Essay: Urban Landscapes and Modernity in Kitchen Sink Realism

A person standing next to a train

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by Peter Larkin

In 1962, film critic and theorist Victor Perkins of Movie magazine complained of ‘landscape mongering’ in the English films of the late 1950s/early 1960s – they were part of a movement known as Kitchen Sink Realism. It was originally inspired by a literary group known by the press as Angry Young Men, who wrote plays and novels about economic hardship and social issues faced by working classes in the North and East Midlands of England. The movement consisted of writers such as Alan Sillitoe and David Storey, and the films included titles like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and A Kind of Loving (1962), featuring Albert Finney and Alan Bates. Perkins (1962) further elaborated “Richardson, Reisz, Schlesinger and Clayton are constantly obliged to establish place with inserted shots which serve only to strengthen our conviction that setting has no organic connection with the characters.” Pauline Kael (1961) felt that the locations of The Entertainer (1960) were “too obviously selected as they’re revealing and photogenic,” while John Hill (1986:129) argued “Place as place is less important than its function in the narrative as a site for action.” Sixty years on, such comments seem unhelpful. Perkins’ view of there being no organic connection does not say much. Of course these landscapes are part of the living whole picture; they are the environments in which the protagonists exist. And yet these films are full of places that the characters never feel a part of, forever outsiders. In A Taste of Honey (1961) and Billy Liar (1963) the camera frames small figures amongst large hilly landscapes, the big wide world terrifies its characters. Reality knocks hard on the young in A Taste of Honey whilst fantasy guards the insecurity of a delinquent in Billy Liar. Modernity in the context of Kitchen Sink Realism is looking at modern life in industrial settings and the sociology that is carried with it through the people and their circumstances. 

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner 

If we take the example of a scene from The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Audrey (Topsy Jane) tells Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) “you’ll end up in prison one of these days”. Looking back over a hillside of the incredible Nottingham landscape, he responds, “It’ll get me out of this dump”. Just because our protagonist disregards his hometown does not mean that we should not get a real feeling of the place, especially if it is somewhere we have never been. Richardson captures the intimacy between the young couples in the first part of the sequence by muting out all natural sounds; trains, cars, chimneys. It is a dream state. There is a slight chimney sound in the second part but the wind blowing is silent. There are obvious reasons for toning down such sounds which can interfere with the dialogue, however such choices give a feeling of tranquillity. The sequence only lasts ninety seconds but it conveys Colin wanting a place in a relationship, the environment is secondary. Richardson’s camera hovering over the landscape is like a bird with no sense of destination. There is the world less travelled (Gladys talks of London) and the world more or less dreamed by Colin whose place of belonging is unfounded at this point. Colin is ambiguous to read, perhaps the countryside of Surrey where he ends up is more suited to his tendency to zone out as he has a sense of purpose, he is a talented though lonely long distance runner. 

Courtenay’s physicality is short, bulky, determined; speaking his mind to his dead father’s former employer, standing up to his mother’s ‘fancy man’. His swaggering walk and tough confrontational attitude is a different specimen to Courtenay’s performance in Billy Liar as Colin is grounded in reality which Courtenay shows us through a tenseness in his body, especially when he is at the youth prison. Colin has a mild sense of humour which he uses to calm situations with the police and the psychiatrist. There is a playfulness when Colin is with Audrey with more honesty than an Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney) type in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Seaton was a sort of punk greaser who looked after his appearance whereas Colin is unmistakably a lost soul of early 60s Britain.The precision of Richardson’s cuts, from the burning of a money note to a figure with a hand on their shoulder, filmmaking with an eye for detail. The playfulness is present in Richardson’s filmmaking too, as he films sped up movement and a montage sequence of impulse buying from Colin’s mother (Kitchen Sink regular Avis Bunnage). Mrs. Smith and Colin both gamble with their livelihoods; Colin by carrying out the robbery and his mother by spending the money at the first opportunity for luxuries and novelties like the TV and a fur coat. 

The L-Shaped Room

If we take London and its one-time appearance in a Kitchen Sink film, The L-Shaped Room (1962), we see that director Bryan Forbes isn’t interested in emphasising the fact of the location, similar to Woody Allen’s choices for Cassandra’s Dream. Interiors are the primary focus, along with the Notting Hill suburbs and a park, but nothing of central London. The L-Shaped Room is so contained within its boarding house setting that the exteriors feel less like a lived environment. It lacks striking visuals (decaying buildings) and a perspective of place –the big city as impersonal. This is slightly unconventional in the context of Kitchen Sink Realism’s usual signifiers, such as landscapes, which is perhaps why the film is not considered part of the movement by Barnaby Taylor, among others. We can also think of Jane’s (Leslie Caron) unconventional attitude (by 1960s standards) to raise a child alone by choice. If we look at another view of London, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), we find an almost empty city presenting London as a sort of ghost town where the photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) grapples with a murder mystery. Antonioni emphasises the colour of pavements, houses, trees and grass to give a heightened effect. This extra detail grants the space a hyperreality. For a character who earns his living by looking, he sees neither beauty nor tranquility in people, nor their surroundings. Thomas is alone, isolated in his own arrogance. He disappears from the image in the final moment before the credits as if anyone would notice much.

