Social Realism is the most ‘typically British’ of all film genres and has been Britain’s richest gift to world cinema. Better than any other genre Social Realism shows us to ourselves by pushing the boundaries in the effort to put the experiences of real people onto the screen and shaping our ideas of what British cinema can be.
Social Realism in cinema is a style that takes it roots from the Italian Neorealist movement known for its naturalistic and substance-over-style works of filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and also Federico Fellini; but is considered as Britain’s main form of cinematic style.
Although Britain is seen as Social Realism’s home in terms of it being Britain’s main cinematic style, many other countries have also produced several Social Realism films with countries such as India producing Social Realism films such as ‘Indian Shylock’ and ‘The Unexpected’ since the early 1920s and 30s. The United States however was one of the last countries to adopt this form
of style in cinema.
For Britons their early Social Realism films often used common social interaction found in Dickens and Thomas Hardy novels. Two of the first Social Realism films produced by Britain are ‘Rescued by Rover’ made in 1905 by Cecil Hepworth and ‘A Reservist before the War, and After the War’ made in 1902 by James Williamson. ‘Rescued by Rover’ catches Edwardian England at a particular moment while ‘A Reservist before the War, and After the War’ offers a portrait of the Boer War serviceman returning to a life of unemployment and was one of the first films to emphasise realism’s value as social protest.
Britain’s contribution to cinema in the 1930s lay in documentaries that would lead into 1940s mainstream cinemas. Producer Michael Balcon combined the objective temper and aesthetics of documentaries with the stars and resources of studio filmmaking, which suddenly made 1940s British cinema appealing to a mass audience.
One of the strongest images of post-war British cinema is that of factory worker Arthur Seaton downing a pint in one at the end of another week in ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ made in 1960. Several other films followed including ‘Room at the Top’, ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’ and ‘A Kind of Loving’ all bringing wide shots and plain speaking stories of ordinary Britons negotiating the social structures of post-war Britain; and thanks to the relaxation of censorship characters now had sex lives, money worries and social problems. British ‘auteurs’ such as Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and John Schlesinger all dealt with tackling issues such as prostitution, abortion, alienation and relationship problems. Identified with their directors rather than with the industry, these New Wave films tended to address issues around masculinity that would become not uncommon in British Social Realism films. Directors from Ken Loach to Patrick Keiller, and films from Mike Leigh’s ‘High Hopes’ made in 1988 to ‘The Full Monty’ made in 1997 have both addressed the erosion of regional and class identities amid a landscape rendered increasingly uniform by consumerism.
After the realist flowering at the BBC in the 1960s publisher and broadcaster Channel 4 attempted to cultivate a cinema audience for Social Realism in the 1980s; and as the funding grew more precarious throughout the 1990s, a formulaic ‘triumph-over-adversity’ narrative combining the streets and city landscapes of traditional British realism with the feel-good vibe of Hollywood individualism emerged; with ‘The Full Monty’ made in 1997 epitomising a new and entertaining conception of British Social Realism and suggesting a national cinema with a genuine and vital commitment to the way we live.