Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner Tony Richardson(UK 1962) Tom Courtenay
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Karel Reisz (UK 1960) Albert Finney; Shirley Anne Field; Rachel Roberts
Viewed: 11 July 2013 and 14 July 2013 Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle; ticket £5
Retrocrit: pride and prejudice
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner were both novels written by Alan Silitoe. Silitoe was one of that generation of post war British writers who chronicled the lives working class people in the 1950's when they were being told that they had never had it so good. Silitoe's novels were keenly picked up by the new wave of British film makers epitomised by directors such as Tony Richardson ( Who directed Loneliness)and Carol Reisz ( director of Saturday Night and Sunday morning) These film makers, like Silitoe, were driven by ideological opposition to the traditional British class system; they were committed to listen to rather than to gaze patronisingly at Britain and the voices of her workers.
A contemporary film critic wrote of these directors:
….when they came together, we felt they had an attitude in common. Implicit in this attitude is a belief in freedom, in the importance of people and in the significance of the everyday.
Both Loneliness and Saturday night which were also scripted as films by Alan Sillitoe, share one critical attribute: attitude. They were iconoclastic products and were perceived as such at the time. The intention of Alan Silitoe's writing was to give the lie to the contemporary smug propaganda messages that Britain was somehow a fair and pleasant land. As far as Sillitoe was concerned Britain wasn't even one land, he saw two lands, governed by two codes. It was a feudal society of controllers and the serfs, serfs chained not to the land but to factories shifts and poor housing. Reisz and Richardson's films stay true both to this iconoclasm and to the moral vigour of Sillitoe's writing. It is not betrayed.
These films shocked the usual suspects at the time were made. Ealing Comedies they were not. And when we see these films today, they're not only a voyage into another country, they also resonate as a cry of pain for something that is about to be lost ; even if what was lost was hardly noticed as everyone was too busy watching the telly. These films are no cosy up Hovis style nostalgia fests of terraced housing, enamel signs and chimney stacks. The films capture and express working class life in the early sixties. It's a culture of full employment and extensive family ties but it is also a culture of resistance and resilience. What Sillitoe foresaw and foretold and is captured in both films, was the loss of working class Pride. And that is the source of the pain. Because it was a pride that was on the point of being undermined and destroyed by the fostered desires of consumerism and the dependancy culture of the Welfare State.
Noises off: Trainspotting and the skag boys wait in the wings.
The protagonists, Colin in Loneliness and Arthur in Saturday Night, are complex characters; spontaneous and generous, twisted and two faced, but they have an intrinsic pride, born of their class, that cannot be bought. Colin burns a one pound note in one scene. However destructive their pride, it defines them, and this pride, for all its fault lines and even bad faith, lies at the core of their being. As Arthur says: You don't let the bastards grind you down.So the two films probe not physical landscapes but psychic landscapes. Attitudes shaped by social conditions class work and graft. In their focus on these relations Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson are closer to films made today in developing countries that are still characterised by social and cultural matrices of the kind we no longer have. The contemporary Western movie industry has desire at the root of its narratives, rather than struggle of one form or another.
Of the two films Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is the more politically radical. In fact it's not a very well made film. It has a clumsy structure based on flashback, which fails to deliver tension, and it is over reliant on the use of the hymn Jerusalem in the soundtrack. But Richardson's casting of Tom Courtenay is inspired and is enough in itself to carry the film. Courtenay's skewered meat body look, hungry mien, misshapen head and loose mouth, in themselves define the film's theme of defiance and resistance. As an actor of working class origins, Tom Courtenay has the authenticity necessary for the film to deliver Colin Smith's punch into the solar plexus of middle England: the refusal of the petty thief, Borstal Boy, to play the establishment game.
Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is also superbly acted. Albert Finney, as Arthur and Rachel Roberts as Brenda, came from hard backgrounds that made them able to work in the grain of their characters. And it shows in their performances. Unlike Loneliness, Saturday Night is an exceptional film not just because of the acting but because it is suburbly crafted. The editing energises the action and always adds a dimension to the narrative. With confidence and verve Reisz and his editor, Seth Holt manipulate Freddie Francis' superb cinematography to shift the film through its gears, energising the tension between images as the film cuts from the close and the intimate to the wide and impersonal. The point here is that the dynamics of the editing serve to heighten awareness in the viewer to shifts in perspectives: from the bed to the factory, the pub to the kitchen. The way the film is spliced sensitizes us to the different codes that operate in these contexts, deepening and sharpening our understanding of relations within the film. The main story is the moral rendering of an extramarital affair. But this explicit narrative thread is never allowed to dominate the scenario. It has to take its place within the context of the images and cameos of working class in Nottingham that Sillitoe Richardson and Reisz have woven together to produce the film.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning both retain the raw power of film to shock and make visible things that otherwise we would not see.