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Masarykova univerzita v Brně

Filozofická fakulta

Katedra anglistiky a amerikanistiky

Bakalářská diplomová práce

2006 Petra Lacková

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Masaryk University in Brno
Faculty of Arts

Department of English
and American Studies

English Language and Literature

Petra Lacková

Underclass And Its Representations In The


Contemporary British Cinema

B.A. Major Thesis

Supervisor: doc. Mgr. Milada Franková, CSc., M.A.

2005

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I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.

……………………………………………..
Author’s signature

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I would like to thank doc. Mgr. Milada Franková, CSc., M.A. for her kind help and

understanding, and Iveta Frízlová, Karolína Štěpánová and John Evans for their valuable

and practical advice.

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Contents
I. INTRODUCTION……………………………………………………….……6
II. SURPLUS SOCIETY…………………………………………………………8
III. THE RISE OF AN “UNDERCLASS”………….…………………………..11
IV. UNDERCLASS ON THE SCREEN…………………………………….…..18
V. A TALE ABOUT THE MALE IN BRASSED OFF
AND FULL MONTY.……………………………………………..22
VI. THE PERFECT DAYS IN TRAINSPOTTING...........................................28
VII. CONCLUSION………………………………………………………………31
VIII. BIBLIOGRAPHY……………………………………………………………33

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Introduction

The social reality of the working class has become one of the main issues of the

roaring debates in Britain under the Conservative Government at the end of the 80’s. Many

have argued about the emergence of a new class, characterised by people who suddenly

find themselves as outcasts at the fringe of society. Whether this constantly growing group

of impoverished people could be easily identified by certain common features, and what

these features should be, is still a part of an unresolved question. The theme of this so-

called underclass was popularised by a number of films and books which showed how this

new social phenomena was to be regarded. Trainspotting, dealing with irresponsible and

careless drug addicts, became one of the most celebrated items of modern youth culture in

Britain. Brassed Off and The Full Monty give us a vibrant and heart-warming picture of

working class men who lose their jobs but manage to keep their minds cheerful and their

lives full of joy.

In my work, I intend to show that this type of underclass film was, in a way, a

response to the debate in academic and political circles, and announced the return of class-

consciousness and the interest in community life. Firstly, I will look at the historical, social

and political context in which an underclass was developing. I will follow the

contemporary debate on underclass and present explanations and descriptions of this social

group that either reject or give validation to the use of this term. I will argue that although

the concept of underclass is rather problematic, there is enough evidence to suggest the

existence of a certain marginalized social class that shares several characteristics.

Secondly, I will describe how a specific form of popular culture, the cinema, handled the

issue of underclass and what were the circumstances that led to the reintroduction of

social-oriented cinema in the 90’s. In underclass films, the rise of underclass is

accompanied by the loss of working class traditions and values, which is the result of

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changes in the labour market. I plan to show that underclass films focus on a number of

common themes, and for this purpose I have chosen three films. In Full Monty and

Brassed Off, underclass is depicted in relation to unemployment, untying of community

bonds and the loss of traditional gender roles. Trainspotting focuses on the portrayal of

youth underclass as a specific subculture and social exclusion as a matter of free will.

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Surplus society

In the last few decades, as the gap between the economically well off and the most

disadvantaged widened, the questions surrounding all different forms of inequality have

taken up central stage in social, political and economical spheres. The main concerns are

the possible causes of poverty and the ways it should be dealt with. Opinions on this

matter differ dramatically, ranging from some conservative views pointing to deviant

behaviour and unwillingness to become fully active members of society, to those views

that look for causes of economic disadvantage in social change and structure.

The notion of the unwanted, savage, outsider group of impoverished people has

been in the minds of populations since the dawn of societal life. It was with the rise of

theories on social structure in the nineteenth century, that the category of the poor gained a

new dimension. They were portrayed as “a threat to social organization” and such terms as

“the redundant population, the lumpenproletariat, the street folk, the social outcasts, the

residuum, and the dangerous classes” were common (Morris 2). The dominant view

followed that poverty was the result of an individual failure and ignorance and thus, the

state was not responsible for providing any help for “the idle man […] who will not work

according to his faculty”, but he should be left to “perish according to his necessity”

(Carlyle 177, qtd. in Morris 12). These ideas reached their height with the popularisation

of social Darwinism and eugenics that stressed selection and biological predispositions of

humans to become either desirable members of society or an inferior breed on its margins.

The abandonment of the poor was justified.

In fact, the biggest fear of the state was that financial support to the poor would

lead to the creation of a culture of dependency in which people would voluntarily stay out

of work and this behavioural pattern would be projected onto future generations. Not until

the end of the First World War did the attitudes poverty change. The rise of the welfare

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state was an intractable outcome of the post war conditions characterised by the

inconsolable economic hardships of some groups in society, especially of soldiers

returning from the front. From the start, there were attempts to draw a kind of line between

those who deserved to be helped and the idlers who only wanted to live at others’ expense.

The distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor had been popular even before,

and this categorizing continued to be in use throughout the twentieth century and is still

apparent in many current policies.

However, policies attempting to establish what type of people qualify for social

benefits, proved extremely problematic and had negative affects related to the fear of being

stigmatised and potentially excluded from society. “The right to benefits is dependent upon

discouraging, demoralising and humiliating procedure” in which “claimants are called

upon to prove their worth” (Morris 53). Morris argues that the very instrument of material

relief has become the means of social stigma and exclusion, and is increasingly associated

with speculation about an emerging British “underclass” (56).

