How identity is reflected in British working class films

Seminar Paper, 2003

13 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of content


2.1. influencing power on construction
2.2. work in the films

3.1. collective identity
3.2. leisure in the films

4.1. Britain’s identity crisis
4.2. pit closure, unemployment, loss of prospects in the films


0. introduction

The analysis of such a diverse cultural term like "identity" and its treatment in British working class related films will be the topic of this research paper.

After having defined the term on its several levels, I want to show how identity is treated differently in, firstly, a popular film called "Brassed Off" and, secondly, an independent film produced by Amber Films called "Like Father". Both films are set in the 1990's and deal with the problem of pit closure and unemployment of miners. While "Brassed Off" is promoted as a romantic comedy including a political message, "Like Father" seems to be more serious and problem-focussed. Scenes of actual work are very rare in both films. They rather deal with the consequences of unemployment and poverty of the working class than with work per se. Furthermore, they also concentrate on leisure activities of the workmen. Concerning class consciousness, both films show people who wish to escape the constrictions of their class. Since identity is not only a question of class, gender roles are considered in both films as well. The motif of identity is shown very differently in these films. I want to analyze how these films represent the construction, the maintenance and the loss of identity.

1. definition

Since "identity " is a very abstract term within the cultural theory, there exist different definitions.

Stuart Hall composed three conceptions of identity, amongst others, the "post-modern subject" which provides that identity is diverse and changeable. Therefore a person can have "contradictory identities"1 which include the psychological phenomenon of competence and performance. People know that they have several identities (competence), but the performance and realization of a certain identity depend on personal circumstances and situations. In this case, identity is not given by any institution or rule, but is rather influenced by the changing historical developments of a nation. Hence, a national identity can be diverse as well, if several ethnic groups live together and build up a multi-cultural identity of the nation. The more ethnic groups live together, the more diverse is the nation's identity but the more problems and conflicts may appear.

Furthermore, the interaction between an individual and its social circumstances constitutes identity. One the one hand, there can be a deviation between the interior identity of a person and its objective appearance, on the other hand, the ability to adopt norms and rules given by one's social surrounding can differ between individuals. Hence, there is a differentiation between the internal / subjective and the external / objective identity. While objective aspects like nationality, language and religion can be recognized obviously, subjective features are hidden in the individual, for instance family-related aspects of identity or certain qualities of the person’s character influencing the formation of identity.

Another conception of identity covers three levels: the individual, the collective and the national level. Individual identity means a kind of self-identification as a human being with cognitive and social capabilities, the "enlightenment subject"1, the second conception of identity by Stuart Hall. This "very individualist conception" concentrates on a "human person [...] with the capacities of reason, consciousness and action"2.

The third, more collective conception perceives people as an important and functional part of a community. In Hall's words, a human being is a "sociological subject"2, whose identity is constructed through the interaction with a community.

The highest level, because it includes the highest number of people, is the national identity representing a community that identifies itself as a part of a whole nation. Some theorists postulate an "imagined community" because the "members (of a nation) will never know most of their fellow-members", but they adopt their traditions and customs3.

These three conceptions of identity mentioned above, the enlightenment subejct, the sociological subject and the post-modern subject, will be applied to the films later.

Another level of the distinction of identities is of geographical kind. It is a classification from the regional, national to the global identity. Related to the analyzed films which are set in the North of England, the regional identity would refer to the employers of this manufacturing and industrialized area whose work has a great influence on their identities. They have a national identity with other English and British people in common, but they experience the national identity in another way. It is another kind of "Englishness" people in Nottinghamshire would feel than these at London do. A global identity is constituted by a union of several states, for instance the European Union.

2. construction of identity

2.1. influencing power on construction

Identity is constructed through various conditions. First, Stuart Hall said that identity is "formed in the interaction between self and society"4. The indivual identity, which is formed by both one's own character and education, is modified by social influences. Parents, friends, colleagues but also every stranger can have an influence on the subjective development of one's personal identity. In Hall’s words, it is the interaction between the enlightenment and the sociological subject of human beings that constructs identity.

