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Film, TV and the 'Social Eye'

As we enter week 9, we change direction and explore how the themes that we have been discussing so far influenced (or otherwise) popular culture. Did the framework of 'social sciences' and 'social problems' move beyond academic practice and also find outlets in works of fiction? We will answer this question by focusing on the 'social realist' and documentary aesthetic which emerged in British TV and cinema during the middle of the century.

We will situate this 'social' artistic production in its broader historical antecedents and consider the concept of the 'social eye' developed by the pioneering sociologist and cultural theorist, Stuart Hall.

Activities and viewing

It would be very useful to sample some mid-century 'social realist' productions. There are many examples of this genre of 'kitchen sink' drama - which broke new ground in its treatment of issues ranging from social exclusion to racism and sexuality - and you are welcome to explore other options to those listed below.

However, the following are available through the Library's subscription to the streaming service Box of Broadcasts (you may be prompted to sign in through Warwick once you follow the links). Please try to watch at least one ahead of the seminar:

  • A Taste of Honey (dir. Tony Richardson, 1961) is a ground-breaking film based on the 1958 play by Shelagh Delaney (1938-2011) [CW: homophobic language, racism] [120 minutes; commercial TV recording with adverts]
  • Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (dir. Karel Reisz, 1960) is based on the 1958 book by Alan Sillitoe (1928-2010) [CW: violence, discussion of abortion] [90 minutes; BBC 4 broadcast without adverts, the first five minutes feature a short introduction to the film]
  • Cathy Come Home (dir. Ken Loach, 1966) is a BBC TV play, originally broadcast in The Wednesday Play strand [CW: homelessness, racism] [80 minutes; BBC 4 broadcast without adverts]
  • Up the Junction (dir. Peter Collinson, 1968) is based on the novel by Nell Dunn (b. 1936) [CW: violence, death, racism, abortion] [145 minutes; commercial TV recording with adverts]

Note: These films all deal with sensitive issues which some may find upsetting (either in terms of the issue itself being directly raised, or how it is treated/presented). I have tried to flag content notes, but if you would like advice on a particular film's suitability, please reach out via e-mail.

You may also find it useful to look up some of the directors and writers involved in this movement in the Dictionary of National Biography.

Seminar Questions
  • How helpful is the concept of a 'social eye' to understand the media in this time period?
  • What was 'social realism' and what was 'real' about it?
  • What stimulated interest in it (both for producers and audiences) at the mid-century moment?
  • What features are discernible in the film(s) you have watched, and in what ways does that film exemplify 'social realism'?
  • Was there anything in the film(s) you watched that surprised you, or that, alternatively, you found uncomfortable?
  • Whose voices are heard in the films and how are they presented? What do you think about the ways in which the films handle and depict the issues?
  • How far should we read 'social realism' within the framework of 'social sciences' and 'social problems' that we have been exploring in the module?

If everyone could please read:

  • Stuart Hall, 'The social eye of the Picture Post', Working Papers in Cultural Studies, no. 2 (1972), pp. 71-120 [available through JSTOR here. If the link does not work, you can find this collected in Stuart Hall and Charlotte Brunsdon (ed.), Writings on Media: history of the present (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021) - available as an e-book through the Library.]

Then your choice of the following (some of these work better with certain films):

  • Stella Bruzzi, Seven Up (London: British Film Institute, 2007), chapter 2, 'The place of Seven Up within British documentary history', pp. 21-43 [Note: in the scan, pp. 37-39 are out of order. Sorry for the confusion and please be aware of this when reading.]
  • Stephen Brooke, ‘“Slumming” in swinging London? Class, gender and the post-war city in Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction (1963)’, Cultural and Social History, 9:3 (2012), pp. 429-449 [link]
  • Samantha Lay, British Social Realism: from documentary to Brit-grit (London: Wallflower, 2002), chapter 4, '1950s and 1960s: social problems and kitchen sinks' [link]
Further reading and resources

Scott Anthony and James G. Mansell, 'The documentary film movement and the spaces of British identity', Twentieth Century British History, 23:1 (2012), pp. 1-11

Charlotte Brunsdon, The Feminist, the Housewife and the Soap Opera (Oxford: OUP, 2000)

Stella Bruzzi, Seven Up (London: British Film Institute, 2007) [chapter 3, 'Textual Analysis' (pp. 44-114), although long, is also worth dipping into for a sense of how to analyse TV image and culture]

Stella Bruzzi, New Documentary, second edition (London: Routledge, 2006)

Kieran Connell, ‘Race, prostitution and the New Left: the postwar inner city through Janet Mendelsohn’s “Social Eye”’, History Workshop, 83 (2017), pp. 301-340