In Britain, this new “class” started forming in the 80’s under the Conservative

programme of Margaret Thatcher’s government whose political tendencies revolved

around the idea that “there is no such thing as society; there are only individual men and

women and there are families” (Jones 97). Her instincts were towards individualism, mass

consumerism and competitiveness, and her project focused on strengthening the powers of

central government and supporting private enterprise at the expense of large national

companies and trade unions. The idea was to reduce the expenditures on industry and

invest in the more profitable and flexible area, the service sector. Thus, the collapse of

Britain’s manufacturing base followed and thousands of workers lost their jobs.

Although the rate of unemployment rose due to the decline in manufacturing jobs,

the commitment to full employment was abandoned and the government introduced severe

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cutbacks in welfare benefits. The aim was to prevent the rise of state dependency among

the unemployed, and encourage the development of local labour markets, mainly in the

service sector. Sacked miners and other skilled labourers found themselves without future

prospects for work in regions hit by acute lack of jobs. Thus the state “created a division

between those who were the beneficiaries of the Thatcher years-not only the very rich but

also the new ‘service class’ in the private sector and core workers in the growth industries-

and the losers-especially ‘peripherical’ workers, the long-term unemployed and the new

poor” (Hill 7).1 Thatcher’s propagation of the view that those who failed in society did not

have rights against those who succeeded, and gave credence to many voices that tried to

depict the new “underclass” as not worthy of public assistance.

The Rise of an “Underclass”?


1
Hill, John. British Cinema in the 1980s

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Since the emergence of the concept of an “underclass”, a raging debate around its

meaning has taken place among scholars and in public circles. But no single definition has

yet emerged. The term was invented to describe a marginalized group that is somehow

shut out from the rest of society. It came into usage at the time when the critics of social

inequality started to feel the urge to define a separate category that would reflect possible

explanations for poverty. The continuous discussion on this topic left many asking what it

was that drove people into the trap of separation from the majority of population. Was it

the passive attitudes and unwillingness of people to accept the rules of modern capitalism

and consumerism that made them outsiders of mainstream society? Or did the cause of

deteriorating living conditions of the working classes lie in the inefficient market economy

and “the structured inequality which disadvantages particular groups in society” (Morris

80)?

First, let us have a closer look at the origins and explanations of the underclass

issue. Although the term “underclass” was first in use at the beginning of the twentieth

century and referred to the majority of society oppressed by the capitalist “overclass”, it

was a sociologist Gunnar Myrdal who came with a new contemporary term to define a

group of people who became victims of the changing post-industrial economic system of

the West (MacDonald 4). He spoke about “an unprivileged class of unemployed,

unemployables and underemployed who are more and more hopelessly set apart from the

nation at large and do not share in its life, ambitions and its achievements” (qtd. in Gans

142). His concept, however, soon became transformed and developed various ideological

associations. Ken Auletta, an American journalist, who made the term “underclass”

famous not only within academic circles, included in his category the types of behaviour

and values that were, in his view, characteristic of the new class. He depicts them as

people who cannot break out of poverty, usually due to their passivity or refusal. Long-

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term welfare recipients stand side by side with “hostile street criminals, drop-outs or drug

addicts”. Under the same category are “traumatised drunks, drifters, homeless and released

mental patients” (qtd. in Morris 81). His explanation tended to establish disparate types of

people as members of the same class and implied that their conduct was often the cause of

their miserable situation. By contrast, the American sociologist William Wilson who also

participated in the popularisation of the concept stressed the importance of the unequal

access to labour market over the conduct of underclass as the source of inequality.

These two different approaches suggested that the explanation of poverty could be

found either in social structure or the behaviour of underclass. The subsequent attempts in

analysing this term more or less grew in the direction of both theories. In Britain, the

turmoil around the possible emergence of a “new” class began with the arrival of the

American critic, Charles Murray, who claimed to be “a visitor from a plague area [coming]

to see whether the disease is spreading” (qtd. in MacDonald 9). In his words, underclass

was “a class of violent, unsocialized people who, if they became sufficiently numerous,

would fundamentally degrade the life of society” (“The British Underclass”). He pointed

out three trends causing the growth of the underclass, namely, dropping out from the

labour force by young males, single parenthood and violent crime.

In fact, Murray takes a rather conservative approach in arguing that the break down

of family values was brought about by the lack of socialization of young people. He claims

that in contemporary society young men fail to exercise any moral righteousness and

voluntarily keep out of suitable employment. Surely, without secure future prospects, they

do not represent partners perfect for marriage. Thus, young women who irresponsibly

conceive children with them find it more useful to become welfare recipients (“The British

Underclass”). He blames the welfare state for succumbing to the phenomenon of the

undeserving who become accustomed to state assistance, and for creating an unproductive

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community of social benefit dependants. Such dependency on generous benefits has led to

the deterioration of family and community values. As children tend to imitate the

behaviour of adults around them, they need positive role models to build up a sense of

morality. It is not possible for single mothers to raise their sons to be fully responsible

members of society. Without the presence of their fathers, many young men grow up to be

“idlers” who refuse to work and frequently develop criminal behaviour and drug addiction

(“Underclass” 27-33). As Murray concludes, “communities need families, communities

need fathers” (“Underclass” 29). However, in his later work The Bell Curve, his

controversy takes a new turn, when he credits the members of underclass with low

intelligence, and at the same time claims in his other theories, that they are rational

calculators evaluating the benefits of their idleness (MacDonald 7-13).

