The Use of Sound and Music in Film About the British Working Class – Conclusions (Part 9).

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8.


The aim of this assessment of music in film about the British working class was initially construed to highlight which of the uses discussed was the most critically honest. The obvious chronological order of the films was originally intended to show a positive growth in quality and a decrease in condescension. It became increasingly obvious that, to take each of the films out of the context of their own production eras and place them in a new context strictly within the sub-genre to allow more readily for criticism, massively missed the point of all of the films. Buhler (2001, p.43) argued that “Until the 1960s, the non-diegetic score was commonly orchestral, drawing primarily on the resources of the art music, but the diegetic score usually consisted of popular song.” In our three case studies however, this has been greatly questioned and has at least loosened Buhler’s argument at the seams.

It seems absurd to criticise the use of music in This Happy Breed when, in the context of the films made during and just after the Second World War, any sort of use other than that of increasing its positive role as propaganda would be a narrow assessment of its merits. Aesthetically, it does have the weakest of the three film’s soundtracks but, unlike the other two case studies, it is far more tied down by the emotional and moral limitations of its time. When Landy (2000, p.67, p.77) screened the film for her students, their reaction was “restrained, though respectful” and it was “tolerated politely” which mirrors this essays critique of its thematic and musical effects.

The metaphorical nature of musical score in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner showed a grasp of the issues that held post-war Britain in its clutches. Adorno and Eisler argue that:

“The emancipation of each motive of theme from symmetry and the necessity of repetition makes it possible to formulate specific musical ideas in a far more drastic and penetrating fashion, and to free the individual musical events from all unessential gewgaws.” (1947, p.39).

This films soundtrack is one of the first to have free musical events away from such “gewgaws” though again Adorno would probably disagree based on purely musical syntaxes and known bias towards popular music and classical canonisation.

The film also has more leeway to explore and question the inequalities suffered by the working classes than This Happy Breed but by using its music in a more complex and creative way, it also showed that creative art about class didn’t have to be simplified to the barren aesthetics of what came later. Films such as Cathy Come Home (1966) and Kes (1969) appear squarely to be about the message whereas Richardson’s film recognises that music has an important, metaphorical role to play in the ongoing narrative of the working class.

Distant Voices, Still Lives was meant to be the highpoint in the argument for the ultimate in honest portrayal of the working class and though it does far more visually and within its narrative to address issues the other films simply couldn’t touch, its soundtrack presents a far more nostalgic view of the past while also managing to simultaneously acknowledge its problems; a product of “… his overwhelming need to address his past…” (Everett, 2004, p55). Instead of being a whole new way of representing the working class through sound and music, it appears to be of an amalgamation of ideas from the previous two case studies with some added avant-garde experimentation. Cormack (2006, p.30) argues that the recontextualising of popular songs increases the ambiguity of film but here that only applies to the film’s structure (“Second, the process of extracting items from their original contexts (both musical and historical) and recontextualising them in a film increases ambiguity”). It is perhaps telling then that the only other films about the British working class to resemble Distant Voices, Still Lives’ aesthetics are Terence Davies’ other films.

So what can these different uses of music tell the viewer about British working class life? It can vary from stiff-upper lip will to openly honest tellings of repression and brutality yet all three uses of music can do more than simply relate. Through propaganda, metaphor and nostalgia all have their uses as shown and it seems that they all add together and accept the challenge of giving a voice to the silent masses with varying degrees of success. Whether the music in these films has helped to address and discuss the issues surrounding the topic itself is debatable but all three uses have achieved one definite goal; they have proved that the British working class are ripe for creative endeavour, musical exploration and critical attention whether it be in popular propaganda, allegorical musicality or mindful nostalgia.

Adam Scovell


Adorno, T. and Eisler, H., 1947/1994. Composing for the Films. New York (Oxford University Press).

Aldgate, A. and Richards, J., 2002. The Best of British: Cinema and Society from 1930 to Present. London (I.B Taurus & Co LTD).

August, A., 2007. The British Working Class, 1832 – 1940. Edinburgh (Pearson Education LTD).

Beynon, H. and Rowbotham, S., 2001. Changing Images: Judith Williams in Conversation from Looking at Class, Film, Television and the Working Class in Britain. London (Rivers Oram Press).

Buhler, J., 2001. Analytical and Interpretative Approaches to Film Music II – Analysing Interactions of Music and Film from Film Music: Critical Approaches. Edinburgh (Edinburgh University Press LTD).

Chion, M., 1999. The Voice in Cinema. Columbia (Columbia University Press).

Cormack, M., 2006. The Pleasures of Ambiguity: Using Classical Music in Films from Changing Tunes: The Use of Pre-existing Music in Films. Aldershot (Ashgate Publishing LTD).

Cousins, M., 2004. The Story of Film. London (Pavilion Books).

Coulthard, L., 2012. Attractions of Repetition: Tarantino’s Sonic Style from Music, Sound and Filmmakers: Sonic Style in Film. New York (Routledge).

Dave, P., 2006. Visions of England: Class and Culture in Contemporary Cinema. Oxford (Oxford International Publishers).

Flinn, C., 1992. Strains Of Utopia: Gender, Nostalgia and Hollywood Film Music. New Jersey (Princeton University Press).

Gillett, P., 2003. The British Working Class in Postwar Film. Manchester (Manchester University Press).

Gorbman, C., 2006. Ears Wide Open: Kubrick’s Music from Changing Tunes: The Use of Pre-existing Music in Films. Aldershot (Ashgate Publishing LTD).

Gorbman, C., 1987. Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music. Indiana University Press, (London, BFI Publishing).

Heritage, A., 2012. Great Movies: 100 Years of Cinema. London (Parragon).

Hill, J., 1999. British Cinema in the 1980s. Oxford (Oxford University Press.)

Kalinak, K., 1992. Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film. Wisconsin (University of Wisconsin Press).

Kassabian, A., 2001. Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music. New York and London (Routledge).

Laing, S., 1986. Representations of Working-Class Life, 1957 – 1964. London (Macmillan Publishers LTD).

Lany, M., 2000. The Other Side of Paradise : British Cinema from an American Perspective from British Cinema: Past and Present. New York (Routledge).

Luckett, M., 2000. Travel and Mobility: Femininity and National Identity in Swinging London from British Cinema: Past and Present. New York (Routledge).

Miles, A. and Savage, M., 1994. The Remaking of the British Working Class: 1840-1940. London (Routledge).

Nairn, T., 1977. The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neonationalism. London (Verso).

Rodman, R., 2006. The Popular Song as Leitmotif in 1990s Film from Changing Tunes: The Use of Pre-existing Music in Films. Aldgate (Ashgate Publishing LTD).

Rousseau, J,J., 1781/1982. The Confessions. Middlesex, England (Penguin).

Stilwell, R,J., 2001. Sound and Empathy: Subjectivity, Gender and the Cinematic Soundscape from Film Music: Critical Approaches. Edinburgh (Edinburgh University Press LTD).

Tarkovsky, A., 1986. Sculpting in Time: The Great Russian Filmmaker Discusses His Art. Austin (University of Texas Press).

Theberg, P., 2008. Almost Silent: The Interplay of Sound and Silence in Contemporary Cinema and Television. Illinois (University of Illinois Press).

Williams, T., 1993. The Masochistic Fix – Gender Pppression in the Films of Terence Davies from British Cinema and Thatcherism. London (University College of London Press).

Wollen, P., 1993. The Last New Wave: modernism in the British films of the Thatcher Era from British Cinema and Thatcherism. London (University College of London Press).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s