10 great British social realist films

As a 25th anniversary remastering of Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth is unveiled, we celebrate the great British kitchen sink tradition.

6 October 2022

By Alex Ramon

Nil by Mouth (1997)
London Film Festival

Of all the terms, movements and genres traditionally associated with British cinema, the one that still retains the most currency is social realism (a term invariably preceded by the favoured adjective ‘gritty’). Relatable, nuanced portrayals of working-class British experience are usually associated with the New Wave films of the late 1950s to mid 1960s. These films, and the ‘kitchen sink drama’ and ‘Angry Young Men’ movements from which they emerged, saw previously taboo topics relating to class, race and sexuality broached with fresh frankness. 

Yet the British New Wave didn’t come from nowhere, and social realism, described by Richard Armstrong as “Britain’s richest gift to world cinema,” is more accurately thought of in terms of a longer continuum that both predates that moment and continues into the present: for example, in the filmographies of directors such as Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Shane Meadows and Clio Barnard, which have consistently focused on working-class experiences and, at times, emphasised realism’s value as social protest.

The concept of realism has of course been subjected to scrutiny, with any claim to picture life “as it is” critiqued. Yet realism’s diverse manifestations – ranging from daily TV soaps to deeply personal films like Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth (1997), drawing on the actor/director’s own south London background – indicate its continuing centrality to British culture. 

As Oldman’s shattering drama emerges in a new BFI restoration 25 years after its release, here are 10 more films that centre the domestic, work and personal lives of ‘ordinary’ British people, presenting them not only as dramatically interesting but as a vital part of the nation’s narrative. 

The Stars Look Down (1940)

Director: Carol Reed

The Stars Look Down (1940)

While certain accounts imply that pre-1960 British films were populated exclusively by upper and middle class protagonists asking “Anyone for tennis?” as stereotyped working-class characters merrily scrubbed floors in the background, closer attention to the cinema of the period reveals that this is far from the case. Among the films that challenge such a version is The Stars Look Down, Carol Reed’s compelling drama about injustices in a north-east mining town. 

Adapted from A.J. Cronin’s 1935 novel, it sees Michael Redgrave playing the idealistic miner’s son Davey, who wins a scholarship to study, only to be coerced into marriage by Margaret Lockwood’s Jenny. Featuring highly authentic mining sequences, and ending with a strong call for nationalisation to “purge the old greeds”, Reed’s sensitive and intelligent film also refuses to iron out complexities in its characterisation of the community, achieving a true richness of texture in the process. 

Love on the Dole (1941)

Director: John Baxter

Love on the Dole (1941)

“A very sordid story in very sordid surroundings” was the British Board of Film Censors verdict when it turned down a proposed film adaptation of Walter Greenwood’s novel back in 1936. Five years later, with the Second World War raging and society in flux, it was evidently felt that British audiences had reached sufficient maturity to cope, and John Baxter’s Love on the Dole was passed, the film released in June 1941. 

Set in 1930s Salford, Baxter’s film focuses on the fortunes of the Hardcastle family, including son Harry (Geoffrey Hibbert), an engineering apprentice, and daughter Sally (Deborah Kerr), a cotton milk worker, dealing with poverty, unemployment and pregnancy at the height of the Great Depression. Attentive to the struggles and ensuing moral compromises of its characters, as well as the first British film to show police wielding batons against a crowd of protestors, Love on the Dole also doesn’t lack for humour. An ever-commenting set of neighbours both hark back to the Greek chorus and anticipate the formidable ladies of Coronation Street. 

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

Director: Karel Reisz

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

“Don’t let the bastards grind you down, that’s one thing I’ve learned… What I’m out for is a good time, all the rest is propaganda.” Setting out his stall in the opening narration of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Albert Finney’s Arthur Seaton helped to redefine the 1960s British film antihero (Look Back in Anger’s Jimmy Porter had made his film debut the year before.) 

