Script editor Jack Casey takes a deep and dedicated dive into working class cinema
The working class canon
In 2018, film critic and then-Senior Curator of Fiction Film and TV at the BFI, Danny Leigh, programmed Working Class Heroes at BFI Southbank; a symposium of screenings and events that explored the rise and fall of working class narratives in British cinema. Casting a retrospective eye over the last century of national cinema, the programme laid out what we might consider a canon of British working class film; a thread that runs from the gritty classics of the 60s - A Taste of Honey, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Billy Liar and Kes - to the titles that announced some of Britain’s most revered contemporary filmmakers: Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, Andrea Arnold’s Red Road and Shane Meadows’ This is England. It’s a body of work that suggests a longstanding tradition of the British film industry embracing and championing working class storytelling.
But this isn’t necessarily completely true. Even if we overlook the fact that the pinnacle of working class representation on screen seems to have occurred 60 years ago, it is an unavoidable fact that some of British cinema’s most iconic working class stories were not exclusively told by working class people. Shelagh Delaney, the writer of A Taste of Honey, was a Salford-born playwright who had no formal playwriting education, and was 19 when her play, upon which the film was based, premiered. It’s a remarkable success story that would still be deemed radical today. But despite director Tony Richardson’s dedication to bringing working class stories to the screen, he was himself privately educated and graduated from Wadham College, Oxford. This dichotomy exists in so many films in the working class canon, both those of the halcyon days of the 1960s and the second wave of the late 90s and early 2000s.
When I was a kid, scenes from The Full Monty were filmed in a house on my street in Sheffield, much to the delight of the locals who got a rare insight into the operation of a live location shoot. The Full Monty has become perhaps the definitive portrait of northern, working class masculinity, and is a centrepiece of the British working class films that appeared on our screens at the turn of the millennium. While the kitchen sink dramas of the 60s sought to capture the brutality and banality of the working class experience, these films, from Brassed Off and Little Voice to Billy Elliot and Very Annie Mary, frequently followed the journeys of gifted individuals whose talent provides an opportunity to rise above the doldrums of their working class upbringings – a story structure we recently saw replicated in Tom Harper’s Wild Rose. Given that so many of these films promote an idea that excellence is the only means of climbing the social ladder, and that this upward mobility is afforded only to a few particularly impressive poor folk, it is perhaps unsurprising that many of the filmmakers involved in their production were, once again, middle class and privately educated, while several of the writers of the period had themselves left their working class roots behind through scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Lynne Ramsay’s first two features, Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar, are striking portraits of working class life that exist only because of the specificity of Ramsay’s portrayal of the working class Scotland in which she grew up. Likewise, Shane Meadows called upon his experience of growing up working class in the Midlands to depict the lives of young working class men in a series of films that culminated in This is England. Both Ramsay and Meadows’ films evoke the style of their 60s predecessors in their rendering of working class narratives that don’t centre social mobility as their protagonists’ main objectives. But with Ramsay’s move to American settings in her recent work, and Meadows’ relocation of the This is England universe to television, the working class canon might be seen to come to an end.
Rewriting the canon
What does this mean for working class writers today? Despite a shift towards middle class and mid-century nostalgia in British cinema over the last decade, working class stories continue to be told. From Sally El Hosaini’s My Brother the Devil and Debbie Tucker Green’s Second Coming to Guy Myhill’s The Goob and Mark Jenkin’s Bait, we continue to see stories of both urban and rural working class lives, and filmmakers have begun to explore complex intersectional class narratives that expand beyond the struggles of poverty, and find nuance and lightness in working class story worlds. Because there is no one singular working class experience. It is malleable, transient, assuaged by social mobility and educational privilege, and compounded by intersections of race, sexuality, gender and citizenship. Filmmakers like Francis Lee and Shola Amoo have been outspoken about their own experiences as working class people in the film industry whose class intersects with, in Lee’s case, sexuality, and, in Amoo’s, the second-generation immigrant experience. The power of filmmakers like Amoo and Lee is that, in their writing, they do not use class as a backdrop or a character trait, nor an obstacle for their characters to overcome, but as a lens.
A few months after I moved to London in 2015, an industry exec I met at a film festival told me to give up on my ambition of working in development because I didn’t come from a wealthy family, and suggested I aim for a job managing a cinema instead. But the most valuable resource in my arsenal as a script editor is my perspective on the world – the lens through which I see it – which informs my approach to story on every script I develop. It is precisely what sets me apart from my peers. And it is the skill I encourage every working class writer to harness.
There are two phrases that most working class writers will have heard many times in their careers. The first is ‘write what you know’. The second is ‘tell us a universal story’. Both of these are tricky phrases – there’s a dog-whistle of class prejudice in them that I know makes a lot of writers’ skin prickle.
‘Write what you know’ suggests, at first glance, that all writing must be autobiographical; that working class writers can only write about their own working class lives. And certainly this is what people have meant when they’ve said it in the past. But there is another way to look at it. As a working class writer you have a valuable opportunity to write not just what you know but how and why you know it. This is the perspective that you have acquired from your own lived experience. It is detailed and rich and truthful. And, crucially, it is different from that of someone who has not grown up working class. It is a lens through which you can view any story you want to tell – about any class, through any genre, and in any world – and see it refracted in brand new ways.
‘Tell a universal story’ is, in reality, a misnomer. For so long, the industry has used ‘universal’ to refer to the experiences of straight, white, middle-class people – the people they have deemed a ‘universal audience’. But time and again in recent years this notion has been disproven. Perhaps the most astonishing example of this is Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, which was so specifically about what it meant to grow up black and poor and gay and in the projects of Miami. Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney’s screenplay rejected the long-held definition of universality, and instead told an incredibly specific story that received universal praise. The success of Moonlight is an important lesson for writers: ideas of universality underestimate the human capacity for empathy. Storytelling is an inherently empathic medium, and it’s through the intricate detail of specificity, rather than the broad strokes of perceived universality, that audiences will engage with your writing. It’s a secret truth that commissioners are only now beginning to learn: specificity is universality.
As the industry finally begins to open its doors to working class filmmakers, and the next generation of working class films begin to be developed, these are the most valuable lessons writers can learn. First, that being working class is not something to be ashamed of, to try and hide or smooth out – it is a unique and valuable set of experiences, insights and knowledge that form a lens through which you view every story you tell (whether about class or not). And second, that rejecting the longstanding industry definition of universal storytelling, and embracing the specificity of your own experience, is the best way to tell stories that will speak to everyone – not just stories about working class struggle, or the chosen few who are selected to leave it behind, but the funny, messy, complex, joyous and mundane reality of working class communities in Britain today.
Jack Casey is a script editor who works with new and emerging talent from underrepresented communities in the UK, Ireland and the US. Visit his website here.