Re-encountering Nell Dunn and ‘Poor Cow’ (1967)

Poor Cow (1967)

by Selina Robertson


This week’s blog contribution comes from Selina Robertson, film curator, writer and co-founder of Club des Femmes, who has interviewed Nell Dunn about her groundbreaking novel and film, Poor Cow (1967). As the film is re-released following its digital restoration, her article gives a unique insight into Dunn’s collaboration with director Ken Loach and why this story still resonates today.

British author, screenwriter and playwright Nell Dunn is perhaps most famously known for her two books Up the Junction (1963) and Poor Cow (1967), candid portraits of the lives and loves of South London working class women that were turned into films under the direction of Ken Loach. Dunn’s frank representation of female sexuality mixed with a singular ear for the vernacular culminated in these two landmarks pieces of proto-feminist fiction. The books arrival on the 1960s literary scene and carried a veritable “succès de scandale.. [both] praised and attacked for their energy, candour and realism,” according to author Margaret Drabble in her introduction for Viragos 40th anniversary reprint of the novel. On 24th June, the ICO are re-releasing the film into cinemas in a new digital restoration overseen by Loach, who, as well recently winning the Palme D’Or, is celebrating his 80th birthday year.

Poor Cow chronicles the life of working class Joy (played brilliantly by Carol White), who as well as having an uncaring husband (John Bindon) and a sensitive lover (Terence Stamp), has a baby boy called Jonny to provide for and a healthy regard for sex (a short clip here). The combination of Carol White’s unforgettable performance and Dunn’s outstanding screenplay deliver a film that embodies Dunn’s rebellious yet empathetic portrait of the life of a young freewheeling woman, with factory money in her pocket and a Carol Whitehunger for men and sex. Yet it is under Loach’s formal direction (influenced by the Czech New Wave), Joy’s story is brought out with characteristic precision and concern; he  carefully shows how Joy’s predicaments arise from socio-political circumstances beyond her control. The combination of Loach’s socialist politics with a Czech formalism and Dunn’s spirited tale of a London girl’s life, love and young motherhood make Poor Cow a riveting film to watch.

The early 1960s brought a new interest in women’s lives, at the time Dunn was critically hailed as belonging to the Alan Sillitoe’s School of the ‘Angry Young Man. British New Wave cinema and the Royal Court was on the rise churning out working class heroes plenty but it was Shelagh Delaney’s proto-feminist play A Taste of Honey (1961) which Delaney adapted for screen under the direction of Tony Richardson, starring Rita Tushingham that had special bite for female audiences and Dunn herself. Habitually, when film histories of the British New Wave are revisited in top tens or anniversary screenings, it is more often than not that female writers like Delaney and Dunn and their working class heroines in Jo and Joy are routinely sidelined.

I asked Dunn if she was happy with how Joy was represented on screen and she surprises me, “You know I have not seen it [Poor Cow] for 50 years! I was happy and I absolutely loved the character of Joy”. As we continued to discuss Joy’s sexual bawdiness, her characters’ un-filtered language (today’s audiences will raise a few eyebrows for the books’ casual homophobia and racism) and her character’s right to have a good time, she suddenly exclaimed, “The most subversive thing in Poor Cow was when Joy says, ‘I began to enjoy different men’s bodies’”. I looked back over my interview notes and see that I had pulled out something similar; specifically ‘I need different men to satisfy my different needs’. We both agreed that this was brilliantly scandalous and I reminded her that Loach had included these lines in his film. “I always liked that”, Dunn confirmed, “It shocked everybody!”

There is a rich history of dissenting British feminist authors who have written stories about disobedient women from Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf to Delaney and Dunn – mirrored in the films of Jane Arden, Sally Potter, Amma Asante and Andrea Arnold. A woman’s right to self determination continues to be a feminist issue and it is just “fantastic” as Joy would say that Poor Cow is being re-released into cinemas for new audiences to enjoy.

  • To launch the new digital restoration of Poor Cow, Nell Dunn and Terence Stamp will be at the Barbican for a ScreenTalk on 23 June.
  • Details of the film’s nationwide theatrical release can be found on the ICO website.
  •  This blog is a shortened version of a longer article published in The F Word.

Selina Robertson is a freelance film curator and writer. She co-founded Club des Femmes, a queer feminist film curating collective. She works at the Independent Cinema Office and is a PhD student at Birkbeck College researching London’s queer-feminist film curating practices and activism from 1980-1995.