The mid-1950s were a time of political unrest in British film culture. Journals and magazine rippled with the energy of angry young critics who saw film as a means of changing the world. Frustrated with what the studios were producing at the time, many of these critics decided to re-invent themselves as film directors and so was born the Free Cinema movement. Lead by figures such as Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson, and Lorenza Mazzetti, the Free Cinema programme worked outside of the existing British film industry and aimed to produce inexpensive black and white documentaries showcasing the lives of ordinary working class British people. This need to move cinema beyond a reliance upon conventional subjects and prestige formats coincided with a similar desire emanating from the British stage where ‘Angry Young Men’ like John Osbourne and Kingsley Amis were using kitchen sink realism to explore themes both political and existential. From the overlap of these two movements came a cultural moment now widely referred to as the British New Wave; a moment in which British cinema began using a combination of pseudo-documentary realism and powerful writing to explore what it meant to be young, poor, and British in classic films such as Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
As is often the case, this type of historical hindsight tends to exaggerate similarities whilst eluding differences meaning that it is easy to look back at the British New Wave as a golden age of Marxist filmmaking. In reality, the moment featured a number of different political perspectives and some of them were not even remotely left-wing. Produced by the ambitious Richard Attenborough and Bryan Forbes under the newly formed ‘Beaver Films’ label, Guy Green’s The Angry Silence is proof that the style and methods of the British New Wave could just as easily extend to right-wing propaganda.
Tom Curtis (Attenborough) works in a local factory alongside his flatmate Joe (Michael Craig), a priapic man-child who would rather style his hair than form an opinion or acknowledge the consequences of his actions. Curtis begins the film under a cloud as his Italian wife Anna (Pier Angeli) has just revealed that she is expecting their third child. Unfortunately, this unexpected blessing could not have come at a worse time as Tom and Joe’s workplace is about to be radicalised. Dunh-Dunh-Duuuuuh.
The film opens with a blatant allusion to post-War spy films as communist agitator Travers (Alfred Burke) slips off of a train and into a car driven by the company’s shop steward. “As far as everyone else is concerned, we meet for the first time tomorrow” hisses Burke to Connelly (Bernard Lee), a naïve and prideful older man who would rather sell out to sinister political operatives than reach out to the younger members of his own union.
These early scenes are beautifully written and performed. The script by Bryan Forbes, Michael Craig and Richard Gregson does a fantastic job of grounding the characters not only in the rhythms of working class life but also in the mundane details of girlfriends, football and child benefit. Each fresh plot point is announced with footage of workers chatting on their way to work and then unpacked in those quiet moments when the kids have gone to sleep and grown-ups get to talk. Attenborough is on sensational form as a stubborn pepper-pot who makes stupid decisions, explodes in anger, and tries desperately to move on without ever apologising or understanding his wrong-doing. Similarly marvellous is Pier Angeli as a long-suffering Italian wife who desperately wants to see the good in her husband despite failing to understand what has happened and why.
The plot slides smoothly into gear when Travers helps Connelly to get the workers out on strike despite the lack of any form of financial or political support from their national union. Curtis, along with a number of other workers, decide to cross the picket line and some of the younger members of the union take it upon themselves to smash their windows and vandalise their gardens. When Connelly refuses to apologise or even distance himself from the actions of the younger union members, Curtis decides to break with the union meaning that he winds up as the only worker left in the entire factory. When the strike ends and the workers return to the factory, the workers send Curtis to Coventry… a punishment that isolates him not only from his fellow workers but also from his friends and community.
It is at this point that the film’s right-wing politics begin to manifest themselves as Curtis is positioned as a righteous individual standing up to both the inhuman collectivism of the working class and the selfishness of ruling elites who inexplicably single him out as a ‘lone wolf’ and general trouble maker. What makes the film right-wing is the way that it paints the working class as a collection of cowards, sheep and thugs. Easily manipulated by what would appear to be Soviet spies, they strike out of vanity and blind conformity rather than as a means of securing fairer wages or safer working conditions. The Angry Silence is not set in our world but in a parallel universe where capitalists increase wages, workers remove their own safety rails and still people turn out on strike. The situation explored in The Angry Silence is as much of a paranoid right-wing fantasy as the ticking terrorist time bomb that invariably serves to justify the use of torture… no wonder this film was universally praised by the right-wing press.
This being said, it is difficult not to be swept along by the injustices heaped upon tiny Dickie Attenborough. There’s a lovely scene about halfway through the film when Curtis gets angry with his friend’s refusal to speak out on his behalf: ‘You need to speak out… You need to find a voice… You cannot afford to sit on the fence’ Attenborough thunders straight to camera, making it clear that he is talking to the audience as well as to the character of Joe. After elevating Curtis to the status of martyr to the cause of individualism, the film absorbs the anger it has milked from the audience and shunts it towards pretty-boy Joe who is now expected to serve as the audience’s mouthpiece. Will he side with the Communist stooges and working class thugs who blinded his best friend, or will he do the right thing? Think once, think twice, think that trade unions are morally-bankrupt institutions and that rampant individualism is the only basis for civil society.
While the political analysis driving The Angry Silence is little more than a right-wing paranoid fantasy, it does reflect what some people happened to believe at the time. Post-War British politics rested upon a balance of power between government, business, and the trade unions and while trade unions were still hugely powerful at the time this film was made, many people ardently believed that the secret to unlocking Britain’s wealth and potential was to dismantle the state, smash the unions and allow business to run the country with an iron fist. In the late-1950s, such people were political outliers but their views would eventually become so popular that by the mid-2010s, you have members of the Labour party struggling to distance themselves from the suggestion that basic utilities transport should not be run for profit. As such, The Angry Silence is not just a work of right-wing propaganda and a beautifully constructed moral fantasy, it’s an opportunity to gain some insight into how present political realities were invented and enforced.