Of all the films associated with the British New Wave of the sixties, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) remains perhaps the freshest and most resonant. Born of the Angry Young Men’s riposte to a 1950s Britain grown staid and complacent, to the Free Cinema movement, and to that notorious New Wave across the Channel, our own New Wave seems a limit case for the term, a piece of journalese that readily hardened into textbook orthodoxy. The specific provenance of key New Wave films – like Room at the Top (1958), A Kind of Loving (1962), and This Sporting Life (1963) – have long been obscured by the collective tag that so dominates this period of British film history.

Along with Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), the Bfi is releasing Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, directed by Karel Reisz, who died in November. With hindsight, the British New Wave was a short-lived affair, running roughly from the seasons of cinema-verité shorts that played under the banner ‘Free Cinema’ at the National Film Theatre between 1956 and 1959, to Billy Liar! (1963), a film which saw New Wave realism already turning to sixties whimsy.

Based mainly on books by men, scripted by men, and directed by men, the New Wave concerned itself overwhelmingly with the problems of men. Instead of music, Reisz’s film opens with the ambient clatter of the Raleigh bike factory shop floor in Nottingham where Alan Sillitoe, the film’s screenwriter and author of the source novel, worked between 1942 and 1946. Finding Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney), a lathe worker coming to the end of the Friday shift, Reisz primes us for the film’s key speech. Arthur’s voiceover recites his creed, a litany of contempt for those men who settle for the compromises that go with a routine job, marriage, and kids. Famously catching the Angry Young Man’s rage over diminished post-war opportunities, Arthur spits: "All I’m out for is a good time. All the rest is propaganda." With his collar turned up, hair slicked in a Brylcreem quiff, his muscular arms glistening, Arthur is both Stakhanovite and a rebel without a cause, a symbol of post-Suez British decline and a walking contradiction.

Forty years on, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning remains a striking slice of life. Shot in an observational style partly on location in Nottingham, including at the Raleigh factory itself, the film catches working Britain in everyday habitat. With its sombre back-to-backs, communal alleys, and kids playing football on the pavement, Arthur’s street could be a street in a Grierson documentary of the 1930s, a tendency that influenced the Free Cinema style. Reisz’s own Free Cinema contributions resonate here: Momma Don’t Allow (co-directed with Tony Richardson in 1955) was set in a jazz club north of the river, while We Are The Lambeth Boys (1959) documented the trials and tribulations of a south London youth club.

Cinematically, the New Wave rebellion was aimed squarely at the Mayfair drawing rooms and plummy postures of a London-based film industry dedicated to propping up the national ego with Kenneth More war films. If the New Wave is worth anything now, it is that it dared to represent the view from provincial Britain – a land of regional accents, indelicate appetites, lives spent on occupational and marital treadmills in towns divided between patrician terraces and proletarian estates, where the outlook is as dour as the weather.

Contented with his lot, Jack (Bryan Pringle) drinks the foul company tea, and toadies to the gaffer, unaware that Arthur is screwing his wife Brenda (Rachel Roberts) behind his back. Still youngish, sensual, bored, Brenda is turned on by Arthur’s iconoclasm, his complaint, his libido. In an early scene, Arthur competes with a sailor to see who can down his pint the quickest. Later, a drunk throws a beer glass through a funeral director’s window and is accosted by a woman Civil Defence Officer. A headline in Jack’s paper provides ironic commentary: "BE PROUD OF THESE MEN". The film’s portrait of a masculine population for whom all wars have been fought, all struggles overcome, now in abeyance to women determined to consume their pay and curb their natures, is typical New Wave.

But if Jack is the passive drone Arthur doesn’t want to become, what does Arthur make of his rage? In the film’s final scene, he and new girlfriend Doreen (Shirley Anne Field) stand on a hill above the new housing estate where she wants a home with an inside loo and all mod-cons. He throws a stone in the direction of the houses. Talking about Arthur, Reisz saw him as "a sad person, terribly limited in his sensibilities, narrow in his ambitions and a bloody fool into the bargain."

