Realisms or ‘realisms’
Popular film critics generously use the term ‘social realism’ but
often fail at using it to the critical standards it requires. Being an
catch-all there is no singular description so it can lack careful
thought about a piece of works intentions and background.
The criteria for what succeeds as ‘social realism’ are when texts
are depicted as ‘gritty’, ‘raw’- presenting a ‘slice of life’ or an
outlook on ‘life as it really is’. For the most part, the phrase
‘social realism’ is often used as one of the same with other
terms – for instance ‘working class’ and ‘kitchen sink’ realism.
To successfully converse when using the phrase ‘social
realism’, we must unpack the term and then proceed to
exploring its context in British cinema.
Realism in the Western world has the critical consensuses
as the dominant representational form.
The first impulses towards realism were created when
there was a need to feed the growing industrial
infrastructure of thousands of workers who were created by
the industrial revolution. They moved from the country to
the city which brought with them new political ideas of
communism and socialism. The new political ideas tried to
offer an answer for the new working classes which
contributed to the secularisation of society; science had
also evolved with categorisations and changing
methodologies that helped to draw British society from
Carroll advised that the term
‘realism’ should only be used
with a prefix attached. This is so
the realisms can be specified
into ‘what’ and ‘when’ of the
movement; prefixes such as
neo- or social- have the ability to
link it to specific historical
Realism and the
Literature, theatre and the fine arts were already promoting realist aesthetic towards
the end of the nineteenth century and showed this by using a variety of formal and
stylistic advances, including new devices. With the growth and development of
photography also came new possibilities for capturing ‘life as it is lived’ due to
photographs being able to confine reality in a still image.
The media then began to pursue the ‘real’ and made it its duty to display reality or the
Truth. The Truth however is chained to the problem that there are more faces to the
Truth than the eyes that witness it; nothing can ever be true unless it’s in the present
because everything else is re-presented. The truth has many different perspectives
so there cannot be one singular reality.
Its believed that ‘naturalism’ and social realist texts
should have many similar traits; fictional
representations should aim to study, observe and
record peoples interactions just like the way naturalists
catalogue and study the animal kingdom - the goal of
naturalism was ‘to resurrect the complete illusion of
real life using the things characteristic of real life’
To capture such a natural
representation it was argues by
theorist Andre Brazin that realism
should use techniques such as long
takes - this would give the audience
enough insight to find their own
realism within the text.
There is not one but several
realisms; each has its own look
depending on the technique and the
visuals that best captured it.
Branston and Stafford Hollywood
After analysing the “realistic” nature of Hollywood with other
“realistic” texts, they concluded that there were multiple differences
between the two.
For starters, Hollywood films can be regarded as realistic due to
setting, characterisation and situation but this does not mean
they’re a realistic text; for a film to be realist and not ‘realistic’ it
must include one of two characteristics.
1.To capture the experience as the actual event illustrated must be
the film-makers intention
2.There must be a specific message or argument the film maker
wants to deliver to its audience about the social world – this can be
done by harnessing realist conventions as its mode of expression
Defining social realism
Being dependent on both the political and historical aspects of
society, social realism is constantly evolving and changing so it can
never be eliminated to a single definition.
A key feature of social realist texts is the way a character and
place are linked to explore a trait of modern life in similar ways to
naturalism – films whose aims are to show how environmental
factors affect the progression of a character through illustrations
that highlight the link between location and identity.
argues that there are
four criteria’s that are
common in all forms
1. Realist texts are secular; propelling mankind towards
reason and logic and away from superstition and
mysticism so it is preferred to illustrate human truth than
2. The setting, character and social issues in realist texts
are grounded in the contemporary scene
3. To include marginal or previously under-represented
groups/issues in society, characters and topics tend to be
4. Most realistic texts are influenced by the artist and their
British Social Realism –
Practice and Politics
Practice and politics are all about the traits outside of the text which
can influence the form, structure, content and style.
Practice are the methods that construct a film. In this context it is
referring to the independent production conducted with lots of
skilled workers which use real locations and little-known actors –
sometimes unprofessional actors.
Most of the time, the practice of a film is influenced the ‘politics’ of
its producer/film-maker. They may seek to be free or distinct from
the mainstream and would then want to exhibit a devotion to certain
ideas about the social world. Ken Loach states that ‘The way you
make a film is an important way of validating the ideas in it’,
meaning that the message of a film can be controlled by how you
Due to Hollywood being highly organised and a group of professional
industries all in the business of consumption and entertainment, when
a filmmakers intent is to show life ‘as it really is’ they are reacting to
how the world is ‘constructed’ by these mainstream produce rather
than commenting on the features of present social life.