Murray’s incompatible theories aroused strong polemics and have many times been

rejected by other theorists of social inequality. Through the pages of the Sunday Times his

ideas gained popularity among wider audiences and enjoyed much support even from

influential politicians. His writings gave credit to the Conservative party programme

“Back to Basics” which emphasized the return to traditional values of marriage and family

(MacDonald 6). Some of his opponents considered the popularity of his thesis as a

possible instigator of many policies created to regulate the behaviour of underclass. Mann

has criticised Murray for drawing a picture of underclass as a social problem, instead of a

group who suffer social problems. He ironically states that in Murray’s theory, “the state

has provided not a safety net, but a feather bed” (106). According to Mann, these

assumptions have led many middle class observers to identify underclass in relation to its

negative connotations and this term should thus be avoided, unless carefully defined (165).

Similarly, the Labour MP Frank Field is not much in favour of this term as for him it

already carries in itself ideological assumptions about underclass. In his conception of the

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most marginalized group are those who involuntarily find themselves in long-term

unemployment, single parents and the retired. They all suffer from being locked out of the

rising living standards and the hardening of public attitudes towards those who “have

failed to ‘make’ it in Mrs Thatcher’s Britain” (2-3).

The protagonists of these structural theories agree that the impoverished groups are

more vulnerable to restricted job opportunities and are often unlikely to succeed in the

imbalanced labour market. Nevertheless, detailed research is needed to show to what

extent the low commitment to work, as suggested by Murray, is the cause of high

unemployment rates among the disadvantaged. In his survey among Sheffield respondents,

Duncan Gallie found that although “long-term unemployed experienced high levels of

material deprivation,” there was no evidence of the unemployed underclass “becoming

unemployable as their values adjust to the lack of work, or […] as having political and

cultural values distinct from those of the working class” (qtd. in Buck 279). Other studies

have focused on proving whether the underclass can be said to be sharing their own

version of sub-culture. The findings of Jonathan Bradshaw and Hilary Holmes led them to

relinquish the concept of underclass, as its members “are just the same people as the rest of

our population, with the same culture and aspirations, but with simply too little money to

be able to share in the activities and possessions of everyday life with the rest of the

population” (qtd. in “Underclass” 8). In addition, on reviewing several studies, Elaine

Kempson concluded that people with a lack of finance should not be counted as an

underclass, as their ambitions towards getting a job good enough to ensure a decent house

and living are just like those of other people; however, she continues to argue that the

increase in income and living standards of the rest of society makes it even more difficult

for the disadvantaged to reach their “fairly modest aspirations” (qtd. in “Underclass” 8).

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In order to disperse the mist around the concept of the underclass, the debate has

concentrated on other problematic issues raised by Murray and his opponents. Many

scholars became interested in the role of socialization in the self-recreation of the

underclass and the idea that specific inequality traits might be passed from one generation

to another. It has been suggested that certain sub-cultural influences do exist but, in

general, poor socialization and the absence of role models do not lead to the continuity of

disadvantage among the poor (Morris 94). Furthermore, Lydia Morris challenges Murray’s

ideas on unreliable single mothers by arguing that although women gained much freedom

after the collapse of traditional gender roles and the majority are in paid employment, their

job possibilities are still limited, particularly when coupled with the obligations of

motherhood. This inevitably leads to a kind of dependency, either on state or their

husbands. Thus, women face a dilemma; “as benefit dependents they are stigmatized

members of the ‘underclass’, and as such are failing in their distinctively ‘female’ role of

socializing the next generation” (Mingione 165-66). According to Morris, this view puts

women in an ambiguous position and can negatively affect the policies aimed at single

mothers.

Similarly, in questioning the guilt factor of young people in their own degradation,

Robert MacDonald avers to the fact that many policies designed to deal with the

underclass tend to be directed at youth, such as the reduction of benefits to single mothers,

tightening of laws associated with “the clubbing culture” and the boom in workfare

programmes for the young (19). For these reasons, he implies, the debate on the underclass

should mainly focus on the problems related to young people. Unlike Murray who

emphasized the unwillingness of them to find jobs, MacDonald sees the primary cause of

high unemployment among the young as being “the rapid collapse of employment

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opportunities for school leavers and young people” (20). He stresses the impact of

economic transition and of hostile policies on the chances of young people.

MacDonald also managed to incorporate in his definition a cultural aspect,

claiming that the underclass is a “structurally separate and culturally distinct” group of

people who “share some similar cultural outlooks, values and activities” (3-4). This is

particularly true in terms of youth underclass. In addition, Enzo Mingione includes

psychological factors in his concept from which is derived a compelling understanding of

the phenomenon of underclass. He remarks that poverty is directly connected to high

levels of unemployment and exclusion from the labour market. In Britain, it is the long-

term unemployed father trapped in an area where job opportunities are scarce, which as a

consequence negatively affects his family’s prospects and outlook. As Mingione observes:

This is due to the fact that the difficulty in finding a stable, sufficiently well-paid

job, unfavourably concentrated among individuals and social groups with low

educational and vocational qualifications condemned to living in city areas offering

few opportunities, is part of vicious circle of cumulative interlinked causation. The

loss of self-confidence, physical and psychological illness, stigmatisation of failure,

alcohol or drug-abuse, the difficulty in forming or maintaining a ‘normal’ family

cohabitation and a ‘proper’ housing arrangement are all interconnected elements

which appear in the stages of the life history of the socially excluded (27-28).