Following Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top (1958), Karel Reisz’s adaptation of Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 novel was the big box office success of the New Wave, striking a deep chord with audiences, as its Angry Young Man protagonist, dissatisfied with his lot as a machinist in a Nottingham bike factory, surveys the circumscribed horizons of the lives around him, his energy turning to belligerence. Yet, whether shooting at a meddling neighbour with an air gun or cuckolding a colleague, Arthur remains a vital source of interest, and Finney’s brilliant performance locates a sensitive core in the character, especially in the later, regret-tinged scenes with his older, married lover (Rachel Roberts).

A Taste of Honey (1961)

Director: Tony Richardson

A Taste of Honey (1961)

While the films of the New Wave tended to be male dominated in terms of writers, directors and protagonists, one exception was this adaptation of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, which places a mother and daughter at its centre. 

The great opening sequence of Tony Richardson’s tender, tough film finds Rita Tushingham’s Jo and Dora Bryan’s Helen making their way across Salford to their new digs, and offers an iconic image of women in the industrial urban landscape. The story of a teenage schoolgirl who becomes pregnant following an affair with a Black sailor (Paul Danquah), and then befriends a gay student (Murray Melvin) with whom she forms a family of sorts, A Taste of Honey was greeted with varied delight and dismay upon its release. “A lot of the reaction was, ‘People like that don’t exist’ – by which they meant homosexuals, single mothers and people in mixed-race relationships,” Tushingham recalled in 2020. “But they did.”

Flame in the Streets (1961)

Director: Roy Ward Baker

Flame in the Streets (1961)

While the Woodfall-produced films of Richardson and co still tend to dominate in discussions of screen social realism, other lesser-known productions also deserve highlighting. Based on Ted Willis’s play Hot Summer Night, and inspired by the 1958 Notting Hill riots, Roy Ward Baker’s Flame in the Streets offers a valuable take on interwoven workplace and domestic tensions in the context of interracial relationships. At the centre is John Mills’ Jacko, a union leader willing to fight for the rights of a Black colleague in the workplace, but more conflicted when his daughter (Sylvia Syms) announces her intention to marry a Jamaican co-worker (Johnny Sekka). Even more opposed to the match is Jacko’s wife Nell (Brenda De Banzie). 

Predating Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner by six years, Baker’s film offers a nuanced picture of cusp-of-the-60s conflicts, resetting the drama around Bonfire Night and effectively broadening the scope of the play’s social portrait. Actor Earl Cameron recalls discussions with Baker about making the details of the Black characters’ lives more authentic in the film. 

Kes (1969)

Director: Ken Loach

Kes (1969)

Any account of social realist British cinema is unthinkable without reference to Ken Loach, the rare filmmaker whose work can be said to have resulted in direct social change – his 1966 TV drama Cathy Come Home doing much to raise public awareness of homelessness. From those early TV works right up to 2019’s Sorry We Missed You, Loach’s sharply observed portraits of working-class life have shown Britain to itself and also resonated globally.

“I saw Kes at film school and I knew then that I’d willingly make coffee for Ken Loach,” said Krzysztof Kieślowski. Indeed, Loach’s most widely loved film may remain Kes, his adaptation of Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel for a Knave, about a 15-year-old Barnsley schoolboy, Billy Casper (David Bradley), who finds respite from his daily reality and the uninviting future it portends when he discovers a kestrel and sets about training it. Funny and poignant by turns, Kes is in many respects a critique of the British education system and the limited options for the youngsters in the community it depicts. But its beating heart are those soaring scenes, stunningly shot by Chris Menges, that beautifully capture the bond between bird and boy. 

Babylon (1980)

Director: Franco Rosso

Babylon (1980)

With the arrival of Channel 4, the 1980s saw a resurgence in social realist cinema, now engaging with Thatcherism, from My Beautiful Laundrette to Letter to Brezhnev (both 1985). Pre-dating those films by a few years was Franco Rosso’s Babylon. Co-written with Quadrophenia scribe Martin Stellman, Rosso’s Cannes-premiered drama bristles with authenticity. Like Kes, it benefits from the gritty yet lyrical cinematography of Chris Menges, this time training his camera on south London and West End locations. 