As John Caughie writes: "Finney’s characterisation seemed to come from inside the new, young, dissatisfied working class, and with its insolent defiance, aggressive sexuality and self-absorbed cockiness dispelled the dreams of a decent and contented class community left over from Ealing." But the depression and war were over. Now Arthur Seaton is stranded between a father grown soporific before the easy panaceas of transatlantic culture – "They’ve got a TV set and a packet of fags, but they’re both dead from the neck up" – and his own incoherent rebellion. When Jack finds out about Brenda and Arthur, he sets his squaddie brother on Arthur. Looking in the mirror later, Arthur succumbs to a glimmer of self-awareness: "I’m me and nobody else. God knows what I am." At Doreen’s mother’s kitchen table, Arthur flicks breadcrumbs and Doreen imperiously replaces them – a neat metaphor for masculine impotence in the shadow of feminine conformity.

But what of the women of the New Wave? Like the Free Cinema movement and the French New Wave, British New Wave films depicted a world of men and women at war with each other. Writing about A Kind of Loving in 1962, critic Penelope Gilliat detected a deep-seated misogyny in the plays and books on which New Wave films were based. In war work during the ’40s, British women achieved a measure of economic freedom. But the ’50s saw a backlash and the return of old ideas about a ‘woman’s place’. For all their apparent liberalism, the New Wave films were deeply conformist in terms of sexual politics, depicting women either as wives, mothers, lovers or mistresses – never as characters with their own agendas, defined independently of men.

Women are identified with domestic spaces, whilst men occupy public spaces. Women are consumers. Men are breadwinners. The New Wave’s much-vaunted realism aside, its gender politics severely limited its ability to represent the reality of postwar British life. Because these directors were more interested in male discontent, the glimpses we get of the other half of the population in the newly-representative films of the New Wave are poignant and fleeting. One of the film’s most depressing moments sees Brenda, exposed as Arthur’s mistress and pregnant with his child, now alone at the fairground after Arthur has fled the soldiers. Finding his wife, Jack viciously slaps her. Smarting from the pain and the humiliation, Brenda doesn’t know whether to follow her husband and their son back to the marital home, or to wait at the fair, risking funny looks and smutty gossip. What has she to go home to? More violence? Painful silences? Or reconciliation followed by makeshift love and guilty sex? What makes this moment doubly depressing is the image of a normally meek man driven by impotence to strike a woman because he lacks the guts to thump another man. Shot as you might witness a marital squabble in a public place, this is an ugly and difficult scene to watch.

Yet these women are so wilful, so hardheaded, so warm, so present, that they still court admiration and sympathy. Brenda’s litany about being pregnant is that of a generation caught between an angry husband and a backstreet abortion. But Doreen is tougher than Brenda: pretty, sarky, and able to say no, she represents the woman Brenda once was. She may work in a hairnet factory, but she gives as good as she gets. Shirley Anne Field was the only experienced screen actor in the cast. Opposite the theatrical range of Roberts and Finney, who had just made his name playing Billy Liar on stage, her own background lends Field a mannered, slightly wooden charm. Yet, oddly, this works in favour of her characterisation of an insolent provincial beauty. Doreen may be charmed by the prospect of a three-piece suite, but she’s also brave enough to withhold love if he doesn’t grow up.

On leaving a cinema Doreen and Arthur talk about how predictable the film was – doubtless a knowing allusion to the shapelessness of new British realism, smug in its frank sexuality and its slinky Johnny Dankworth modernism. Perhaps Doreen will succumb to drudgery. But then again, perhas she’ll get fed up with Saturday night and Sunday morning, do a secretarial course and leave Nottingham for good…

Richard Armstrong’s book ‘Understanding Realism’ will be released by the Bfi in the Autumn.