Entirely indicative of the principle and ethic behind a group of radical young film makers and writers who churned out a series of films that came to be known as, ‘kitchen sink drama’s’, Smith’s words reflected the wave of discontent that echoed around post war Britain and is still very evident today.
Indeed, the two finest films British released this year are pure ‘kitchen sink in that they deal with the harsh realities of working class Britain. ’ The first, Shifty, directed by Eran Creevy, is set on location on an estate in Harlow Essex stars Riz Ahmed as a young Pakistani crack, coke and puff dealer whose life spirals out of control just as his old mate returns home for a visit. The second, Fish Tank, helmed by Andrea Arnold takes place in a tower block in an equally depressing Kentish satellite town and stars newcomer Katie Jarvis as Mia foul-mouthed, aggressively violent and desperately yearning 15-year-old with a slovenly mother, a noisy kid sister (Rebecca Griffiths) and dreams of becoming a dancer. And, while today such themes might even seem almost commonplace, in 1959 the truth was anything but.
Prior to the ‘kitchen sink’ revolution the British profile had been defined on screen by characters who populated the works of Noel Coward or Terence Rattigan – Savile Row suit wearing cads like Terry Thomas or impeccable cricket loving heroes , as played by the likes of John Mills or David Niven and whose vowels were the product of expensive public schools such as Eton, Harrow or Winchester. To be sure, up until the late fifties most onscreen hookers, Police constables and villains expressed themselves in upper class tones more reminiscent of an Oxford Latin professor. Yet, such Tomfoolery could not last forever and, as the realities of urban post war British existence loomed, a new voice blasted its way into the countries consciousness that, evident in the aforementioned cinematic genre, not only defined what it was to be of this country, and poor, but set the tone for the entire future of British drama.
Of course, the movement was just one facet of a countrywide re-assessment. People had fought and died to keep the UK going and, after the war, the British working classes, fed up with their lack of voice, began to shout loudly. Teddy Boys in 1953, with their meticulous mockery of upper-class Edwardian dress stepped out for the first time in opposition to what novelist John Fowles called, ‘the grotesquely elongated shadow of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria.’ They demanded the same luxuries as the New Edwardians enjoyed and used their black market income and contacts to circumvent the straitjacket of rationing to ape the style of this gang of eminently effete, superbly stylish but garrulously gay men while artists and writers- no longer content with being considered as mere second class citizens- woke up and demanded their dues in a similar fashion.
Irrefutably, not that different from the British Punk Rock movement, said form was all about now- all about what it was to be in that place at that moment and at that time - and that time was the present. It had little truck with retrospection, little time for the problems of the upper classes. It was solidly about being working class in fifties Great Britain and the struggles inherent.
Certainly, said Kitchen sink dramas and Teddy Boys were just two manifestations of the proletariat’s demands. As much a part of the post war egalitarian revolution as the formation of the NHS and the DHSS, such dramas gave the people of Britain a much needed tongue and, appealing to the rank and file, boosted our much ailing film industry that, dying on it’s feet, survived only via the auspices of Hammer’s Dracula franchise and Carry On Films.
To be sure, looking back it is virtually impossible for us to imagine the fuss these ’kitchen sinkers’ caused.
Billed as “A savage story of Lust and Ambition,’ one of the first of the genre, director Jack Clayton’s Room At The Top (1959) was given an X (over eighteen) certificate on its release in 1959 and was banned by the Association of British Boys Clubs lest it’s members were infected by its racy content. Based on the best selling novel by John Braine, its central character, Joe Lampton-exquisitely rendered by Lawrence Harvey - is essentially a go getting former POW on the make and on the up. Something of a bounder, who simply endeavors to rise above his otherwise preordained place in society via his congress with Susan Brown (Heather Sears), the daughter of a local factory owner while at the same time hiding the salami with the older Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret) the wife of a wealthy solicitor , Lampton is a man who will do whatever to achieve his aims.. Nothing too scandalous about that you might say but, without a doubt, much of the latter day furore was due to Lampton’s laid-back declaration that he was glad to have been interned by the Hun in a prisoner of war camp- because he could then study at being an accountant and avoid being shot. So on one hand his blatant desire to rise above his station was seen as unbecoming and rather gauche while his attitude, was considered by the powers that be to be simply… un- British.
The term ‘Kitchen sink’ was coined by art critic David Sylvester who, after seeing a work by painter, John Bratby, that featured an image of a contemporary kitchen sink, penned a piece in 1954 that, referring to a group of artists who celebrated the banality of urban existence was entitled ‘Kitchen Sink.’ Subsequently the moniker was applied to anything that celebrated or re-enacted such and when playwright John Osborne’s, Look Back in Anger -a play that dealt with a working class man, Jimmy Porter (Richard Burton) and his questioning of the social strata - popped up at the Royal Court Theatre in 1956, and actually had the front to plonk an ironing board on the stage, it personified the discipline.
