There are two narratives running concurrently through the film, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner - first that of Colin Smith, the undeniably lonely long-distance runner of the title and secondly that of the the middle-class institutions he finds himself at odds with. For Colin Smith, the point is exclusion. He doesn’t want to belong. For the middle-class institutions he finds himself at odds with, the point is inclusion. We’re one big happy family together and if you play ball with us, we’ll play ball with you, and we can’t be fairer than that now, can we? Of course, there is one thing these middle-class institutions have overlooked and that is the very real fissure of class. This fissure runs all the way through the film and it seems that the only one who is aware of it is Colin himself. He really would like to put all those smug middle-class bastards up against a wall and shoot them, because he knows that, when push comes to shove, that’s what they’d do to people like him. However, for the time being, he’ll play the game by their rules and make them think they’ve got him house-trained.
Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner was always my favourite of those British New Wave social-realist films of the early 60s. I have often wondered why. I’m no great fan of social-realism, after all, and films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and A Taste of Honey just did not have the same impact on me. But it does transcend the genre on two counts at least. First, the running scenes are beautifully filmed and poetic, especially the early morning one. Secondly, the film had what we would now call attitude. It was a slap in the face of the bourgeois establishment of the time, which I suspect is one of the reasons it was panned by the critics. The British Board of Film Censors, as I believe it was called, even said it was communist propaganda.
Tom Courteney is perfect, I believe, as the alienated working-class boy who sees through the system and prefers a life of petty crime and borstal to working for bosses in the dump of his industrial town. He knows he’s fighting a one-man war against his ‘betters’, but he’s still not going to let them grind him down. I suppose he could have done something more ‘constructive’, like join a left-wing political party and get stuck into the bosses that way, but I suspect he wanted more immediate gratification than that. If Colin is some kind of working-class hero, he’s not a Marxist, but an existentialist one. In the end, he’ll spit in their bourgeois faces, but he’ll do so his way and nobody else’s. Existentialism is premised on the belief that it is better to be a star in your own movie than an extra in somebody else’s. It was never going to produce a revolution, but it wasn’t a time for revolution anyway. (The early 60s were very much a continuation of the 50s from that point of view.)
The chief metaphor running through the film is, I think, the sports-field where we can all be equals together, engaging in the healthy competition - and may the best man win, and all that. This was a metaphor of life in Britain at the time where everybody stuck to the rules and, the working-class no less than the middle, played the game as they should. Those who dissented were thought to have no real cause for complaint. I remember it well. “You won’t get very far with an attitude like that, lad.” was an expression even older working-class people would use against younger ones who they thought had a chip on their shoulder. In the film, however, it is the political classes - as exemplified by the man on TV - or those who control things and make sure they run smoothly - like the borstal-governor (played by Michael Redgrave) - who say things like this. But as I remember it, the working-class were happy to play the game by the rules as long as their standard of living was rising and they were able to buy washing-machines and television-sets to watch the programmes their ‘betters’ were making available to them. It was only later on in the 60s that the consensus began to break up and middle-class hegemony was called into question. However, at the time, it seemed that only people like Colin ‘with a chip on their shoulder’ were calling it all into question and recognising that under the middle-class hype of “You’ve never had it so good” things were pretty much as they’d always been - at least for people like him and his family, living their prefab. second-class lives. Colin’s attitude might have been ‘existentialist’, but, given the supine state of the working-class at the time, this was hardly surprising.
Of course, the irony of it all is that towards the end of the film, Colin himself has begun to succumb to temptation, taken in by the blandishments of the borstal-governor who has been telling him that he might have a great future ahead of him as an athlete if he sticks to it. He may even represent Britain in the Olympics and in the process make a career for himself. He is not just making them think they’ve got him house-trained, perhaps he is actually becoming house-trained, as his best-friend, Mick, suggests when he asks “Whose bloody side are you on all of a sudden?” - which in this (existentialist) context means “Are you being true to yourself? Are you being authentic?” And it gives pause to think. While he is running his final race - the one he throws - he has flashbacks to his mother and, her ‘fancy-man’, his dying and dead father, his girlfriend, the coppers, the politician on the box, the bosses, the borstal-governor, the boy who was beaten up by the screws and so on and so forth - in fact the whole tenor of his working-class life, as well as the middle-class institutions he is at odds with, and during these flashbacks, he is reminded whose bloody side he is on all of a sudden. It’s a great moment - at least, I thought so when I first saw it - a moment when he puts two fingers up to all the middle-class people who have him under their thumb and refuses to play the game by their rules.
Of course, things are no longer what they were in the early 60s, when “we’d never had it so good”. In fact, they started to go awry not so long after. Now things are a lot more desperate and no-one is taken in by this idea of continuous capitalist progress any more. Colin’s ‘existentialist’ rebellion was probably the only one available at a time when the consensus was all for the status-quo and middle-class hegemony prevailed. Now that that hegemony no longer exists, it’s become a lot more difficult to believe in Colin’s individual rebellion than it was in the 50s and 60s, when alienation had not reached the collective pitch it presently has. Nowadays, it might seem a little bit pointless. But it did have a certain resonance then, and perhaps even now we could do with more of his negative attitude towards the people in power.