Kitchen Sink Realism or Why British TV is So Damned Depressing

The world of American TV and film is very different to its British counterpart. Popular American soaps revolve around the glamour of the rich and powerful. Even dramas geared for the teen and pre-teen crowd are awash in affluent kids with deep pockets…and seemingly deeper wardrobes. Based on the never ending parade of expensive outfits dressing stunningly gorgeous girls, these wardrobes must surely have, a Narnia-style hidden door in the back that leads into a department store.

If, on the other hand, you’ve spent any time with British TV you will be familiar with the fact that it can be downright dark and depressing. Gloss does not rear its head too often and glamour is stuffed in the bin. And as my husband would attest that’s just the way I like it. The uglier and more depressing, the better. I have no idea what that says about me as a person but I’m pretty sure it’s not good.

I did recently discover however, what may be the root of such doom and gloom. It stems from the late 50’s, early 60’s when art kicked back against romanticism and the more refined work that came before, especially in film where things tended to revolve around the upper classes and lofty ideals. All of a sudden painters, writers and directors embraced social realism. They wanted to portray the gritty energy of the working classes and all that that entailed…drudgery, poverty, class and race discrimination. Disillusionment at its finest. The movement became known as “Kitchen Sink Realism” after a painting by John Bratby (above). Because, let’s face it, there is no more ordinary and banal representation of everyday life than a kitchen sink.

Ken Loach, a director of the time, thoroughly embraced the unvarnished truth within his movies. Unfortunately, I found that most of them were not available to stream or order anywhere. The only two that are are Kes and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, but only through Netflix’s dvd service. They are both well worth watching, not only for the stories they tell, but the way they tell it. Be warned though, accents can be pretty hard to understand at times. In the opening scene of Kes, I thought for a confusing second that they were talking a foreign language. You might want to turn the subtitles on.

Kes is a stunning and haunting movie about a young, neglected boy, growing up in poverty. He’s ridiculed by teachers, bullied by his brother and betrayed by the educational system. There’s not a great deal in his life offering up hope for a bright future…until he finds a kestrel which he decides to train. He names the bird Kes.

Suddenly, Billy lights up with purpose, talking in front of his class about his bird, impressing his teacher who makes a special trip to see him train Kes. It’s an unapologetically honest film with hints of optimism, if not contentment with a heartbreaking (and I mean heartbreaking) ending. Please tell me you weren’t expecting a happy one!

The film is not without its entertaining bits though…a football game with a horribly obnoxious coach is funny…but not, and a rant in the film by the school headmaster made me marvel at how 40 years on the more things change, the more they stay the same,

“Yours is the generation that never listens. Because we can never tell you anything. You’re the sophisticated ones with all your music and your gear. But you know, it’s superficial, it’s a sheen and there’s nothing solid or worthwhile underneath.”

I’m pretty sure I said something similar to my own kids last week.

The film itself is shot using non-professional actors who were frequently not told about upcoming scenes in order to elicit real reactions and in an attempt to achieve real authenticity. It was also shot in all natural light with just one camera, which lends it a rather ethereal quality which rather belies the issues at its core. Powerful stuff.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is about Colin Smith, surly and skinny, who is sent to borstal for burglary. A natural born runner (as he explains in the opening minutes “we had plenty of practice running away from the police in our family”) he is also highly resentful of “the system.” When he is selected by the school’s governor to run on a team against a local swanky school he is allowed to run, on his own, on a regular basis. During these runs we learn much about what goes on in his head.

The governor is desperate for a win against this school and sees Colin as the perfect means to achieve his goal. As he watches Colin practice over the weeks success seems imminent. Colin has other ideas however and in the film’s last few moments he gives a big middle finger, metaphorically speaking, to the governor and all that he represents.

And half a century later Ken Loach is still at it. Just this year his latest movie came out: I, Daniel Blake. It is the story of a widowed man who suffers a heart attack and is deemed unfit to work by his doctor yet, at the same time, unable to get unemployment. To appeal this he must fill out forms online but having never used a computer in his life, this proves devastatingly difficult. Meanwhile, he befriends a young woman and her son who are going through a difficult time of their own. Daniel tries to help her out while navigating the absurdities of the unemployment system. It’s a bleak movie for sure but once again it is that stark in your face reality that gives it its human spirit and energy as Daniel is determined to maintain his dignity.

Another director who has made a career out of the depressing is Mike Leigh. He is renowned for his unusual way of making a film, generally without a script, getting the actors together and over the course of weeks or months, improvising and creating the story together. What it does is make his movies vulnerable and real, tragic and comic all at the same time, which gives them a wonderful depth and complexity.

Again, I couldn’t find any to stream but Netflix does have a few on DVD. Vera Drake is the true story of an abortionist in the 1950’s. Life is Sweet stars a (very) young Jim Broadbent as the father of twin girls, which follows their struggles over the course of a summer. All or Nothing stars the brilliant Timothy Spall as a taxi driver and opens a window into the often lonely and desperate life he lives with his family on a London housing estate. Grim and sad, but also shot through with flashes of joy and humour which really is the mark of a Mike Leigh film.

But my favourite is Secrets and Lies starring the amazing Brenda Blethyn along with Jean-Marian Baptiste who, as a successful black doctor goes in search of her birth mother to discover that she is a lower class white woman. It is brilliant. Unfortunately, at this time, it seems to be unavailable to watch everywhere. It’s not on DVD at Netflix, you can’t pay to watch it on Amazon. I’m not sure why it proves to be so elusive, but if you ever come across it, watch it.

So, clearly the British, for whatever reason, stumbled into the dark and depressing world where the trivial, gritty realities of everyday life reigned supreme and chose to never leave. The films of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach may be dark and sad and desolate, but they are also spellbinding in their raw and honest openness. These are the shows that give reality TV a whole new meaning.


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