The Stillitoe Thesis

DAVID DOWNES is 23 and has been doing post-graduate research on juvenile delinquency for the LSE for the last two years.

Submitted by Reddebrek on September 5, 2016


Smith, Colin. Aged 19. Socio-economic background: unskilled manual. Education: secondary modern. Residence: working-class slum in Nottingham. Occupation: nil. Home background: pre-fab accommodation, relatively hygienic. Family history: father recently deceased (cancer), mother works to support Colin and sibs (2 younger brothers, 1 younger sister). Family cohesion: weak. Mother involved in extra-marital relationship (fancy-man). Role-conflict between Mother and Colin re denomination of family unit (running the house). Psychiatric assessment tentative only due to subject's unwillingness to participate in interviews, etc., but possibly a borderline psychotic.

But, from his reaction to institutionalisation, (culminating in an incident on Sports Day), Smith is clearly a thorough-going deviant, whose maladjustment to the parent society suggests a prognosis indicative of his future involvement in a criminal career, unless the appropriate remedial agencies can deter (cure) him.


Mr. Sillitoe's thesis, in verbal form, had a cohesive structure and an abrupt style more appropriate to a literary career than to the human sciences. While his case history of a single delinquent career has a certain documentary value (his publisher made the curious claim that we learn more about working-class life from Mr. Sillitoe than from a dozen works of sociology), his work is marred by the subjective emphasis he lays on inequalities of the social system. The obvious flaw in his argument is shown by the fact that thousands of young lads in Smith's position lead thoroughly conformist lives, and overcome the handicaps of environment, family background, etc., by taking jobs such as builders' labourers, van-boys, semi-skilled factory operatives and the like. They may well indulge in 'fiddles', but this is an accepted form of economic manipulation throughout the social system, and lacks the singularly anti-social character of Smith's delinquency. Moreover, Mr. Sillitoe's impressionistic evidence can hardly qualify as 'data'. We recommend, therefore, that he pursues a career in fiction or journalism, and abandons his application for the post of Assistant Lecturer in Sociology at Nottingham University.

SO TO THE FILM. It was to be hoped that, with Sillitoe's classic story, Lassally's camera-work, and Tom Courtenay as the runner, Tony Richardson would turn in a classic film. He hasn't, but he has done a very competent job, easily his best so far. The trouble with Richardson is that he admires for the right reasons the very directors who are wrong for him. He is a self-indulgent director, who obviously leans heavily on Truffaut and the Italian neo-realists when he needs instead the austerity of Bresson. This is his fifth feature film, and he has yet to develop a distinctive style instead of his present eclectic copying of New Wave originals. Having said this, having noted the facile lyricism and the grotesque fondness for overblown jazz, we should be grateful to Richardson for his integrity over subject-matter ('Sanctuary' being the exception to the rule). 'The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner' might have made a more powerful, bleak film, but there are hundreds of directors who would have botched it into a 'Carry On Borstal' or — even worse — a 'Boys in Brown'.

To succeed as a character study — and to bring off the final irony of the runner throwing the race — the film had to succeed in portraying the realities central to the Borstal system. The philosophy of Borstal — and of most of our prison system — is that custodial and remedial functions can be combined. The custodial framework — the deprivation of liberty, the enforcement of strict discipline, etc. — is expected to accommodate remedial influences — education, vocational training, a smattering of religion and 'interaction' with remedially-minded staff, group counselling, etc. Results are not so far justifying this uneasy amalgam of 'beating 'em' and 'treating 'em', but before we sneer too readily, it must be said (though I hate to admit it) that the Borstal system is in advance of most penal practice throughout the world, and it is difficult for a few enlightened academics and civil servants to effect a change when most of the population — of all classes — still think of crime and punishment in Stone Age terms. The best parts of the film are concerned with a merciless parody of the Gordonstoun elements in the Borstal philosophy. The idea that what is good for a public-school boy (who is at the same time told that he is the future ruling elite) must be good for the working-class boy (who doesn't have to be told that he is bottom of the heap) is brilliantly exposed in the Governor's line about putting a boy in a difficult situation so that we can see what his mettle is. This is even better done at the end of the film when the public school-boys admit that they too are beaten and not allowed to smoke. The disparities in the system for the occasion for some of the film's best moments, such as the cross-cutting between the singing of 'Jerusalem' and the brutal re-capture of an absconder. This sequence has been attacked as crude and propagandist, but it is no more so than Buñuel's contrast between the praying and the house-building in 'Viridiana'. Life is full of crude disparities, and a director would be stupid if he tried to deliver a powerful point in a gentle aside which would probably be missed by most of his audience.