Many social realist texts look to the past for
inspiration – they are often looking how people
from previous eras worked around realism, which
social realist texts tend to correct or break away
Practice and politics are so entwined it is near
impossible for either to escape from one another; they
inform each other to the extent that if one was to
change, so would the other.
The politics of a film-maker dramatically influence their
mode of cinematic expression thus shaping the practice
of a text and therefore its place in the market.
During the 1930s and 40s their was a significant lack of
funding and resources for the media which
subsequently encouraged the documentary movement
and its collaborative style – where the aim was to
inform and educate audiences.
The commitment to documenting the ‘truth’ was far
less aesthetic and more sociological when analysing
their practice as they used non-actors and ‘ordinary
people’ on locations that were used.
British ‘New Wave’
British ‘New Wave’ film-makers’ had their practice
shaped by their politics as well, thus eventually
placing them outside the British mainstream film
By quoting Lindsay Anderson, Stephen Lacey is
able to connect their practice with their political and
critical stance to demonstrate: by rejecting the
studio system in film (practice), the film makers are
also rejecting a particular view on the world
(politics) and by doing so, both theatre and cinema
brandished this as ‘anti-intelligent, wilfully blind to
the conditions and problems of the present’
British New Wave filmmakers’ ambitions were to extend the range of cinematic
representation with the intent of including the working class beyond London in industrial
towns and northern England cities. To do this they used unknown stage actors and
New Wave directors established that environmental factors were the reason behind a
characters fate and fortunes and so realised that character and place were
Loach was a large importance to social
realism due to his practice and politics.
He refused to use stars and his location
must be shot in naturalistic settings. As
well as being a committed socialist he
used documentaries to explore the
inequalities and conflicts in
society.What makes him more
interesting is that much of his work was
censored due to these political views
but continued to use his talents against
the Thatcher government in the 1980s.
Unfortunately, as a consequence many
of his documentaries were never
Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, Lindsay
Anderson and Lorenzo Mazzetti formed
the Free Cinema group to produce short
films and documentaries that were visually
exciting and creative - the term
‘Free Cinema’ defied the principles of
filmmakers as it made independent films
free from profit and studio tampering
where they could make their own subject
decisions. It succeeded in helping aspiring
directors grasp a place in the film industry.
Directors Reisz, Anderson and Richardson
helped form the ‘British New Wave’
British New Wave
The British New Wave movement has be promoting
films as the unique product of one artistic imagination;
in other words, the vision of a film piece is now left to
the single director (co-directors/screenwriters) as
‘Content’ is described as a term made up of two conjoined and essential
1.The exploration of issues and themes though social realist texts
2.The types of representations created
Content issues help tie films and texts to their exact moment of production
and consumption. They also grant points of contrast between the separate
moments, movements and cycles.
Content is usually linked to the film-makers intent. The intent of British
social realism is frequently reformist, educative or somehow socially
purposive with themes bound up within a message or mission of
Issues and Themes
Understanding why certain issues and themes are brought forward at different moments
can reveal a substantial amount of background knowledge about the social and cultural
attitudes in that moment.
When looking at the way an issue is dealt with in a different time period we are able to
seek and reveal answers to questions relating to why certain themes might have been
central, why were they popular at that time.
It is of key importance to understand social
realist texts in their socio-historical context so
you are able to judge for yourself if the ‘reality’
it is representing is in close relation to what
you already know about that time in history.
Lay says all texts constructed in a realist mode
are exactly that, constructs, and so through an
analysis of issues and themes we can then
conclude what reality is to be constructed and
from which point of view.
Defining Issues Issues relate to the variety of social problems promoted in
films which were common around that films time period.
Issues tend to be subject to change due to realist texts
being in the ‘now’, a rise and fall in fashion, a constant
An example would be the issue of promiscuity which was
of high concern in the 1950s and not so much in the
80s/90s. Presently there is the high media profile of drug
and alcohol abuse, and more recently child sexual abuse
has been seen in forms of British social realist texts such
Social issues are more immediate that
involve visible social fears and
concerns; mostly they have a high
media profile but also have a short shelf
life. Issues are known to be obvious and
explicit: ‘an emotional tale of the
troubles of a depressed teen, living with
a dysfunctional, abusive family etc.
Themes are in fact a
contrast to issues; they’re
not as explicit but have a
rather implicational tone.
Themes are much deeper
than issues; their threat to
social cohesion and stability
are less obvious.
Issues tend to work as labels but
themes are a descriptive power.
Themes are usually broad concerns
implied within a given text; recurring
themes include changing gender roles,
national identity, anti-consumerism,
capitalism negativity, and the demise of
traditional working class.
