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  • 1. Collective Identity and the Representation of the Working Class in British Cinema and on Television
  • 2. • Historically -working class marginalised on screen – notable exception – John Baxter’s Salford-set Love on the Dole (1941). Big change with ‘Angry Young Man’ movement of late 1950s/early 1960s - plays and novels of young, often Northern, working class writers were published and later adapted for the screen e.g. Karel Reisz’ Saturday Night, Sunday Morning.
  • 3. • Not always sympathetic and certainly misogynistic. Protagonist, Arthur Seaton represented frustrations of living within the confines of the class system in a country that had been told they’d ‘never had it so good.’ Working class life - without much hope - isn’t able to articulate all his grievances but carries out his frustration by womanising, drinking, and with violence and is often like a trickster, lying his way out of one situation only to fall in another one. • • At work , in long shot - lines of factory workers doing the same job, like automatons - he makes it clear that he doesn’t want to grow old and turn out like the old men who work nearby or like his father who sits at home deadened and unresponsive in front of the television. His attempts to break out of is place in society is shown through his nights out where he dresses up in a suit as if he is escaping, when, in fact, he just gets drunk.
  • 4. • Conventional working class iconography (cobbled streets, back lanes, industry, smoke and northern accents) to establish its setting in the inevitable northern city (Nottingham, in this case) – rooted in ideas from 19th century and in many ways is a RE- presentation of existing tropes. • A very clear and well-defined image of working class Britain has been formed between the 1880s and 1940s (Eley, 1995) particularly in literature (Lawrence and Orwell) but in other arts, like photography (Bill Brandt). The north of England has been seen as the “land of the working class” (Shields, 1991) particularly in terms of iconography like manual labour, smoky factories, back-to-back terraced housing and northern accents.
  • 5. • The kitchen sink realism was new and ground- breaking but the films were largely misogynistic, marginalising working class women, with the exception of Taste of Honey (Tony Richardson, 1961) with its vivid and celebratory portrait of a pregnant teenager.
  • 6. • In stark contrast - the soap opera, Coronation Street. First airing in 1960 – one of most popular TV programmes in the UK - working class iconography with its cobbled streets, northern accents, stills of back streets, and a traditional brass band theme. Institutional reasons for the difference in representation. Its primary target audience was working class and, in keeping with the tradition of soap operas, largely female and it needed to be popular to get the revenue from advertising
  • 7. • Built around strong female characters - Elsie Tanner presented as woman whose affairs have broken up her marriage and someone who would continue to have affairs into late middle age, yet at no point are the audience expected to be critical. Gaye Tuchman (1978) - women - ‘symbolically annihilated by the media through absence, condemnation or trivialisation,’ - soaps one of the few TV arenas where women do not have to fit the stereotypes of slim, youthful beauty to have a romantic or sexual existence.’ Mike Clarke (1987), thus they transgress the stereotypical role of women in a patriarchal society.
  • 8. • A strong sense of community and family from first episode, We side with Arthur Seaton’s rebellion on the big screen, but it’s hard not to be critical of Ken Barlow’s snobbery towards his own family - represented as an intelligent student trying to break away from his working class roots but we are not invited to empathise with Ken. When he arranges to meet his middle class girlfriend at a hotel instead of his house, it’s clear that his father is right: he’s ashamed of his parents; however, she turns up in Ken’s absence and joins in with his father and brother in trying to repair the latter’s bicycle and on top of that, the oily handshake she exchanges with the brother seems to symbolise that Ken was wrong, that his working class background deserves more respect than he is prepared to give it – which would have appealed to its target audience.
  • 9. • According to Owen Jones’ Huw Wheldon lecture on the representation of working class (2013), the election of a Labour government in 1963 and the growth of the trade union movement after the war had created an atmosphere favourable for a more accurate depiction of working class people on screen – a depiction which, at times, would highlight issues thrown up by the class system and the ways in which people reacted. • We can see film-makers using the working class milieu as a springboard for contemporary issue- based drama in the BBC‟s single play programmes like Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home (1966) with its naturalistic style of shooting and use of real locations.
  • 10. • Comedy – Steptoe and Son, Till Death Us Do Part and the Newcastle-set The Likely Lads – main characters were working class, as opposed to them filling out supporting roles to the middle class lead characters. A constant theme in the Likely Lads is Bob’s attempts to ‘better’ himself being constantly grounded in reality by his friend Terry.
  • 11. • Popular Working Class films of the 80s, like Brassed Off - overtly political stance against the Tory government and the middle classes – community has been destroyed by the closure of the mines BUT after success in the band competition and the speech at the Royal Albert Hall, the community seems all too optimistically healed – all the wives are present, including the one who left her husband; all the men are on the same side, including the one who took the government’s offer of redundancy money; the company spy is reintegrated with her original community on a personal, professional and social level; despite refusing to accept the trophy, they take it anyhow and the film ends with a rousing, if ironic, Land of Hope and Glory as the victory bus passes under the Houses of Parliament.