In fact, the impact of such factors as alcoholism or the release from prison on one’s

decision to find a job is minimal, if there is a favourable employment climate. Mingione

maintains that the main cause behind the impoverishment of certain groups is the lack of

suitable job opportunities (28).

As has been shown above, the underclass cannot be seen as a homogenous group,

as it is almost impossible to capture its form and size due to the lack of a comprehensive

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definition. Many factors have to be taken into account when explaining the causes of

impoverishment, such as the functioning of the labour market and the complexity of the

processes of social exclusion. Some theories warn that the state tends to play the part of a

host for those who usually fall into hardship due to their own misconduct. However, most

critics have suggested that the emphasis should be put on changes in social life brought

upon by the transformation of ‘traditional’ economic and family life.

Whichever explanation is considered valid, it has been argued that the concept of

the underclass can be used to draw attention to the poverty problem and serve to present

powerful messages. Some critics point out that the “underclass idea is simplistic and

politically dangerous” and “ the use of stigmatising labels is likely to lead to stigmatising

policies” (“Underclass” 9-10). It often serves the privileged to label a certain group of

people as problematic and unwanted, and thus to propagate unsympathetic views of the

underclass. For this reason, many fear the consequences of suggesting the existence of a

group whose members choose not to conform to the demands of society and find their way

in life as voluntary welfare dependents. Despite these implications, it would be a mistake

to completely condemn the existence of the underclass, as most evidence points to the

emergence and growth of a deprived group characterized in terms of social exclusion and

economic marginalisation. It is, therefore, necessary to use the term in such a way as to

draw attention to the increasing gap between the powerful and underprivileged and the

social, economic and political causes of economic deprivation.

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Underclass On The Screen

From academic and political circles, underclass sneaked into the attention of

popular culture and made its way onto the screen. With the departure of Margaret Thatcher

from political scene, British filmmakers felt the urge to point out to the state of society

Thatcher left behind. Film makers became increasingly interested in portraying this

impoverished social class which suffered from long-term unemployment, criminality and

segregation. This focus on the depiction of underrepresented groups on the margins of

labour market was nothing new, as the use of social realism has traditionally been a

distinguishing factor of British cinema in which realistic characters “wear cloth caps not

top hats” (Hill 250).2 The preceding 80’s continued in this vein with the popularity of

heritage films, mainly being concerned with national identity and were mostly targeted at a

middle class audience. The arrival of underclass films was therefore, “defined in

opposition to middle class comedies and backward looking war films of the period” (Hill

250)3. They attempted to attract wider audiences and to challenge long-established ideas

about British identity and societal values.

Among the underclass films, there were three that shone above the others – Full

Monty, Brassed Off and Trainspotting. All of them were hugely successful internationally

and have many similarites. They discuss the fragmentation of working class identity,

experience with unemployment and poverty, geographical marginalisation or the alienation

of modern youth. Satire has its moment with sentiment, and regional and national

stereotypes blend with changing roles and structures in society, with images of factory

chimneys being followed by images of junkie squats. These films wanted to move away

from the social realism of earlier eras, and while using realist details, they added imagery,

fantasy and popular music to their portrayal of post-industrial Britain.

2
Hill, John. “From the New Wave to ‘Brit Grit’”
3
Ibid

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Most of these underclass films are set in areas where traditional heavy industries

are in decline and abandoned factories are slowly falling apart. The prospering south is

contrasted to a “forgotten” north with scenes of London‘s modern constructions colliding

with scenes of urban dereliction. The decaying north is best depicted in one of the earlier

films, Derek Jarman’s The Last of England. It is a dark vision of a desert region dominated

by old factory chimney, empty industrial buildings and unexploited coal pits. The “Wind

of change” blew over here and sirens announce “the best mines of the country destroyed

by madness.” In this forsaken land, the white lies of bureaucrats murder hope and

“tomorrow has been cancelled due to lack of interest.” Like the characters in

Trainspotting, the young in Jarman’s film refuse to drink brandy and would rather inject

drugs and sniff solvents.

In the way these films are bound to specific locations that have been hit by the loss

of their manufacturing base, and suffer from urban decay, they also construct special

communities with a strong sense of local attachment. It‘s community life and geographical

location are tied to its working class traditions. Yet, what the underclass films highlight, is

the decline of this way of life, the break-up of communities through the experience of

unemployment and poverty. Underclass members are shown “as victims of harsh

economic conditions” which are “responsible for yet further erosion of working class
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traditions” (Hill 251). The characters in the films respond by trying to retie community

bonds, although it mostly concerns only the male half of community. The group’s

comradeship in Full Monty gets them through hard times and the only hope for the

dismissed miners in Brassed Off is to keep their brass band together.

Apart from the issue of community, underclass is displayed mainly in its

relation to unemployment and social and economic changes. The characters in Brassed Off

and The Full Monty are portrayed as the victims of restructuring of labour market and the
4
Ibid

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consequent loss of male working class labour. “These films show that what the Victorians

called the ‘undeserving poor’, lack regular employment, are tempted into criminality, are

plagued by lone sharks, and are banished to bleak, crumbling housing estates, though

capable of resilience and humour, had the odds stacked against them” (Murphy 292). 5 Men

who were members of the working class “sweat” for the bloom of their country, were

without any warning left to live on nothing, unable to fulfil their roles as breadwinners,

forgotten by society. Women in Brassed Off spend their time striking for the preservation

of the pit but the men already lost their will to fight. As Hallam notes, the films depict

underclass identity “not as the collective political unity of a group in society but as a site

for exploring the personal stagnation, alienation and social marginalisation of their white

male characters” (261). Moreover, loss of jobs is accompanied by loss of dignity and self-

confidence in the face of society disapproval.

The male characters’ sense of powerlessness is closely connected to the reshaping

of long-established assumptions about masculinity and the decline of patriarchal society.

The feminisation of the labour market meant that women took up the public space

traditionally associated with men who, having lost their jobs, were forced out of their place

in society. The crisis in male economic and social roles blends with the crisis between men

and women and thus, the films’ “sympathetic portrayals of working class men as

physically redundant in the workplace and emotionally retarded at home create an image

of masculinity in crisis” (Hallam 266). While the male characters in The Full Monty sit

around in a job centre or practise in the abandoned factory for their big night, the women

in the film go to fulltime work and enjoy their leisure time in an ex-men’s club. The only

major female character in Trainspotting, Diane, is presented as a self-conscious woman

who terrorizes Renton with her demands. And ironically enough, Gloria in Brassed Off,

the only one with a respectable job, works for the enemy. All things considered, the
5
Murphy, Robert. “Citylife: Urban Fairy-tales in Late 90s British Cinema.”

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underclass films introduce a discontented male hero who has to get used to the lack of

employment and his non-voluntary disempowerment (Monk 159).6

Lastly, I will discuss the theme of youth underclass as it is portrayed in

Trainspotting. Here, underclass is presented as a subcultural movement and jobless lives

are adopted as a lifestyle priority. Although “the majority of the characters are confident in

their ability to learn and adapt within the wider culture and economy if they choose so,”

they stick to taking heroin and earning money on the drug market rather than going with

the flow of consumer society that has nothing to offer (Lury 107).

A Tale About the Male in Brassed Off and Full Monty

The government’s arrogant frivolity in profit calculation and the workers’

embitterment over the upcoming economic changes are discussed in Mark Herman’s
6
Monk, Claire. “Men in the 90s”

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Brassed Off. The story follows a North Yorkshire band whose members are mostly

employed as miners with local mining company. The band faces an uncertain future, not

having enough money to support their rehearsals. The situation becomes even more

appalling when the government decides to close the local pit as part of its large-scale

programme of economic “reformation”. The miners are offered higher redundancies only

if they decide immediately and vote for pay off instead of review of the mines case. Under

the pressure of falling into serious financial difficulties after loosing their jobs, many

workers start to give up on their will to fight the management and slowly sink into the

deep waters of depression and resentment. One of the women, who still demonstrate in

front of the factory against the pit closure, reminds us about the coal miner’s strike in 1984

when Thatcher’s attempt to undermine trade union power reached its first peak. She

upbraids her husband for surrendering to exploiting authorities and wonders how he can be

interested only in his music and band in these worrying times, to which he promptly

replies: “at least people listen to us”.

The cold ignorance of the officials is once again shown when Gloria, who after

returning to her hometown and joining the colliery band, tries to save the pit by elaborating

a report on the viability of the local pit for the British Coal Board, only to discover that the

decision to close the pit had been made two years ago and nothing can change it. As one of

the managers puts it with mockery, “coal is history”. Ironically enough, this comment

leaves most of the local people without jobs and hope for a brighter future. Phil, the son of

the passionate bandleader Danny, cannot pay his old debts off and when his property is

confiscated, his desperate wife packs up and runs away with their children. After he

performs as a clown for children in a church, he blames God for creating the Tory party

and “Margaret bloody Thatcher”, he unsuccessfully tries to commit suicide. Due to the

support of his friends he is able to get back on his feet and finally manages to persuade the

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crushed band members to take part in the finals in Royal Albert Hall, the biggest success in

the band’s history. Danny, who gets up from his “death bed” and comes to London to

witness the triumphant victory of his band, he tells the overwhelmed audience the truth

about the fate of these excellent musicians who were betrayed by their own country. “I

thought that music mattered but people matter more”. He refuses to accept the prize given

out by the government that destroyed the entire industry and communities, “all in the name

of progress”.

Similarly, The Full Monty leads us to “the industrial crown of Yorkshire”,

where the impact of the progress planned during the Thatcher years is evident. Sheffield,

once a lively place full of shopping centres, rich nightlife and “housing of the future”

gained its fame and attractiveness due to its primary industry – steel. After the widespread

closing of steel works many workers became unemployed and the possibilities for skill

workers on the labour market decreased immensely.

The film gives a witty and understanding insight into the life of a group of steel

welders whose living and relationships are threatened by their long-term unemployment.

Gaz has a criminal history; unable to get a proper job, he needs quick money to pay back

aliment to be able to retain the joint custody of his son. His friend Dave is a just man who

has low self-confidence feeling he is too fat and impotent, which in turn makes him so.

The two save the life of Lomper who, having no job, no friends and an old mother to take

care of, tries to end his life in his car. Gerald, the most professional of the group, lost his

job and has not found the courage to tell his wife for six months in fear he would not be

able to keep their middle class standard of living.

They all usually meet in a job club until the day Gaz comes with an exciting idea.

They decide to sort their despairing situation out by becoming strip dancers and giving a

show in a local pub. Peter Cattaneo offers a positive and entertaining insight into working

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class background and shows that the life of unsuccessful and desperate job seekers does

not always have to be miserable. There are ways of getting over the obstructions in life and

making the best out of what it brings us, though it is not always the sweetest of berries.