Film is more of a large commercial medium rather than an education
tool and so social realist texts tend to focus on characters that would not
be seen in mainstream films.
‘Social extension’ is used to extend the range of a character as a way of
including groups and individuals rarely explored in mainstream cinema.
Hill notes that social extension largely involves working
class representation at moments of social/economic
change in British social realism and that these
characters are represented from specific social
perspectives: products of distinct moments to the
Marshment note the
character types who
dwell in the margins of
society and would
most likely appear in
the background of
are drawn into social
In British social realism, the redress of social and
representational inequalities of classes was because of the
social extension urge on film makers.
The aim was to show aspects of 'the working class way of life‘
that social realist directors conjured from certain political
standpoints which had been formed by specific assumptions
on what is deemed social realism via issues and characters –
this means representations will change over time and each
social realist movement would aim to improve on what had
previously been represented.
Dodd and Dodd investigated Griersons
documentaries on the working class from the
1930s. They argued that the working class male
was fetishized by his documentaries; hard,
'honest' labour was often used to represent the
male and the 'victim' portrayal grew a counter
representation of the male 'hero‘.
Lindsay Anderson believes British cinema
severely unrepresented the working class and
his work strives to improve on past ideas of
Anderson and his contemporaries departed from
what they believed to be 'stuffy and sterile' realism
The way he represented the working class
people/characters in their documentaries/feature
films was far more energetic and vibrant. The
reason for this was partly due to film makers
regarding traditional working class as being
threatened by consumerism and influenced by
American culture; the film makers had much
respect for the 'earthy' and unpretentious working
class, not to mention a fascination for the new
Both the 30s and 50s documentary movements
shared an overwhelming need for working class
In the New Wave Films of the 50s and 60s women
were seen as a threat to masculinity because of their
obsession with marriage, motherhood and romance
and were often the target of bitter criticism. Women
were partially blamed for the demise in traditional
working class culture and were seen as agents of
There were very little social realist texts in
that moment of British social realism that
would offer a perspective on working class
women but there were some exceptions - 'A
Taste Of Honey' (1961), Tony Richardson
and Ken Loache's 'Poor Cow' (1967) - these
texts depicted women as poor decision
makers but they were represented largely in
television; with dramas such as Coronation
Street featuring feisty working class female
The social realist texts in the 80s
reflected on the great importance of
women in the work force and society
whilst addressing the gender gap.
(Letter to Breshnev, Rita Sue and Bob
Too, Sammy and Rosie get Laid).
This reflection continued to grow throughout
the 90s (Ladybird Ladybird, Secrets and Lies,
Career Girls) but toward the end the
representation of women took a few steps
back with women being portrayed as
unsupportive of their husbands and proficient
consumers (The Full Monty) or sometimes
the victims of sexual or domestic abuse
(Stella Does Tricks, Nil by Mouth).
Working Class Overall
Hallam argued that the
overall representation of
the working class in British
social realist cinema has
shifted from a class of
labourers to a class of
It was a shift from production to
consumption that was accompanied
by a narrative change; from the
working class characters/communities
being capable of collective bargaining
and action to now envisioning them in
a more private domestic and leisurefilled settings, more individualism and
less social groups are being
The representation of working class in British
social realism is based on the privileges of the
working class white male who are depicted as
being 'prone' to the psychological traumas of
society e.g unemployment, drug/alcohol abuse,
violence and addiction. This move from public to
private, political to personal, eliminates the
inequalities in society not only nationally but
Public and Private
Higson argues that the changing definitions of public and private
space is also entwined with a feature of British realism: the history of
traditional British realist cinema is also the history of the changing
ideas between 'the public and the private, the political and the
personal, the state and the citizen'.
Hill agrees by suggesting the shift from political to private was
exhibited by the British New Wave movement; a continuing strength
in British social realist texts of the 80s/90s. Early films were majorly
political (marksism, socialism, republican) but the approach to the
21st century films became more personal and film makers want to tell
Lay comments on ethnicity in British social realist texts
and says the representation of the working class tends to
focus on the white working class male (women are seen
as the opposition).
She states that there is a deplorable crime being
committed; Britain is a multi-faith, multicultural society
and yet lacks working class characters like Anderson's
1950s contemporaries. Working class has been over
concentrated but hasn't focused on ethnic groups
Further investigation concludes that there is an
even larger invisible truth that is rarely explored
via social texts; masses of asylum seekers,
refugees and illegal workers are a part of the
British population but are rarely seen on British
screens beyond documentaries and news
Form and Style - Introduction
‘Form’ is a social realist texts mode or shape as well as the types
and kinds. The artistic practices used and the creative choices
used by the filmmakers is referred to as the ‘style’.