  • 12. • Institutional reasons - the film company’s need to appeal to an audience beyond a local one. Film distribution and exhibition in the UK - dominated by Hollywood - many British films don’t get beyond the ‘art house circuit’ – if that e.g. Warner Brothers’ The Dark Knight opened in 4366 screens across the UK; the independent, working class-set film, This Is England, opened in only 62. • The US, of course, is the biggest market for English speaking movies and in most cases, it provided at least partial financial backing for the films in question (Brassed Off was backed by Miramax, a branch of Disney, for example) – hence the representation of class has been governed by concerns of audience and institution.
  • 13. • Male identity - to seek some sort of status, male characters in Full Monty (1997) and Billy Elliot (2000) take up occupations/pastimes traditionally associated with women to forge a new identity in the post-industrial world. Billy overcomes the stereotypical macho reactions of the working class northern male and his father eventually supports him. Gauntlett (2002): in contrast with the past - or the modern popular view of the past - we no longer get singular, straightforward messages about ideal types of male and female identities.
  • 14. • The other strand of films that represent working class life – more independent, less dependent on US funding (or in Ken Loach’s case, not all) - often visceral depiction of working class life where the effects of the class system can be seen in the brutalisation of family life, growing up and relationships – as in Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur (2011). These films were made with little compromise – Loach, for example, refused to tone down the language in Sweet Sixteen (2002) (in which a young Glaswegian teenager gets sucked deeper into the drug trade which has already seen his mother jailed, until he stabs his step-father), which meant the audience it was intended for wasn’t allowed to see it.
  • 15. • Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur (2011) • Joseph - rage filled alcoholic who is mad at the world and living alone after the death of his wife. Meets Hannah, a woman running a charity shop; she prays for him even though he doesn't believe in God. Her husband is an abusive controlling monster. This is not a happily after story portraying working class people struggling with loneliness, regret and doubt. His rage is a poisonous way of managing his relationship with the world. For many, particularly those lowest in the class system, rage is the last pleasure left, or the last respite from unpleasure, and the last source of anything resembling self-respect. For those with no voice, it is a kind of language, but one that distorts and obscures and locks the user into his own unhappy world – an idea that can be applied to a number of working class films in this tradition, which, on the surface at least, can often seen to be representing working class life as grim.
  • 16. • Ken Loach’s The Angel’s Share (2012) - Uses the social-realist form to articulate the frustrations of Glasgow's working class. Robbie is a ne'er-do-well and recent father trying to abandon a life of crime in favour of stability. Story is about his quest for redemption through community service - told with humour and empathy. The tone shifts between candid kitchen-sink drama (Robbie nearly beating a stranger to death in the street) to broad humour. • Many of the visual and narrative working class tropes from this genre (deprived Glasgow, unemployment, crime and brutality), but it has more in common with the popular strand of working class films than some of his other works like Sweet Sixteen (2002) - often comic has uplifting end as protagonists succeed with their heist and are rewarded financially; the film was even marketed as “This year’s Full Monty.” • Representation - result of commercial compromise? Or has Loach's representation been further mediated through media critics using lazy shorthand to describe a film in terms their readers will understand?
  • 17. • Arguably, by focusing on Robbie’s triumph, we lose sight of the fact that the others are going to use their share of the money getting wasted. Although this is there for comic effect, like characters in a lot of Loach films, they are unable to get out of the system that has dragged them down. Maybe the ending isn’t as optimistic as it seems to be… • Gauntlett (2002) - Today, nothing about identity is clear- cut, and the contradictory messages of popular culture make the 'ideal' model for the self even more indistinct. There is an element of this in both Tyrannosaur and The Angel’s Share. Both male lead characters finally renounce the kind of macho violence that is often used to define male working class characters in films – the love of a woman and a son in Angel’s Share and the love of a woman and the realisation of the effects of violence in Tyrannosaur.
  • 18. • Owen Jones in The Demonization of the Working Class (2011) is scathing about the representation of working class in recent years – says programmes exploit working class culture – setting it up for the entertainment of the middle classes changing with the Tory government of Mrs Thatcher which waged war on the unions and destroyed the coal mines and heavy industry. He thinks an atmosphere has been created that is conducive to the dismissal of working class life and concerns.
  • 19. • Programmes that exploit the working class – Benefits Street, Jeremy Kyle etc. They’re cheap, they fill the schedules, they’re popular, they compete with similar programmes on non-terrestrial television - they have become important to the schedulers/TV companies who are likely to continue along this path in the future – success of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding led to more series; success of Benefits Street has encouraged Channel 5 to make a similar ‘documentary’ about a street in Hull. • Use of violence and crime to spice up traditionally working class soap operas in the chase for ratings (defended by the makers as being ‘issue-based’ but the number of repetition of such issues and the way they are trailed, reveals the true sensationalistic nature of the shows’ attempts to expand its audience in the face of multi-channel competition.
