British feature films and working-class culture, 1945-1950

Gillett, Philip (2000) British feature films and working-class culture, 1945-1950. Doctoral thesis, University of North London.


An interdisciplinary approach is used to test the hypothesis that in the years following the Second World War, British films could offer working-class audiences reinforcement for their values and attitudes.

The work is in four parts:

• Part one comprises a critical exploration of published literature on working-class life in late 1940s across a range of disciplines.

• Part two is an examination of the neglected body of survey material from the period 1935-51. This is complemented by a comparison of programmes screened in working-class areas of Leeds, in the independent cinemas of south-east Essex and on the circuits.

• In part three, a sociological model for the analysis of class images in film is developed. This is applied to British films of the period which foreground working-class characters.

• Part four offers conclusions and places the work in a wider context.

The survey evidence in part two indicates that although cinema-going among all classes declined after adolescence, the type of secondary school attended was an important predictor of cinema-going, with secondary modem pupils attending more frequently into adult life. More direct evidence directly relating to class was limited.

The case study in part two reveals that around eighty per cent of the films screened were American, though the most popular British titles achieved more repeated screenings, especially on the circuits. In general, the British films which were programmed most frequently in the Leeds cinemas had a middle-class ethos. Differences in humour are discernible between Leeds and south-east Essex.

The portrayals of working class people in the films examined in part three are often stereotyped, dated and London-oriented, with little cohesion being apparent among working-class communities and no challenge to the authority structure being offered. The more authentic presentations of a working-class milieu were not popular with audiences, judging by the number of screenings of the films.

There is not sufficient evidence to support the hypothesis. Although class issues were important in British and American films of the period, social, economic and demographic factors were changing perceptions of class, while cinema was but one a range of influences on working class culture.

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