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Opinion

Living starring Bill Nighy is an elegant film but it’s not a 1950s I recognise

Bill Nighy is brilliant in Living, but the reality of life in the Fifties was altogether more chaotic and colourful than the film suggests

The star of the film Living is not any of the actors, but the large municipal authority called the London County Council. The Bill Nighy character, Mr Williams, is a bloodless, routine-driven clerical slave to this municipal monster, expressing a kind of deep postwar angst of alienation and English class anxiety. County Hall is the setting of the vast and ugly reality where deeds without meaning are performed by the largely lower middle- or upper-working-class clerks who throng to their daily labours.  

County Hall sits on the Thames almost opposite Parliament, and plays the role of the sinister abuser of people’s time on Earth. Set in the early 1950s, it’s a coloured film of a more black-and-white time. 

Bill Nighy is middle-class clerk Mr Williams, who is interrupted in his ceaseless paper pushing and obnoxious workload by a doctor’s diagnosis of imminent death. The die is cast, the routine suspended for a number of days after this dreadful news. And a trip to the seaside and the suggestion of flesh, drink and dancing shows him what he’s been missing. Returning to work he decides that, instead of simply pushing paper around the labyrinth, he will actually complete a project. A project that we would all love: a children’s playground on a bombsite in Stepney Green. 

So little gets achieved by his monstrous body of wasted labour that it is heroic to see Mr Williams follow through when a group of spirited mothers ceaselessly petition County Hall for their playground. Mr Williams, desperate to leave some legacy of achievement, sets off with his band of clerks to achieve it. They manage to get the playground done, and he can die in peace. 

The early 1950s is all so efficiently ordered that it comes across as a big slab of propaganda, but done delightfully, with a proficiency that belies the inefficiencies of the times it purports to describe.

Filmmaking today is so beautiful and well-acted, so careful and seemingly thoughtful, that it turns the 1950s that I lived through into something unrecognisable. Which is hardly surprising considering I spent most of the 1950s hungry, cold and chased by coppers.

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The problem to me is that the point of the film is ‘niceness’, which irons out many of the kinks and the pluses and minuses of the time. The British people had just been through the biggest shock of the 20th century with the recently ended Second World War. They spent much of the early 1940s half-convinced that they were going to be invaded or bombed to death from the sky.

Life was not safe, and survival was not likely for some. Circa 300,000 people didn’t make it and many who did survive would carry on suffering well beyond the war.  

The feeling that Britain was only barely managing to hang on still haunted the postwar years. Britain was exhausted post-war. None of this feeling escapes into the atmosphere of the film, which is more the pity. We see only the ordered decay of working for a bureaucracy, a true variation of the lifelessness of life expressed in George Orwell’s 1984.

The London County Council – the LCC – was a behemoth, vast and in parts inefficient. But it did deliver
better housing and education for many who were the first generation of British working-class people to receive secondary education. 

Described in the way Living does, the LCC is a caricature. The harsh reality is that much of London was made up either of slums or of substandard housing. And the LCC played a key role in addressing that. It was the rush to complete things, like achieving social justice through housing, that drove County Hall on. In fact, if there had been a more measured, slower, deliberate approach then many of the estates of LCC flats thrown up would not have to be condemned and found unlivable in later years. 

The reality was the opposite of the slow and soul-destroying nothingness described in the film. Local authorities and the LCC in London – mirrored all over the UK – threw up houses better than slums but with the social niceties of neighbourhoods and a sense of belonging gone. So the unending lack of achievement caught in this film seems hardly to fit the building madness of the time. 

I should declare an interest here: I was living in the 1950s in a perfectly clean and well-made block of LCC flats, opened in 1926, where Fulham meets Chelsea in South-West London. It was a dream after the slums of Notting Hill and the orphanage that followed. Our own toilet, not shared with eight families, was a godsend. Admittedly we were broke and I was always in trouble, but at least we had a place that was decent. 

Living is in cinemas now

If you look at Living as a fairy tale of redemption, like a reworking of A Christmas Carol, where Bill Nighy’s grumpy old sod becomes human in the end, then it serves the purpose well. And if you want atmosphere with red buses and rushing crowds pouring out of a London station to their unceasing work, then this is the film for you. But, in its need to tell a story, a distortion of history nonetheless. 

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.


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