There comes a point in the life of a teenager when you have to leave the books of your childhood behind and venture into the great unknown of adult literature. It’s a big move, as the books and authors you find there could not only become lifelong companions, but they could also arguably shape your character for the rest of your life. Alan Sillitoe was one of the first authors to capture my imagination. It was the 1990s and I was in my mid to late teens when I first read Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, discovering a story printed on the page that instantly struck a chord within me. The drinking culture, the hard and depressed industrial towns, the cynical philosophy of the protagonist…this novel may have been found in the fiction section of my local library, but it felt like real life to me. It was what I saw and experienced on a daily basis. It also didn’t matter that Sillitoe penned his novel some forty years before I discovered it – life in the corner of the post industrial north that I grew up in remained the same.
Sillitoe’s largely autobiographical debut novel is set in Nottingham and depicts an industrial city of dead end jobs in gruelling factories, the domestic drudgery of slum-like homes and the community respite of local pubs and cheap ale. Its hero is Arthur Seaton, a young machinist at the Raleigh factory who belligerently refuses to conform to the life around him. Arthur may work hard, but he lives for the weekend where he plays even harder; his wages spent on marathon boozing sessions down the pub with his mates or on nags at the bookies. His only chance of tranquility and introspection come from fishing in the local canal found behind chimneys belching with smoke. But it is women who are the root of Arthur’s real interest, and he juggles his traditional courtship of the beautiful but virginal Doreen with a salacious affair with Brenda, an older woman who satisfies his lustful urges. When Brenda reveals she has fallen pregnant and that her husband, a workmate of Arthur’s, knows all about their affair, Arthur’s way of life is rocked to its foundations.
Sillitoe’s novel crackled with such vibrant energy that it was inevitable that a film adaptation would be made and that Woodfall Films would be the ones to make it. Released in 1960, this was the third film from a production company who led the way with the new wave of British cinema – a cinema movement that was unafraid to show life, warts and all. Their commitment to realism continued with their choice of director; Czech emigre Karel Reisz had been a founder member (along with Woodfall’s Tony Richardson, and Lindsay Anderson, Lorenza Mazzetti) of Free Cinema, a movement that concentrated on realism and deliberately rejected the notions of box office appeal. He was clearly the right man to tackle a story of adultery, backstreet illegal abortions and binge drinking. Whilst Woodfall’s previous efforts Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer could lay claim to creating the genre we came to know as kitchen sink, it perhaps wasn’t until Saturday Night and Sunday Morning that this style of social realism really came into its own, thanks to its star, Albert Finney. Simply put, unlike Richard Burton and Laurence Olivier (the stars of those earlier Woodfall films) the Salford born Finney was unmistakably the real deal. Before Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the working classes were neither seen or represented in mainstream British cinema. The closest we had was perhaps John Mills or Richard Attenborough, dropping their aitches and stiffening their upper lips as heroic tommies or jolly jack tars in any number of war pictures. But now it was the start of the 1960s, the war was long over, and Woodfall were determined to do things differently. The time had finally come to use the big screen as a mirror on which to reflect the lives and attitudes, the preoccupations and concerns of its working class audiences.
Finney undoubtedly seizes this opportunity from Woodfall with relish, displaying a performance of animal vitality that is impossible to ignore. His work here not only ensured his own subsequent career, it also opened the doors for the likes of Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay and Alan Bates to follow with equally illustrious work. Finney’s Arthur Seaton is a roguish, anti-authoritarian figure with a chip on each shoulder. He may be disillusioned and angered by the oppressive unwritten laws and social niceties that seek to keep the class he has been born into down, but he is no class warrior. Seaton has no pity for those he believes to have meekly accepted their lot, those ‘dead from the neck up’, such as his own parents. More fool them, is Seaton’s mindset and his disgust is as apparent as his pugnacious refusal to do whatever is expected of him by the bosses or society in general. As with American cinema from the same period, Finney’s Seaton is as much of a rebel as a James Dean or a Marlon Brando but, unlike them, his masculinity is one that has not been touched up or glamourised for the delicate sensibilities of the censors or the pin-up craving teenage audiences – this is an authentic and recognisable kind of bluff machismo that you would have found on any factory floor or in any backstreet boozer. Just like the realism Sillitoe’s novel provided it is here, for the first time, that you were seeing actors on film who looked and behaved just like people you actually knew. The film is rounded out by such unconventional, authentic features of the renowned northern comic Hylda Baker, Norman Rossington, Bryan Pringle, Colin Blakely, Avis Bunnage, and Edna Morris. Even Seaton’s love interests – Rachel Roberts as Brenda and Shirley Anne Field as Doreen – seem ordinary in this light. Roberts looks every inch the washed out and careworn mother and housewife; her eyes may light up at the extra-marital fun Seaton provides, but they do so with the knowledge that this is her final fling and that certainty lingers behind the sparkle. Meanwhile, the naturally beautiful Shirley Anne Field lacks the glamour of some of her other roles, to look instead without guile and untouched by life, in accordance with her character’s purity. One thing you may notice from that roll call of names is that none of them are actually from the Midlands and they all perform in the traditional northern dialect – the commitment for authenticity not quite stretching to the opportunity to hear a real Nottinghamshire accent clearly. Still, one step at a time, and in 1960 Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was one bloody big progressive step forwards. The film may be almost sixty years old but, like my experience with the novel as a teenager, it remains – for better or worse – relevant and accurate.