Better than any other genre, social realism has shown us to ourselves, pushing the boundaries in the effort to put the experiences of real Britons on the screen, and shaping our ideas of what British cinema and British life can be.
Social realism in films is representative of real life, with all its difficulties. The stories and people portrayed are everyday characters, usually from working class backgrounds. Typically, films within the social realist genre are gritty, urban dramas about the struggle to survive the daily grind.
One of the strongest images of postwar British cinema is that of factory worker Arthur Seaton downing a pint in one at the end of another week in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). Also in A Taste of Honey (1961) prejudices and social values were explored in British cinema for the first time.
These films dealt with prostitution, abortion, homosexuality, alienation and relationship problems; issues that were seen as controversial at the time. Here were factory workers, office underlings, dissatisfied wives, pregnant girlfriends, runaways, the marginalised, poor and depressed.
This British New Wave was symptomatic of a worldwide emergence of art cinemas challenging mainstream aesthetics and attitudes. The New Wave protagonist was usually a working-class male without bearings in a society in which traditional industries and the cultures that went with them were in decline. Directors like Ken Loach and films such as those by Mike Leigh's High Hopes (1988) and The Full Monty (1997) have addressed the erosion of regional and class identities amid a landscape rendered increasingly uniform by consumerism and social structures.
Descendants of this style at the BBC in the 1960s, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh assessed the impact of the consumer society on family life, charting the erosion of the welfare state and the consensus that built it. Looking back, Loach's work seems to reflect the shift from the collectivist mood of the war years to the individualism of the postwar decades in its very form. Loach's films went from the improvised long-take naturalism of Poor Cow and Kes (both 1969) to the 'social melodrama' of Raining Stones (1993).
In the 1980s, publisher-broadcaster Channel 4 attempted to cultivate a cinema audience for realism. Responding to the moralistic entrepreneurialism of the Thatcher years, 'Films on Four' My Beautiful Laundrette and Letter to Brezhnev (both 1985) followed characters from the margins as they attempted to stake a claim in the new order. Meanwhile, more lethal and complex representations of men and women appeared in Shane Meadows' A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) and This Is England (2006) added more diverse representations of modern culture.
'Fish Tank' can be seen as a direct descendant of this type of cinema in its portrayal of a young girl disillusioned by her lifestyle, social insignificance and prospects who seeks escape in her passion to express herself in dance.