University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Using Visual Sources: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Mark Cleverly, a second year History student at the University of Portsmouth, has written the following blog entry on the 1960 ‘New Wave’ film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) for the Introduction to Historical Research module. Mark discusses how the film reveals much about changing social attitudes in the ‘swinging sixties’. The module is co-ordinated by Dr Maria Cannon, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Portsmouth.

The proverb ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is certainly a cliché in the modern era, but it superficially highlights the value that can be found in visual sources. If a still image can muster this level of inquiry, then what of film and motion picture? The power of feature film to influence the classes and disseminate national culture was highlighted in the 1936 Moyne Committee Report, with it concluding that “[t]he propaganda value of the film cannot be over-emphasized.” [1] Jeffrey Richards identifies that there are three stages of investigation needed to use film as evidence, at least from a historian’s perspective. Firstly, “how its themes and ideas are conveyed by the script”. [2] Secondly, why it was made. Thirdly, how it was received. This blog will follow this process in reference to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (hereafter Saturday Night). Looking at the messages in the film, the cultural shift that guided its production, and the censorship that influenced what was released to the audience are all of great value to the historian wishing to understand how great a cultural change occurred during the 1960s.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) Directed by Karel Reisz Shown: Albert Finney

In order to understand the messages within the film’s script it is first necessary to be aware of the British ‘New Wave’ of cinema, the socially realistic “slice of life” that gained great appeal during the sixties. [3] It worked against the more common ‘collective experience’ and favoured characters that were ‘unique’ within their social group, as was Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night. [4] The idea of the documentary film can also be linked with the ‘New Wave’ and thus Saturday Night, as it emphasised “working-class or ‘problem’ subjects”. [5] This was very different from the escapism that previously dominated the cinema. [6] The film itself follows an episodic narrative of key moments that develop the character of Arthur Seaton. [7] As Brian McFarlane notes, “he is aggressive, crudely heroic in the face of a system bent on grinding him down; and there is the gloss of adventure and danger on him despite the oppressiveness of the system.” [8] Arthur is an anti-social rebel against the system, possibly one to be idealised by the audience. [9] As the story develops it becomes clear, through Arthur’s interaction with an ‘old-timer’ of the working class, that Arthur is more a common example of the new breed of working-class male than the ‘unique specimen’ that would be indicated by the film’s opening narration. [10] The final scene corroborates with this idea of a shared working-class experience when it pans to a “couple in shot [that] are not Arthur or Doreen but another unknown and anonymous pair,” giving the impression that the film was not solely based on the experiences of one man but rather can apply to many within the labouring classes. [11] It must also be noted that the opening narration is given (to begin with) over shots of the whole factory floor, further reinforcing the idea that this story is universal and that any one of the men could live through it.

Considering the realism of the ‘New Wave’ it is rather unsurprising that the film represents a very imbalanced dealing of consequences for the characters in the film. Arthur, who is someone who deserves to be taught a lesson, has very little in the way of comeuppance for his actions, whereas Brenda has to deal with an unwanted pregnancy as punishment for her deeds. [12] The film addresses this inequity of aftermath with only one line, “You’re getting off light, aren’t you?”. [13] Arthur Marwick reveals that the novel, from which the film was based, had a far more powerful feminist message that did not make the film’s final cut, perhaps due to censorship (the focal point of the next paragraph). Arthur’s beating and the successful termination of Brenda’s pregnancy were also left on the cutting-room floor, more evidence of outside influence impacting the message the film was attempting to promote. [14] In contrast to McFarlane’s suggestion that Arthur did not learn his lesson from the events of the film, the final scene shows his submission to the system that for the previous hour and a half he had rejected. [15] As Lay rightly concludes, Arthur accepts his fate, despite his throwing of a rock and promise to throw more seeming contrary to this concept. [16]

Still from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

The censorship by the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC), as shown in the previous paragraph, in fact hindered the comeuppance of Arthur in order to comply with the four topics highlighted by the BBFC as an issue (those being language, sex scenes, the abortion, and the violent beating-up of Arthur). [17] Richards argues that John Trevelyan, Secretary of the BBFC from 1958 to 1971, allowed “adult films to deal with adult themes in a responsible fashion,” which suggests that the initial approach of Saturday Night in tackling these topics underlined by the BBFC was in no way responsible. [18] Unlike the film Alfie (1966), the danger of the abortion was not emphasized enough to comply with what the BBFC wanted, and therefore it did not appear in the release. [19] Contrary to what the censorship would suggest, the film itself was very different to what was produced in the previous decade; perhaps best shown by Sue Harper and Vincent Porter when they note, “[t]he differences between the structures of feeling in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and those in The Blue Lamp indicate the widespread change that took place”. [20]

As a visual source Saturday Night and Sunday Morning follows the ‘New Wave’ of films that dealt with issues of class and ‘problem subjects’ in a very different and contrasting way than had been done before. [21] It is for this reason it has great value in both understanding the social and cultural shifts that had occurred during this period, and seeing the impact of these shift on institutions such as the BBFC and on film. This is not unique to Saturday Night as the majority of films from the early days of the Silent era to the modern blockbusters from Hollywood shed light on contemporary issues and cultural changes. Furthermore, the meaning of older films can change as time passes, with new interpretations emerging from audiences, historians and critics alike. As stated by Richards “[i]t is a truism that films change their meaning with the passage of time, with changes in the nature and assumptions of the audience” and it is this that gives film as a visual source a self-renewing sense of place in historiography. [22]


[1] Jeffrey Richards, “Film and Television: the moving image”, in History Beyond the Text: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources, ed. Sarah Barber and Corinna Peniston-Bird (London: Routledge, 2010), 74.

[2] Ibid., 76.

[3] Samantha Lay, British Social Realism: From Documentary to Brit-Grit (London: Wallflower Press, 2002), 5.

[4] John Hill, Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956-1963 (London: British Film Institute, 1986), 138.

[5] Julian Petley, “The Lost Continent”, in All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema, ed. Charles Barr (London: British Film Institute, 1986), 101.

[6] Lay, British Social Realism, 62.

[7] Andrew Higson, “Britain’s Outstanding Contribution to the Film: The documentary-realist tradition,” in All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema, ed. Charles Barr (London: British Film Institute, 1986), 93.

[8] Brian McFarlane, “A Literary Cinema? British Films and British Novels,” in All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema, ed. Charles Barr (London: British Film Institute, 1986), 138.

[9] Arthur Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, c.1958-c.1974 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 133.

[10] Hill, Sex, Class and Realism, 155.

[11] Ibid., 137.

[12] Lay, British Social Realism, 72.

[13] Marwick, The Sixties, 133.

[14] Ibid., 131.

[15] McFarlane, “A Literary Cinema?”, 139. See also; Lay, British Social Realism, 71.

[16] Lay, British Social Realism, 73.

[17] Marwick, The Sixties, 131.

[18] Jeffrey Richards, “British Film Censorship,” in The British Cinema Book, ed. Robert Murphy (London: British Film Institute, 1997), 174.

[19] Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural, 131.

[20] Sue Harper, and Vincent Porter, British Cinema of the 1950s: The Decline of Deference (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 248.

[21] Petley, “The Lost Continent”, 101.

[22] Richards, “Film and Television”, 75.

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply