British Cinema History Assignment TwoShane Gladstone9/12/02 A cultural and social analysis of the 1959 Rank film ‘Sapphire’ by Ralph Deardon and Michael Relph in 1,500 words.
The relaxation of film censorship laws in post-war Britain had by the late fifties brought about many changes in British Cinema. The most striking of these changes being its rapidly increasing willingness to deal with issues both social as well as artistic, the more contemporary the better.
1956 – 1963 could be seen as the ‘golden age’ of the social problem film (as it had now been dubbed) with classics such as ‘Cosh Boy’ (1959) ‘Violent Playground’ (1958) and ‘My Teenage Daughter’ (1956) appearing on our screens. These films dealt with issues as contemporary as juvenile delinquency, prostotution, homosexuality and race. The issues above were however always caused by the problem of youth and the advent of the teenager. Something unheard of just five years previous but now a prominent force, steering the good ship Albion through a turbulent sea of social change via sex, music and drug abuse. Causing what Stanley Cohen dubbed ‘ Moral Panic’ throughout the media and the predominantly conservative attitudes of the adult world. The advent of this new development dreamed up by the advertisers and named ‘The Teenager’ was due mainly to the abolishment of national service. Suddenly there was something that separated father and son and gave birth to a new class divide of sorts. Literally thousands of adolescents were now out working for real money and earning lots of it. No longer required to conform to the infrastructure of society as their parents and elder siblings had known it. They enjoyed an affluence previously unheard of among their peers. “The Sunday graphic in 1960 found a boy who could hang 127 worth of suits in his parents back yard, another who owned five suits, two pairs of slacks, one pair of jeans, five pairs of shoes, twenty five ties and an overcoat”(Sex, Class and Racism, John Hill 1986) The main distributor for Social Problem films was the Rank Organisation. It was here that from the early 1940’s onwards Producer Michael Relph and Director Ralph Deardon forged a solid working partnership born out of respect and social awareness. The pair spent close on a decade making a string of these pictures, all synonymous with the countries morals and social conscience. In their eyes cinema was the mass medium and the aforementioned relaxation of censorship allowed them to address relevant issues. This was done through the development of their own unique, genre defining, house style. By taking an already well-established existing genre such as crime or romance and following it’s main format, codes, conventions and narrative style (generally linear) before juxtaposing it with a relevant social issue. By doing this they achieved their initial aims: to give the masses a social conscience and to educate, entertain and inform their intended target audiences.
‘Sapphire’ the film I have chosen to represent this genre was made by Deardon &Relph in 1959 and unleashed on an uneasy society, where only half of whom were happy with the aforementioned progress regarding sex, race and the arts in general. Taking the established genre of the whodunit (damsel in distress,varied suspects, stiff upper lip quintessential English attitudes, charming detective, controversial outcome) but adding a distinct film-noir style to the narrative and mise en scene in particular (dark, shadowy lighting, moody characters, tension raising incidental music, seedy underground/back alley locations, femme fatale) they had created a social problem film that gave the viewer an almost novelistic snapshot of London life circa late fifties “1958, the young and the restless – the Absolute Beginners – were busy creating a new world of cool music, coffee bars and free love, as different from Mrs Dale and traditional England’s green and pleasant land as they dared make it” (taken from the preface of Colin MacInnes ‘Absolute Beginners 1959) The films main narrative is developed in a clichd linear style. Focusing on the murder investigation of an African Girl with white skin who had been engaged to be married to the son of lower middle class, self made, white man. A blatant social stereotype that did in no way approve of his only son, his own flesh and blood producing a child of mixed race. Operating around this are a number of relevant sub-plots: the advent of the teenage ‘young meteors’ (Jonathon Aitkin 1964), the racial tension in London at that time: beginning with the whites derogatory attitude towards the Jamaican race and climaxing with the Notting Hill Riots in 1959. And the plight of David’ divorced sister and single mother, Milly. By adapting this narrative they tapped into four social issues and purposefully set up a number of binary oppositions that operate around the narrative: black vs. white, good vs. evil, permissiveness vs. frigidity, wealth vs. work. The narrative continues its linear path right up till almost the last scene where the true identity of the killer is revealed (Milly) and we discover we have witnessed a crime of passion rather than a crime of racial hatred. Again Deardon and Relph expose how amoral a society we live in. The fact that we could ever even suspect a girl was killed for nothing but the colour of her skin proves that.