David Cowan, 'Nostalgia, community, and late twentieth century television', Cultural and Social History, 18:5 (2021), pp. 691-708

Richard Dyer (ed.), Coronation Street (London: British Film Institute, 1981)

Hannah J. Elizabeth, '"Private things affect other people": Grange Hill’s critique of British sex education policy in the age of AIDS', Twentieth Century British History, 32:2 (2021), pp. 261-284

Steven Fielding, 'Socialist television drama, newspaper critics and the battle of ideas during the crisis of Britain's post-war settlement', Twentieth Century British History, 31:2 (2020), p. 220-251

Christine Geraghty, 'Social issues and realist soaps: a study of British soaps in the 1980s/1990s', in Robert C. Allen (ed.), To Be Continued... Soap Operas Around the World (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 66-80

Christine Geraghty, 'Women and 60s British cinema: the development of the "Darling" girl', in Robert Murphy (ed.), The British Cinema Book (London: British Film Institute, 2009), pp. 313-320

Christine Grandy, 'Cultural history's absent audience', Cultural and Social History, 16:5 (2019), pp. 643-663

Mark Jancovich, '"Another, more sinister reality": class, youth and psychopathy from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning to Endless Night ', Journal of British Cinema and Television, 16:2 (2019), pp. 213-232

Stephen Lacey, British Realist Theatre: the New Wave in its context, 1956-1965 (London: Routledge, 1995)

Stephen Lacey, Cathy Come Home (London: British Film Institute, 2011)

Robert Leach, Theatre Workshop: Joan Littlewood and the making of modern British theatre (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2006)

Daniel Lewis, '"Say it, don't do it": male speech and male action in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning', Journal of Men's Studies, 20:2 (2012), pp. 91-107

Laura Marcus, '"The creative treatment of actuality": John Grierson, Documentary Cinema and "Fact" in the 1930s', in Kristin Bluemel (ed.), Intermodernism: Literary Culture in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain (Edinburgh: EUP, 2022), pp. 189-207

Murray Melvin (ed.), The Art of the Theatre Workshop (London: Oberon Books, 2006) [a collection of photographs relating to the 'Theatre Workshop' group, who first performed Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey]

Joe Moran, 'Vox populi? The recorded voice and twentieth-century British history', Twentieth Century British History, 25:3 (2014), pp. 461-483

Phil Redmond, 'Brookside: the technological backstory', in Jonathan Bigley and Stephen Lacey (eds), British Television Drama: past, present and future (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 62-69

Paddy Scannell, 'The social eye of television, 1946-1955', Media, Culture and Society, 1 (1979), pp. 97-106

Other social realist/'social problem' films (available on BoB)

For further examples of the documentary genre, you can find sample episodes of the series Man Alive  (mentioned in Stella Bruzzi's chapter) on the BBC iPlayer.

A programme featuring Shelagh Delaney talking about her work and her hometown of Salford was broadcast as part of the BBC's arts strand Monitor (and is available through BoB).

A Radio 3 Free Thinking interview with the screen and sitcom writers Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement is available on BBC Sounds, and features discussion of how the 1960s influenced their writing about class.

If you are interested in research into television and cinema audiences, I can really recommend looking over the Mass-Observation material. In the MOP, there were specific directives on TV viewing sent out in:

  • Autumn 1988
  • Spring 1999
  • Summer 2001

These can be accessed through the digitised database. The 1937-1948 material also solicited information and opinions on cinema going, and some of these responses were collated in Jeffrey Richards and Dorothy Sheridan, Mass-Observation at the Movies [1987] (available in the Library).

New Society dossier

David Robinson, 'Coronation Street', 25 February 1965 [PDF]

Tom Austin, 'The ratings game: who really watches TV?', 30 April 1970 [PDF]

Anthony Piepe and Arthur Box, 'Television and the new working class', 28 September 1972 [PDF]

Steve Bradshaw, 'Daytime television', 24 May 1973 [PDF]

Tony Gould, 'A taste of fame', 11 August 1977 [PDF] (profile of Shelagh Delaney)

Howard Schuman, 'The Bovril of the masses', 22-29 December 1977 [PDF]

Simon Hoggart, 'Nearly normal', 6 December 1984 [PDF] (Hoggart pieces are takes on popular programmes)

Simon Hoggart, 'Down among the natives', 28 February 1985 [PDF]

Simon Hoggart, 'Keeping it in the family', 14 March 1985 [PDF]

Kirsty Milne, 'Sex and the soaps', 10 April 1987 [PDF]

'Classy soap', 8 April 1988 [PDF]

Cathy Come Home, BBC 1966 | Swinging sixties, Tv programmes, Television  drama