My father’s films changed how British cinema saw the poor. Today, they repay a second look

With films such as 1960’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Karel Reisz was a pioneer in reshaping perceptions of ordinary Britons. I think there’s still lots to learn from them

Twenty years ago on Friday my father, the film-maker Karel Reisz, died at the age of 76. Along with Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson, he was a leading figure of the British new wave. Unlike Anderson, who cultivated an outspokenly cantankerous persona, he disliked being interviewed about his work and was never really a public figure. Yet, rather like Ken Loach today, his films were widely admired for compassionately exploring the parts of British society that most earlier directors had ignored. At a time of economic turmoil and intense disillusion with politics, they remain urgently relevant.

Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Czechoslovakia, my father escaped to Britain on a kindertransport at the age of 12 (both my paternal grandparents were murdered in Auschwitz). Though he rapidly assimilated into British life at a Quaker boarding school, then Cambridge and the RAF, he always retained the ability to examine this country with a sharp outsider’s eye. Over and above their technical skill, his films remain resonant for their joyful and curious engagement with people from backgrounds utterly unlike his own. I reserve a special contempt for those such as Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and now Suella Braverman who are themselves of immigrant stock but seem to take pleasure in excluding (and often demonising) others.

My father’s first film, co-directed with Richardson, was an exuberant documentary about a Wood Green jazz club, Momma Don’t Allow (1956). His second, We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959), focuses on a youth club in Kennington and was, according to his later collaborator Melvyn Bragg: “a celebration of the English working class, and a very fine act of transferring himself from one culture to the culture he found himself in”.

We see the teenagers at the chip shop, arguing, dancing and talking about clothes, dating etiquette and why almost all of them support the death penalty. The boys play an uncomfortable cricket match against a team from a private school, then yell at passersby as a truck takes them home through the West End. As Bragg says: “It’s full of pleasure, full of insight into the resilience of that class of people and into the joy that was around them.”

Jeremy Irons (left), Meryl Streep and Karel Reisz on the set of The French Lieutenant’s Woman in 1981.
Jeremy Irons (left), Meryl Streep and Karel Reisz on the set of The French Lieutenant’s Woman in 1981. Photograph: United Artists/Allstar

Newspapers, as the voiceover says, often dismissed the youth of the time as “the rowdy generation”. The film asks us to look again, to celebrate their resilience and vitality, to cut through the negative stereotypes and realise what we all have in common. It still feels like an eloquent reproof to polarisation and the kind of attitudes typified by the young Rishi Sunak when he – now notoriously – said, aged 18: “I have friends who are aristocrats. I have friends who are upper class. I have friends who are working-class … well, not working class.”

Next came my father’s first and probably best-known feature film: Saturday Night and Saturday Morning (1960), based on Alan Sillitoe’s bestselling novel, and starring a young Albert Finney as a factory worker in Nottingham. He sets out his philosophy of life at his lathe: “What I’m out for is a good time. All the rest is propaganda … Don’t let the bastards grind you down!”

The film vividly captures the particular moment when postwar austerity was being replaced by optimism and incipient consumerism. Finney’s character is contemptuous of his fellow workers who “got ground down before the war and never got over it”. Instead, he splashes out on good clothes, takes part in a drinking contest, falls down the stairs, shoots a nosy neighbour with an air gun and has an affair with the wife of a co-worker.

Stephen Frears, who went on to become a director himself after working as my father’s assistant, saw the film on its release in 1960. “It had a huge influence on me,” he says. “The cinema at the time was where you learned how to live. It was a wonderful time in Britain, and particularly if you were from the Midlands or the north. You’d never been treated in this way before, in films that truthfully showed what life was like. The world just became a more interesting place because of them.”

The film was, says Bragg, “a complete breakthrough and a complete breath of fresh air”. While earlier working-class characters had been “charming or quaint or very local and tribal, this was something different. It was more like a continental film, a taking-life-seriously film.”

David Warner and Vanessa Redgrave in Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966).
David Warner and Vanessa Redgrave in Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966). Photograph: British Lion Film Corporation/Allstar

Its impact in Nottingham has been long-lasting. It looms large in the collective memory of the city, reports James Walker, an expert on the literature and social history of the city who teaches at Nottingham Trent University. In 2012, he co-created a trail that explores key locations from the novel and film. He spoke to former factory workers and held workshops with dementia patients to see whether words or music from the film could help trigger memories. “It was amazing to see how a work of fiction could bring so many different groups of people together.”

I was born in 1954, the eldest of my father’s three sons. I often visited the set was when he was making his second “state of the nation” film – wacky comedy Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966).

The opening scene features the hero – David Warner’s unravelling artist – admiring Guy, the gorilla at London zoo. My brothers and I were taken behind the scenes and got a chance to meet the orangutans – miles more thrilling than any of our brief encounters with movie stars.

Morgan was superficially a “swinging London” movie – made by a man who was, to the best of my knowledge, not heavily involved in the hedonism of the time: his main hobbies were gardening, collecting art and playing bridge. Yet he and writer David Mercer tapped into the fierce debates, associated with the radical psychiatrist RD Laing, about whether insanity can sometimes be a “rational” response to a mad world.

Morgan’s marriage is breaking up and he is still haunted by the rigid dogmas of his communist childhood. His mother now considers him “a bleeding liberal”, if not a class traitor. At Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate cemetery, she tells him: “Your dad wanted to shoot the royal family, abolish marriage and put everybody who’d been to public school in a chain gang. Yes, he was an idealist your dad was.”

With today’s increasing focus on mental health, when one of the things driving many people half-crazy is despair about the apparent death of optimistic, progressive politics, Morgan feels strangely contemporary.

Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981).
Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981). Photograph: United Artists/Sportsphoto/Allstar

My father’s final big success was 1981’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, adapted by Harold Pinter from the John Fowles novel. As with the book, which has three alternative endings, it is a romantic Victorian melodrama and a deconstruction of the genre, with stars Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons playing contemporary actors as well as their period characters. Bragg says the audacity of the decision by my father and Pinter to use the device of a film-within-a-film was typical of his ambition, and “flair for getting to the heart of the books and stories he chose”.

This parallel structure also illuminates the many ways we were and are still living in the shadow of the hypocrisies, sexual politics, Darwinian dogmas and brittle self-confidence of the Victorian era. This felt topical in the early 80s, shortly after Mrs Thatcher came to power – and not long before she expressed her commitment to “Victorian values”. Today, at a time of food banks, “Dickensian” levels of poverty and inequality, and people unable to heat their homes, its renewed relevance is horribly compelling.

Few would dispute the historical importance of some of my father’s films. But they also speak powerfully to our current time. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning ends with a scene in which Finney’s character and his fiancee look down at an estate being built and she hopes for “a new house with a bathroom and everything”. He, rebellious to the last, can’t resist throwing a stone. It is a depressing thought that such a modest dream is unimaginable for many young couples today. But, despite his many flaws, there is something exhilarating about such bolshiness. Whatever else we need, we need to resist the bastards who want to grind us down.

• Matthew Reisz is taking part in a discussion about Morgan on the 24 November edition of BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking at 10pm.


Matthew Reisz

The GuardianTramp

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