plays he directed towards the end of the initial kitchen sink cycle. Loach took the existing kitchen sink tone, style and feel to a new level of confrontational realism with a number of works that struck a deep chord both with the general public and policy makers, resulting in a genuine real world impact on the social issues his characters endured.

Poor Cow (1967)

Shot in unflinching docudrama style, two of Loach’s 10 entries into the BBC’s Wednesday Play strand – Up the Junction in 1965 and Cathy Come Home the following year – were to bring the issues of backstreet abortions and homelessness respectively into British living rooms in justifiably stark fashion. The Abortion Act 1967 and the founding of homeless charity Crisis were both influenced by Loach’s TV dramas, and the director would soon bring his own brand of kitchen sink realism to the big screen. Poor Cow (1967), which focuses on the poor life choices made by 18-year-old Joy (Carol White), and Kes (1969), the enduringly popular tale of troubled teen Billy Casper (David Bradley), foregrounded verisimilitude and human drama, a trait that has remained a constant in Loach’s socially conscious cinema to this day.

What to watch next

A Kind of Loving (1962)

With Loach’s bruising early works ticked off the list, it’ll be time to delve into the other classics of the era. If it’s class-based kitchen sink drama you’re after then Tony Richardson’s Look Back in Anger (1959) and Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top (1959) are the most overtly concerned with this theme. Both films revolve around ill-starred relationships that struggle to overcome issues of class divisions, and are driven by the intensely gripping performances of their respective leading men; Richard Burton in Richardson’s adaptation of John Osborne’s stage play and Laurence Harvey in Clayton’s take on John Braine’s novel of the same name.

More relationship woes underpin John Schlesinger’s A Kind of Loving (1962), The L-shaped Room (Bryan Forbes, 1962) and This Sporting Life (Lindsay Anderson, 1963). Essential entries into the cycle, the insidious spectres of class hierarchies and social conventions have a damaging impact on all the central characters’ personal lives in this trio of emotionally charged dramas.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

One of the most memorable ‘angry young men’ was to be found in Karel Reisz’s 1960 version of Alan Sillitoe’s novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, as Albert Finney’s hard-drinking, womanising factory worker Arthur Seaton’s belligerent message to the viewer was “don’t let the bastards grind you down!”

A year later it was the women’s turn as Rita Tushingham, who went on to star in a number of kitchen sink dramas, made an unforgettable debut as recent school-leaver Jo in Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey. Adapted from her own stage play by Shelagh Delaney, A Taste of Honey boldly addressed issues of race and sexual orientation as Jo first falls pregnant by black sailor Jimmy (Paul Danquah) before taking on a surrogate father for the unborn child in the form of her gay friend Geoffrey (Murray Melvin).

Richardson then turned his attention to another rebellious teen in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), as Tom Courtenay’s talented runner Colin refuses to play ball with the governor of the detention centre he’s incarcerated in. Colin’s two-fingered salute to authority succinctly summed up the attitude and outlook of many of the era’s anti-hero protagonists.

Where not to start

A handful of the initial wave of kitchen sink films are, for a number of reasons, best approached having experienced the ones previously mentioned. A big screen version of Up the Junction directed by Peter Collinson in 1968 may have had a bigger budget and starrier cast list but it lacked the gritty energy of Loach’s TV play, ending up as inferior in almost every respect. Two films starring Rita Tushingham – Basil Dearden’s A Place to Go (1963) and Sidney J. Furie’s The Leather Boys (1964) – are both interesting entries into the kitchen sink cycle, the latter’s touching upon homosexuality being especially noteworthy, but both ultimately don’t quite reach the consistently high levels of the likes of A Kind of Loving, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or Cathy Come Home.

While Barney Platts-Mills’ roughly hewn vision of disenfranchised youth, Bronco Bullfrog (1969), may be a bit too untutored a starting point, Peter Hammond’s adaptation of Bill Naughton’s tale of family life in a northern industrial town, Spring and Port Wine (1970) may, conversely, be too staid. The same could be said of The Whisperers (Bryan Forbes, 1967), an emotionally powerful tale of old age and loneliness that, while being a wonderful film, doesn’t fizz with the anger coursing through the veins of the major kitchen sink films.

Billy Liar (1963)

Finally, while Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963) and Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie (1966) clearly incorporate much of what goes into kitchen sink narratives, they both contain elements that could perhaps give a misleading impression of the sub-genre’s prevailing mood and tone. Billy Liar’s forays into the fantastical – through the titular figure’s wildly imagined daydreams – and the fourth wall breaking, direct-to-camera addresses of Michael Caine’s womanising Alfred ‘Alfie’ Elkins are rare stylistic deviations to the straightforward realism that dominated in kitchen sink dramas.

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