A kitchen sink drama is a phrase used to describe a movie, TV show, or play that portrays the problems of everyday life.
These dramas show characters struggling with issues such as poverty, unemployment and infidelity.
Kitchen Sink Drama
What Is a Kitchen Sink Drama?
A kitchen sink drama (also known as ‘kitchen sink realism’) is a drama film genre that features unglamorous, often depressing storylines that focus on everyday life.
The term was coined by British critic David Thomson in his 1975 book “A Biographical Dictionary of Film” to describe films made in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Room at the Top (1958), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961), Look Back in Anger (1959), and This Sporting Life (1963).
These films contrasted with the escapist fantasies of Hollywood musicals and comedies.
The term is often applied to films made in Britain from the mid-1950s onwards that are concerned with working-class lives, frequently portraying the domestic lives of people living in cramped flats or terraced houses. Other examples include Billy Liar (1963) and Kes (1969).
What Is a Kitchen Sink Drama?
The term was first used in reference to British cinema in the 1960s and 1970s. It was inspired by the low-budget films produced at this time which often used kitchen sinks as props.
The use of this type of prop symbolized the fact that these dramas were so realistic that they could take place in any home in Britain.
One example of a kitchen sink drama is Ken Loach’s Kes (1969). This film tells the story of Billy Casper, a boy who lives on an estate in Yorkshire with his mother and brother.
Their family is struggling because Billy’s father has recently died and they don’t have enough money to pay their rent.
Billy decides to become a footballer but he doesn’t have much success until he meets Mr Farthing, an old man who helps him improve his skills by playing football with him every day after school.
Kitchen sink dramas are largely considered a subgenre of drama films and television series that depict the domestic lives of the working class.
The term was coined by American film critic Pauline Kael, who wrote in her essay “The Current Cinema: Kitchen Sink” that “the kitchen sink drama is about people who are sick and tired of being sick and tired; they’ve had it up to here.”
Kitchen sink dramas were popular in Britain during the 1950s, when directors like Ken Loach and Tony Richardson were exploring stories about working-class life.
The genre reached its peak in 1961 with the release of Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life.
Features of a Kitchen Sink Drama
Kitchen sink realism in films and plays often involves:
- working class settings,
- working class accents (very often accents from Northern England),
- taboo subjects,
- pre-marital sex,
- abortion, and
Origins Of The Term Kitchen Sink Drama
The term “kitchen sink drama” was first used by critic Kenneth Tynan in his review of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956).
Osborne’s play brought him fame and has been described as “the work that kicked off the British new wave”.
Tynan used the phrase to describe Osborne’s portrayal of his characters’ “realistic” everyday lives by featuring elements such as swearing and nudity.
In his review for The New Yorker, Tynan wrote: “And what if we were to drop our guard altogether? What if we were to ‘go for broke’? What if we were to throw away our masks? What if we were to show ourselves as we really are? What if we looked at ourselves with no more self-deception than we would have looking at a stranger on a bus? What would happen then?”
Kitchen Sink Drama: 1950s to 1960s
‘Kitchen sink’ drama was a type of naturalistic drama that flourished in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.
It was named by critic Kenneth Tynan after the kitchen sink, which became an emblematic prop of the movement.
The term “kitchen sink” is often used to describe situations that are gritty, unpleasant or sordid.
The phrase originates from a famous quote by playwright John Osborne: “I hate the theatre which is so much about escape… I prefer to write about real life, about people who have no money, no power and no influence.”
Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger” (1956) is widely considered to be the first example of this genre. He followed it up with “The Entertainer” (1960), concerning a music hall star whose career is on the decline due to his alcoholism and infidelity.
This play also includes scenes depicting working-class characters struggling with everyday life issues such as unemployment and sexual identity.
Other well-known plays include Harold Pinter’s “The Caretaker” (1960), Arnold Wesker’s “Chicken Soup With Barley” (1959) and William Douglas Home’s “Billy Liar” (1959).
Kitchen Sink Drama: Since the 1960s
After the 1960s, the Kitchen sink drama largely became a genre of television shows. The genre includes elements of soap operas, police dramas, and situation comedies.
The term “kitchen sink drama” is often used as a derogatory term for TV dramas that include too much melodrama, but it can also refer to dramas that are characterized by realism, even if they are not necessarily realistic in every aspect.
Kitchen sink dramas also began to appear more and more in American television.
One of the most famous examples of this type of storytelling is ABC’s All My Children (1970-2011). Other examples include One Life to Live (1968-2012) and General Hospital (1963-present).