Yet indubitably, the principle that propelled the whole movement was certainly in the ether. While Osborne’s production was receiving rave (and controversial) reviews, up North a 17-year old Mancunian, Shelagh Delaney, who had never heard of Osborne, was penning the play, A Taste of Honey, that, championed by Joan Littlewood (an out and out communist was under surveillance by the MI5 from 1939 till the late fifties who was also artistic director of the famed Theatre Workshop) opened in the Theatre Royal Stratford East in May 1958 and in 1961 was made into a film. Directed by the great Tony Richardson (who also directed Osborne’s play and the subsequent film in 1959) it is a milestone in British film work that comments on, and puts into question, class, race, gender and sexual orientation in mid-twentieth century Britain, Both immediate and compassionate it was the first film to ever voice the complexities of life as a teenage working class girl in the UK as it’s protagonist Josephine (Rita Tushingham who won the best actress award at Cannes,) - a plain Northern teenager- is shunned by her drunken slapper mum (Dora Bryan) gets pregnant by a black sailor (Paul Danqua), befriends a gay man, Geoffrey (Murray Melvin) and as a consequence finds out just who she really is.
And while Delaney scribbled away up North hatchling author, Alan Sillitoe , was knocking out the merchandise in another country. A former RAF wireless operator in Malaysia, the writer was diagnosed with tuberculosis and so, in an attempt to recover, moved first to France and then Mallorca where esteemed novelist, Robert Graves, encouraged him to write about what he knew. The result was the novel, Saturday Night Sunday Morning, which published in 1958 truly set the cat amongst the pigeons. A tome that dealt with the disillusionment of post-war Britain, and the lack of opportunities for the working classes, it was adapted to film by Karel Reisz. The movie made a star out of Albert Finney who as , Arthur Seaton , a hardworking factory worker who works like a dog all week at his mindless job for bugger all money then spends the lot on weekend sessions in the pubs and clubs. A force of nature, Seaton, who juggles relationships with two women, one of whom is married to another man but is pregnant with his child and the other who is neither, is a Great British anti hero- unashamedly anti-establishment, indeed unashamedly anti everything: “That's what all those silly laws are for, to be broken by blokes like us,” he says.
Director, Reisz was a Czechoslovakian Jewish refugee one of 669 saved by Sir Nicholas Winton prior to WW2. His parents died in Auschwitz while he, shipped to England, was educated in Oxford and subsequently founded the film journal Sequence with Lindsay Anderson and Gavin Lambert. A founding member of the Free Cinema documentary film movement that really broke down the boundaries in Brit cinema, Reisz’ first film under the FC umbrella, Momma Don’t Allow (1955) was co directed by Tony Richardson while his groundbreaking, We are the Lambeth Boys, of 1958 was one of the first films to accurately depict life as a young aspirant Ted in working class London.
Without a doubt, the epicenter of the kitchen sink phenomenon, Free Cinema, was co founded by Tony Richardson who trading on the success of, A Taste of Honey, turned Sillitoe’s second novel, The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner (1962) into one of the great British films of all time. Starring Tom Courtenay as, Colin Smith, an adolescent anti capitalist miscreant who refuses to accept the factory floor in favour of a life of petty thievery, this totally excellent film can boast all the hallmarks of anti establishment cinema. Ending up in a grim Victorian borstal Colin discovers a talent for long distance running that, seized upon by the prison governor (Michael Redgrave) provides Colin with yet another source of inimitable rebellion.
Not to be outdone fellow FC founder, director Lindsay Anderson, in 1963, made This Sporting Life, a film that battered down the doors of contemporary Brit drama and launched the film career of Richard Harris who as Frank Machin, a miner turned rugby star gave the performance of his life while confederate John ‘Midnight Cowboy’ Schlesinger came up trumps with, A Kind of Loving (1962) Billy Liar (1963) and Darling (1965) three examples of the form that tied the knot and closed the bag.
Often compared to their more loudly heralded French New Wave counterpart, the British kitchen sink dramas were, in my opinion, even more realistic than their Gallic foil (the nearest being Truffaut’s 400 Blows) and arose from filmmakers who rejected the bourgeois timidity of their national cinema and strove to change the form. And even though their universally acknowledged glory years ended in the cinema in 1965 their influence has resounded ever since forever influencing Britain’s greatest directors.
In 1965 Ken Loach took a discerning leaf out of the kitchen sink clan and took the form to it’s rightful and most egalitarian home – TV. For the massively influential BBC One, The Wednesday Play slot he directed writer Nell Dunn’s superlative, Up The Junction that told of petty thieving, sexual encounters, births, deaths and back-street abortion followed by Cathy Come Home, in 1966 a TV play written by Jeremy Sandford (who also penned the superb Edna The Inebriate Woman in 1971) about a homeless mother and father trying to hang onto their kids. In 1969 Loach helmed the superb, Kes (1969) that exemplified the form. Consequently the great Alan Clarke took the manner to an altogether different level with, Scum (1979) Made in Britain (1982) and the sublime, Rita Sue and Bob Too (1986).
More recently, Nottingham born Shane Meadows cites all of the above as the main influence on his work such as, Dead Man’s Shoes and, This Is England, while Paul Abbot, the writer of Channel 4’s, Shameless has delivered not only the kitchen sink but the toilet pan as well. “I grew up with all those kitchen sink dramas,” informed the 37 year old Meadows in interview with me last year. “They were the first films I ever understood. They dealt with the types of people I knew and the situations I was aware of and in my opinion they are as relevant today as they were back then.“
The Loneliness of A Long Distance Runner, Saturday Night Sunday Morning , This Sporting Life, Look Back In Anger, Shifty and Fish Tank are all available on DVD