Ordinary Young Men

By Owen Armstrong

john-bratby-still-life-with-chip-frier.jpgJohn Bratby, Still Life with Chip Frier, 1954

“The post-war generation takes us back from the studio to the kitchen. Dead ducks, rabbits and fish – especially skate – can be found there, as in the expressionist slaughterhouse, but only as part of an inventory which includes every kind of food and drink, every kind of utensil and implement, the usual plain furniture and even the baby’s nappies on the line. Everything but the kitchen sink? The kitchen sink too.” – David Sylvester

Writing in the Encounter arts journal in December of 1954, Sylvester dismissively categorises an emerging theme and style among a select group of painters known as the Beaux Arts Quartet. Together with Derrick Greaves, Edward Middleditch and Jack Smith, it was most notably the work of John Bratby that would become the subject of Sylvester’s vitriolic rant against the unrefined ‘enthusiastic mess’ of these new young painters.

Sylvester however, also outlines the criteria that had begun to inspire a new generation of playwrights, novelists, and filmmakers to undermine Britain’s post-war imperialist nostalgia, and the term ‘kitchen sink’ would soon become synonymous with art that depicted the working class with honesty and verity. Though Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sunday bares elements of this new wave of realism 10 years earlier, it was Jack Clayton’s 1958 film Room at the Top that marked the beginning of an invigorated, political and socially motivated cinema. Based on John Braine’s 1957 novel of the same name, Room at the Top delves into the disparity and resentment between classes, drawing strong parallels with Britain’s evolving attitude towards society and how it is represented in cinema.

room-at-the-top-jack-clayton.jpgRoom at the Top, 1959

The majority of the 1950s had seen an abundance of films revelling in the success of the British Film industry during and immediately after the Second World War. Among them were Brief Encounter, A Matter of Life and Death, The Third Man, Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Red Shoes, the latter garnering significant success in the United States. These films however, only spoke for a relatively small proportion of Britain, and did not acknowledge the proletariat in any realistic sense. Outside the cinema, John Osborn had already ignited tempers with his seminal play Look Back in Anger (to be later filmed in 1959), and in doing so gave way to a number of other writers and screenwriters determined that they be heard. Along with Braine, Alan Sillitoe, Shelagh Delaney and several others, this group became known as the ‘angry young men’ – a moniker taken from author Leslie Allen Paul’s 1951 autobiography of the same name. The duality of this and the ‘kitchen sink’ attention to ordinariness and frustration enabled these artists to generate a voice for a vast number of British people who, until then, were unheard.

look-back-in-anger-tony-richardson.jpgLook Back in Anger, 1959

Seeking to re-establish the identity of British Cinema, the ‘angry young men’ collective confronted the issues of everyday life, ranging broadly from taboo subjects such as abortion, homosexuality and adultery to the banality and frustration of working class families, both at work and at home. Though notably less rugged in its characterisation, and lacking the raw aggression that quickly became the hallmarks of Britain’s ‘new wave’ of cinema, Room at the Top indicated a remarkable shift away from the staid escapism of Cinema. Set in the fictional Yorkshire town of Warnley, Clayton’s film follows the ambitious former prisoner of war Joe Lampton as he embarks on a new career in the local council. Played by Lawrence Harvey, Lampton pursues the young Susan Brown, daughter of a wealthy industrialist, while at the same time becoming embroiled in a relationship with the older unhappily married Alice Aisgill. Defying his social rank as a modest man from the bleak nearby town of Dufton, Lampton exhibits a self-confident and cocksure demeanour suggesting not only an eagerness to escape his humble beginnings but also a desperation to break free from the path his background has dictated.

Where Lampton differs from characters that appear later in the films of Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson is in how he is motivated to reach beyond his status as opposed to embracing it. On returning to his grand-parents home in Dufton, Lampton is asked whether or not he has caught the eye of any suitable women to which he replies that he has, and also that she is from a wealthy family. Disappointed that his eyes are on her money as much as they are on her, his grand-father reminds him that while he has every right to mix with other classes, he has no right to pursue a girl’s inherited wealth. As Lampton sees it, he is entitled to the very best that he can achieve despite his impoverished upbringing, including money, lifestyle and social status. This is a stark contrast to a more typically social realist character such as The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’s Colin Smith – played by Tom Courtenay – who is placed into a reformatory for stealing money and moreover, it is simply for the fun of it. He remains the same with or without money and is pointedly true to his contemptuous attitude towards authority – illustrated beautifully in the film’s final sequence in which Smith, poised to win a cross country race by some distance, pauses moments before the finish line. Having been groomed to win by his reform officer, Smith rejects even the institution of competition, as he believes it is only his superiors who stand to gain from his success.

loneliness-of-long-distance-runner-tony-richardson.jpgThe Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, 1962