The Entertainer 

Thomas has had enough of his city, whereas Laurence Olivier’s Archie Rice in The Entertainer cannot bear to leave his beloved Morecambe, a seaside town in Lancashire. Director Tony Richardson always had a desire for real locations. As Barnaby Taylor (2006: 49) argues it is semiotics as he describes in detail how Archie and his daughter Jean (Joan Plowright) are framed in a shot reverse shot setup, conveying their desires, their sense of a place in the world. Taylor (2006:49) notes visually Archie has the surroundings of the Morecambe seafront behind him (a sense of belonging) and Jean has emptiness behind her (lack of importance of the past and an openness for the future). Jean plans to move to Canada with the family, which Archie disapproves of, he’ll never leave England. The visual symbols Taylor suggests might seem obvious but they do give a truth to a person in their comfort zone and another’s desire to break free.  Morecambe through its visual representation is a town of familiarity and community. Archie talks often of Englishness and his sense of not fitting in abroad, his act would be for a specific domestic audience, his own generation and older. His desire for Tina (Shirley Anne Field) — while sexual — is purely a means to an end: money. Archie seems a world away from how he should perceive things, his cheery optimism bordering on sociopathic sensibilities, a deep sense of delusion. Joan, who is less sentimental towards the town, cares more for people and their feelings, whilst Archie comes across as selfish. The ‘happy days’– as it is inscribed on a truck at the Morecambe fair — are few and far between, but Archie feels he needs to recreate them against impossible odds. He at least has his small apartment, in which he can revisit such memories of ‘the good old days’ with his family, but outside he is just another has-been.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

For Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Nottingham is his haven for deceit and mischief, he could be anywhere, it does not matter to him. If we compare the empty bitter landscape where Arthur goes fishing, how the director Karel Reisz films him squatted down as he gives up hope, with the final scene where we see a POV shot of Arthur’s girlfriend Doreen (Shirley Anne Field) as she looks at Arthur. The sky in the background above, the sun on his face, the only time he is filmed up close as a larger-than-life figure. They walk towards the cityscape of Nottingham, the promised land, small figures soon to be eaten up by normal worries of mortgages and children, perhaps. The moment of the walk down is, in a way, a fleeting snapshot, a reflection of their lost youth, similar to the ending of A Kind of Loving. There is a brutish confidence in Arthur’s nature, a frank cynicism which is present in almost every scene he is in, a sort of ‘whatever I can get, I don’t care’ type of attitude. More honest men like Arthur’s colleague Jack (Bryan Pringle) and his cousin Bert (Norman Rossington) are as free as they can be too, but they have something Arthur cannot settle on, a peace of mind. 

A Taste of Honey

A Taste of Honey combats between body language and the city/landscape of Manchester, like the lone sailor Jimmy (Paul Danquah) on the moveable bridge standing lean as the hills and factories of Lancashire pass us by. These images summon a semiotic reading of working class England through the signifiers of landscapes, cityscapes, parks, semi-detached houses, the dreary emptiness of the lakeside in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and the heap hillside wasteland of Billy Liar. In A Taste of Honey, the balletic Geoff (Murray Melvin) approaches Jo (Rita Tushingham), a teenager who is recently pregnant by Jimmy. When Geoff enters the dusty, hilly landscape his body springs along with each feeling, as does Jo’s. We get the sense of lives lived in front of us and the lives of those spread out over the many houses that we can see in the background. Moments later Geoff and Jo leap into the daylight from an underpass as if for the first time. There is nothing more beautifully optimistic in Kitchen Sink than in this brief moment.  In contrast to the next scene the hills are as empty as Geoff’s heart, setting as a substitute for feeling. Melvin’s body is free to express itself, however this is a rare case as Tony McKibbin (2011) argues “It is as though when we look at the bodies of many actors in Kitchen Sink, whether the actors are thick-set like Bates and Finney, gaunt and haunted like Tom Courtenay and Richard Harris, besuited, straight-backed and slick, like Laurence Harvey, the moral question that contains the body rather than frees it keeps coming up.”

