“Don’t let the bastards grind you down. What I want is a good time. All the rest is propaganda.”
From reading Allan Sillitoe’s book on my pre-English O Level reading list onwards, I have always regarded Arthur Seaton to be the angriest of the angry young men. Here, after all, is a not unintelligent individual, a superior technician in the factory in which he works and who has the good sense to ultimately form balanced opinions and yet… if not out of control, he’s certainly full of the agitated need to fully express himself as and when he wants.
He just wants more, better than his parents got and their generation who fought in the Second World War and better than his workmates as they relax into compromise and the easy routines from which they never escape.
But can Arthur break the chain and escape his own future or is he doomed to make the same mistakes as everyone else?
Albert Finney – just 24 at the time, makes an excellent Arthur, coiled like a tightly wrung towel wrapped round his auntie’s mangle and always ready to give better than he gets. He doesn’t want to be told anything by anybody and actively courts enmity as a substitute for predictability.
Arthur’s one of the better paid workers at his engineering factory: he could work faster but that would only get them to increase his targets. He lives for the weekends and those slices of happiness in between one of which is Brenda (Rachel Roberts) the wife of one of his co-workers, the compliant and easy going Jack (Bryan Pringle).
We see Arthur and Brenda in the pub of a Friday night, the former engaged in a drinking competition with one of the locals: Arthur wins, but only long enough to collapse down stairs... Binge culture? It was invented a long time ago.
Arthur share some more reflective moments with his cousin Bert (Norman Rossington) as the two continue their childhood fascination with fishing but it’s only “half-time” in Arthur’s mission to wind-up almost everyone around him from co-workers to local busy-bodies.
But life’s about to get a whole lot more interesting all round…Arthur spots a beautiful lass called Doreen (Shirley Anne Field) and starts to court her, in spite of her mother’s resistance. She’s the real deal and as quick with a quip as Arthur is, she knows her own mind and isn’t intimidated by him.
But then Brenda reveals that she’s pregnant and there’s no way it’s Jack. Now we see the strength of Arthur’s mettle, he wants to do the right thing but this situation is too complicated for him. He enlists the aim of his favourite Auntie Ada – the force of nature that is Hylda Baker – but her “remedy” fails to work.
Things proceed with Doreen as Hylda gets desperate and then resolves to having the child, whatever the storm it’ll cause. Jack’s squaddie brother is in town with his mate, and the two of them exact bloody retribution on the wayward engineer: the rough justice he knows he’s had coming.
But life carries on… Arthur heals and is visited by a sympathetic Doreen to whom, surprisingly, he reveals the truth or most of it… for most of the film he’s been lying to most of the other characters and now he’s finding respect for Doreen.
He remains restless, worrying Bert as they fish, “I’ve never heard you like this…” but, whilst he can concede that Jack is soft but not that bad, he seems to have a more balanced view. He also knows his feelings for Doreen are more significant than anything he’s had to contend with.
The film finishes with the two discussing the future overlooking some smart new developments… it seems that marriage and lower middle class comforts await Mr Seaton, but he swears he hasn’t lost his spirit and we believe him… up to a point.
The power of this story and of this film is poorly served by my synopsis, Finney is a force of nature and his character is just as unsettling now as he was then: at least he wasn’t just purely selfish he knew what he was fighting for and against. His character is unpredictable, loutish and dishonest but through it all he has his own code of honour even if he reaches his limits with Brenda.
Rachel Roberts is every bit as good - her Brenda is besotted with Arthur but enough of a realist to know she can never have him. She played safe with Jack and he’ll not let her down.
Shirley Anne Field is sort of like a British Heddy Lamarr: sometimes it’s difficult to see her acting beyond her beauty. But the lass is from Bolton: she’s not as posh or as soft as she looks and she can act (consistently well and with range Heddy dear...). This was her breakthrough film even though she and Albert already had The Entertainer under their belts: “that was our screen test” she said in her interview before the recent BFI retrospective.
All contributed to make a landmark of British film that many feel stands the test of time better than some from this period. That it remains so powerfully resonant is down in no small part to this marvellous cast and their genuine touch of class.
I watched the BFI restoration which is available direct in a DVD/BluRay pack. 53 years old and still packing a punch: just be sure you don’t run into an Arthur Seaton next time you go down the pub.