And The Full Monty crew get it right. Or do they?

Several typical features characteristic of underclass are shown and described in the

films discussed above. Both films focus on the consequences of Thatcher’s “post-

industrial” programme on working class and the industrial regions of the north. In The Full

Monty, all characters involved in the plan to become strippers suffer from long-term

unemployment brought upon them by fiendish governmental policies and increasing

inequalities in the economy system. The shut down of the local factory created an

environment in which there is no demand for skilled labour and the possibilities in the

local labour market are generally very scarce. In turn, the men become dependant on the

state that does not give them much opportunity to reach their modest aspirations

whatsoever. Although, the miners in Brassed Off still count as members of working class

during the first half of the film, after years of heavy strikes, they loose their painful battle

for keeping their poor living standards. In these worrying times, they all struggle to

manage with their low wages and they find it hard to collect enough money to support

their rehearsals and to keep their band going. Phil is already in big financial trouble, trying

to support his numerous family and pay off his mortgage. Even though the film leaves us

with a rather heartwarming open ending, it is not difficult to imagine the possible future of

our brass players on the local labor market.

As we are reminded, becoming a member of underclass can arouse tendencies

towards criminal behaviour. Having poked his empty pockets, Phil is tempted to steal a

new instrument from a music shop window but is dragged away from this idea by his

friends. And two members of The Monty crew, Gaz and Dave, get involved in the thievery

24
of an iron frame and seem to enjoy occasional shoplifting in local supermarket. Despite the

innocent nature of these crimes, unkike the harder crimes in Trainspotting, the films

highlight the complex relationship between unemployment and criminality.

The films also serve as a commentary on the contemporary social trend of the

break-up of the nuclear family, which is encouraged by the loss of jobs and the inevitable

welfare dependency. In The Full Monty Gaz’s ex-wife chooses a stable and financially

better off man rather than watching her son follow the steps of his unemployed father-

criminal. Phil in Brassed Off gets home from a band concert to find his house empty and

his wife packing their children in a car to drive them to a “safer” place. Here, Charles

Murray might turn our attention back to his words about carefree mothers who

irresponsibly leave their unemployed husbands to resort to the more “comfortable” lives

on social benefits. Phil’s wife, however, comes back to support him during his triumph in

Carnegie Hall. Her escape is more a result of long-lasting troubles and a desperate attempt

to spare her children from life in poverty, rather than a well-thoughtout act of a cold-

hearted woman.

Although, women do not take central stage in these two films, they serve as a

platform for the demonstration of changing gender roles. The scene showing a female

audience at a stripshow in a former men’s club and the fact that more women than men

have regular jobs suggest that they “have usurped men’s roles and territory” (Monk 281).7

With the development of service factor, women were given the possibility to give up their

domestic lives and take on regular jobs to contribute to their household expenses. The

wives in The Full Monty work full time and Gloria in Brassed Off has a job in the services,

working for management. While women display many masculine characteristics and take

up their husbands’ roles as breadwinners, “men are depicted as crippled and mostly

7
Monk, Claire. “Underbelly UK. The 1990’s Underclass Film, Masculinity and the Ideologies of
‘New’ Britain.”

25
economically impotent which proceeds into the other parts of their lives” (Monk 281).8

The male characters are negatively affected by loss of self-confidence and sense of shame

for not being able to meet the expectations connected to their masculinity roles. As Gaz

puts it, “a few years more, and men won’t exist, except in the zoo. We’re obsolete.

Dinosaurs. Yesterday’s news.”

The men in the films respond to their male disempowerment by sticking together

and trying to maintain a sense of community and comradeship. In Brassed Off, Hallam

notices, ”keeping the band together and making sure it continues to play symbolizes a

rather desperate attempt to maintain the collective dignity of the community and keep its

values intact” (266). However, what we can see is a band composed only of male players

and Gloria gets access into the band only due to her relationship to a former bandleader.

Similarly, in Full Monty we are presented with “a group of men pulling together in times

of trouble to overcome adversity,” which brings a “rather stereotyped image of working

class life […] people laughing and joking together through hard times” (Hallam 266).

What the films point to is that members of the “new underclass”, being outcasts on the

edge of society left to their individual hardships, urge for the return of working class

values of life in their communities.

Both films give an account of a predominantly male underclass who suffer from

unemployment in economically marginalized areas. They try to cope with economic

exclusion by adopting the values of collectivity and community. Monk suggests that “in

proposing that this community is organised around shared male emotions rather than class,

The Full Monty and Brassed Off re-frame the economic oppressions of long-term

unemployment as problems of male self-doubt and/or gender oppression by women”

(282). Yet, the depicted redundancy of men both on the labour market and in relation to

their gender roles just points to the fact, that they were made redundant as members of
8
Ibid

26
society in whole. As Hallam sums up, the male characters in the films seem to long for

“the stability of secure employment, the weekly pay packet, Saturday night at the work

men’s club and clearer demarcation of gender roles between men and women” (267).

