Article in Film International · November 2006 doi: 10. 1386/fiin

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Snake Pit (Anatole Litvak, 1948). Although the realistic settings of The October

Man were commended on the film’s release, today’s viewer more likely to

notice the noirish atmosphere and the subjective approach to depression. As in

Brief Encounter there is an attempt to convey psychological reality by non-

realistic means. This prompts the question what is realism? Labels can be

deceptive as well as descriptive.

The political aspect of realism has been little considered. The temptation is

to see it as serving a left-wing agenda, but closer examination reveals that the

situation was more complex. Progressives certainly looked to realistic

representations of working class life as a sign of unfinished business in the

class struggle, but conservatives could take comfort in a traditional,

understandable style, far from the excesses of Pabst or Buñuel. Even this

simple distinction between progressives and conservatives can be misleading.

In seeing film as a means of furthering democracy, Grierson was a radical, yet

it could be argued that his reforming instincts were dissipated as he became

absorbed into the machinery of government. E. M. Forster was a pacifist in the

First World War, became the first president of the National Council of Civil

Liberties in 1934 and was even handed in criticising Nazism, Stalinism and

colonialism. He turned down a knighthood, his preferred aristocracy being the

sensitive, the considerate and the plucky.


 While his script for A Diary for

Timothy (Humphrey Jennings, 1945) gives a flavour of his humanistic outlook,

his 1938 essay ‘Two Cheers for Democracy’ reveals a man confronting the

classic liberal intellectual dilemma: acknowledging the inequalities in society,

while betraying unease at the conformity and the levelling down which might

ensue from their eradication.


 Jennings was a surrealist painter in his early

days and joined Auden in working for Mass-Observation with its fascination for

the minutiae of proletarian life, while Manvell was a member of the Fabian

Society’s film group which investigated the British film industry. These and

other luminaries were university educated, shared a liberal socialist outlook

and had no doubts about what was good for the masses – a quality they shared

with John Reith, director-general of the BBC. None of these figures was a

populist. Their version of realism was filtered through a particular sensibility

which working people might not always have recognised or accepted. The

danger of this approach is that it played down the humanity of the people being

studied, presenting their world as a series of problems – poor housing,

inadequate healthcare, etc. – which needed to be solved. John Baxter was

close enough to the people to avoid this pitfall, in spite of sometimes lapsing

into sentimentality. His characters in Love on the Dole (1941) live and breathe.

Among a younger generation of film-makers in the 1950s, the university

educated Lindsay Anderson followed his mentors in emphasising the social

value of film in his writing and his early work as a documentary director; his

later films like If... (1968) abandoned realism, though they were certainly anti-

establishment. Basil Dearden rose through the ranks in a career which followed

the opposite trajectory. After working on a variety of Ealing projects including

fantasy and costume drama, Dearden concentrated on bringing social

problems to the screen, from youth crime (The Blue Lamp, 1949) to race

relations (Sapphire, 1959). This is realism with a purpose, but there is no sense

that Dearden found common cause with Anderson: his aim was to humanise

the system, not to overturn it. His films are fascinating as social history, but

they can fail to catch fire as drama. A comparison might be made with the work

of Jack Lee, the brother of the poet Laurie Lee, who served his time making

documentaries and was one of the few directors with a working-class

background. Once a Jolly Swagman (1948), the story of a young man who

abandons his job, against his family’s wishes, to take up motorcycle racing,

successfully conveys the tedium of manual work and the working-class

suspicion of bettering oneself. Lee manages to show the psychological reality

of the youth’s plight, while making full use of the motorcycle stadium for

location shooting and with no sense of the worthiness which sometimes afflicts

Dearden’s work. For some directors, it is not always clear whether the

marketing opportunity took over from the message. Films which purport to

examine youth crime, but seem to revel in the experience are Cosh Boy (Lewis

Gilbert, 1952) – one of the first films to rate an ‘X’ certificate – and The Boys

(Sidney J. Furie, 1962). These were tailored for a youth audience, who

presumably didn’t favour cautionary tales. By the mid-1960s, the family

audience had largely abandoned the cinema in favour of television. Cathy

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