Lampton’s involvement with the local amateur dramatics society is a further insinuation that he is purports to be someone he is not. It is also the means by which he meets both Alice and Susan, the latter we learn to be betrothed to upper-class former Army squadron leader Jack Wales who like his fiancée, was born into wealth. Seemingly motivated by the desire to impinge on the lives of the well-to-do as well as the notion that she is forbidden, Lampton lures Susan in with his assertiveness, confidence and slightly coarse charm resulting in her father’s attempts to divide them – an ultimately futile action on his part as she in turn begins to long for Lampton. It is in the midst of Susan’s departure that his affair with the seductive Alice becomes cemented, causing further turmoil amongst the locals. As his feelings deepen for Alice in particular and he is eventually forced to decide between them, he is swayed by Susan’s father who, after having discovered that she is pregnant, offers Lampton a job working for him under the condition that he marry her immediately. After telling Alice of his engagement, Lampton hears that she is later killed drink driving and he realises that his commitment to climbing the social ladder has determined a future he no longer controls. He finds himself in an emotional wilderness, having severed any moral ties he may have initially had to his roots in Dufton and devoid of the principles that drove him to success.

The way in which Lampton’s relationship with Susan and Alice unfold is not dissimilar to the love triangles that appear in Tony Richardson’s Look Back in Anger and Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (also produced by Richardson). As with Smith in The Loneliness… the most obvious difference with both male leads is that their aggression is manifested in everyday life. Whereas Lampton’s most raw rejection of social hierarchy is in his interaction with Jack Wales who insists on addressing him by his lower ranking former Army status, both other protagonists are more heavily representative of the disenfranchised and disaffected British youth that began to find an artistic voice in the mid to 1950’s. They are men that feel alienated in some way which, though partly true of Lampton, is much more explicit in Reisz and Richardson’s films. As is evident in their disinterest to adhere to any dominant authoritarian values, their disenfranchisement penetrates everyday life.

saturday-night-sunday-morning-karel-reisz.jpgSaturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960 

Albert Finney’s Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night… is, like Lampton, conducting a relationship with two women at the same time. It transpires that the married woman is pregnant with his child and he too must choose the least damaging course of action. Perhaps delving into a narrative territory that Room at the Top could not, he and his lover opt to abort the pregnancy. There is a particular frankness to the swift and pragmatic manner that Seaton deals with his situation, in some way uncomplicated in comparison to Lampton. He is aware of his place in society as much as he is of everybody else’s and this brings with it a humble wisdom. Far less humble and infinitely more tormented is Look Back in Anger’s Jimmy Porter, played by Richard Burton. Jazz musician Porter is, by all accounts, the archetypal angry young man perpetually seething and at the mercy of his ever-changing mood. He is at once intolerable and irresistible to those around him and it may be that he, along with Seaton and Lampton, represent varying degrees of the same social affliction. We learn that of the two women Porter marries, the first has a miscarriage after leaving him, bringing the harshness of such realities more vividly into view. Though Porter’s resentment is much deeper than Lampton’s and boarders on existentialism, it is counterbalanced by the film’s claustrophobic setting in more explicit way than Room at the Top making the realities of everyday life seem more grim – despite his intelligence, he nonetheless has nothing to show for it.

room-at-the-top-jack-clayton-2.jpgRoom at the Top, 1959 

Irrespective of its initial box office success, Room at the Top quickly became as tired as the attitudes and cinema it critiqued. In the face of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’s fractured narrative and moral stance or Jimmy Porter’s vehement refusal to fit in, Clayton’s film does unfortunately seem like a very mere accomplishment. The fact remains that Lawrence Harvey’s performance as Joe Lampton lacks the vitality and spirit of Burton, Finney and Courtenay and, as each respective films’ driving force, this is difficult to ignore. Aesthetics aside, the proliferation of films that followed Room at the Top is testament indeed to its subject matter, though comparatively tame. The arrival of directors like Clayton, Richardson, Reisz, Anderson, John Schlesinger, and playwright Osborn signalled a new era of artists that would challenge the establishment and champion the working class. Sylvester’s proclamation that art was becoming saturated with issues of social realism and rancour between classes was perhaps far more accurate than he could have realistically predicted but as he observed, just as a new trend of artists began to abandon the values of traditional abstract and cubist painting, bringing the accoutrement of ordinary life and its unglamorous surroundings into the frame, so too did a new generation of writers and filmmakers show us the facets of a very ordinary existence that had previously not been given credence.

"...The point is that it is a very ordinary kitchen, lived in by a very ordinary family. There is nothing to hint that the man about the house is an artist or anything but a very ordinary bloke…it is clearly a kitchen in which ordinary people cook their ordinary food, and doubtless live their ordinary lives..."

Owen Armstrong is a projectionist and beekeeper. He lives in London.