Considering Britain's position as a major industrial nation, British film companies were remarkably slow to recognize that the realities of working-class life could attract mass audiences. They were convinced that people went to the pictures to 'get away from it all'.
When Tony Richardson sought finance to produce the film version of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, he therefore met with considerable resistance. Even the comparatively modest sum required (its final cost was only £116,000) seemed too much to risk on a film about a factory worker, to be shot in black and white in the backstreets of an industrial Midlands city (Nottingham), with no big stars and no glamour.
Richardson's confidence and persistence, however, were fully justified by the result. Much to the industry's surprise, the film, released in 1960, was a stunning success, both commercially and artistically. It changed the whole face of British cinema by proving that audiences enjoyed seeing their own life-styles on the screen - when the film-makers got it right. Adapted for the screen by Alan Sillitoe from his own best seller, and sensitively directed by Karel Reisz, it was the first British film to present an inside view of working-class life.
In the first half of the film - its 'Saturday night' - the high-spirited young factory worker, Arthur Seaton, is mainly interested in beer and women. He is out for kicks - his secret affair with Brenda is all the more exciting to him because Brenda's husband, Jack, works alongside him at the factory. But Arthur, unlike the Michael Caine character in Alfie (1966), for example, is not an incorrigble rogue with predictable responses to every situation thrown up by the plot. He is in active rebellion against those forces in society which restirct pleasure and self-fulfilment; and he is undergoing a process of change and growth.
The film is episodic in structure and many of the incidents are designed to identify the influences which Arthur is determined to resist: television, for instances, when he teases his TV-addicted father, who is too engrossed to notice the joke at his expense; bigotry, in the shape of gossipy neighbours; the notion of an engagement ring, which his prim new girlfriend, Doreen, insists upon as a precondition for sex. The army uniforms of the men who beat him up represent a further force of oppression; and Freddie Francis' grimly realistic photography of the cramped houses and back alleys suggests constriction and limitation.
Above all, it is Arthur's work which shapes his outlook. When the film opens, he is shown, tense and tight-lipped at his lathe, inwardly defining his aim. He will work just hard enough, he tells himself, to earn a good time, but not so hard as to become a wage-slave. His watchword is: 'Don't let the bastards grind you down.'
Brenda's pregnancy is the first indication to Arthur that what brings pleasure to him can bring pain to others - and ultimately to himself as well, when the soldiers, on behalf of Brenda's husband, beat him up. In his 'Sunday morning' mood, he bgeins to understand that his relationship with Doreen has to be give-and-take on both sides.
The problem for Arthur - and for the film - is how to view the prospect of conventional marriage without capitulating to conformity Arthur's final defiant gesture could be seen as a futile knock against the inevitable. But through its various episodes, the film has laid a trail which, in conjunction with Albert Finney's brilliant use of character development, could suggest that his rebellious spirit, purely self-centred at first, is now maturing into some social - and perhaps even political - awareness. This leads to a more positive interpretation of the conclusion - to the effect that there's a lot of good fight left in him.
Even so, in today's social climate, the ending might appear to lack real challenge. But Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was very much a film of 1960. Doreen's sexual reserve and Brenda's unwanted pregnancy had special relevance at a time of change when 'permissiveness' was in its infancy, the contraceptive pill was just beginning to become available, the women's liberation movement had not yet brought the whole concept of conventional marriage under scrutiny, and abortion was still illegal.
The film's open discussion of abortion had a startling - even sensational - effect and may have contributed to its box-office success. The overriding element in its popularity, however, was its extraordinary accuracy of perception, together with amazingly close-to-life performances from the entire cast. Audiences could identify not only with the people and places on screen but also with the particular quality of Arthur's social protest, which exactly captured the spirit of the times.