Propaganda, Metaphor And Nostalgia:

 Sound And Music In Cinema About The British Working Class.

Introduction – Class and the Arts

“The collective function of music has become transformed into the function of ensnaring the customer.” (Adorno, 1947, p.61).

Class is an ever pervasive issue in British society. While manifesting into many forms around the world, the British flavour of delineation appears to draw the most divide lines within the arts.  With it still being a polarising issue, shifting in form but never changing in divide, the idea of a class culture is not just something quintessentially British but an aspect of everyday life that artists and filmmakers from many eras seem obsessed with.  This has bled through to many of the arts but predominantly the arts most suited to mass culture; literature, theatre and, most importantly, film.  Film, however, is not simply a visual narrative medium; it is a medium with an explicit but often hidden reliance on sound and music; “The sense of hearing is as subtle as it is archaic.  We often relegate it to the limbo of the unnamed; something you hear causes you to feel X, but you can’t put exact words to it.”(Chion, 1999, p.17).  This essay intends to look at the different methods of musical use in films specifically concerning the British working class and will highlight three different usages from three different eras in order to compare and contrast the issues that each film raises.  A brief introduction to our three case studies will contextualise the areas of debate.

It is surprising to look for films about working class society and find very few made before World War Two.  It seems that, as pointed out many times in George Orwell’s Road To Wigan Pier, the working class were recognised for their uses to industry, economy and little else, though ironically it is the dramatised segments of his book that are more in line with our case studies; “The figure who was repeatedly invoked as a model for such texts was Orwell. As Young’s article in Encounter in 1956 indicated, The Road To Wigan Pier had become a central text in the 1950s view of the 1930s.  In fact only a relatively small part of the book had been presented as dramatised experience; much of the text was in the form of either social survey or political essay.” (Laing, 1986, p.47)

David Lean was one of Britain’s foremost directors during the era of the Second World War and his collaboration with Noel Coward in This Happy Breed (1944), was one of the first major successes in showing working class life.  This is where the problem of how music is used begins to bear fruit.  No doubt a propaganda film, this was the first of many films to generalise through the use of narrative, visuals and music. “Music encourages us to consume whether products or images and makes consuming effortless.” is Kalinak’s argument for the classical traditions of film music and reflects the music in This Happy Breed which helps the audience to consume the falsities of the story for use as emotional propaganda (1992, p.35).  This is also reflected earlier in the Adorno quotation that opens this section.  This Happy Breed is our first case study and its use of music in relationship to propaganda will be the main source of discourse.

When the war ended, Britain was a rundown country, unable to shy away from the issue of poverty.  Its effect on film is vast, giving birth to several new waves of cinema from Europe.  The British New Wave emerged and was concerned chiefly with class and made films generally more honest in their depictions of hardship.  Music again was used in a different way, promoting young pop bands and generally attracting young audiences who no doubt shared many feelings with the characters in the films.  Savage and Miles state that “The remaking of the working class was seen as a process of deradicalistion.” and up until the British New Wave, British film representation was very much a part of this from This Happy Breed to The Magnet (1950) and other Ealing comedies (1994, p.89).  Our second case study will come from this era of films in the form of Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) which will be used to discuss the role metaphor and music in relation to British working class issues and establishment.

It seems essential now to place Terence Davies within the context of this past.  Davies is our Enfant Terrible, in a group of filmmakers whose innovations lie largely in subject matter.  Davies is different for a number of reasons.  The first and most obvious of these is his placement within the timeline of these films.  Distant Voices, Still Lives, our third case study, was made in 1988; a time far beyond  the more rosy aspects of working class life of the David Lean mould with television providing drama full of honesty about the imbalance and injustice still prevalent in the U.K[i].  The film is not just distinct for its timing though.  Distant Voices, Still Lives is a complex film of impressionistic value, visual experimentation and a very idiosyncratic use of music; “The film itself is a flashback but, as a work of autobiography, it is also a depiction of what Davies feels like when remembering his difficult childhood.” (Cousins, 2004, p.414).

These are the three cases that will be looked at within this essay.  The first shows the effects of music used in propaganda and the effects this has on the musical and narrative choices. The second example looks at the increasing use of metaphor in its musical cues.  The third looks at how nostalgia can effect and be produced through the film’s sound and music.  This essay will look at the three specific uses of music in chronological order, allowing any sort of evolution of values to be displayed.

Adam Scovell

Part 2.


[i] Boys From The Blackstuff (1982) being a prime example.

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