The British Working Class in Postwar Film by Philip Gillett

by Kevin Redhouse

6 August 2003


What do you think Cinema is . . . a Holiday Camp?

The ‘theory is killing pleasure’ school of thought is certainly not a new phenomenon. However, although the initial analysis “to the point of boredom” swipe found in this publication reminds us of current shifts in film studies (knives have been out on Freud for some time now), it also begins to define the point of view that Philip Gillett is attempting to construct here. For in his sociological study of postwar Britain and the ways in which film portrayed the working class, the relationship between cinema as a means of popular entertainment and as a text is played out within the establishment of an historical context. As Gillett acknowledges, although there are difficulties in specifically defining class, “we know it when we see it” and the validity of visual signifiers is the predominant order of the day.

Not that there is no analysis, far from it. For as notions of class are carefully considered by the detail afforded to the spectator by costume and set designers, the specifics of the style of a suit or the contents of a kitchen are used to further characterizations and determine notions of status and motivation. The consistency of reference to statistics and documentation is also deftly handled: the psychological implication of war for attitudes is as important to this project as the inclusion of a weighty Victorian object.

cover art

The British Working Class in Postwar Film

Philip Gillett

(Manchester University Press)

The reliance on statistical “film popularity” evidence from “southeast Essex” and the much quoted “working-class Leeds” also determines the alternative views of Britain on offer, for Gillett does examine films set in both northern and southern Britain. It is also testament to the objective level that is sought in the writing, for although he succeeds in establishing how representations of the working class differed from the actual working class, this is not an overtly political book. However, an emphasis on ‘lived culture’ does produce much to consider, for although ideological musings are kept in check, the implication of contrasting period issues with portrayal suggests that despite the mythologies, very little has changed.

The films themselves range from the relatively well-known Brighton Rock (1947) and The Blue Lamp (1950) to the more obscure Blue Scar (1949) and Waterfront (1950). The Way to the Stars (1945) is given a lot of coverage because of its transitional value, although The Way Ahead (1944) is only given a brief mention (it may not be postwar but it would have made an interesting addition). The antics of ‘Old Mother Riley’ are included and just when you think that she is going to escape proceedings, Margaret Lockwood features because of her appearance in The White Unicorn (1947).

True to the methodologies associated with sociological experimentation, Gillett is however most successful when considering a film that places people together within the confines of a common space, most notably in his assessment of Holiday Camp (1947). Perhaps the reason for this is that all of his central concerns converge at this point; the middle and working class characters seek refuge in leisure but it is here that the façade is most apparent, for everyone becomes a spectator. An interesting speech is also quoted in which a blind announcer defines his pleasure in facilitating pleasure in others. This temporary alleviation from anxiety is contrasted with the apparatus and effect of cinema, but significantly, this observation is reduced to one line: the development of this notion is the rest of the book itself.

Here too lie the dangers of contradiction that strike a problematic note. For although Gillett acknowledges the challenges involved in looking back to another era, he often comes close to formulating a nostalgic resonance that glosses over the rigorous sociological aspects of his approach. As the relation between audiences and popular film can also get a bit hard to swallow in terms of how one characterizes the other, the anti-theory message is sometimes counterproductive in terms of class: a radical approach is here is to champion one context over another. As a consequence, by maintaining that contemporary critical views betray historical perspectives, the subjectivity that is not recognized cannot be absolved: although postwar culture is examined through postwar film using postwar data, the sources themselves do not make the author of that particular time.

Having said that, there is also much to recommend. There is enough detailed research and class analysis to intrigue anyone interested in postwar Britain, and those wishing to consider how cinema constructs notions of identity. The issues that determine working class depiction are often convincingly argued (particularly in terms of speech), and retain their relevance. The main beneficiary is, however, British cinema, as Gillett manages to inject a much-needed complexity into a period that is too often characterized by costume charades and stiff upper-lip morality.

If, after reading any book on cinema, the reader is encouraged to revisit or seek films that have been referred to, it can only be regarded as a success. This is not only one such example but also an element of motivation for the author, for there is an inherent call presented here to rediscover what is called a “lost” postwar culture. Seeking out more sources may be a difficult task, in that many films from this fascinating period are not widely available, but Gillett does ensure that we will know them when we see them.

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//Mixed media