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restless northerner Vic Brown: “allus looking for summat.”
It was in 1960 that the Yorkshire-born Stan Barstow (1928 – 2011)
made his name with his first and most successfully acclaimed novel A Kind of Loving, featuring the
fictional Vic Brown. He continued to write novels thereafter; he branched out
into drama and musicals too, via radio, television and theatre.
During its 2010 to 2015 period of office the Conservative
coalition government announced its ‘Northern Powerhouse’ political initiative,
with declared ambition to boost economic growth in the north of England.
Sixty years ago, novelists such as John Braine (with Room at the Top, 1957) and Alan Sillitoe
(with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,
1958) were the trailblazers of a veritable ‘Northern Powerhouse’ of major
impact on the fiction-reading public. All of a sudden as setting for gritty
modern-day stories of drama and romance the unconsidered north of England was
thrust centre stage. A curtain was lifted and the culture and the attitudes of
northern provincial dwellers were revealed from the factories, pubs, shops, streets
and two-up, two-down terraced houses found in mining towns and villages of
Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, and in cities like Leeds and Wakefield where hard
men played rugby league football, supped bellyfuls of ale and munched on meat
pies or battered fish with large helpings of chips.
Stan Barstow strengthened this new trend with his debut
novel in 1960, as did David Storey (with This
Sporting Life, 1960) and Leeds-born Keith Waterhouse (with Billy Liar, 1963). These were engagingly
powerful depictions of working class or lower middle class life ‘oop north,
with assertive, rebellious and restless lead male characters.
Cinema helped to propagate this sudden surge of northern-based
‘kitchen sink’ drama. The genre (always filmed in gritty black & white) was
dubbed ‘New Wave’ as directors like Lindsay Anderson, Bryan Forbes, Tony
Richardson and John Schlesinger seized the moment. The Lancashire-based Coronation Street drama series had made
its television debut at the end of 1960; in tandem the cinema industry opened
up the north of England by offering big screen adaptations of the ground-breaking
top-selling novels by John Braine, Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, David Storey
and Keith Waterhouse. Stardom came to hitherto-unknown actors like Alan Bates,
Tom Courtney and Albert Finney who were cast in the lead roles. The popularity
of ‘New Wave’ was further endorsed by classic films such as A Taste of Honey and Whistle down the Wind, both set in
Stan Barstow and the Vic Brown trilogy: A Kind of Loving (1960) - The Watchers on the Shore (1966) - A Right True End (1976)
A Kind of
Loving reached the British cinema in 1962, directed by John Schlesinger
and starring Alan Bates as Stan Barstow’s semi-autobiographical hero Vic Brown.
Co-stars included June Ritchie, Thora Hird and James Bolam.
After that, Barstow’s output of eleven further novels included two in which he
continued the saga of the voyaging Vic Brown seeking release from his failed
marriage (forced on him by an unwanted pregnancy) and from his dreary
conventional upbringing in the fictional Yorkshire town of Cressley.
The whole of the trilogy was screened by Granada Television as an
adaptation in 1982, starring Clive Wood as Vic Brown. The key female roles were
taken by Joanna Whalley as Vic’s wife Ingrid (eventually, his ex-wife) and by Susan
Penhaligon as Donna, his mistress manqué.
The archetypal ‘grim oop north’ and ‘don’t let the bastards grind
you down’ themes can certainly be found in Vic Brown’s self-narration of his
story. Stan Barstow nevertheless preferred to be thought of as a chronicler of ordinary
people and the ordinary things that happen to them. For all his selfish flaws Vic
Brown cuts altogether a softer and more sympathetic figure than, say, John
Braine’s fictional chancer Joe Lampton in Room
at the Top. Joe is a much louder individual, unapologetic for the cheating,
the conniving and the womanising that accompanies his social climbing in the
Yorkshire town of Leddersford.
In Stan Barstow’s sequel stories of Vic Brown the period settings
of Watchers on the Shore and Right True End are immediately
established by contemporary references to the Cuban missile crisis (1962) at
the beginning, and the Watergate scandal (1972) at the end. For modern-day
readers of the baby boomer generation the stories abound with nostalgic
references: for example the woman’s fashion accessory of the transparent
plastic hood, to protect the hair if caught in the rain. On a cultural level we
might nowadays marvel that Ingrid’s mother feels sufficiently ashamed of her daughter’s divorce that she
wants the removal van to call at the hush of midnight to clear the contents of
Vic’s and Ingrid’s flat, instead of going in broad daylight when the neighbours might see.
In the Alan Sillitoe novel Saturday
Night and Sunday Morning the action runs the repetitive weekly cycle of
Monday to Friday hard slog in the factory; Saturday night getting bladdered at
the pub; Sunday morning hung over and repentant. Vic Brown likes pubs and
parties too: here is a timepiece of reminiscence with his old pal Willy over a
pint of Tetley’s bitter when, having moved into early middle age, they reflect
on their carefree youth:
“We were allus looking for summat,
weren’t we? Down the Gala Rooms, Saturday night, weighing the crumpet up,
disappointed nine times out of ten.”
Stan Barstow: Stage and Screen Awards
Unlike some of his peer writers such as Keith Waterhouse, the lure
of London never persuaded Stan Barstow to leave Yorkshire and move south. He
did however send Vic Brown away to Longford, in Essex, to take a job with
better prospects and in effect have a trial separation from Ingrid. Vic ends up
not exactly passion spent, but passion tempered to loss of youth and fear of
loneliness. In due course we find Vic nodding his head in agreement when his
old chum Willy declares:
changing now. There’s a different generation coming up. Pop groups, long hair.
They make me feel like an old man.”
In the mid-1970s Stan Barstow received awards from the Royal
Television Society, the Writers Guild and the British Broadcasting Press Guild.
A big reason for this was his screen adaptation and scriptwriting role
of the most popular television drama series of 1974: South Riding, a Yorkshire Television
production based on Winifred Holtby’s story of Yorkshire life in the 1930s. But
for me his most enjoyable legacy is his Vic Brown trilogy: each of the three books is
a page-turner, and offers a rewarding read still.
Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:
The author E.M. Forster (1879 – 1970) in books and films.
The novelist R.F.
Delderfield and his heroes who roam from home.
How The Wild West Was Written
Emmeline Pankhurst and Florence Foster Jenkins
Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train
H G Wells
In praise of the British Seaside!Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in 1963: Christine Keeler & Nell Dunn
Politicians, Pop Stars and Preachers - John Mortimer's Characters of 1986
Shakespeare's 400th Centenary
Gregory's Girl: Remembering the Hit Film
The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
A Tribute to Margaret Forster
Remembering Saeed Jaffrey
Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie
Remembering Ruth Rendell
Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)
The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar
Erle Stanley Gardner
Antony Sher: The History Man
Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author
Computer Chess: The Imitation Game
P G Wodehouse
John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green
Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution
Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam
The Story of Edith Nesbit
Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert
Rebels With A Cause
Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective
The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas
The Bergerac Police Adventure Series
It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene
Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers
The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym
D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...
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