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British New Wave, Part 2: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning


This is a part 2 of the 4-part British New Wave series of posts. You can view the other parts here: Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4

Though Room at the Top (1958) is credited as the official beginning of the British New Wave, it was not until the release of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in 1960 that the true effect of the ‘Wave’ was felt. Directed by Free Cinema veteran Karel Reisz and produced by another Free Cinema pioneer Tony Richardson, the film took over audiences in Britain like an avalanche over a small village in some god forsaken valley. It had all the ingredients for a controversial film: an anti-social protagonist, morally questionable behaviour and portrayal of taboo topics like unwanted pregnancy and extra-marital affairs. Albert Finney brings out the performance of his lifetime in his portrayal of the hot tempered tough guy Arthur Seaton, a role which was considered Britain’s reply to Marlon Brando.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was the first film to have all its exterior shots to be filmed on location. This was a major move which would influence the following films in the New Wave to be gradually filmed entirely on location. The film was also well known for its clash with the censor board. A significant amount of dialogue in the film had to be replaced owing to the extensive use of swear words in the script. Another major problem was the depiction of Albert Finney’s character Arthur waking up on Sunday morning in bed with his colleague’s wife, a scene directly implying extra-marital affair which was not seen before in British cinema.

A Study of the Plot

Arthur Seaton is a young factory worker in Nottingham who works very hard six days a week and hangs out on Saturday nights. He is hard headed, short tempered and always ready to get into a fight. He openly expresses his hatred towards the society and anyone that he disagrees with. He is having an affair with his co-worker’s wife Brenda, an indulgence he saves for Saturday nights. Though Brenda is older to Arthur and is the mother of two children, she is very much in love with him and contemplates several times about leaving her husband and children and running away with Arthur.

In the meantime, Arthur meets Doreen, a beautiful looking young woman who is closer to his own age at a pub. After a hot tempered conversation, she agrees to let him buy her a drink and later agrees to see him again. Over the next few weeks, Arthur and Doreen start seeing each other regularly and until Doreen starts referring to Arthur as ‘my boy’, a confirmation that they’ve fallen into a romantic relationship. Things seem to be going well for Arthur until Brenda comes to inform him that she is pregnant with his child. Arthur realizing that he is no longer in love with Brenda, wants her to have the child aborted. Brenda on the other hand wants to keep the baby and beseeches Arthur to take her away before her husband finds out. When Arthur doesn’t match her enthusiasm for the plan, Brenda realizes that Arthur has fallen out of love and agrees to get the abortion done. Arthur quickly seeks the advice of his aunt and takes Brenda to meet her.

Brenda’s husband finds out about her pregnancy and affair with Arthur and enlists the help of his brother and a fellow soldier to chase Arthur down through a town carnival and give him a severe beating. Brenda resumes her normal life taking care of her husband and children while Arthur slowly recovers. Doreen comes to visit Arthur at his home and they eventually decide to get married. The film ends with Arthur and Doreen enjoying a nice and sunny day in the country side while they discuss their future after they get married. It can be felt that Arthur has slightly ‘grown up’ in this discussion and the viewer is left to wonder if Arthur has reformed.

Arthur and Doreen

The Role of Arthur Seaton

Arthur was the creation of Alan Sillitoe, the author of the Saturday Night and Sunday Morning novel. Sillitoe also adapted his novel for the screenplay of the film and kept the essence of his character alive. What Sillitoe did not foresee was that it was not until Albert Finney was cast in the leading role that the real Arthur came to life. Finney brought the same gritty persona to Arthur Seaton as Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953).

Arthur was not a nice person. He used to work at the bicycle factory all day long for six days a week and expects to release his frustration over the weekend in terms of either beer-chugging contests with other men whom he considers to be his inferiors or by getting into fist fights over his provocative behaviour. Throughout the film, Arthur can be seen pulling pranks on his female co-workers, shooting pellets at his obese elderly next door neighbour and having tough-guy fun with his mates. His fearlessness is fuelled not by any gallant qualities but more by the desire to get into a brawl.

Arthur’s behaviour with women was shocking when it was first seen in 1960. His attitude against his mother is quite startling as he justifies this as his right as one of the bread winners of the family. His behaviour with the women that he is romantically involved with is also quite harsh. With Brenda, he is always rudely referring to her husband almost as if he is measuring him against himself. His first meeting with Doreen is also sparked by a rather rude comment and an almost order-like request to buy her a drink. Doreen matches his commanding attitude with a bit of air herself but it is Arthur who eventually succeeds in breaking through her force-shield. Arthur can be simply summarized as a person who never says ‘Sorry’ or ‘Thank You’ and never ever asks for anything. He either orders for it or takes it himself.

Alan Sillitoe continues the spirit of Arthur Seaton into Colin Smith, the protagonist of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). Though Arthur and Colin seem to be very similar at first sight, they take very separate paths in their life. Arthur Seaton expresses a significant amount of anti-social behaviour. Some of his memorable dialogues are:

  • “I take a tip from the fishes, never bite unless the bait’s good. I won’t get married till I’m good and ready.”
  • “That’s what all those silly laws are for, to be broken by blokes like us.”
  • “I work for the factory, income tax and the insurance already, that’s enough for a bit. They’re up you right, left and centre. After they’ve skinned you dry you get called up to the army and get shot to death.”
  • “Look I’ll go and see me Aunt Ada, she’ll know what to do, she’s had 14 kids of her own and I’m sure she’s got rid of as many others.”
  • “You shut your bleeding rathole ratface!”
  • “Cause she’s a bitch and a whore, she’s got no heart in her - she’s a swivel-eyed get.”
  • “They’d beat me right enough. Still, I had me bit of fun. It’s not the first time I’ve been in a losing fight, won’t be the last either I suppose.”
  • “Mam called me barmy when I told her I fell of a gasometer for a bet. But I’m not barmy, I’m a fighting pit prop that wants a pint of beer, that’s me. But if any knowing bastard says that’s me I’ll tell them I’m a dynamite dealer waiting to blow the factory to kingdom come. Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not because they don’t know a bloody thing about me! God knows what I am.”
  • “Don’t let the bastards grind you down!”
  • “I’m out for a good time - all the rest is propaganda!”

A Timeless Classic

Forty-seven years after the release of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the energy of Arthur Seaton still prevails. Somebody like Arthur can live in the contemporary setting of the world and still be himself, a trait that can only be shared by characters like Superman and James Bond. Karel Reisz based this wonderful masterpiece of his on his time with the Free Cinema movement especially with his work on the 52-minute documentary We are the Lambeth Boys (1959).

As mentioned before the film paved the way for on-location shooting, an important revolution in the New Wave which gave birth to the next film: Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey (1961), the first British film to be shot entirely on location (both indoor and outdoor scenes).

A Taste of Honey (1961) will be discussed in Part 3 of the British New Wave series. Here’s the trailer to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

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