The influence of kitchen sink realism has continued in the work of many more recent British directors, most notably Ken Loach (whose first directorial roles were in late 1960s kitchen sink dramas) and Mike Leigh.
Other directors to continue working within the spirit of kitchen sink realism include Shane Meadows, Andrea Arnold, and Lynne Ramsay.
The term “neo kitchen sink” has been used for films such as Leigh’s 2004 Vera Drake.
Famous Kitchen Sink Drama Plays & Films
Let’s take a look at some famous ‘kitchen sink’ films.
Look Back in Anger (1956)
Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) focused on working-class life in the Midlands, depicting a group of young men on the dole who were trying to make something of their lives but felt trapped by their poverty and lack of education.
Critic Kenneth Tynan in his review of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956), which he described as “a play without a hero – or rather, with many heroes: they all live together in a sort of commune at the top floor of an old house”.
Room at the Top (1959)
Room at the Top is a 1959 British drama film directed by Jack Clayton, based on the novel of the same name by John Braine.
It stars Laurence Harvey as Joe Lampton, an ambitious young man from a poor background who desires to become rich and move up in society.
The film also features Simone Signoret, Heather Sears, and Donald Houston.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) is a film that follows the story of a young man named Arthur Seaton, who works in a factory in Nottingham. He enjoys his work, but he prefers to spend his time drinking and womanizing.
The film was directed by Karel Reisz and stars Albert Finney as Arthur, Shirley Anne Field as his wife Mildred, and Ian Bannen as his friend Charlie.
The script was adapted from a novel by Alan Sillitoe and is based on his own experiences working in a factory.
It was filmed in black-and-white with a budget of just over £100,000 (£826,000 today).
A Taste of Honey (1961)
A Taste of Honey is a 1961 British drama film directed by Tony Richardson and written by Shelagh Delaney, who was 19 years old at the time.
It is based on her 1958 play A Taste of Honey, which won her the Evening Standard Drama Award for most promising playwright.
The film stars Rita Tushingham in the title role as a young working class English girl who becomes pregnant by her black lover. The cast also includes Dora Bryan and the footballer Bobby Moore making his film debut.
The story focuses on a young working class girl who lives with her stepmother and half-sister in Salford, Lancashire.
Her father has recently died and she has been having an affair with a married man who refuses to leave his wife for her.
She becomes pregnant after this affair ends and he refuses to support her or acknowledge paternity of their child.
She then moves in with an older woman named Mrs Bramson (Dora Bryan) who takes her in but conditions must be met before she can stay there long term.
The two become friends despite their differences due to their similar backgrounds and personalities.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) is a British film based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Alan Sillitoe, who also wrote the screenplay.
Directed by Tony Richardson and featuring Tom Courtenay and Michael Redgrave as two of its main characters, it is set in Nottinghamshire during the 1950s.
The film’s title was taken from the eponymous poem by Stephen Spender.
The Kitchen Sink Drama And Soap Opera
Kitchen sink dramas, especially British ones, are intimately entwined with soap operas.
One of the most famous examples of this type of show was “Play for Today,” which aired on BBC television between 1970 and 1984.
The program featured gritty dramas and comedies with serious themes, including alcoholism, mental illness, and sexual abuse.
The BBC TV series “The Worst Witch” also falls into this category. The show focuses on Mildred Hubble at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches.
Mildred often gets into trouble because she is clumsy and unable to cast spells correctly.
She also has difficulty fitting in with her classmates because they are all very talented witches who excel at their studies and have no patience for failure.
Probably the most famous example of a kitchen sink drama would be Coronation Street, which first aired in 1960 and continues to air today as one of Britain’s most popular shows.
The series depicts characters’ lives in Weatherfield — an industrial town just outside Manchester — over the course of decades through storylines about love, death and all the usual elements of a soap opera.
Kitchen Sink Drama – Wrapping Up
So, to wrap up, what is a kitchen sink drama?
A kitchen sink drama is a type of film or play that is set in a domestic setting, usually involving everyday people.
It’s named after the phrase “kitchen sink,” which was used to describe the type of plays that were produced by British playwrights in the 1950s. It refers to the fact that these plays often incorporated every possible element of human experience into their storylines.
The term “kitchen sink drama” was coined in 1956 by critic Kenneth Tynan, who used it to describe John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956).
He was referring to Osborne’s use of colloquial language and gritty realism in this work, which he saw as an important step forward for British theatre at the time.
His use of this phrase helped define what sort of drama would come to be known as a kitchen sink drama: realistic portrayals of working-class life that were sometimes shocking or controversial in their depiction of sex and violence.
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