The rain falls hard on a humdrum town
This town has dragged you down
And everybody’s got to live their life
And God knows I’ve got to live mine…
So goes the opening verse of The Smiths‘ classic song, “William, It Was Really Nothing,” a brilliant pastiche of British post-war, kitchen sink dramas. The Manchester group’s lyricist and singer, Morrissey, was famously enamored of the genre and its proud Northern roots, even featuring one of its more colorful figures, Shelagh Delaney, on the cover of their double album, Louder Than Bombs.
The term “kitchen sink realism” was coined in the mid-fifties to describe the cultural trend in British painting, literature, and film toward bleak working class themes, often set in or by artists from the industrial north of England, and featuring domestic dramas with troubled working-class anti-heroes. Perhaps one of its most prototypical and well-known examples was Nottingham writer Allan Sillitoe’s novella, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, about a young delinquent, Colin, who has been sent to a “borstal” (the English equivalent of juvenile detention). Colin is a gifted runner, and the school authorities offer him early release if he can win a race against a prestigious public school. His skill brings an opportunity to boost the borstal’s image, and for him to escape its daily drudgery by being allowed to train outside its confines. But in a confounding final act, Colin defies the authorities and both cements and destroys his personal freedom. The theme of young, socially alienated protagonists straining against and yet trapped by the poverty and frustration of provincial life is central to the kitchen sink genre.
The kitchen sink writers also shared many common threads and were often conflated with a group of writers known as the “Angry Young Men,” whose work was exemplified by John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger (1956), but also included the likes of Kingsley Amis (Lucky Jim, 1954), John Braine (Room at the Top, 1957), and Colin Wilson (The Outsider, 1956).
Literary kitchen sink realism deeply influenced early sixties British film. Notable adaptations include Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, John Braine’s Room at the Top, and Alan Sillitoes’ Sunday Night and Sunday Morning (starring a young Albert Finney). Television was impacted as well with series such as The Eastenders, and the long-lived Coronation Street, which began in 1963 and is still in production. And its influence has even extended to popular music such as, most obviously, The Smiths, but also other quintessentially English bands such as The Jam, Squeeze, and The Kinks.
Selected reading, viewing, and listening:
Books and Plays:
- Colin Wilson: The Outsider (nonfiction, 1956)
- Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim (1954), That Uncertain Feeling (1956)
- Alan Sillitoe: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1959)
- John Braine: Room At The Top (1957), The Jealous God (1964)
- John Osborne: Look Back in Anger (1956)
- Shelagh Delaney: A Taste of Honey (1958), The Lion in Love (1960), Sweetly Sings the Donkey (1963)
Films and Television:
- Room at the Top (1959)
- Look Back in Anger (1959)
- Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)
- The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)
- Billy Liar (1963)
- This Sporting Life (1963)
- Kes (1969)
- Coronation Street (1960-present)
- The Kinks: Well Respected Kinks (1965), Something Else (1967). Songs: “David Watts,” “Two Sisters,” “Harry Rag,” “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?”
- The Jam: Sound Affects (1981), All Mod Cons (1979). Songs: “To Be Someone,” “That’s Entertainment,” “Billy Hunt,” “In the Crowd,” “Scrape Away”
- Squeeze: East Side Story (1981), Greatest Hits (1992). Songs: “Up the Junction,” “Goodbye Girl”
- The Smiths: The Smiths (1984), Hatful of Hollow (1984), Meat is Murder (1985), Louder Than Bombs (1987). Songs: “Jeane,” “Rusholme Ruffians,” “What She Said,” “I Want the One I Can’t Have,” “William, It Was Really Nothing,” “Still Ill,” “Nowhere Fast”