The Perfect Days in Trainspotting

One of the most popular and widely discussed film of the 90’s, Trainspotting

brings an image of young working-class junkies who grew up in a society “damaged by

consumerism and market economy” (Welsh). The film illustrates their alienation from and

disapproval of society that values commodity and therefore never gets away from an

27
endless toil and chase for money. They grow up in a society where the main institutions of

socialization, in the interest of passing the values of society onto new generations, raise the

youth to become fully efficient components in the economic machinery. And in the times

of individualisation and competition, you have to “work your guts out” to succeed in the

game of winners and losers. As the main character, Renton, tells us, you are supposed to:

“Choose life. Choose a job, choose a career, choose a family. Choose a fucking big

television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players […] I chose not to choose

life, I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reason

when you’ve got heroin.” And heroin is not such a terrible alternative to “normal” life after

all.

Yet, the life on drugs has its pros and cons for the characters in Trainspotting.

Renton and his friends live from day to day in the constant need of a shot, which drives

them into the turmoil of notorious criminality. They are all messed up. Renton joins Spud

in his self-destructive addiction and habitual thievery. Sick Boy’s baby dies while he is

enjoying the highs on heroin with the baby’s mother. Even though Begbie loathes the

other’s disgusting drug habits, he likes to immerse himself in heavy drinking and seems to

be addicted to violent rages. And the only thing that keeps Tommy away from the drug

culture is his girlfriend and when she breaks up with him, Tommy joins his mates in the

heroin rides. Neither Renton nor the rest of his friends seem to question their addicted

lifestyles too often or show desire to move to another type of life. But after he is arrested

and admitted to hospital, everything seems to change for Renton. In an attempt to escape

his life in the drug underworld, he tries to kick the habit and after a cold turkey period,

finds a job in London. But the “easy” days spent with his mates are too much of a

temptation and he is soon back in his old ways. With the taste of an “ordinary” life still on

his tongue and having to witness the degeneration of the rest of the crew, Renton finally

28
chooses his life. He grabs the money they all got from a drug deal and runs off back to

London.

The film offers a picture of underclass subculture in several shapes. As is also the

case in The Full Monty and Brassed Off, underclass is connected to a specific cultural

milieu and in Trainspotting, it is in a deprived area in Edinburgh, a place well known for

its junkie underworld. The choice of Scotland is also symbolic, as “it raises a set of

interesting issues around the notion of ‘Britishness’ and of Scotland’s relationship to it

(McLoone 184). While Scotland is depicted as a subordinate, neglected and rotting place,

we are given the most clichéd images of London, the glory of Britain, “the city of

delights.” We can see why Renton decides for London as the starting point for his new life,

in his confession of what it takes to be Scottish: “we are the lowest of the low […] It’s a

shite state of affairs and all the fresh air in the world will not make any fucking

difference.” Ironically, he is not speaking only about the peculiarities of Scottish versus

British identity, but also gives a statement about his place among “the scum” in society.

Trainspotting does not attempt to add a moral undertone to its narration but it aims

to map out the culture of drug dependency in a non-judgmental fashion. It does not

demean its characters for preferring heroine highs in a culture driven by an obsession with

commodity and brands.

In a society where identity is based not on who you are or where you come from

but on what you consume, heroine is the ultimate consumer product. If what you

consume is the hallmark of your identity, socially sanctioned goods and objects

become a sign of social conformity; taking drugs is one way of demonstrating

personal alienation and a rejection of establishment values (Hallam 269).

29
Yet, Trainspotting acknowledges that heroin is not only the drug of the underclass and the

urban poor, as it came to be regarded, it tries to show heroin as a popular part of the youth

life in modern Britain (Brooks 67).

Unlike in Full Monty and Brassed Off, where the male characters were victims of

the economic situation, underclass life in Trainspotting is a matter of choice and

acceptance. As Renton shows us, he can leave the life in poverty if he chooses. In his own

words, “it’s not misery, it’s pleasure. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it.” Monk writes that

Trainspotting “framed the male underclass not as a ‘social problem’” but “in terms of an

appealing subculture of dissent from the demands of adulthood, women and work” (161).9

However, the society is not without blame. Renton and his friends feel the pressure to

adopt the “normal” lifestyle, otherwise they will stay outcasts to society, the values of

which are distant to them. Robert Carlyle, who plays Begbie in the film, make us aware

that “it’s about the society that puts people in that situation, the level of nihilism that

means you’d rather lie smacked out in a corner than take part in life” (qtd. in Brooks 789).

Conclusion

The underclass films follow up the traditional social realist films of the postwar

period that focused on the depiction of working class, and also the 80s that were a response
9
Monk, Claire. “Men in the 90s”

30
to the economic changes of Thatcher’s years. British social cinema of the 90s, in contrast

to its predecessors, goes commercial and aims to attract wider audiences. The themes of

underclass and poverty are displayed in relation to a wide range of other issues of the

modern culture, and filmmakers transform the cinematic language typical for social realist

cinema, using new aesthetic approaches and adding imagery, sarcastic humour or popular

music. The underclass film speaks about the disruption of working class life and the shift

of values in society, from the recognition of community to the appreciation of

individualism. They present the inconsolable conditions of life in poverty, the demise of

patriarchal society and the retelling of gender roles. Moreover, they bring an image of the

everyday lives of youths “who elect to take heroin rather than face up to the tedious

alternative of dead-end jobs, marriage and mortgage” in consumer society (Brooks 89).

