The term working class has long been associated with those who are deemed as “unskilled” or semi-skilled, people who might work lower-paid jobs or struggle for work in general; desperate just to make ends meet a lot of the time while fighting substance abuse, broken families, and violence. There has always been a divide between the working class and those people who see themselves as better – the middle or the upper-class people of society – but when half of the UK’s population is classified as working class, it is these people that have made the nations what they are. The representation of the working class in films has always been interesting; portraying people both at rock bottom and at their glistening best, but one thing is for sure, and that’s the raw authenticity that directors have always tried to implement in these representations.
Ken Loach is seen by a few to be the godfather of portraying working-class social realism in film, and who would argue that? What started back in 1967 with Poor Cow, a film about young parenthood, crime, and the lasting effects that drink and drugs can have on a family, quickly cemented Loach as a name to be remembered, due to his dark and dreary portrayal of common social issues. Two years later, Loach released the very different Kes, a film that has long been considered a British classic; a nostalgic film about growing up in a northern working-class town with little to do apart from imagine and dream.
The 1960s was a crucial decade for the British film industry and one that had a plethora of interesting interpretations of working-class life and the social dilemmas attached to it. Billy Liar (1963) took a very different approach to the representation of working-class lives, harnessing the power of that notorious northern sense of humor to explore a very real story in an uplifting manner. John Schlesinger’s British CinemaScope comedy-drama stars Tom Courtenay in the titular role, as a young man living in a small Yorkshire town with aspirations to leave and dreams to chase. Small towns like this have power over people; it is holding you back and turns any attempt to leave into an eternally somber battle. Billy’s aspiration for the big city life is a common thought in the head of young people, but the thought of leaving is as terrifying as it comes; with a sinking realization that the comforts of home will no longer be, which results in Billy purposefully missing his train in the film’s climax because of this hold that the town has on him.
Billy Liar expertly shows how monotonous a life living in a town like this can be. Due to the boredom that Billy feels with his own life and the town that has trapped him, he feels the need to lie; exaggerating and fabricating every bit of his life to make it sound more exciting to him and to others, even creating a new fantasy world in his own head to quench his unfulfilled needs – this is a common trait for people of Billy’s age living in a similar environment, and a difficult one to rid yourself of. It’s what people call “small-town syndrome” and its effects can be damning if you don’t get out quickly because it will pin you down forever in the blink of an eye.
This genre has delivered some unquestionable successes over the years, while incredibly real but also varied – with so many social issues happening all over the country, it allows for endless amounts of scope for filmmakers to trace from. One technique that has always been a ticket for success with this genre of films though (and for very good reason because it’s wonderfully effective) and that’s when the story is told from the perspective of a child. Loach knows it and it has allowed him to deliver remarkable films over the years; Shane Meadows is another that has excelled because of it, as seen in the masterful This Is England from 2006. But another director who perfected this concept was Lynne Ramsay with Ratcatcher (1999) a film so powerfully morbid but equally heart-warming.
Set in Glasgow in 1973 (a particularly tough period for Scotland and England, with the conservative leadership aiding poverty), Ratcatcher explores themes of death, rebirth, poverty, and the effects that it has on a child. The city was once a statement of Victorian grandeur, but government housing schemes that produced the poorest housing conditions in western Europe with no hot water, bathing facilities, or indoor toilets, soon vanquished the city’s former glory. The film follows a young 12-year-old boy called James (William Eadie) as he wades through the trash-riddled streets (the binmen have all gone on strike and it has become a breeding ground for rats) while he waits for re-housing that was promised to his family and thousands of others.
In a similar fashion to Billy Liar, young James has become disillusioned with his life and escapes these harsh realities by visiting his own imaginary world. This, once again, proves that no matter how hard life hits you, imagination and a need for exploration can often be your greatest ally. Ratcatcher is one of those rugged filming masterpieces that almost becomes a documentary, as it showcases some very real problems that inflicted misery upon thousands of people. But Ratcatcher’s greatest strength was harnessing the power of a child’s mind, using the very naivety and wonderful innocence that makes a child a child, and thrusting them into the broken reality of life, which is a sure-fire way to quicken that growing up process.
But where Ratcatcher and Billy Liar succeeded in portraying the positives that a working-class or poverty-stricken upbringing can have on a person, there is still an awful lot more to be uncovered, which is where Fish Tank comes in. 2009’s Fish Tank explores all the aspects that the other two films only touched upon and does so with great authoritativeness and vigor. This time, we are transported to the mean streets of East London and the electricity that can be generated in council estates up and down the nation. The film surrounds Mia (Katie Jarvis) a volatile and socially isolated 15-year-old who has trouble with her alcoholic mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and partakes in a boundary-blurring relationship with her mother’s new boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender).
The name itself “fish tank” is a great metaphor for trying to escape this place called home, one that could even be applied to Billy Liar, as the confining powers of this place force you to stay within its walls. Fish Tank really is gritty British realism at its absolute best, and what begins as a portrayal of working-class youth life and the chaos that surrounds it, soon turns into a powerfully emotional story with enough heartache to fill the year. Another film that feels so incredibly rugged and real that the story could have happened down the road from our very own home. But what instills this film with its most authentic aspect is the performance from debut actor Kate Jarvis, who, by all accounts, was hired by Andrea Arnold after the director witnessed Jarvis arguing with her boyfriend close to where the film was set – now, it really doesn’t get any more real than that.
These three films are just a few of the countless brilliant British social realism films out there; all three are so different in story and the issues being explored, but they also share some striking similarities. Films of this ilk become so spiritual, important, and genuine because of how close to home they hit, with many of us who were brought up in similar areas encountering or hearing about these experiences in some capacity. The mastery of British social realism films is one that stands the test of time, it’s one that pulls on every heartstring but will also make you laugh while being full of an array of eclectic characters as well – it is a genre that still has a lot of time to play around with and long may it continue.