Paul Routledge, cartoonist.

The representation of class in contemporary British Film and TV.

Aaron Guthrie
9 min readApr 21, 2015

I will investigate the definition of class, the representation (or re-representation) of class through film and television, concentrating on the working class within British film and television.

The definition of ‘class’; a system of ordering society whereby people are divided into sets based on perceived social or economic status

The films of the working class, a style coined as British social realism, connects individuals within their environment to ‘articulate specific forms of social commentary’. Filmmakers such as Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson started making these types of films, not necessarily in order to make change, but to provide the working class with an avenue to speak and have their voice heard.

Stylistically, according to Eley (1995) the images and stereotypes of the ‘traditional working class culture’ as they are presented in many films refer back to a historically specific formation of the period between the 1880s and the 1940s. Photography of Bill Brandt; the novels of D.H. Lawrence; journalism of George Gaskell. The north of England has been identified since the nineteenth century in the popular imaginations as the “land of the working class” and these films use the iconography of working class social realism, which seem to have been culturally ingrained in the collective consciousness of what working class life is: cobbled streets, terraced houses in the shadow of the smoky factories, men in big coats and caps, northern accents. What we’re dealing with is re-presentation as much as representation — and this is something that continues to this day — writers and directors don’t just base their representation on reality but on versions of reality.

The working classes had been pretty much marginalized in popular film until the late 1950s/early 1960s. There were exceptions like the Salford-set Love on the Dole (1941), but in most films, the working class knew their place, supportive of the middle or upper classes — as in the World War Two dramas Went the Day Well and The Way Ahead.

This type of representation could be seen to reinforce the Marxist theorist Gramsci’s theory of hegemony: the notion of the dominance of one social class over others. Much of the media is controlled by the dominant group in society and the viewpoints associated with this group inevitably become embedded in the products themselves (representation of class, for example), even if the promotion of these views isn’t conscious, dominant views come to be seen as the norm — hence the marginalization in the representation of the working class in British cinema until the late 1950s. Thomas De Zengotita defined representation in post-modern terms by saying “Almost everything we know about the world comes to us through some sort of media and this influences our view of the world and even our self-definition” and we need to go beyond this and note that the representation of working class in film and on TV often uses tropes that we have seen before and they may well be shaped by earlier representations of working class life that the filmmakers have seen in other films or , at least, on other texts. The 1960s working class sitcom, The Likely Lads, was set in Newcastle but filmed in London; the makers wanted to show back lanes, which are one of the visual signifiers of the working class industrial north. Rather than film the scene on location, however they found the back lanes a few hundred years from the studios in London.

Stylistically, the ‘angry young men’ films sprang out of the Free Cinema movement — a group of middle class directors, including Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, all of whom contributed to the British New Wave who made short documentary films with experimental narrative structures, often highlighting the working class. The fact that middle class filmmakers portrayed the working class gives an interesting perspective and dynamic. Does someone who resides in one class, and looking into another give an accurate portrayal of that class? Do they sufficiently empathize with the people and the surroundings to produce an accurate representation of that part of society? This brings me back to my earlier point of this being a matter of re-representation. It’s versions of reality upon which the writers and directors base their representation.

This period saw the rise of the independent film company as a significant force in British Cinema. Woodfall was formed by ‘angry young man’ playwright John Osborne (and financed by his stage success, Look Back in Anger) and director Tony Richardson. The company’s aim was to replicate in cinema the kind of impact the ‘angry young man’ literary and theatrical works had. Independent production allowed directors more freedom to represent society in original ways and tackle issues previously considered taboo. All the New Wave films except Billy Liar were given X certificates, which allowed them to tackle adult themes like adultery and unwanted pregnancy, in a more realistic fashion.

They also reflected a time of restlessness and uncertainty and of the beginning of social change. Britian has emerged form the post-war period of austerity into a period of prosperty for the working classes too, which led to tension around class identity and class mobility, which can be seen in several of these films — especially dealing with the role of masculine identity in the family and the workplace. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was claiming the country had never had it so good, many people especially young people were dissatisfied with their place in society and demanded more than their parents’ generation had.

The ‘angry young man’ films sprang up from novels, like the Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and theatre like Look Back in Anger, of the period so they were already reflecting a genre. Although the novels were by working class writers, the theatre was and remains essentially a middle class arena and for some critics, the working class milieu on stage was too much. However, on screen, note the use of the traditional charismatic male leads like Richard Burton (Look Back in Anger) and Albert Finney (Saturday Night Sunday Morning) the male-centric story lines (excepting A Taste of Honey), even if their characters aren’t 100% sympathetic.

Two strands of working class representation, one, an often visceral depiction of working class life where the effects of the class system can be seen in the brutalization of family life, growing up and relationships — as in Ken Loach’s Kes and Sweet Sixteen, Shane Meadows’ This Is England and Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur (2011). These films were made with little compromise — Loach, for example, refused to tone down the language in Sweet Sixteen (2002) (in which a young Glaswegian teenager gets sucked deeper into the drug trade which has already seen his mother jailed, until he stabs his step-father), which meant the audience it was intended for wasn’t allowed to see it.