Some of the underclass films, mainly Trainspotting, were criticised by such

renowned directors of social realist cinema as Ken Loach or Mike Leigh for giving an

unrealistic and twisted picture of life in Britain. But neither the filmmakers nor Welsh who

cooperated on the script wanted Trainspotting to be a social realistic film. Danny Boyle,

the director, explains: “Social realism’s objective eye creates victims. I don’t know what

value showing that has any more. We’ve moved on from social welfare in Britain when it

was useful to identify victims. We collectively decided – and we elected Thatcher for

twelve years to do it – that we don’t want to do that anymore” (Brooks 68). Rather than

repeating the same story over and over again, Trainspotting wanted to become accessible

to the young audience by avoiding any moral conclusions. Lury observes that it does not

try to become a social commentary or an observation of the youth scene “Trainspotting,

rather than a commentary, becomes a brand itself” (105). For this reason, many film critics

and the media criticized Trainspotting for showing drug addictions as a great thing for the

youth to fill their long empty days. But the makers of Trainspotting refused these

31
accusations, arguing that they managed to show how disgusting the lives of junkies can be

and that is why Renton ran away from it (Brooks 92).

Although Brassed Off and The Full Monty do not reject the portrayal their

characters as victims of the system and societal changes, what the three films have in

common is their involvement in “re-branding of Britain” whose image around the world as

a “backward looking island immersed in its heritage” needed change (Monk 283). The

films show Britain as an open-minded, self-critical and class-conscious nation proud of its

of different regional identities. Unlike in the earlier times when there were attempts to

sweep poverty under the carpet and pretend it is not there, which culminated with the

arrival of Margaret Thatcher and her policies, the underclass films show that “‘new’

England is mature enough to acknowledge the presence of poverty, unemployment,

industrial unrest, regional decline and drug addiction within the fabric of the nation”

(Monk 283).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ashby, Justine, and Andrew Higson. British Cinema, Past and Present. London:

Routledge, 2001.

32
Brassed Off. Dir. Mark Herman. Perf. Ewan Mc Gregor, Stephen Tompkinson, Tara

Fitzgerald, and Pete Postlethwaite. Channel Four Films and Miramax, 1996.

Brooks, Xan. Choose Life: Ewan McGregor and the British Film Revival. London:

Chameleon, 1998.

Buck, Nick. “Social and Economic Change in Contemporary Britain: The Emergence

Of an Urban Underclass?” Mingione 277-98.

Field, Frank. Losing Out: The Emergence of Britain’s Underclass. Oxford: Basic

Blackwell, 1989.

Gans, Herbert. „From ‘Underclass‘ to ‘Undercaste‘.“ Mingione 141-52.

Hallam, Julia. “Film, Class and National Identity. Re-imagining Communities in the

Age Of Devolution.” Ashby and Higson 261-73.

Hill, John. British Cinema in the 1980s. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

---. “From the New Wave to ‘Brit-Grit’.” Ashby and Higson 249-60.

---. “Failure and Utopianism: Representations of the Working Class in British Cinema

of the 1990’s.” British Cinema of the 90’s. Ed.Murphy, Robert 178-87.

Jones, Gill. “Youth Homelessness and the ‘Underclass’.” MacDonald 96-112.

Lury, Karen. “Here and Then: Place and Nostalgia in British Youth Cinema of the

1990s.” British Cinema of the 90’s. Ed.Murphy, Robert. 100-108.

MacDonald, Robert, ed. Youth, the “Underclass” and Social Exclusion. London and

New York: Routledge, 2000.

Mann, Kirk. The Making of an English ‘Underclass‘? The Social Divisions of Welfare

and Labour. Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1992.

McLoone, Martin. “Internal Decolonisation? British Cinema in the Celtic Fringe.”

The British Cinema Book. Ed. Murphy, Robert. London: BFI Publishing,

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2001. 184-190.

Mingione, Enzo, ed. Urban Poverty and the Underclass. A Reader. Cambridge:

Blackweel Publishers, 1996.

Monk, Claire. “Underbelly UK. The 1990’s Underclass Film, Masculinity and the

Ideologies of ‘New’ Britain.” Ashby and Higson 274-87.

---. “Men in the 90’s.” British Cinema of the 90’s. Ed.Murphy, Robert. 156-66.

Morris, Lydia. Dangerous Classes: The Underclass and Social Citizenship.

Routledge: London, 1994.

Murphy, Robert, ed. British Cinema of the 90’s. London: British Film Institute, 2002.

---. “Citylife: Urban Fairy-tales in Late 90s British Cinema.” The British Cinema

Book. Ed. Murphy, Robert. London: BFI Publishing, 2001. 292-300.

Murray, Charles (1996). „Underclass: The Developing Debate.“ Civitas. 15 Nov.

2005 <http://www.civitas.org.uk/pdf/cw33.pdf>.

---. The British Underclass: Ten Years Later.” The Public Interest archives. Autumn

2001. The public Interest. 20 Nov. 2005

<http://www.thepublicinterest.com/archives/2001fall/article3.html>.

Shopping. Dir. Paul Anderson. Perf. Sadie Frost, Jude Law, and Sean Pertwee. Impact

Pictures, 1994.

The Full Monthy. Dir. Peter Cattaneo. Perf. Robert Carlyle, Tom Wilkinson, and

Mark Addy. Twentieth Century Fox, 1997.

The Last of England. Dir. Derek Jarman. Perf. Rupert Audley, Gay Gaynor and

Matthew Hawkins. 1987.

Trainspotting. Dir. Danny Boyle. Perf. Ewan McGreggor, Ewen Bremner, Johnny Lee

Miller, Kelly MacDonald, and Robert Carlyle. Polygram, 1996.

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Welsh, Irving. A short essay on the cover of Trainspotting DVD. 1996

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