Handing on Histories

By Sheila Rowbotham


Looking at Class: Film, Television and the Working Class in Britain
Edited by Sheila Rowbotham and Huw Beynon (Rivers Oram Press, 2001)

The Project of Looking at Class

The filmmakers who have contributed to Looking at Class have been revealing, defining and illuminating ideas and aspects of life that have been neglected and excluded from our dominant culture since the early 1960s. Their individual accounts register how the possibilities of presenting images of class have constantly shifted over time, opening in certain areas of the visual media while contracting in others.

Television and film not only reflect but may also participate in and influence social change. The second half of the twentieth century, the period covered by this book, was marked by the decline of the manual working class in the UK and the emergence of a largely service-based economy. Assumptions about regular work and secure jobs have been shattered in the process. Consumption patterns and the lived environment have been transformed and it is no longer possible to ignore either the entry of women into the workforce or to present an homogenised ‘working-class’ experience which excludes racial diversity.

Many of the films discussed in this collection have provided visual markers crystallising shifts and dilemmas during these processes at a time when we have experienced the disturbing manner in which a social critique from the left has been marginalized and eclipsed. By gathering together these interviews, speeches and essays we hope to re-open a dialogue among radicals who participate in and reflect on films and television, regardless of their divergent views and ways of working – just as Marc Karlin, in his Channel 4 documentary Utopias, hoped to seat socialists of different persuasions around one table.

When I saw Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, I went back to the office and said,"I want a big headline across my review saying BEST BRITISH FILM EVER MADE.” It was extraordinary in its impact and drew crowds back to the cinema. Some of it was because for the first time ever things like abortion and menstruation were mentioned, but it was also because it was based on working-class experience. Sillitoe at that time was writing from the heart of his Nottingham experience – and writing passionately. – Nina Hibbin, film critic for the Daily Worker and the Morning Star

In my experience, making films has been an attempt to try to bring out questions of desire, and these always seem to be located within fantasy, not in realism. Desire – and conflict around desire – is at the heart of cinema, and the cinema I am interested in is the one that takes on these questions…

There is a story behind The Full Monty that it was originally conceived as being largely about black characters… It was Paul Bucknor’s idea, but the deal was that he gave up creative control, though that did not rule him out as having direct involvement in some drafts of the script, which was then passed on to Simon Beaufoy. So then Paul Barber, as Horse, becomes the only black character in the film: The Missing Monty as they call it. It’s a fascinating story which leads us back to the question: what would the film have been if it had been all black leads? Well they could have done so, but you have to consider whether it would have been the darling of the film industry. Would it have been as popular, and would it have performed in the way it did? – Isaac Julien, filmmaker

The representation of the working class was from the outside; from the educated middle class, London- and the Home Counties-biased, and mainly based on second-hand stereotypes rather than on first-hand observation… the posh did the important things in iambic pentameters… the working class were patronised as criminals and comic relief. Or they were to be seen in war films; brave, loyal, chirpy Cockney foils to an heroic officer who always got the girl. And, just like blacks in North America, working-class actresses – they were still called actresses then – did a good line in maids and charladies. – Tony Garnett on working in the 1960s

The issue now is about a very limiting framework and the absence of any sense of history. The question of representation is not just about visibility but also about what is included…

Television now will discuss issues of domestic violence but cut out the history of the feminist politics around it over the last 20 years. The accepted formula is for somebody to speak briefly from a particular political position, which is not examined, or to get an academic who has researched the topic to give an opinion. They tend not to use women who have been active in the women’s movement or working in a refuge; women who might have quite cogent things to say about the issue. There is an implicit feeling that if you are an activist, then you are banging a drum, and that this is illegitimate. Therefore the issues are presented powerfully, yet voyeuristically and horrifically, completely without context. – Gita Sahgal, filmmaker and activist

Sheila Rowbotham is a writer and historian.