Woodfall - A Revolution in British Cinema: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Review
“Don't let the bastards grind you down. That's one thing I've learned. […] I'd like to see anyone try to grind me down. That'll be the day. What I'm out for is a good time. The rest is propaganda.”
Like many first novels, Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was more than a little autobiographical in inspiration. Like his lead character Arthur Seaton, Sillitoe was from Nottingham, born in 1928 to working-class parents, and like Arthur he worked in the Raleigh bicycle factory, having left school at fourteen. After working there for four years, he joined the Air Force, though too late to serve in World War II. He left the Forces on medical grounds, having been diagnosed with tuberculosis. He moved to a warmer climate to recover and while in Mallorca, he was encouraged by his wife, American poet Ruth Fairlight, and nearby resident Robert Graves, he began to write. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was rejected seventeen times before it was finally published. It became a best-seller and was immediately bracketed with the work of other young, often working-class, novelists and playwrights, the Angry Young Men. Timing no doubt played a part: like many of their works, Saturday Night tapped in to a mood of post-War disillusion, particularly among the younger generations, and an urge to let voices previously marginalised on class grounds to be heard. Sillitoe published twenty-one other novels before his death in 2010, but he is not the only example of a writer whose reputation rests on just one work, his novella The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (the title story of his first short-fiction collection, published 1959) notwithstanding. Part of this is due to the fact that these two works were filmed, and successfully so. (Films of his second novel The General – as Counterpoint (1957) - and of his short story The Ragman's Daughter (1972) were not successes.) Sillitoe published a lot of work – as well as the novels and short fiction, there were poems, essays, travel writing, plays, and an autobiography – but it's fair to say most of it has now largely slipped into obscurity, only eight years, as I write, after his death.
The cinema industry had certainly taken notice of the Angry Young Men and many of their works became films. The mood of disillusion, and the wish to put voices and faces from other than the upper and middle classes, moved easily from page or stage to screen, and a more robust attitude to sex (if not actually showing it, then making clear that the characters have had it) and realistic language had appeal to a younger generation of cinemagoers, even if some of the films did push at the bounds of what was then called the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) felt able to allow, even to an audience of those aged sixteen or other with the X certificate. Woodfall Film Productions had been set up to film its co-founder John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger, and had followed it with the film of his next play The Entertainer. For their next production, they brought the rights to Sillitoe's novel. Osborne had no involvement in this film, but his fellow co-founder Harry Saltzman served as executive producer. The third co-founder, Tony Richardson, was working on The Entertainer at the time, so became the film's producer. Sillitoe wrote the screenplay and the director, making his first dramatic feature, was Karel Reisz.
Reisz was born in 1926 in Ostrava, then in Czechoslovakia and now in the Czech Republic. Being Jewish, he was evacuated to England on the Kindertransport in 1938. The rest of his family did not survive the War, so Reisz remained in England. He began his film career as a critic, writing for Sequence and publishing a textbook, The Technique of Film Editing, in 1953. Through his writing for Sequence, he met Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson and worked with them in the Free Cinema movement, which began with a showing of three short films at the National Film Theatre on 5 February 1956, one of which was Momma Don't Allow, a 22-minute documentary Reisz co-directed with Richardson. (Momma Don't Allow is an extra on the Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner disc in this box set, and one of the other two films at that showing, Anderson's O Dreamland, can be found on the Entertainer disc.) This was followed by a 51-minute documentary, directed solo by Reisz, We Are the Lambeth Boys, of which more below.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was shot on location in and around Nottingham, including inside the Raleigh bicycle factory where Sillitoe had worked, with other locations in London, and at Twickenham Studios. Stylistically the film is of a piece with the other early Woodfalls: a mix of studio and location shooting, with inexperienced directors paired with more experienced cinematographers (Oswald Morris or, as here, Freddie Francis) who had travelled the traditional route from clapper boy to camera crew to DP. Later Woodfalls, with some influence from the French New Wave then just breaking in Britain, took the films away from the studios, with the help of DPs like Walter Lassally, whose background had been in documentary.