At Babylon’s centre is a vivid portrait of London’s soundsystem culture: the film follows young DJ Blue (Brinsley Forde of Aswad), a car mechanic by day and rising reggae star by night, as he attempts to pursue his musical ambitions against a backdrop of family tensions and the racism of the wider society. Stamped with an ‘X’ rating in the UK, and deemed too “likely to incite racial tension” to screen at the New York Film Festival, Babylon clearly touched some extremely raw nerves politically. Over 40 years on, it still cuts deep and hits hard, right up to its defiant finale. 

All or Nothing (2002)

Director: Mike Leigh

All or Nothing (2002)

The heightened, theatrical, slightly cartoonish comic side to some of Mike Leigh’s character portraits have sometimes jarred with his film’s realist aspects, but the writer-director’s commitment to depicting the sadnesses, horrors and humours of British life has never been in doubt. Made between two of his great period films, Topsy-Turvy (1999) and Vera Drake (2004), All or Nothing has remained an underrated addition to Leigh’s body of work; both the director himself and star Lesley Manville described the film as “the one that got away”. 

Dismissed by some critics as grim and interminable – “this is Mike Leigh up to his old tricks, serving up a dollop of misery … in which members of the cast attempt to outdo one another playing ‘common’ ” was Jonathan Ross’s notorious verdict – this raw ensemble drama about the interwoven fortunes of three families on a south London council estate is in fact fresh, involving and, ultimately, quietly affirmative. With fine performances from a cast comprising Leigh veterans (Manville, Timothy Spall, Ruth Sheen, Marion Bailey) and then-newbies (Sally Hawkins, Daniel Mays), All or Nothing combines Ozu-like intimacy with an oddly epic scope, broadening into a wider portrait of London lives.

Fish Tank (2009)

Director: Andrea Arnold

Fish Tank (2009)

Female filmmakers have become increasingly central to the development of social realist cinema over the past decades, taking it in fresh directions, and the films of Andrea Arnold are among those that have made a particularly distinctive contribution. The edgy, funky vibrancy of Arnold’s style irradiates Fish Tank, which focuses on Katie Jarvis’s Mia, a confrontational 15-year-old in trouble with social services and living on a council estate with her sister and mum (Kierston Wareing). She forms a connection with her mother’s new boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender), who encourages her interests in urban dance, although his own motivations and past remain decidedly murky. 

With thrillingly naturalistic performances from the cast, Arnold’s film offers a particularly vivid and deeply felt portrait that goes way beyond ‘Broken Britain’ cliches. Never descending to sentimentality, Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan still find small pockets of joy and beauty in Fish Tank’s harsh environment, poised between tower blocks and countryside, childhood and adulthood. 

Ali & Ava (2021)

Director: Clio Barnard

Ali & Ava (2021)
Altitude

A mid-life romance unfolding in a rain-soaked but vibrant contemporary Bradford is the focus of Clio Barnard’s hugely likeable most recent film. Adeel Akhtar’s Ali is a Pakistani-British landlord, full of life but undergoing a marital break up that’s he’s keeping a secret from his family. Claire Rushbrook’s Ava is a teaching assistant of Irish descent, mother to several kids, warm and friendly but bearing the scars of an abusive relationship. Initially bonding and bantering over musical tastes, the pair gradually open up and grow closer to each other, despite the sometimes hostile reactions of their families to their developing love affair. 

Although slighter and softer-centred than Barnard’s earlier work, Ali & Ava  boasts more than enough bite in its attention to the responsibilities and baggage brought to their new relationship by its carefully drawn protagonists, who were inspired by people Barnard met while making The Arbor (2010) and The Selfish Giant (2013). Casting an insider’s eye on the diverse spaces of multicultural Bradford, Ali & Ava truly earns its hopeful conclusion. 

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