  • 20. • Coronation Street presents a warmer, more nostalgic view of working class life, emphasising the family (whether traditional, single parent, extended or surrogate) and community; Eastenders emphasises conflict and is more issue based (although there are elements of both in Coronation Street). Both shows – but especially Eastenders, have moved to some extent away from the working class roots, perhaps in deference to changing times or the class system post- New Labour, where upper working class merges with lower middle class (note general mise-en-scene of most of the houses and flats in Eastenders), or audience taste, leaving other programmes to deal with the emerging underclass, although even in Shameless it is treated in an almost burlesque fashion as if to provide laughs for a largely middle-class audience.
  • 21. • Jones criticises comic portrayal of working class people when it’s done purely for laughs – Vicky Pollard in Little Britain, for example, and notes how such portrayals are picked up by news media – using populist and sensationalist headlines - like Daily Star – “Vicky Pollard Yob Sent To Jail; Daily Telegraph – “Residents fear BBC documentary 'makes their estate look like Shameless”; Daily Mirror – “Worse Than Shameless.” • A concern – if these views become widespread, will they influence policy? Will they increase class conflict – after a piece in The Guardian online discussing Benefits Street, a reader commented that this was yet another example of the demonisation of the working class and this was criticised by another saying these people have nothing to do with the working class! • Of course, the programme was not a result of unedited fly- on-the-wall filming – the show focussed on certain people for a reason!
  • 22. • Several audience theories could be used to back-up Jones’ concerns - Katz and Lazarsfeld - Two Step Flow theory (1955) – stresses the importance of Opinion Leaders (like newspaper commentators). • Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci – hegemony - the media is controlled by the dominant group in society (i.e. white, middle class and male) and the viewpoints associated with this group become embedded in the products (films and TV shows, in this case) so dominant views come to be seen as the norm - hence the marginalisation in the representation of the working class in British cinema until the late 1950s – the effect being that the views of the working class weren’t thought of as being important. Jones sees this happening again.
  • 23. • Cultural Effects Theory (Professor George Gerbner, 1965) - The focus is on ‘heavy viewers’. People who watch a lot of television are likely to be more influenced by the ways in which the world is framed by television programmes than are individuals who watch less.
  • 24. • However – these theories position the audience as passive. Is it? Other theories suggest otherwise, that audiences. • For example Blumler and Katz’ Uses and Gratifications (1975) which suggests audiences are active viewers and use the media in various ways to get some kind of gratification that will depend on the viewer. Are we not aware that Vicky Pollard is an exaggerated comic grotesque rather representative of a particular class of people? Does the show not contain equally exaggerated portrayals of middle class people? • Or - Gammon and Marshment (1998) stress the role of the audience in the construction of meaning from texts and suggest there is a range of interpretations offered by any text.
  • 25. • David Gauntlett (2002): The media disseminates a huge number of messages about identity and acceptable forms of self-expression, gender, sexuality, and lifestyle. At the same time, the public have their own robust set of diverse feelings on these issues. The media's suggestions may be seductive, but can never simply overpower contrary feelings in the audience. It seems appropriate to speak of a slow but engaged dialogue between media and media consumers. Neither the media nor the audience are powerful in themselves, but both have powerful arguments.
  • 26. • Evidence? Audience response to soaps, for example, is rich and varied, as befits active viewers (See, for example, The Broadcasting Standards Commission to research audience attitude to the British Soap Opera in 2002 – this showed even the most ‘fanatical’ viewers are aware of the dramatic and staged nature of the shows and that they didn’t present a window on reality). • On the other hand - Thomas De Zengotita (2005) – Almost everything we know about the world comes to us through some sort of media and this influences our view of the world and even our self-definition.
  • 27. • How do working class people contribute to these images of collective identity? • Some filmmakers - like Ken Loach - work with non-actors from the community they feature, but actors don’t contribute to the self-representation more than the director; likewise, in Newcastle, Amber Films works with communities to create films based on ideas that come from the community and use people from the area in the cast. • The future? In the age of web 2.0, collective identity is reflected in the use of websites, blogs etc - use these images of working class to create a community amongst fans e.g. http://www.corrieblog.tv/ (currently running this story: “Tens of thousands of people living in Britain think Weatherfield actually exists according to a survey by Hotels.com.”). • There are also the inevitable facebook pages e.g. http://www.facebook.com/CoronationStreetBlog; and the soaps are, of course, on Twitter, officially and unofficially. • The future? Can working class communities contribute to that sense of identity through other means - posting on Youtube, for instance? Blogs? What about the audience?
  • 28. • Collective Identity: the individual’s sense of belonging to a group (part of personal identity) - not just representations by mainstream media, but the self-construction by users of the media and even communities formed from shared identity: age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural values, political ideas etc.; the idea is that through participating in social activities –in this case, watching films and television - individuals can gain a sense of belonging and in essence an ’identity’ that transcends the individual.
  • 29. However… • It is impossible to measure or ascertain HOW FAR British television and film have helped to create a sense of collective identity. Bear in mind that TV and film aren’t the only fields contributing to a collective identity of the working class and that some of that representation has become generic and repeated not only on film and TV but also in other forms of media.