The specific formal and stylistic techniques used by the filmmakers
aim to capture, comment and critique society. It is possible that the
elements inside the realist text (the form and style) can be
informed by practice, politics and content.
Characters in social realisms are inextricably linked to the
place or environment as the characters location can help
emphasise the message of the film/film maker; social
inequalities can be seen by using character placement.
Gritty low budget films and/or television dramas are often
associated with social realist form by the critical
establishment but in truth, there is no one form.
The ability to be able to distinguish between reality and
avant garde, animation, experimental film etc. is given to us
in the form of social realism.
The intent of any realist work largely depends on
the artist/film maker/producer.
Ken Loach, Gary Oldman, Lindsay Anderson,
John Grierson all have different intentions for
their work but what links their work to one
another is that their purpose is beyond fame and
Extending the representations in art
and in the previously underrepresented social groups is a
common goal; dealing with the
issues and problems mainstream
cinema has ‘forgotten’ to address is
also a feature social realist texts
Form over the years
Social realist texts have varied greatly in British screen
culture and have influenced the forms of 1930s documentary
shorts, 40s popular story documentaries and beyond 50s
feature films, soaps operas, docu-soaps, documentaries and
supposed ‘reality’ tv.
These forms contain many of the features of a social realist
text. Most of the forms have verisimilitude and can suggest
that there is a link between person and place by involving
social situations with emphasised character casts. These
films, documentaries and series continue to exhibit ‘things as
they really are’.
The ‘form’ of a social realist text includes
how the practices and techniques are
represented through different modes of
representation; film, radio and television
are popular modes but literature, fine arts
and theatre are just as common. The
level of form can be affected by the type
of mode used.
Mainstream texts are likely to follow a linear narrative which is
controlled and motivated by the central protagonist. The
majority of the texts show quite stable resolutions such as the
protagonist achieving their goal; monster is killed, crime is
solved/criminal is caught, the guy gets the girl/girl gets the guy
and so on.
A significant difference between mainstream and social realist
narrative is social realist texts are likely to operate in recurring
circles (cyclically) with rarely bright futures to be seen. They
resist clear resolutions.
A cyclical nature featured in a film would be that the story
line would appear to be at its end but in fact is just getting
closer to the beginning again; Nil By Mouth is an excellent
example of this narrative style as is greatly resists
resolution. It shows a family filled with many social issues
reunited at the films end but we know that none of these
problems have been resolved so the cycle of familial abuse
continues beyond the finishing line of the film.
Failures and Television
The ambitions of British cinema
are too small and too televisual
hence the reason it has failed
(James Park, 1990). The
funding for cinema has become
dependent on the lesser forms
such as television and video so
the distinction between film and
television is very slim (John Hill,
Television is an excellent
advertisement medium and
emphasise for the intent of the
artist/producer/film maker. Ken Loach
saw this and used it to his advantage
by airing Wednesday Plays straight
after the news: ‘We were very anxious
for our plays not to be considered
drama but as continuations of the
news’. By stating this, Ken Loach has
found a new way of interacting with an
audience which depends on the
placement times of social realist texts.
Social realist texts are often simplistic and thought of as a form
of naturalism to obtain as much of a realist feel as it can but this
led to the label of ‘kitchen sink; a derogatory term which
describes the texts ‘tedious’ depictions of working class settings
When social realist texts use an observational
style it tends to create a distance between text
and spectator. ‘Gritty’ can be employed to
describe the way landscapes and characters are
filmed as well as character behaviour and
and Poetic Realism
First of all, ‘industrial romanticism’ is the transformation of industrial
landscapes by the poetic realism of British New Wave films.
Powerful romantic terms were how used by Roger Manvell as a
description, ‘man against the black blue sky, factories again the
For Higson, ‘poetic realism’ is where moral realism and surface
realism meet- surface realism being the visuals that imply a
relationship between the specific environments used and ‘life as it is’
within these environments. It can be seen as a kind of antidote that
works against the distance made by the cold and analytical
documentary ‘look’. It helps to control unnecessary aestheticism by
representing ‘the real’.
Higson sees that poetic discourse is
something that tries to hold the
significantly different artistic endeavours of
public and service together.
To create poetic realism it is advised to
use a wide range of camera shots that
give a sense of place such as wide shots
and long shots of the landscape or a shot
described as ‘The Shot Of Out Town From
That Hill’ – Higson.
Social realist style has expanded greatly
over the years and is not just as simple as
portraying a ‘slice of life’. The style has
been adopted by a range of genres that
include comedy, horror and science
fiction with mainstream cinema now using
some realist techniques.