When watching Karel Reisz’s cinematic interpretation of Alan Sillitoe’s novel “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning” today it may be slightly difficult to envisage just how important its release was to the future of cinema. The story of young working-class factory worker Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney) as he attempts to juggle getting married woman Brenda (Rachel Roberts) pregnant with the pursuit of his real love interest, Doreen (Shirley Anne Field) may seem distinctly unremarkable to a modern audience, but it's refusal to cower from the harsh realities of life for the majority of Britons was to seal its place in the cinematic canon for generations to come.
Born in the wake of the revolutionary “kitchen sink” movement of the late-50s and early-60s, Reisz’s drama embodies a rejection of the stereotypical homogenisation of the working class in mainstream media and art. Reisz and his contemporaries injected vitality into a stagnating cinematic environment through attempting to accurately portray the reality of domestic life for much of the British populous, providing what was seen by many as the antithesis of Hollywood’s luxuriousness and glamour. The hail of controversy associated with the work (it initially received an X-rating from the BBFC) may seem absurd to a modern audience, but this deceptively simple portrayal of life in an industrial community in the Midlands really was pushing the boundaries.
Synonymous with this social realism is an unavoidable bleakness that was all-too-real for the generations of working class British citizens after World War II, whose lives centred around the endless cycle of work, drink and sleep. The integral theme of abortion is hardly one that sits easy with us today and in an era when the termination of unwanted pregnancies was illegal an extra layer of unease is applied. One of the strengths of the narrative is its unwillingness to shy away from the truth and a refusal to sanitise the depressing existence of those previously unaccounted for within mainstream media.
However, for all the bleakness, Reisz manages to lace it with a sense of British humour, largely manifested through Finney’s superb portrayal of the archetypal ‘angry young man’. Embodying a character-type strongly affiliated with the “kitchen sink” genre, Seaton represents the disillusioned youth of post-war Britain, angry with the state of the country yet lacking the ability to channel this rage, resigned to dedicating his life to not , as he so eloquently puts it, “letting the bastards grind you down”. Seaton is brash, rude and obnoxious, but one can’t but warm to him, like the loutish child in school who managed to make you laugh against your better judgement. Much like the school-clown though, Seaton’s resistance is ultimately futile, as he, through his eventual marriage to Doreen at the end of the film, becomes part of the regime he rebels against.
An ode to the directionless fury of the disillusioned working classes, ‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’ formed part of an exceptionally important movement towards the realistic representation of life for ordinary people in British cinema and the wider media, remaining as compelling now as it was then.