Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner

Based on Alan Sillitoe’s 1959 first person short story of the same name, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was an obvious choice for Woodfall Films following the success they had had with a previous adaptation of a Sillitoe novel; Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. It tells the story of Colin Smith, a rebellious youth who is sent to Borstal for robbing a bakery just a few short weeks after his father’s death from cancer. Locked away, Smith discovers a talent for long-distance running – a talent that doesn’t go unnoticed by the Borstal’s governor who, in return for privileges, persuades Smith to compete in a 5-mile race against local public school, Ranley.

A classic slice of social realism and kitchen sink drama, I still think that this has one of the greatest endings to a film ever.

To me, it is clear that Smith (a sublimely sullen Tom Courtenay, delivering a performance with a real sense of a dangerous undercurrent that he perhaps never brought to the screen again) is always a rebel rather than a conformist and that this forfeit of the race was his plan all along.

Smith’s choice was to win the race or to run it, and he couldn’t do both. Running – with its obvious connotations of the freedom Smith otherwise lacks – asserts his independence and the self he has discovered from the sport and his innate talent. Racing, or winning the competition, is to conform and sacrifice his independence. To me there’s no ambiguity; Smith is after all his father’s son and, as we hear throughout the film, his recently deceased father was a shop steward who hated the capitalist society and the ruling class, believing in the redistribution of wealth to the workers. As such, Smith knows that the only way to beat the system and get one up on those with ‘the whip hand’ over him is to use his right to withdraw his labour, just like his father would have done. Smith is never for one moment bought by the slick platitudes of Michael Redgrave’s borstal governor and his middle-class traditional values, he simply refuses to hear them – just like his game of turning the sound off from the Tory party political broadcast on the television.

If you ever want to see how seismic the change from the 1950s to the 1960s in British society was, then look no further than Michael Redgrave here. Just seven years earlier he portrayed national hero Barnes Wallis in the rousing and patriotic The Dam Busters, and here he is the atavistic emblem of a way of life and tradition that the younger generation were turning their backs on and determined to sweep aside.

Spare a thought for Topsy Jane too, the wonderfully natural Birmingham actress who plays Courtenay’s girlfriend here was producer Tony Garnett’s wife and seemed set for great things. Unfortunately, the onset of a breakdown experienced during the filming of Billy Liar (she was set to play Courtenay’s love interest again; a role ultimately taken by Julie Christie) put paid to that great, early promise that she showed. Her career stalled and she never really recovered, passing away at the age of 75 in 2014.

FILM FEATURES ON EPISODE 162 OF CINEMA ECLECTICA

LONELINESS OF A LONG DISTANCE RUNNER FEATURES ON BFI’S WOODFALL BOXSET

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