Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, Karel Reisz (1960)

A gritty, compelling, ‘kitchen sink’ drama, featuring great bicycle factory footage

Amidst the eulogising about the bicycle as a piece of design, a means of transport and the product of human genius, the means by which our mounts are manufactured receives little attention. Indeed, it is easy to run away with the idea that a contrivance so intrinsically wholesome must come into the world through the industrial equivalent of the virgin birth.

It is a nonsense that is brutally disabused in Karel Reisz’s 1960 film of Alan Sillitoe’s novel Saturday Night Sunday Morning. Its hero, Arthur Seaton is a lathe operator at a factory, whose business is never specified in the film itself. However, it was shot in, and clearly depicts Raleigh’s Nottingham factory. In the opening sequence Seaton complains that his working life requires him to turn out 1,000 bottom-bracket axels a day for £14 a week.

That is a 30 second machining job repeated again and again, eight hours a day, five days a week. Little wonder that he complains of a sore back.

The film’s factory scenes have the loving quality of the best documentary film making of the era, showing the vast machine shop, stretching as far as the eye can see in all directions. It leaves you in no doubt that it was a noisy, dirty, dangerous and macho environment – little different from car plants of the time, or indeed, most other manufacturing concerns.

Seaton seethes at his lot and seeks release through epic drinking bouts, philandering and fighting. Save for the swagger that Albert Finney brings to the role, there is little to like about the lead. He is boorish, bullying braggart. If Karl Marx were looking for the epitome of the alienated worker, Seaton would fit the bill perfectly – although he appears more likely to die in a pub brawl than on the barricades.

While not exactly a feel-good movie, it is an engaging and still shocking portrait of its age. It is not the only portrait of northern working class life in the 1960s, but it is among the best – not least for its Johnny Dankworth score.

But it also provides pause for thought about the circumstances in which today’s bicycles come it to being.

Dark satanic mills have long departed Britain’s shores. Today manufactures (apart from Brompton and Pashley) boast that their bicycles are ‘designed in the UK’. Manufacturing at Raleigh’s factory ended in 2002, production shifted to Vietnam and the site that the company had occupied for over a century was sold to and redeveloped by the University of Nottingham.

Visit the factory in Camboria operated by A&J Worldwide, however, and I suspect that you might find a few Arthur Seatons among the 700 workers. The company produces up to 700,000 bicycles a year mainly for the European market – including some of the biggest British brands. Average pay for Cambodian factory workers is US$61 a month, for which at A&J they put in a 48 hour week.

The tragedy of endless price-cutting competition is by no means just a human one, though. Visit your municipal ‘recycling center’ (as dumps are now known) and have a look in the scrap metal skip. Most days, you will see the remains of at least half-a-dozen inexpensive, unserviceable, and usually little ridden, far-east manufactured bicycles.

Tempting as it is to celebrate ‘bargain’ purchases, by reducing the perceived value of manufactured goods, we inevitably downgrade them in the general estimation. Buying a bicycle on a whim and throwing it away a couple of years later seems acceptable – because ‘it wasn’t much in the first place’.

Cyclists enjoy occupying the moral high ground. To justify our place there, when we consider the value of anything, we should take account of the whole cost of getting a product to market, whatever its asking price.

TD Nov 11

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