Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.
Looking smart in his shirt and tie, highly Brylcreemed and loudmouthed, Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney) is the archetypal Angry Young Man of the 50’s. Railing against everything but accomplishing nothing, he’s fuelled by beer and birds and a smouldering dread of being stuck in the same place for the rest of his life.
The place is Nottingham and the Raleigh bicycle factory in Radford is where he earns his beer money. Finney learned to work a lathe for the part. He’s knocking off Brenda (Rachel Roberts), the wife of Jack (Bryan Pringle), one of the foremen. He plays it close to the wire too, actually being in the house when Jack comes in and having to silently sneak out the back.
With her husband away at the races, the scene where Arthur wakes up in Brenda’s double bed caused problems with the censors. They didn’t take kindly to this view of working class, extramarital shenanigans. The problem is Brenda gets pregnant and wants an abortion without anyone knowing. Termination of pregnancy was illegal at the time this film was made. Arthur agrees to pay for it, but by now he’s also involved with another girl, Doreen (Shirley Anne Field).
A night out with Doreen at Nottingham’s Goose Fair goes horribly wrong when the tangled truth of Arthur’s misdemeanours is exposed amongst the waltzers and hoop-la stalls. He gets comprehensively beaten by two squaddies who leave him bedridden.
Directed by Karel Reisz, it was based on the 1958 book by Alan Sillitoe, who also wrote the screenplay. The Seaton’s family house at 5 Beaconsfield Terrace was actually owned by Sillitoe. Filmed mostly on location in Nottingham, The British Flag pub in Battersea was however used for some of the night scenes.
Arthur is portrayed as being some kind of working class superman. After a drinking contest he is so drunk that he attempts to stagger to the toilet, but falls down a flight of concrete stairs into the pub basement. However, once indoors a quick splash of water on his face and he’s right as rain again. Hard as nails is Arthur.
As the final futile gesture of defiance in the film, from a grassy bank Arthur launches a rock toward the new housing estate built on the edge of town, where he and Doreen will surely live, absorbed into the suburban void.
Cinematographer Freddie Francis gives the interiors a cramped claustrophobia, yet the inky blacks of the industrial nights, with their pubs, cinemas, girls and empty streets, seem like somewhere to escape to.Arthur and his mate go fishing in the canal, but their communion with nature is offset by the presence of a looming electricity pylon. They are forever in the city’s embrace.
A science fiction edge unexpectedly arose when, during the quieter bits, a thereminic, swooping tone was heard emanating from the ether. This added an interesting, unearthly tinge to some of the more intimate scenes. We eventually tracked it down to a game the kids had been playing on a phone that hadn’t been switched off properly.
Reputedly Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is the first time extra marital sex had been portrayed in this way. It is also the only film in which I have heard anyone call someone else a “swivel-eyed get”.