Remembering Alan Sillitoe: “Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down!”

On Saturday, Nov. 19th (and Jan. 17th) TCM will be airing Karel Reisz’ SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING (1961). This bleak but beautifully shot kitchen-sink drama features Albert Finney in his screen debut as one of Britain’s original angry young men. The film is based on a novel by the British author Alan Sillitoe who also wrote the screenplay. Alan Sillitoe died last year at age 82 but I recently had the opportunity to discuss his screenwriting career and contributions to British cinema with Neil Fulwood and David Sillitoe (Alan’s son). Both men are part of the recently formed Alan Sillitoe Committee, which is trying to raise awareness of the author’s work and commission a statue in his honor.

MM: How did you get involved with The Alan Sillitoe Committee in Nottingham, UK? And can you tell me why you think it’s so important to honor him and his work?

Neil: I was invited onto the committee by Alan’s son, David, after I suggested that a webpage would be a positive tool to raise awareness of the statue fund. David was receptive to the idea and asked me if I’d be able to create an entire website, not just to publicize the fund but as something that could develop into an online resource on Alan’s life and work. I’d never designed or built a website before, but I jumped at the chance. Alan’s work has had a huge influence on popular culture. The Arctic Monkeys titled their first album after a line from SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING. Iron Maiden recorded a song based on THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER. The films are classics in their own right and reflect a ruggedly working class spirit that remains very much a Nottingham characteristic.

David: The spirit of Arthur Seaton lives on, and with the current politic status quo in England we need that rebellious Arthur Seaton attitude more than ever.

MM: I know you have a website ( where people can find more information about the Alan Sillitoe Committee. But can you tell me more about the events you’ve held to celebrate Alan’s legacy? How are you raising awareness about your project?

Neil: Events wise, things kicked off in fine style with a screening of SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING at Antenna in Nottingham. There was an introduction by David and the novelist Nicola Monaghan, whose prize-winning debut ‘The Killing Jar’ Alan had championed, and a Q&A. Local band Blue Yonder performed live afterwards, including their Arthur Seaton-inspired song ‘Propaganda.’ We presented a major display of Alan Sillitoe memorabilia at the Lowdham Book Festival in the summer, and were invited, last month, to attend and take a bucket collection at a performance of John Aram’s SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING jazz suite. Next month, there’s a live music event at The Maze in Nottingham with three local bands – Wholesome Fish, Old Basford and Howlin Black – who are playing in support of the statue fund. We are currently accepting entries for a poetry competition to be adjudicated by Alan’s widow, the poet Ruth Fainlight, with cash prizes and publication on the website. Next year, we’re looking to arrange a literary lunch with a big-name British crime writer. 2012 will mark the 50th anniversary of Tony Richardson’s film of THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER and we’ve got some exciting ideas about how to mark the occasion. Anyone interested can check the “events” page on our website, or follow us on Facebook.

Alan Sillitoe and an early edition of SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING

MM: Alan Sillitoe’s first novel was SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING and I’ve read that it was based on his own life experience as a young working-class man in Nottingham. How autobiographical was the book?

Neil: In terms of context and social realism, SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING is very autobiographical. Alan’s portrait of Nottingham at the time is almost a documentary, and there are certainly characters who were based on members of Alan’s family.

David: Arthur Seaton is basically Alan turned up to eleven.

Neil: As a measure of the belligerent, take no prisoners attitude Alan imbued Arthur with, this story is telling: Alan started working in a factory at 14, during the war years. When a shop steward curtly informed him that union membership was mandatory, that his subs would be deducted from his wages and that it was for his own good, Alan told him to “fuck off and get dive-bombed” (which was basically the World War II equivalent of “yo moma”).

MM: I know that four of Alan’s novels were adapted into films including COUNTERPOINT (1967) and THE RAGMAN’S DAUGHTER (1974) but he also wrote the screenplays for both SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING and THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER. I don’t think many people realize that he was one of the driving forces behind getting his first two books turned into films. Why was Alan so eager to see his work adapted for the screen? Did he envision his books as films when he was writing them?

David: Alan probably didn’t approach his books from a cinematic perspective. For him, writing was an onerous process, grinding out draft after draft. There was almost a sense of attrition about it. I remember it as something that often left him exhausted.

Neil: Alan’s first draft of the script for SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING faithfully rendered every scene from the novel in screenplay form and he was told by the producers that it would run six hours and they’d much prefer a script that translated to a commercially acceptable running time of 90 minutes. A couple of years later, he adapted THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER (a 60 page novella, most of which is a stream of consciousness as the protagonist gets his running practice in) by the same means and was told by the producers that it would run 15 minutes and could they please have a script that translated to a commercially acceptable running time of 90 minutes.

MM: In everything I’ve read about Alan, it seems as if he had conflicting feelings about the movies based on his novels. It must have been hard dealing with the censors and restrictions within the British Film Industry in the early 1960s. What did he think about the film adaptations of his work? Did he appreciate them?

Neil: I think the only mixed feelings Alan had were the requirements to tone down some of his original work. A major difference between the book and film version of SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING is that Brenda’s abortion attempt is much more grueling in the novel; also, the censors required that abortion be unsuccessful in the film – it would never have been passed for release otherwise. With THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER, Colin Smith’s internal monologues are peppered with considerably more expletives than ever found their way onscreen! On the whole, though, Alan was incredibly appreciative of the talent and craftsmanship that went into the films. And there’s no doubt that the message – the anti-authoritarianism – of his writing is palpable in the films and still comes across as powerfully as it did fifty years ago.

MM: Alan seems to have been friendly with director Karel Reisz during the making of SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING. In his autobiography, ‘Life Without Armour’ he briefly mentions that Reisz attended a wedding lunch for him after he married Ruth. How close were they? Did Alan remain friendly with Karel after making SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING?

Neil: Alan had great regard for Karel Reisz and appreciated his talent and input in realizing SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING for the screen.

David: Karel and Betsy (the actress Betsy Blair) lived in England’s Lane, Hampstead, and we used to visit them. Alan greatly admired Karel and they stayed in contact.

MM: Last but not least, writers are often taken for granted in the film industry. Why do you think it’s important for fans of British cinema to know about Alan Sillitoe’s legacy? And how can they help support the work of The Alan Sillitoe Committee?

Neil: I think it’s important to remember how many films in the British social realism cycle were based on novels – not just Alan’s, but works by Keith Waterhouse or John Braine. The writers’ “voice” was strong and powerful in these books, and the films are enduring classics because they preserve this. Alan’s legacy is important to fans of British film, because Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney) in SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING and Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) in THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER are archetypes of anti-authoritarian sentiments and you can see echoes of them through several decades of British cinema, right up to the work of Shane Meadows. People can support The Alan Sillitoe Committee and the statue fund by donating through our website or turning up to any of our events – all on-the-door monies go straight to the statue fund.

Recommended Links:
– Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1961) reviewed by Movie Morlock, Jeff Stafford.
– The Alan Sillitoe Website Official site of The Alan Sillitoe Committee.
– The Alan Sillitoe Page Facebook page for The Alan Sillitoe Committee.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published on Turner Classic Movie’s official blog Nov. 17, 2011