Ken Loach, Social Realism & Crime Fiction

No sooner have I written an essay for Five Leaves Publishing’s forthcoming journal on Crime, making an argument for the importance of social realist television and cinema in British urban crime fiction, than the evidence – some of it – is everywhere. A two-part season looking at the work of producer Tony Garnett, responsible for much radical TV drama in the 60s and 70s and a frequent collaborator with director Ken Loach, begins at the BFI Southbank in May, as does a season of films, The Roots of Neorealism, including De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, acknowledged by Loach as one of his principle inspirations. And this weekend just past, as part of its Smithfest, examining the cultural impact of The Smiths, the ICA has been showing a short season of films which were amongst the group’s inspirations – just check out the album/singles covers. On Good Friday there was a double bill of A Taste of Honey & The Leather Boys, introduced by Rita Tushingham, and on the following day another double, Poor Cow & It Always Rains on Sundays, followed, suitably, by a late night screening of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

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Watching Poor Cow and It Always Rains on Sundays, one after the other, was as instructive as it was enjoyable. Poor Cow – “Three years in the life of a young working class mother in London who falls in love with a young crook while her husband is in prison, reads the BFI Screen line synopsis – was Ken Loach’s first feature film, made in 1967, and built around an always watchable, totally believable performance by Carol White, who had made her name in Loach’s groundbreaking television film, Cathy Comes Home. A mixture of documentary style social realism,  improvisation (highly successful in scenes between White and Terence Stamp, far less so in her scenes with John Binden), direct address to camera and Brechtian inter-titles, Poor Cow enlists our sympathies for its central character without  downplaying her weaknesses and limitations. As a portrait of those parts of London lagging behind in the glitz and glamour of the Swinging Sixties – it was largely filmed on location in Bethnal Green – it is penetrating and convincing.

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Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sundays, made twenty years earlier for Ealing Studios, also leans heavily on the documentary tradition that burgeoned in both Britain and Italy during and immediately after WW2. Filmed partly on location around Whitechapel in east London and Chalk Farm to the north, the realism of those scenes sits in awkward parallel with scenes too obviously shot in the studio. That problem, it seems to me, is symptomatic of the film’s weaknesses as a whole, torn as it is between a taut and rugged, almost brutal style owing much to both French and American film noir and the softer caricature so typical of Ealing, exemplified here by Jack Warner’s pipe-smoking avuncular policeman (three years before, shockingly, he would be shot dead in the street in The Blue Lamp) and the trio of hapless ne’er-do-wells incapable of scoring much more than a gross of roller skates.

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John McCallum, a strong physical presence as an escaped convict, and Googie Withers, his former lover who has accepted the boredom of  married existence, play their scenes with an intensity that, while providing the most watchable moments, further split the film asunder, their sexuality and passion – largely and brilliantly repressed on Withers’ part – too large, too strong for Hamer’s film to adequately contain.

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