As with the Osborne-based films, Saturday Night puts an antihero front and centre. It's a gift of a role for a charismatic male actor, and Albert Finney (in his second film after a brief role in The Entertainer) grabs it with both hands, and he became a star as a result. Arthur lives for himself: as the title indicates, it's for the weekend, when he can spend the money he's earned during the week making bicycle parts, his hands and his back (aching) as much as part of the machine as the mechanism he's helping to make. At the weekend, he can go drinking, or fishing with his friend Bert (Norman Rossington). He's seeing Doreen (Shirley Anne Field), but at the same time is having an affair with Brenda (Rachel Roberts), the wife of factory supervisor Jack (Bryan Pringle). Then Brenda becomes pregnant. Arthur is out for a good time, but his rebelliousness is a circumscribed one, held in place by his circumstances and background, and by the end of the film that's still the case.
Shirley Anne Field, two years younger than Finney, had been in films longer than him, though had shown an ability to get more out of the limited roles good-looking young women often got to play at the time. She has said that she felt that her and Finney's roles in The Entertainer were effectively Woodfall's screen tests for them. Doreen has quite a few similarities to Arthur, and is as assertive and determined as him. Rachel Roberts's presence (Diana Dors declined the role) inevitably, with hindsight, reminds us now of 1963's This Sporting Life, based on the novel by David Storey and Lindsay Anderson's feature debut, where her widowed character is in a destructive relationship with that film's antihero, played by Richard Harris. She and Finney would reunite in 1973 for Alpha Beta, a 66-minute two-hander from E.A. Whitehead's play about an unhappy marriage, directed by Anthony Page for Finney's production company Memorial. It failed to get a cinema release and premiered on BBC television on New Year's Day 1974. They also appeared together in Murder on the Orient Express and Roberts went on to play the lead role of Mrs Appleyard in Picnic at Hanging Rock. She took her own life in 1980, aged fifty-three. Karel Reisz's next film was an unsuccessful remake of Night Must Fall, starring Finney, but his later filmography is stronger, including Morgan! and The French Lieutenant's Woman in the UK and The Gambler and Who'll Stop the Rain (UK title: Dog Soldiers) in the USA. He died in 2002.
In 1958 the BBFC appointed a new Secretary, John Trevelyan, who would stay in post until 1971 and who was in general a liberalising force in film censorship as society changed during those thirteen years. However, when the Board received the screenplay for Saturday Night, one objection was to the theme of abortion, treated too casually for Trevelyan's liking, especially any suggestion that it might be “brought off”. So the scene from the novel where Brenda does just that, with the help of gin and a hot bath, did not make it to the screen. The other main objection was to language, so “bastards”, “bloody” and “bleeding” were allowed to assail the ears of adult cinemagoers, but “sod” and “Christ” were not. The BBFC also objected to “bogger” as a transparent attempt to get round the ban on “bugger”. (You can see their point. British cinemagoers remained resolutely unbuggered, or unboggered, until Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Poor Cow came along, both in 1967.) So the film was, as Sillitoe said, somewhat watered down from his novel. Yet what the BBFC did pass, for the then sixteen-and-over X certificate, was still startling. Room at the Top, released a year before, had stirred a few feathers by showing that a man and a woman had clearly had sex and had enjoyed it, and weren't married to each other either, but Saturday Night did that too, and added adultery to the mix. In the USA, the film was denied a Seal of Approval by the Production Code Administration, affecting the film's box office but also adding to a growing list of European films that filmgoers found far more adult than what the PCA allowed the major studios to make and release.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning opened on 27 October 1960, its main London venue being the Warner Cinema (now the Vue) in Leicester Square, then a single-screen cinema. It picked up six BAFTA nominations, winning three: Best British Film, Best British Actress for Rachel Roberts and Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles for Albert Finney. It was nominated for Sillitoe's screenplay, Finney again for Best British Actor (losing to Peter Finch in The Trials of Oscar Wilde) and for Best Film from Any Source (which it lost to The Apartment). It gained no Oscar nominations. It's fair to say that Saturday Night and Sunday Morning has had its fair share of influence on British popular culture since. Morrissey named it as his favourite film. The Arctic Monkeys' first album, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, gains its title from another line of Arthur's dialogue.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is Disc Three of the BFI's nine-disc box set Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema, released in separate Blu-ray and DVD editions. However, this disc is a repackaging of the BFI's previous Blu-ray from 2009 (reviewed for this site at the time by Clydefro Jones here). The box set carries a 15 certificate, though Saturday Night and Sunday Morning now has a PG. We Are the Lambeth Boys was given a U certificate in 1959, though it wouldn't get that now, what with a verbal reference to rape and some examples of what the BBFC would now call discriminatory language, such as “queer”. And it's admittedly muffled, but does one of the boys say “fucking” once? (Listen at 26:39, though the hard-of-hearing subtitles don't pick up the word.)
