This is what it looks like when your face gets trapped in an expression you didn’t choose for 50 years. Alan Sillitoe, who died yesterday at the age of 82, was many things — as Richard Bradford’s excellent obituary points out, some of his more remarkable extra-curricular achievements included denouncing the USSR’s human rights abuses in Brezhnev’s presence at a 1968 Congress of the Soviet Writers’ Union. He also wrote some 53 volumes of work, including poetry and children’s fiction. And yet every obit — including this one — fixates on two of his works that were made into movies: short story “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” and novel “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.”
The so-called angry young men were a non-movement operating under a label imposed for others’ convenience — there’s not a whole lot in common between, for instance, Sillitoe and Harold Pinter, but they were lumped together. (The only one who really fit was John Osborne, a man so angry he was buried with a copy of “Hamlet” with all the lines but Hamlet’s crossed out.) But there’s no denying that the protagonists of “Runner” and “Saturday” are, well, angry young men. The runner expresses himself mainly through physical acts of defiance, the machinist in “Saturday” through verbal ones.
Sillitoe had the fortune (or perhaps curse) of adapting those two works for the screen. They have aged far, far better than most of the like-minded so-called “kitchen sink” dramas — at the very least, they’ve dated better than the film version of “Look Back In Anger,” the original prototype. This would seem to be because Sillitoe was simply a much better writer than those around him. They’re worth watching as films, not just as social documents.
There’s a moment in “Runner” that’s haunted me for years. It’s the moment before the big race, with the borstal boys (criminal-minded youth in reformatories) set to compete against the public school boys. They’re all getting dressed in the same room. You’d expect this to be the moment when class tensions bubble up, in a dreary indictment of the class system. But no: the boys begin talking to each other and find out they’re incarcerated in parallel ways. The borstal lads have no freedom, the public school boys get whipped if they’re caught smoking. In that moment, they discover the ways they’re being oppressed in the same kind of ways; it suggests a way out from the dreary mess of post-WWII England, and it’s hopeful and delightful in all kinds of unexpected ways. For that moment alone, I’m grateful to Sillitoe (whose written prose, by the way, is also excellent). Rest in peace.
[Photos: “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” Video Beat, 1960; “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” Warner Home Video, 1962]