In later British films, representation of working class retains many of the tropes now seemingly ingrained into national consciousness — Billy Elliott’s terraced housing, northern accents, macho males and (the remains of) grim industrial factories, but it’s hard to determine how much is this is based on real life and how much is based on a collective identity of working class created over the years by a variety of sources that includes earlier representation on the television and in the cinema. However, there are some notable differences, reflecting genuine concern about working class life. The more popular strand of modern working class film includes Brassed Off, Billy Elliott, The Full Monty and Made in Dagenham — the first three depict Britain in a post-industrial landscape — the pits or factories are closing or closed and all depict the effects of unemployment on family and community. All, however, are sort of feel bad/feel good movies and have rousing finales that seem depict the victory of the underdog.

There are institutional reasons behind this because of the film companies’ need to appeal to an audience beyond a local one. Film distribution and exhibition in the UK is dominated by Hollywood and many British films don’t get beyond the ‘art house circuit’ — if that. To give an example of the pressure the UK film industry is up against, Warner Brothers’ the Dark Knight opened in 4366 screens across the UK; the independent, working class-set film, This Is England, opened in only 62.

The representation of class in modern soaps has changed over the years. Though working class accent is still a signifier of class, story lines have become more issued-based and hard-hitting, building on the success of Brookside, beginning on Channel 4 in 1982, which depicted the strains on the life of a working class family struggling in their attempt to live in a middle class housing estate against a background of industrial unrest and unemployment in Thatcher’s Britain.

The BBC’s Eastenders followed suit in 1985 and runs heavily trailed storylines about spousal abuse, drug use, drug selling, AIDS, racism etc. Unfortunately, Brookside’s attempts to pursue viewing figures led to sensationalistic stories far removed from its origins and it lost viewers and was cancelled and with Eastenders, it could be argued that any ‘good’ done by raising the issues is negated by the frequency by which they occur and the manner in which they are promoted.

In 1967, critics claimed Coronation Street didn’t reflect life in 1960s Britain. Granada tried to update the programme, with the hope of introducing more issue-driven stories, including Emily Nugent having an out of wedlock child, but they were dropped for fear of upsetting viewers. Coronation Street still lags behind Eastenders in its use of ethnic minorities and while both have introduced gay characters, Eastenders preferred issue-based storylines around this whereas Coronation Street has used this to reflect the tolerance of the community by NOT making an issue of it. The camp representation of the gay character in Coronation Street perhaps reflects the fact its audience as a whole is older than that of Eastenders and it’s one they’re more familiar with, and the need for the institutions to respond to this is one of the reasons why the representation of working class life is different between the shows.

Both shows now have more middle class characters (or those aspiring to that level), as reflected by the mise-en-scene of some of the houses, the dress (Rosie is clearly depicted as a snob) and the jobs they undertake. Coronation Street’s opening credits used to show new flats as well as the traditional rooftops of the terraces, but the sequence has changed; the flats have gone and there is a rosy sunny glow over the rooftops, as if reflecting nostalgia for the show’s heyday — and, of course, the fact that the mean age of its audience is older than that of its BBC rival.

The question is, of course, just how do viewers consume soaps. Gerbner felt viewers can’t escape the encroachment of television into their lives, that it ‘cultivates the minds of viewers over a long period of time.’ However, Hawkins and Pingree could not find conclusive proof of the direction of the relationship between television viewing and viewers’ ideas about social reality.

Research by The Broadcasting Standards Commission of audience attitude to the British Soap Opera in 2002 found viewers enjoyed soaps on different levels and for different reasons, with escapism being the main one. Some viewers did see them as featuring ‘somewhere realistic with recognizable characters,’ others thought they were too entertainment-driven to be realistic — ‘sanitized reality,’ as one viewer put it. It was found that Coronation Street has an older audience than Eastenders, perhaps reflecting its long history, but also as a result of the nature of the story lines, which tend to revolve less around crime and gangsters and contain more warmth and humour.

I think the way forward is to acknowledge Collective Identity exists but that it seems to difficult measure or ascertain how far British soap operas and film have helped to create a sense of collective identity. Taking Zengotita’s theory from earlier; almost everything we know about the world comes to us through some sort of media and this influences our view of the world and even our self-definition, Gauntlett (2002) takes a different side and speculates that the media disseminates a huge number of messages about identity and acceptable forms of self-expression, gender, sexuality, and lifestyle. At the same time, the public have their own robust set of diverse feelings on these issues. The media’s suggestions may be seductive, but can never simply overpower contrary feelings in the audience. It seems appropriate to speak of a slow but engaged dialogue between media and media consumers. Neither the media nor the audience are powerful in themselves, but both have powerful arguments — and the media, of course, is but one source.

It’s worth mentioning, The Great British Class Survey led by BBC LabUK and sociologist Professor Mike Savage, and Fiona Devine, University of Manchester released early in the year of 2013 results identifying a new model of class system for Britain. Comprising of seven groups, Elite, Established Middles Class, Technical Middle Class, New Affluent Workers, Emergent Service Workers, Traditional Working Class, and Precariats. These new class groups ultimately blur the lines between the older notion of working and middle classes.

To me, it seems this new class system, is categorized by not only, one’s occupation and their social status in language, but also by their lifestyle, social connections and cultural consumption. There are many other determinants to life, which cannot be straight cut into a class system. This survey, an advancement on the older three-tier model, shows that more tiers are needed to more accurately represent the society. I believe it’s level of complexity leaves it impossible to define.