The Blu-ray transfer is in the ratio of 1.66:1 (which may be correct – despite this being a studio shoot, the ratio was not noted in the trade press of the time) and is derived from a 35mm finegrain element held by the BFI National Archive. I concur with Clydefro: this looks very good indeed, with the blacks, whites and greys spot-on and the grain natural and filmlike.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LCPM 2.0. It's clear and well-balanced. Hard-of-hearing subtitles are available for the feature and all of the extras including the commentary, which is something the BFI don't usually do any more, these days subtitling only the feature.
The commentary was recorded for the BFI's previous DVD release. It's mostly by film historian Robert Murphy, with contributions from Alan Sillitoe and Freddie Francis edited in. Murphy's approach is mostly analytical, with consideration made of the work of his fellow commentators: for example, he points out a film-noirish quality to Francis's lighting of some scenes. There are some pauses, but this is an informative commentary.
Also audio-only, over stills, is an extract from an interview of Albert Finney (4:10) at the National Film Theatre in 1982, the interviewer being Michael Billington. Finney talks about Saturday Night and how he came to make the film. More of this interview can be heard on the director's cut of Tom Jones, where it plays as a second audio track over the first thirty-five minutes of the film.
Shirley Anne Field, seen as well as heard, is up next (10:07), interviewed in 2009. She talks to camera about her career, beginning in films as a “special girl” – at the time, Joan Collins was another – but glad to be able to prove her ability for Woodfall in The Entertainer and Saturday Night. She talks about the approaches of the two directors she worked for, pointing out that if anything women (herself and Rita Tushingham) found Tony Richardson more congenial to work for than many of the men did.
We Are the Lambeth Boys was Karel Reisz's third film as director, after Momma Don't Allow and, in 1959, March to Aldermaston (co-directed with Lindsay Anderson), and his first with a solo credit. It's long enough (50:38) to count as a feature by some definitions and was sponsored by Ford Motor Company as part of a series of documentaries called Look at Britain. Through the film we spend time with several teenagers of the time, mostly male as the title suggests but some girls as well, at work at home and at play in the local youth club – Alford House in Oval, south London (now in the London Borough of Lambeth), where the film was shot over six weeks in the summer of 1958. The film does give a voice to these teenagers, listening in as they debate some of the issues of the day, such as capital punishment, still on the statute books then. However, a voiceover narration by Jon Rollason does put us at arm's length somewhat and can't avoid sounding paternalistic. The film, shot in 35mm by Walter Lassally, was shown at the sixth Free Cinema evening at the NFT in March 1959. It's presented on this disc in a ratio of 1.37:1, but given the gauge the film was shot it may well have had cinema viewings in mind, as it shows signs of being composed for a wider ratio, though no wider than 1.66:1. One giveaway is a shot nine minutes in where the camera operator tilts up suddenly to keep a boy's head in shot, which would not have been necessary if the film was intended to be seen in 4:3.
The BFI's booklet from the 2009 Blu-ray release has not been brought forward. It contained an essay by Philip Kemp. For this box set, the essay in the book accompanying it is by Thirza Wakefield, a native of Nottingham. She gives a reading of the film at odds with the common one of it as pessimistic, with Arthur ground down by the end of the film. She sees the film as optimistic, and Doreen as a worthy partner, and in some ways female equivalent, of Arthur. Also in the book are notes on the extras, those on We Are the Lambeth Boys by Christophe Dupin.