A Kind of Loving

A Kind of Loving, like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, shows a couple who we are led to believe are our protagonists. They are not but they could easily be as they have similar features. “Sometimes I don’t think I’ve seen anything sticking at home”, Vic Brown (Alan Bates) says to his father. The world is in front of him, getting comfortable in life and work is easy but Vic is never comfortable. He seems like a man who is equally grounded as a sort of hermit figure when we see him alone prowling through the streets of Manchester. Vic marries Ingrid (June Ritchie) after she becomes pregnant. The specific detail of how his brother-in-law David (David Mahlowe) opens his front door and gives Vic a helping hand late in the film, anyone is welcome in David’s home. Home is so central to the film, how characters like Ingrid’s mother (Thora Hird) define it as a safe haven of bad décor and conservative views on life and people. Whereas David and Vic’s sister Christine (Pat Keen) treat their home as a welcome hub, modern 60s décor, the light shining through the place and on Vic’s face, a life he really wanted. Ron Grainer’s jazzy theme tune suggests that the film could be anything from a sleazy comedy about mistreating women to a drama about a lone drifter strolling through the landscape of Lancashire.  

Billy Liar

For the final film of the movement, Billy Liar, urban space consists of the city centre of Bradford, busier than the London of The L-Shaped Room. The hillsides where Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) goes to destroy the calendars he has stolen from his workplace is a wasteland similar to the rubble in Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow. The Bradford of Billy Liar is in constant reconstruction, like Billy’s mind, the wild-child of Kitchen Sink Realism. The film tests Billy’s sense of commitment in more ways than one; family, possible marriages, etc. He constantly recreates his surroundings as a defence mechanism to the real world, which is ever changing. Modernity has arrived in Bradford, as new supermarkets open, obsession with celebrity heightens (Danny Boon), the Swinging Sixties are on the way with the presence of Julie Christie. Like Billy, Christie’s character Liz is terrified of the big wide world, the expectations from family and if life can truly satisfy in the long run. In the end Billy chooses the Devil he knows, the road most travelled by, to finally grow up and gain a peace of mind, but perhaps these assumptions are too much to expect of a man so much inside his own head.        

Look Back in Anger & This Sporting Life

With Look Back in Anger (1959) (Derby) and This Sporting Life (1963) (Wakefield) the outdoor settings are mainly open spaces, graveyards, rugby pitches and brief country trips map out our landscape. Housewives like Mrs. Hammond (Rachel Roberts) in This Sporting Life or Alison Porter (Mary Ure) in Look Back in Anger keep their misery indoors, at home. For Alison, it’s Jimmy Porter’s (Richard Burton) anger against the upper class (herself by birth) and for Mrs. Hammond, it’s Frank Machin’s (Richard Harris) success as a rugby player which dampens things. She is a widow, her husband was killed in a factory which is owned by the same man who owns the rugby club, Mr. Weaver (Alan Badel). Mrs. Weaver (Vanda Godsell) is another character often contained within her home. Their mansion house is a power signifier to lure men just for the physical thrill. For Frank the thrill of power is negotiating his contract and sharing the news with Mrs. Hammond, he wants the best of both worlds; love and money. Frank has a similar smugness to Arthur but his circumstances being older and faithful is notable even though Arthur is perhaps more likeable. Frank is more closed off from the world with his bitterness whereas Arthur endows us with humour even after his beating from the soldiers. Frank carries the weight of the world on his shoulders; his hardship and perceived rejection in his working and personal life as an object or beast who can be disposed of. Perhaps Lindsay Anderson’s contribution as director is the most distinct of the movement in certain ways; the use of sound in the opening minutes alone create a distinct impression; sporting bodies, chanting crowds and mining drills.

Room at the Top

In Room at the Top (1959) we get our first image of a Kitchen Sink film, a shot of Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) his sock in close-up, slightly torn as we see a prosperous industrial town (the fictional Warnley in Yorkshire) coming into view in the background from his train window. Perhaps the divide between upper and working classes has never been more distinct than in this film. Set in the late 1940s, Joe’s hometown is the war-worn, fictional Dufton, contrasted with the Browns’ estate and industrial empire in Warnley, those who have all or little are defined by their attitudes to life. Joe’s aunt and uncle are direct about things when they ask if he is marrying Susan Brown (Heather Sears) for the money. Mr. Brown (Donald Wolfitt) is quite cold and cunning in how he treats Joe to either marry his daughter or not. The sense of urban setting in terms of class between the Browns’ mansion, Joe’s bedsit and Alice’s (Simone Signoret) small apartment is notable. Anguish is contained in these small spaces whereas the Browns’ large mansion is for appearances both of a social and a psychological nature, anxiety from Mr. and Mrs. Brown stays bottled up. 

