Finney’s cinematic career lasted six decades, taking a raft of Golden Globe and BAFTA awards for roles as diverse as Scrooge, Millers Crossing and Murder on the Orient Express. But it was Finney’s starring role in 1960’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, his big screen debut, that has been most remembered for its influence on the British Film Industry and wider popular culture.
Saturday Night Sunday Morning , the film, was a celluloid adaptation of a book of the same name, written by the equally late and great Alan Sillitoe. Sillitoe was a rarity in early post-war Britain, a writer born outside the privilege and opportunity afforded to a literary world dominated by the upper middle classes. The gentle environs of Bloomsbury a world away from the humming factories and back to back terraces of Sillitoe’s poor Nottingham up-bringing. To say Sillitoe was working class would have been an understatement. Born to a violent and cruel father, who struggled to hold onto regular work, and a mother who on occasion succumbed to prostitution, Sillitoe’s childhood wasn’t as much solid working class, but one step away from complete destitution.
Sillitoe, like most young men from working class backgrounds, left school at the age of fourteen with no qualifications, before a four-year stint in Nottingham’s Raleigh Factory, these early experiences of monotonous manual labour undoubtedly adding an extra authenticity to his portrayal of the grime and humour of the factory floor. Sillitoe eventually served in the Air Training Corps, before active service during the Malaya crisis. De-mobbed, the adventurous Sillitoe had plans to join the Royal Canadian Airforce before contracting tuberculosis and being pensioned of at the age of twenty- one.
Sillitoe, with a lust for travel, used his modest air-force pension to relocate to the balmy climes of Mediterranean France and Spain. It was during his time in Mallorca that Sillitoe was to meet his wife Ruth Fainlight, and British poet Robert Graves. It was Graves who persuaded Sillitoe to pursue a career as a writer. While Sillitoe had removed himself, geographically at least, from the industrial heartlands of the East Midlands, his writing remained rooted in his humble upbringing. It was Groves who advised Sillitoe to write about what he knew, life on the factory floor.
Sillitoe’s first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, was published in 1958 by W.H. Allen. The novel is a tale of post war British life at the end of the fifties, out in the provinces, a world away from the trendy and fashionable locales of London. A Britain still dominated by heavy industry, terraced streets and communities yet to be ravaged by de-industrialisation and utopian housing experiments. Hardship still apparent for many, despite Harold Macmillan’s ‘You’ve never had it so good’ speech.
The main protagonist is Arthur Seaton, a young factory worker frustrated by the limitations of factory life and dismissive of authority. In Seaton there are no hippy ideals to his rebelliousness, no counter-culture posturing that the flower power generation would later adopt. For Seaton rebelliousness comes in the form of spending his hard- earned cash on sharp attire, hard-drinking and womanising, his weekends spent chasing the bored housewives of fellow factory workers, the threat of jealous and vengeful husbands always lurking in the background. There is no heady idealism or optimism in this particularly British story, just Arthur Seaton fighting a losing battle to avoid domesticity and respectability, to not be another working stiff dead from the neck up. A battle tested when he meets his fate in Doreen, a young woman eager for the stability of marriage, children and a lifetime mortgage.
The film adaption of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning premiered at the Warner Cinema in London’s West End on the 27th October 1960 to rave reviews, the audience including Alan Sillitoe and his mother. The film was directed by Karel Reizs, the soundtrack by legendary British Jazz artist John Dankworth. The cast included Norman Rossington, Hylda Baker, Rachel Roberts, Shirley Anne Field, and of course Albert Finney.
Albert Finney, like Sillitoe, was also born into a working-class family, his father making a living as a bookmaker. Finney studied at Salford Grammar School before enrolling on an acting course at RADA. Following his graduation, in time honoured tradition, Finney tread the boards before making his first film appearance in Tony Richardson’s The Entertainer, alongside Alan Bates and Laurence Olivier. Later that year Finney was to take the starring role as Arthur Seaton in the film adaption of Saturday Night Sunday Morning. Finney, alongside Peter ‘O’ Toole, embodied a new generation of actor, the angry young man, hard drinking and outspoken.
Shirley Anne Field and Albert Finney.
Its indisputable that few actors could have portrayed the role of Arthur Seaton as authentically and realistically as Albert Finney, the hard- living lifestyle of the protagonist not alien to an actor well versed in the delights of alcohol and the opposite sex. Finney, as Arthur Seaton, brought something new to British Cinematography, the idea of the anti-hero. There’s no corny heroism or romantic redemption in Finney’s portrayal of combative factory floor rebel Arthur Seaton. Seaton is often dark, cynical, sneering and amoral, but due to Finney’s on- screen magnetism, draws empathy from the viewer.
It’s hard to appreciate fifty- eight years after its release, just how ground-breaking Saturday Night Sunday Morning was, its release at the beginning of the Sixties setting the tone for the rest of that decade and beyond. It wasn’t however the first film to portray the day to day experience of working -class life. Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole (book published in early thirties and film released in the early forties) and John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (mid-fifties) preceded it. The success of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning however was symbolic of a shift in cultural attitudes, an appreciation that working class culture was every bit as rich and relevant as that of the rich and privileged. The film helped pave the way for new genre of film, exemplified by the cinematic success of Billy Liar, Poor Cow, A Taste of Honey, Up the Junction, and an adaption of another Sillitoe classic, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.
The British public, of course, had been accustomed to the big screen being largely dominated by the ‘English Gent’, roguishness usually coming in the form of an ex public-school boy cad or bounder, the working classes usually relegated to bit parts, cheerfully servile chimney sweeps and hired help. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and other films of that genre, moved in a different direction. Central characters based around the ordinary man and woman on the street, and often portrayed by actors from similarly humble backgrounds.
This new film genre, The Kitchen Sink drama, wasn’t about glamour, and certainly didn’t shirk from the controversial issues so often hidden behind closed doors. Prostitution, promiscuity, abortion, alcoholism and violence playing central themes, often causing moral outrage in a nation still getting to grips with the ‘permissive society’. Along with the pop music that emerged, often with lyrics about sex and drug use, British popular culture had begun to push boundaries, and has been doing so ever since.
Society has undoubtedly changed a great deal since the cinematic release of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Call centres have replaced factories, while smoky, bawdy boozers have often been transformed into soulless gastro-pubs. But the great British tradition of gritty realism continues to have an important place in literature and film making, evident in the work of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh Shane Meadows and many others.
Fittingly, both Sillitoe and Finney never lost sight of their roots and backgrounds. Albert Finney went on to forge a career of much acclaim, but in the opinion of many, remained vastly underrated as an actor of his experience and longevity. Finney, characteristically, was to turn down a knighthood, accusing the honours system of being a symbol of snobbery. Something which his most famous character, Arthur Seaton, would no doubt have approved of. Alan Sillitoe remained until his death an outspoken and contradictory character, a lifelong labour voter who yet railed against the nanny state culture of New Labour. It’s fitting that neither Finney or Sillitoe ever sold out their values, both remaining at heart, true English Rebels.