A Trio of Kitchen Sink Films

These films are about place. Geographical, economic, social–place defines these characters. Everything in their lives and the lives of their friends, family, and employers is part of a system designed to keep them in their place. The story of the film is their struggle to escape this, and to create a new place for themselves, a place that they define, which they can move in with freedom. But the ropes that bind them are strong and tangled, resonant with the weight of home and history, and the constant unspoken refrain: Know your place, know your place, know your place.

The kitchen sink films, made in Britain in the sixties, are notable for showing working class people going about their ordinary lives. They’re mostly black and white, and uniformly gorgeous. They’re often filmed on location with natural lighting, and set in the cramped twisting streets and alleys that wind behind rows of small houses–an inescapable maze of damp bricks and neighborly surveillance. A stifling space.

The term “kitchen sink” was inspired by a painting by John Bratby, and this drive for social realism was part of a broader movement that included art, theater and literature. The films are also called “Angry Young Man” films, because many of them were made by angry young men who were questioning the system, questioning all kinds of systems. And many of them concern themselves with just such an angry young man, but I find that my favorites are more complicated than this, they’re not always about men, not always made by men, and the central character is not simply angry, but has a conflicted attitude to the life they find themselves stuck in, hemmed in by class, expectations, economics. They struggle not just to know their place, but to understand it, and by understanding to break free of it.

One such character is Billy Liar, played with pathos and comic genius by Tom Courtenay. This film has an extraordinary balance of darkness and light. Billy works in a funeral parlor, and he woos one of his many girlfriends in a cemetery. His parents needle him to grow up and take responsibility. He dreams of someday escaping to London, preferably in the company of Julie Christie.

But the truth is that Billy escapes his dreary reality every day: he has a world in his head, a country called Ambrosia, where he is a hero, or several heroes. Billy’s goal in life is to be a script writer, and through his fantasies, he writes a script for himself, for his life, that helps him to transcend the weighty worries of his real life. In his fantasy life he lifts his entire family out of their small and dreary neighborhood to a life of pearls and champagne. When he’s offered a chance at an actual grand gesture, a genuine opportunity to escape the place that defines and confines him, he decides not to take it. The ending of the film is suffused with a melancholy sense of failure, but once again Billy’s imagination saves him. Billy Liar is a comedy, but it’s a complex one, with layer upon layer of questions about life and society buried deep in each scene. Billy’s world is far from perfect, but seen through his eyes, it’s beautiful and funny and touching. The ending is bittersweet and complicated, just like life. I think Billy has made happiness for himself, and to me that means he’s not a failure at all.

Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a beautiful film despite the relentless smoky greyness of the industrial landscape, despite the gloomy wintery bleakness. The film tells the story of Colin, a poor boy from Nottingham played with characteristic brilliance by Tom Courtenay. He doesn’t have a lot of options in life, he doesn’t have a lot of hope, and he takes advantage of an open window to pilfer a cash box. It’s the rain that gives him away, washing all of the money out of its hiding place in a drain pipe to collect around his feet while he’s being interrogated by a policeman.

He finds himself in a boy’s reformatory, and his only relief from the drudgery and degradation is running. He runs to escape, but you feel as though he runs to figure things out, too. He finds the space to think, in the solitude, in the regular rhythm of his feet. He finds joy and solace, and he finds enough hope and self-respect to quietly take a stand against the repressive authorities and the brutally condescending public school boys he’s pitted against in a race. As he comes to understand his life and his place in the world while he runs, so do we, we share in his memories to see what brought him here, and we share a bleak sort of hopefulness for his future. He might be stuck in a place he doesn’t want to live, but at least he can live with himself and his decisions.

Taste of Honey, made in 1961 was directed by Tony Richardson, and based on a play by Shelagh Delaney, which she wrote when she was eighteen years old. It tells the story of seventeen-year-old Jo, who is clever and funny, but something of an outsider, she’s awkward and acerbic and she doesn’t fit in easily. Her mother is a hard drinking playgirl, and they move from flat to flat and man to man, avoiding landladies and bill collectors. Jo meets a sailor named Jimmy. He’s kind and cheerful, from another world, and he obviously likes her a lot because he tells her, “I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice.” They spend a few days together, and then he has to return to sea.

(addendum, fellow Magpie Michael Acker has opened my eyes to this beautiful short film about Shelagh Delaney’s love for Salford made by Ken Russell. Makes a strong argument for loving your place, however gritty, because your place is home)

She’s pregnant and alone, but she’s fine, she’s better than ever. She finds herself a home of her own and a job in a shoe store…a job she’s good at. She meets a textile student named Geoff, and he becomes a good friend, he takes care of Jo and he’s more motherly than her actual mother. They make a home together, they create a space, they make a family of themselves. The film is a masterpiece of acting, writing and filming. It’s so aesthetically pretty, and so beautiful in its honesty and heart and wit. Jimmy is black and Geoff is gay, but aside from a few hastily mean outbursts on Jo’s part, which you know she regrets, this is not an issue. These are not their defining characteristics; they’re warmly, richly written characters and you think about them long after the film is over. And Jo herself, played by the amazing Rita Tushingham, is kind and cruel, strong and confused, loving but guarded. She’s made a life for herself and she’s justifiably proud, but she’s also terrified of having a baby, of being on her own, of having a baby on her own. She’s perfectly, endearingly human.

In keeping with their commitment to social realism, none of these films have a happy ending, a hopeful ending, or even an ending at all, in the traditional cinematic sense. We’re not left with an expectation that our characters will find a way out of this place. Society is too stacked against them, they are weighed down by a system forged through centuries of prejudice and inequality. We sense that they will settle, a little more each day, year after year, till they find themselves living the life assigned to them. But despite the damp weight of their physical surroundings, despite their lack of prospects, the characters are full of a lightness. They glow with the struggle of freeing themselves from their situation, they shine with the work of their imagination, their determination, their humor, their affection; the inner life that nobody can take from them.

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