The socialisation of every child plays an important role for the construction of its identity. A child is not a tabula rasa, which can be formed and modified like the parents or other adult want to. There are innate features of character which form the basis for the later personality. Michael Elliot, the eleven-year-old boy in "Like Father", experiences his personality by quarrels with his father, who mocks his son by discovering a more female part of Michael. Michael's schoolmates tease him as well. The unacceptance within society is the reason why Michael seems to be isolated and, thus, he learned to use this isolation for a change of it into tolerance and acceptance. This change gives evidence for an active and dynamic conception of identity.

Furthermore, Hall claimed that identity is "constructed through [...] difference"5. In relation and comparison to others, people recognise what they miss concerning their ability and identity. They distinguish each other. Especially, in Britain, where the class system is still present in everyday life, people compare themselves with others from a different social class. The motif of class could be noticed obviously in the films. The plot of "Brassed Off" was based on a love story between Andy, a boy from working class background, and Gloria, a woman from the middle class, although her father was a miner and therefore working class. They kept their relationship secret considering the more serious problems like the pit closure and the end of the brass band. People in "Like Father" are confronted with class conflicts as well. The redevelopment of the landscape will be organised by a man who climbed the class ladder from working class to middle class. The plans for a redelopment of the landscape obviously leads to conflicts with miners who lived their whole lives in this area. Middle class seems to be a threat for the working class people because they cannot do something against the threatening unemployment and the plans which will affect directly their everyday life by forcing them to leave their homes and allotments.

But there is another difference through which identity is constructed: time. People compare their living situation with those some years ago. In the case of the miners films, they compare their personal situation at different stages of their life. For instance, unemployed miners think about their situation when they had a job and worked as miners. Mark Herman, the director of "Brassed Off", showed forcefully this time difference. The members of the Grimley colliery brass band decided to stop rehearsals and performances when the pit closes. Otherwise, they demonstrate a strong collective identity because even when the future of their jobs was uncertain they continued playing as abrass band. So, unemployment has a direct impact on leisure activities of the miners which actually maintain identity.

Theorists argue, which institution creates identity, whether it is society that forms a great part of people's identity or human beings themselves. As I already mentioned above, identity is produced equally by the personal development and social influences. Both construct identity, but the agent that maintains it, is the human being itself.

2.2. work in the films

Both films show impressively, how identitiy is created through work. The miners do the same work, have comparatively the same wages and therefore a similar living standard that only deviates because of personal preferences. They share the same level to live on. Hence, these numerous similarities let create a similar identity among the miners. They have a lot in common, they share their interests as well as their problems. Phil, a miner and member of the brass band in “Brassed Off”, had financial problems which result in a crisis with his wife who cannot even pay some food for their children.


1 Hall, S. “The Question of Cultural Identity” Modernitiy and Its Futures. Hall, S., Held, D., McGrew, T. (ed.). OVP: 1992.

2 Hall, S. “The Question of Cultural Identity” Modernitiy and Its Futures. Hall, S., Held, D., McGrew, T. (ed.). OVP: 1992.

3 Schlesinger, P. Media, State and Nation: Political Violence and Collective Identities. London: Sage Publications, 1991, p. 162.

4 Hall, S. “The Question of Cultural Identity” Modernitiy and Its Futures. Hall, S., Held, D., McGrew, T. (ed.). OVP: 1992.

5 Hall, S. “Who Needs Identity?“ Questions of Cultural Identity. Hall, S. du Gay, P. (ed.). London: Sage Publications, 1996, p.4.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


How identity is reflected in British working class films
Dresden Technical University  (Anglistik)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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This thesis compares several working class films such as "Brassed Off" and "Billy Elliot" with reference to the theoretical concept of national identity, ie. the British national identity.
British, workingclass, films, anglistik
Quote paper
Maxi Kirchner (Author), 2003, How identity is reflected in British working class films, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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