Society’s circles, the fact that Mr. Brown almost controls the town would be bad for Joe and his mistress Alice to stay together there. Joe as an outsider is made clear through his exchanges with the locals and how the director Jack Clayton films him in certain scenes to signify his lower class status. Of course compared to Arthur Seaton and Colin Smith, Joe has a job, a reputation he wants to build. Harvey, like Harris and Burton, was in his 30s when he played ‘an angry young man’, his worries like theirs invoke a serious insecurity about women. Joe is the new suit in town, Frank is the rugby star, known to many, and Jimmy has built quite a reputation in Nottingham as a troublemaker and alcoholic. Joe’s name is bandied about by the other characters like he is already important. He has more to prove than most Kitchen Sink characters but it stems from a dishonesty about himself. Honesty with women in Kitchen Sink films goes a long way, Joe’s holding of Alice’s hand in a pub is among the more tender moments. The bitter irony being that their relationship along with Frank and Mrs. Hammond’s is the most tragic of all. As Room at the Top was Clayton’s debut feature and the debut Kitchen Sink film, style was an open vessel. Clayton made some interesting choices when lighting the night-time car scenes between Joe and another outsider, the French Alice; noir-like, the street lights reflected on the wet paths. There are sombre moonlit close-ups of Alice à la Marlene Dietrich; an angel of prowess, a dream within a dream. In contrast, Mario Nascimbene’s score gives an intense melodramatic charge suggesting the worst is yet to come, sometimes playing with tone. For example, the possibility that Joe could be on his way to a funeral in the opening scene in the way the music leads us.   

Class Representation

If we look at how the upper classes are portrayed in these films; in Look Back in Anger Alison’s father is old fashioned and very protective of his daughter, Tina’s father in The Entertainer is simply the money man. Jane’s ex-boyfriend Terry (Mark Eden) in The L-Shaped Room is worried about his class reputation upon hearing of her pregnancy. More definitive upper class characters like Mr. Weaver and Mr. Brown; money can buy anything, Robert Stephens’ lower middle class snooty car salesman Peter in A Taste of Honey and Michael Redgrave’s upper middle class scheming governor in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. These latter characters manipulate to get what they want; Peter wants a relationship with Jo’s mother (Dora Bryan) and the governor wants Colin to win the racing competition. Mr. Brown, from his manner and composure, has an air of manipulative cunning perhaps learnt from a young age at an English Public Boys School. Perhaps in his earlier days Peter wanted to seem respectable but he is merely a seedy drunken sleaze with a bit of money and no honourable features that allow him to function as an adequate husband or stepfather. An interesting case is Jack in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, he is lower middle class and supervisor to Arthur at work. Arthur is having an affair with Jack’s wife Brenda (Rachel Roberts), of course this makes Arthur the manipulator, the deceiver who is in the end beaten up by Jack’s soldier friends. Jack’s body language in his final scene with Arthur is stilted, he merely looks at Arthur keeping his body positioned forward as if not to let himself down by the situation. Jack seems more like a disappointed uncle than a man betrayed by his wife and colleague.

In regards to the narrative situations in Kitchen Sink films — pregnancies (Alison, Brenda, Jo, Ingrid, Jane), the will to succeed (Frank, Joe, Archie) or rage against society (Arthur, Jimmy, Colin), a state of oblivion (Vic, Billy) — McKibbin (2016) states “Any narrative expectation is contained by a socio-political sense of limitation, an awareness that the young are fighting against what they are expected to accept as their life ration.” Perhaps modernity enters these films through the characters’ appearances (Arthur, Joe). Also their attitudes, to either sit back and watch your own unfolding drama (Arthur) or build up your reputation (Joe). Of course it is the landscapes, the modernisation of industrial England that stands out too; fancy houses and apartments (A Kind of Loving), new buildings and supermarkets (Billy Liar), not to mention consumerism (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner). World War II and its aftermath left Britain and its people closer together in some ways. In other ways the Joes, Jimmys, Arthurs and Colins are left to their own devices. Society was forcing the Arthurs and Colins to grow up, their response was complete contempt.  A peace of mind evades many Kitchen Sink characters (Arthur, Joe, Jimmy, Frank, Vic, Billy, Colin, Geoff, Mrs. Hammond, Jo). Those that do have a peace of mind (Jane, Bert, Christine), especially Jane who leaves England to return to France at the end of The L-Shaped Room, she knows exactly what she wants. On the other hand some of these narratives contain figures in landscapes (Vic, Colin, Billy, Jo, Geoff) bursting to get out of their social prisons, beyond the horizon is not quite at their fingertips but they dare to dream.

A large stone bridge

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Peter Larkin is an independent film critic and tutor based in Wicklow, Ireland

Works Cited

Hill, John. 1986. Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956-1963. London: BFI

Kael, Pauline. 1961. Commitment and the Straightjacket. Film Quarterly Fall 1961. California: University of California Press

McKibbin, Tony. 2011. The Corporeally Despondent: A Kind of Loving.

McKibbin, Tony. 2016. New Wave: A New Multiple.

Perkins, Victor. 1962. The British Cinema in Movie No.1. June 1962. London: Cameron and Hollis.

Taylor, Barnaby. 2006. The British New Wave: A Certain Tendency? Manchester: Manchester University Press

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