As I mentioned briefly in the paragraph above, there are four social issues looked at here all operating around each other in unison. When the film was released we were experiencing the early days of British Youth Culture and the teenagers decline in sexual standards was perceived as one of the many things threatening the nations values and interests “These long-haired, mentally unstable, petty little sawdust ceasers seem to find courage, like rats, by hunting only in packs…” (Dr George Simpson, Margate Court Chairman, Mod and Rocker beach riots, May 1964) Along with the creation of this new found permissive society the traditional female stereotype was hit hard and age old believes regarding pre-marital chastity and low expectations suffered. Women were constantly being addressed by the media and advertising agencies as both domestic housewives and sexy playmates. This caused confusion among the female population, half of which were now embarking on a quest for personal fulfilment and enlightenment while the other half still carried the belief that marriage and hard work was the primary gateway to independence and social status. In the pre teenage years women who did not conform to this were classed as outcasts. The female gender models I have discussed above are represented almost clinically in ‘Sapphires’ narrative. The presence of the deceased Sapphire has been built to correlate with the fears and anxieties of society regarding sexuality. The fact she manages to transgress the accepted stereotype of femininity and actively pursue her dreams while her eventual maker, the character of David’s sister Milly is cemented in a dead end job with two children and no husband seems painfully unfair. Add into that equation the fact that Sapphire is black and racial tension arises, if only used as a cover for what Milly really feels: Insane jealousy for what Sapphire has and she wants – to be loved. How could it ever be that a young black women in our country is having the time of her life while a poor, respected, white divorcee and mother has forgotten how its feels to be wanted? One of the main underlying issues of the narrative, the gender stereotypes and roles and how they have changed. “In these films women characters are pegs on which are hung critiques of aspects of contemporary society and as such they are mere abstractions, embodying respectively the problems of identity and permissiveness” (John Hill Sex, Class and Racism, 1983) This however lends itself to the primary issue being dealt with here: Race relations in London post-Notting Hill riots. The London of the late fifties was as cross-cultured as ever but small-minded opinions depicting blacks as a lower class were still harboured in many communities. As word spread through the city and tension rose due to media sensationalism strength was found in numbers and a series of attacks were carried out. ” Wilf gets around the area and he say there trouble coming for the Blacks” (Colin McInnes Absolute Beginners 1959) Deardon and Relph used Sapphire as a vehicle to show how illogical the issue of race was. Using authentic London locations in and around the capital they gave the racial issues in particular a very authentic feel. An instant contrast between black and white was apparent and their respective communities highlighted differences in class, status, style and wealth. The dignity of a coloured community living on the edge of racial hate, juxtaposed with white communities represented predominantly by student-orientated colleges, coffee bars and middle-class residences (Bayswater). Race relations had been particularly topical during 1958 and the Notting Hill Riots, which had seen black and white take to the streets of London, fuelled by a hatred for each other’s values and believes. Proud, lower middle class white people who felt they had lost everything they believed took to the streets in vigilante gangs, only to be met by the Blacks intent on defending their families and homes at whatever cost. ‘Sapphire’ represents these attitudes through the ignorance and disgust of David’s family and the mistrust shown by the hetrogenic superintendent Hazard’s right hand man.
Hazard himself provides the narratives middle ground, a charming, respected man with all his morals intact. In my opinion the films main protagonist, rewarded of the attention due to his lack of prejudices. His main task being to remove society’s blinkers regarding race. Throughout the narrative Hazard proves the catalyst for easing racial tension: His entry into the narrative in the early stages provides the point of dis-equilibrium to the white races perfect world, represented here by the questioning of David’s family. His befriending of Sapphires brother, who happens to be black is a metaphor for reassuring acceptance: If talking to the coloureds is good enough for a man of Hazards pedigree then it is suddenly good enough for society in general. And his closure of the narrative (solving the crime, keeping the peace and parting with a firm handshake for Sapphires brother, who has now possibly had some of his pre-conceptions regarding whites changed?) provides a new equilibrium within which society can sleep easily.
To conclude, with ‘Sapphire’ Deardon and Relph made the ultimate social problem film. The epitome of its genre and still hailed as a classic narrative forty years on. The issues raised throughout are dealt with in a slick, stylistic way. I am of the opinion that it raised social awareness regarding racial tension and promiscuity and gave the masses a social conscience where other races were concerned in 1950’s Britain. This shattered long held ideologies hailing the blacks as evil in the process and Automatically helped to prepare society for the massive cultural and social and racial sonic boom of the sixties, just one year away chronologically but socially a million.