The 1960 film of Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, based on Alan Sillitoe’s fine novel, is an acclaimed example of British New Wave cinema. It perfectly captures the working-class milieu of 1950s’ Nottingham (which is in the East Midlands, not the North of England as is sometimes assumed).
The film is uncompromising, with no attempt to soften or romanticise working-class life and characters. The themes of adultery, drunkenness, abortion, violence are explored with unflinching realism, courtesy of director Karel Reisz’s documentary background.
Arthur Seaton, the central character, is a lathe operator in the Raleigh bicycle factory (still going strong today, still based in Nottingham). He hates his job, earns a decent wage, and, in time-honoured fashion, lives for the weekend.
He enjoys Saturday nights in the pub, knocking back 11 pints of beer and seven small gins, no problem, other than the odd tumble down a flight of stairs.
He lives for having it large, as we didn’t say at the time: ‘All I want is a good time. The rest is propaganda.’ Arthur’s good time involves a lot of sex with married women, in particular Brenda, the wife of his work colleague Jack, and, not in the film, her sister Winnie.
Rhetoric without responsibility
Arthur despises everyone. He has contempt for Brenda’s husband Jack who’s not a bad bloke but basically a dope who is easily cuckolded and who doesn’t even beat up Arthur himself, but gets his squaddie brother and pal to do it.
He is contemptuous of the poor bloke who throws a brick through a shop window and allows himself to be ‘arrested’ by the local busybody Ma Bull and her cronies.
Arthur’s declamations pepper the novel. He is savage about the ‘snot-gobbling get that takes my income tax, the swivel-eyed swine that collects our rent, the big-headed bastard asking me to go to union meetings or sign a paper against what’s happening in Kenya’. He prefers communists to ‘big fat Tory bastards’ and to ‘Labour bleeders’, but feels like ‘shoving the lousy vote they give me’.
He has a fine line in rhetoric, does Arthur Seaton, but his targets are scattergun, and the energetic rhythm of the dialogue tends to disguise the fact that he has no time for social responsibility and sees social structures as a personal affront. Everyone is trying to get something from him. Why should he pay rent or income tax, why should he support a union or care about atrocities in the world? He’s no more a working class hero than John Lennon (sorry, John).
Empty at the core
Albert Finney’s bravura performance as Arthur Seaton fills the screen, and he presents such a compelling character that you are drawn to his chippy, Jack the Lad persona, and in your appreciation of his zest for life, you forget or find amusing the fact that he is selfish, a liar and a cheat.
Only now and again do you register the emptiness at his core, the lack of any kind of aspiration, material, emotional, intellectual.
Some details of the book that make Arthur a less appealing character didn’t make their way to the screen, such as him sleeping with Brenda’s sister while Brenda is trying to abort their baby, and his vicious description of the girl his brother Dave had to marry as ‘a woman who’s the worst kind of tart, a thin, vicious rat-face whore’.
There are some gentle moments which alleviate the harshness — the fishing scenes on the riverbank, bikes, the tenderness his relationship with Brenda, the countryside —- but many scenes are a battering ram of hostility and anger.
In some places, we’re led to laugh with Arthur’s somewhat schoolboy japes, such as when he puts a dead rat on a female colleague’s workbench, or when he takes a pop at the self-righteous Ma Bull with an air rifle. Probably we all laughed in the cinema at the time, but now, it looks a bit different. She’s a mouthy, unpleasant character, but an air rifle HURTS.
Arthur is, however, generous about the two main women in his life, who are beautifully defined characters.
Rachel Roberts is terrific as Brenda, the tough, sexy older woman whose spark of life we see slowly ebbing away as she faces her unwanted pregnancy and the end of the affair with Arthur.
She seems physically to shrink into herself, head down, huddled inside her coat, as Arthur’s new love interest, Doreen (a great performance from Shirley Anne Field), luminously pretty in her array of jaunty coats and chiffon scarfs, confidently moves the relationship in the direction she wants.
The direction is marriage, of course, a topic which she raises early on when she asks Arthur about a work colleague’s wedding. This seems to be a coded way for women to signal their expectations — in A Kind Of Loving, Ingrid shows inordinate interest in the details of Vic’s sister’s wedding.
Arthur steps up to the mark, acknowledging that it’s time he did so. In no time, it seems, he’s Doreen’s ‘young man’, courting her in her mother’s front room, just as Vic did with Ingrid. We’re light years away from the flat-sharing freedom of 1960′ singletons.
At the end, Arthur and Doreen sit on the grass overlooking a new housing development, discussing their future. She wants a new house, nice bathroom, all that. His answer is to hurl a stone at the developers’ sign. The gesture reminds you of that infamous sign which states: ‘It is forbidden to throw stones at this notice.’
That’s what Arthur does — he throws stones out of anger and frustration, but mainly because someone has told him that he can’t. Self-aware he isn’t.
He proclaims: ‘Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not,’ but a lot of people are dead right about him, and he has little real insight into his own character, other than, as he says to Doreen, that he’ll always be throwing stones.
How will it work out, we wonder, knowing the answer.
Arthur Seaton Preservation Society
We’re not the only ones to wonder what became of our hero. In his song Where Are They Now? on the Kinks 1973 album Preservation: Act 1, Ray Davies muses: ‘I hope that Arthur Seaton is all right,’ and you hope so too, really.
In fact, we do find out how he fares. Alan Sillitoe’s sequel, Birthday, shows us Arthur 40 years on. He and Doreen have parted, his second wife is terminally ill, he has kids and grandkids.
Basically, he is all right, a bit contemplative, aware of memories and time passing, an armchair rebel ranting about high-rise flats and social workers. In the end, we see Arthur as a man coming to terms with what his life has turned out to be.
We don’t hear much about Doreen, other than that she instigated their divorce, saying ‘the life we lead is no good’. She married again, and is running a pub with a woman in Bedford.
Now there’s a story we would like to hear.