Feature: The origins of British social realism

To pin-point the exact origins of British social realism is almost an impossible task, as the whole movement emerged from a combination of Italian Neorealism, French New Wave, and the British ‘Angry Young Men’ (even this is an extremely condensed and over-simplified explanation).

In addition to taking inspiration from the European cinema of its time, the genre occurred as a reaction to Hollywood productions and represented the inevitable, yet surprisingly powerful, expression of the anger felt amongst working class, post-war Britain. With the British people beginning to tire of the idealistic, glossy American exports after the Second World War (which did nothing to depict life as they knew it and served purely as a form as escapism) new voices began making themselves heard throughout the British film industry. 

The first definable post-war movement was Free Cinema, which allowed young, talented directors like Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson to present stories within Britain’s under classes, with a constant focus on contemporary, social issues. Consequently, audiences began to long gritty reality over smothering sentimentality, preferring depictions of life that mirrored their own struggles; that expressed their own frustrations.

Free Cinema’s natural successor was the British New Wave of the 1960s, which continued Free Cinema’s commitment to the frustrated under classes. The protagonists of the New Wave were typically working-class males with little or no bearing in society, often entrenched in the declining traditional industries of Britain.

From the ‘kitchen sink’ realism of Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (1960) and Billy Liar (1963) to subtle, more naturalistic displays of angst and rebellion in films like Ken Loach’s Kes (1970), never before had ‘the individual’ been so central to British cinema. Through the 1980s and early 1990s (and despite lack of funding from a suffocating Conservative government) a new generation of filmmakers emerged, including Shane Meadows (This Is England [2006]) and Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies [1996]); even today, Britain still manages to maintain its tradition of social realism.

Sophie Kingston-Smith