The romance of grime- the vanishing world of cinematic Manchester.

11 Sep

Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie in John Schlesinger's "Billy Liar" (1963)

The modern world puts great emphasis on the rejuvenation of formerly run down areas of our cities. Money and modernity is applied to the problem and old buildings and streets are often cleared out of the way to make room for the new vision. Having been raised in the North West of England I’m aware of the changes that have happened even in my lifetime, going back over thirty years. However, Britain’s celluloid past gives us a glimpse into a romantic world where the streets may have been grimier and the architecture more austere, but combined with the black and white photography of the time, gave us a romantic vision of Lancashire and Manchester. The cobbled streets, spiked iron railings, worn steps and grand athenaeums sometimes still survive; dinosaurs from a lost world. In the timeless world of film, however, this world still remains untouched. As our cityscapes become ever more generic, it’s almost refreshing to watch films from our post-war film boom.

Alan Bates and June Ritchie in John Schlesinger's "A Kind of Loving" (1962)

Romantic tales of triumph in the face of adversity need an appropriate backdrop, and while many films of the period invariably reference London, our northern cities suddenly came into their own as an environment for good story telling. In the late 1950s and early ‘60s a new breed of film arose, with its roots in theatre. Often referred to as ‘Kitchen sink dramas’, they were a conscious attempt to show audiences a reflection of real lives and the emotions of the real people living them. This new trend was begun by the likes of John Osborne’s 1956 play (and later film) Look Back in Anger, and quickly found its way to film and television. Their impact on the audience, and especially the younger viewer, could not have been guessed. Playwright Shelagh Delaney could be held accountable, in an indirect way, for helping shape the ‘80s alternative music scene. The impact of the film based on her play A Taste of Honey (for which she wrote the screenplay) had such an impact on a certain Stephen Morrissey that he later said that she was the single most influential element on his band The Smiths, who became the most influential band of their generation.

Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin in Tony Richardson's film of Shelagh Delaney's "A Taste of Honey" (1961)

What Morrissey probably saw was the idea that the chimneys, cobbles and muck of our Northern towns could be as much a dramatic source of inspiration and setting as any New York street  or Californian boulevard; probably more so. Years later, the image is so different to what we now know that an element of idealisation creeps in; even Morrissey laments that England is not the country he once knew. Is this a bad thing? Have we not gained much; aren’t our inner cities safer, cleaner places to live? Or is there something missing from them that makes them unlikely candidates for appearance in a film the way they once would have been? More likely that the way films were has changed too, and the social issues have shifted to another focus.

Julie Christie at Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester, in 1963 ("Billy Liar")

Still, for a brief period around fifty years ago, the rain swept streets of Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Blackburn, Oldham and other provincial towns held as much romance and downtrodden glamour as anywhere else in the world. Yes, it was downtrodden glamour; beauty shining through the cracks in disappointed and battered lives. Lives that had had a brief ‘taste of honey’, but were usually resigned to the drudgery of modern life. Were these better times? Of course not, but there was a decayed beauty captured in those films missing from modern releases, especially as British film production can be patchy, but also because the places have often changed beyond recognition. Our lives are made easier by a multitude of technological devices and perks, and poverty is often kept at bay, but there was a day not so long ago where this was not always the case.

Manchester Ship Canal in "A Taste of Honey" (1961)

The whole world is a film set and we’re all life’s players. A modern generation has forgotten the time when Julie Christie strolled nonchalant across Piccadilly Gardens in Billy Liar or Rita Tushingham pondered her predicament on the streets of Stockport (doubling as Salford) in A Taste of Honey, and how Bolton looked almost beautiful in Bill Naughton’s The Family Way.

Hayley Mills and Hywel Bennett on Bolton Town Hall steps in "The Family Way" (1966)

Our cities were once dirtier and darker, but the light shining out of them was perhaps more pronounced. In those films is a glimpse into a world were the pathos of human nature made for riveting viewing.  The daily drudgery looked as grim as it ever could, but the joys were sharper, especially when photographed in monochrome. Nowadays, the spirit of these gritty dramas lives on in our soap operas, particularly Coronation Street, although it has mellowed from the rough diamond it once was. Loved and loathed in equal measure, its dour BBC counterpart, EastEnders, continues to display more of the risks associated with the kitchen dramas. They remind us of the beauty in the most familiar of settings, and how each of us can transcend a time and place, and sometimes we can even come to love the cobbled rain sodden streets from where we came. They made us who we are as much as blood and nurture, and the likes of Delaney and Osborne knew it all too well.

For further information on filming locations from the past, with photographs of the locations at the time they were filmed and also as they appear now, take a look at the excellent website http://www.reelstreets.com/

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2 Responses to “The romance of grime- the vanishing world of cinematic Manchester.”

  1. whistlesinthewind July 2, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

    Great post – some of my favourite films… it’s so hard to explain the hold of the kitchen sink film, so I like ‘the pathos of human nature’ amid the ‘downtrodden glamour’. Gone but not forgotten…

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  1. Off to Ambrosia with Billy Liar | whistlesinthewind - April 5, 2013

    […] on WordPress I found this essay The Romance of Grime which celebrates and pinpoints the spirit of the British kitchen sink drama and is well worth a […]

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