The death of writer Alan Sillitoe, aged 82, has prompted a flurry of references to the 'Angry Young Men' generation of British playwrights and novelists. Over half a century ago a wave of new, young writers, some of them from working class backgrounds, challenged the stuffy conventions of postwar British theatre and literature. Sillitoe, who never felt comfortable with being labelled an 'Angry Young Man' (to put it politely), was one of the most prominent.
1956 is the year most critics and historians refer to as the landmark in the emergence of this generation, primarily because of the premiere of John Osborne's play 'Look Back in Anger'. It seems very tame now - and in my view 'The Entertainer', which followed soon after, is Osborne's real classic from this period - but at the time it generated much excitable comment. Kenneth Tynan, the most influential theatre critic of the age, famously said he couldn't love anyone who didn't want to go and see it.
Sillitoe's novel Saturday Night, Sunday Morning was part of what followed: published in 1958, and adapted into a film soon after, it was incredibly distinctive because it presented the experiences of an ordinary young factory worker.
In the areas of film, theatre and literature it was a shock to see not only working class people being represented prominently, but taken seriously and given complex characterisations which evoked the tensions of the time. In the 1950s Tynan had penned a very witty and mocking piece about what he called 'Loamshire' plays, in which the setting is always a genteel drawing room of a large country house, everyone speaks in a terribly stilted way, and working class people only appear as servants in the background. The new, post-'56 generation shattered the cosy complacency of that priveleged world.
Perhaps it is significant that 1956 was also of historic importance politically. The Suez crisis exposed the terminal decline of an exhausted British Empire, captured poetically in Osborne's 'The Entertainer', and there was widespread disillusionment with official Communism after the Soviet tanks crushed uprisings in Hungary.
In this country the New Left was born, influenced by those who left the Communist Party (disillusioned by the repression in Hungary) but also involving radicalised young people, who in the late 50s and early 60s would march with CND and question many of the assumptions of the postwar consensus.
The Angry Young Men were quickly joined, as the 60s got underway, by the Bright Young Satirists, poking fun at the powerful. One of the most famous sketches from 'Beyond the Fringe', the pathbreaking early 60s revue, was Peter Cook's mocking impersonation of Harold Macmillan, then Prime Minister, as a doddering old Tory duffer. This was regarded, when deference to those with power and privilege was still taken for granted, as remarkable.
That Was The Week That Was (TW3 for short), presented by that beacon of youthful subversiveness David Frost, broadcast weekly satire to millions in the early 60s. This innovative TV show signposted a shift in attitudes, most markedly amongst the young, which prefigured the cultural and political rebellions of the 1960s.
Sillitoe played his part in the cultural changes of the CND and New Left generation. He wasn't one of the most overtly political (like John Arden or, a little later, the Marxist playwright Edward Bond) and he largely ignored the rich and powerful who others were cocking a snook at. Neither was he artistically innovative to the same extent as Harold Pinter - but then, to be fair, very few people were.
He concentrated, instead, on dramatising the lives of those who had traditionally remained unseen. The frustrated young Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night, Sunday Morning is one example - and Albert Finney's embodiment of him in the 1960 film came to be viewed as representing a whole social phenomenon. Sillitoe was giving a voice to those he'd grown up with, but whose voices had rarely been heard in literary, theatrical or cinematic culture.
There was The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, again more famous as a film, which depicted a rebellious borstal boy. In fact Sillitoe, primarily because of these two films, was one of the writers principally responsible for the emergence in the 60s of British cinema which - in radically new ways - represented working class life.
Sillitoe was, alongside a number of other writers of his generation, almost unprecedented as a successful writer in having come from a working class background. He left school at 14 and, in his teenage years, was a keen reader alongside working in a factory. He had a tough time in his twenties: after getting tuberculosis while in the RAF, he spent several years recovering.
He went on to write many novels, but was also a poet and a writer of non-fiction and memoir. I suspect his dislike of the 'Angry Young Man' label was influenced by discomfort with the notion of being pigeonholed, when in fact his talents and subject matter were wide-ranging.
The Angry Young Man phenomenon was always politically complex. As the name suggests, it was still largely assumed that women would remain on the margins, although in theatre Joan Littlewood was as simultaneously artistically gifted and politically radical as any man. A number of writers, including Osborne, became more conservative; Kingsley Amis was sometimes seen as part of this wave, but he became a distinctly Grumpy Old Man of the Right. And it's undoubtedly true that what once seemed rebellious can now appear perfectly safe.
Despite all this, there are good reasons why I became so interested in the post-1956 era (especially in theatre) when I was a drama undergraduate a decade or so ago. What I found so intriguing and inspiring was the combination of political engagement and creativity: the passion for exploring our world - not merely individual lives as if they are floating free of society - so that human stories and dramas are bound up with big political themes.
There's still a lot we can take from that generation's search for a vocabulary - through theatre, literature, film - which is capable of achieving such ambitious aims.
This is also published at Counterfire.