But Richardson's technique is not successful throughout. He badly mauls what should be the most powerful sequence in the film — the final long-distance race. Here he seems determined to avoid any similarity with the ending of 'Les Quatre Cents Coups', and dissipates the tension by flashbacks over the boy's life. Yet if the audience doesn't sense by this time why the runner is about to make his gesture of defiance, they never will. And if the intention was to convey visually the thoughts going on inside the boy's head, the quick succession of fleeting images, hardly succeeds. How much of this stems from Sillitoe's script is difficult to say, but two other scenes undermine the impact of the central theme. One is the parody of the paternalistic Prime Minister on TV. We should have learnt by now that Conservative Prime Ministers, the Church of England, etc., cannot be parodied: they are too adept at parodying themselves. Similarly, the Borstal concert, with its vicar, bird impersonator and old-fashioned duettists; is embarrassing to watch, because the intentions of the film become too blatant.

These minor flaws add up to one cumulative point: we never really sense the 'loneliness' of the title. because the practice runs and the actual race are used as vehicles for flashbacks into the boy's life — which, incidentally, contain the best take-and-drive-away sequence I've ever seen — we get less of the rhythm, the monotony, the sheer graft of a long-distance run than we do in the story. And the lush popsie who is introduced into the film as Colin's girl does undermine our sense of his isolation, even though she never softens the lens on Courtenay's old-young face. Richardson makes it all a bit too lyrical.

Yet enough of the story's qualities seep into the film to give it a toughness lacking in Richardson's other films. What Sillitoe's anger

In Alan Sillitoe's script for his "Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" the censor objected to a scene where wardens kick a Borstal boy.
Sillitoe feels that all censorship is to some degree political. "It's not the violence they object to, it's the questioning of authority,"

—Sunday Telegraph, 11/3/62.

The philosophy behind, this film, of course, is anarchistic; and anarchism. has been the mainspring of many fine films (cf. Vigo Buñuel, Franju). Yet the fineness of these films lies in the love they show for even a loathsome world; since, despite man's inability to construct a just society, the great anarchist directors have felt the need to celebrate the wonder of life, of man's ability to transcend his condition, if only, aesthetically. But in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner there is no such escape.

—The Listener, 11/10/62.

and contempt are focussed on are the apostles of the Industrial Revolution, and his pity and respect are reserved for those who have been crippled by it. As in Osborne, a great deal of what might seem excessive mystique is attached to the dying father, riddled to the guts with some disease and obstinate to the last in refusing to be tampered with. And what Sillitoe despises and hates is not industrialisation, but the concomitant exploitation, inhumanity, false moralising and degradation of human beings who are then expected to be taken in by the 'You play ball with us and we'll play ball with you' philosophy. The dying father embodies the class struggle which persists whatever intellectuals are saying about it this year.

On with 'The Loneliness …' and supplementing it beautifully is a short documentary by John Krish called 'They Took Us to the Sea'. It is about a party of children under NSPCC care on a day-trip to Weston-Super-Mare. Slum children grow up in conditions which the rest of us experience only in war-time. The poignancy of this day-trip is brought over simply by concentration on the children's faces. Just for a day, they can stuff themselves with chips and ice-cream. The tatty sea-front is transformed through their eyes. Nobody could watch this film stoney-faced.