Film Review: Peterloo

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The film poster for the 2018 film Peterloo, directed my Mike Leigh (Source: Thin Man Films).

2019 will mark the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, arguably one of the key turning points in the history of British radicalism. In anticipation of this anniversary, Peterloo, directed by Mike Leigh, was released on the 2nd November 2018. I recently went to see the film, and whilst I think it is a very well-made film that will make an excellent teaching resource, I don’t think it has much popular appeal, and I wonder what it is actually trying to achieve.

On the 16th of August 1819, between 60,000 and 80,000 protesters gathered in St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester to call for more men to be given the vote. The local magistrates panicked and ordered local soldiers and special constables to disperse the crowds. Mounted soldiers charged into the crowd with their sabres drawn. Unable to leave the area, hundreds of people received injuries from the sabres or were trampled by horses. It is estimated that 18 people died, although more may have died later from their injuries. The horrific events became known as the Peterloo Massacre, a play on the Battle of Waterloo, a triumphant victory for the British and Prussians over Napoleon’s French forces in 1815.

The massacre was an important moment in the history of British radicalism. It started a period of repression of dissent by the British government, but it also served to crystalise the goals and determination of radicals, leading to significant victories in the mid-nineteenth century. Much like the centenary of the Representation of the People Act in 2018 (for more information, see the Vote100 page of this blog), the bicentennial of the Peterloo Massacre in 2019 looks set to be marked with a wide range of events, exhibitions, and cultural outputs. Peterloo is sure to be the first of many.

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The famous orator Henry Hunt (played by Rory Kinnear) greets the crowds in St. Peter’s Fields (Source: BFI).

It took me a while to work out what I actually think about Peterloo. It is undoubtedly a well-made film, with historically accurate costumes, sets, and dialogue. The representation of the massacre itself is wonderful; well, when I say wonderful I mean shocking and violent and awful, but that is because it was made so well. The acting is very good; Maxine Peake is wonderful as always, and Rory Kinnear does an excellent job of portraying the charismatic but pompous Henry Hunt. At 2 hours and 34 minutes it is a long film, but it doesn’t drag at any point. It also takes care to make sure that the viewer understands the context of Peterloo; the political and social conditions that allowed such an event to take place. For some, this may also be one of the film’s biggest weaknesses. It has a very ‘educational’ feel about it–I think it will make an excellent teaching resource, but how many people go to the cinema or choose something on Netflix because they want to learn something?

For me, this issue gets at the biggest problem with Peterloo; it isn’t clear who it is trying to appeal to. It is quite different from other recent films about historical British protest. Pride (2014) is a light-hearted comedy about overcoming difference to develop mutual respect and solidarity. It appeals to anyone who enjoys light-hearted comedies with a happy ending. Suffragette (2015) is a character driven story about Maud Watts, a fictional woman who grows as a person through her participation in the women’s suffrage movement. It appeals to anyone who likes character driven stories. I don’t really know what kind of film-goer Peterloo would appeal to, beyond people who like historical protest, which I am willing to admit is a relatively niche group.

Both Pride and Suffragette have been criticised for leaving out individuals and groups in order to simplify the stories and politics (for example, see Diarmaid Kelliher’s post on this blog: Thoughts on Pride: What’s Left out and Why does it Matter?). This can be very frustrating for historians, but perhaps it is worth editing the story a bit in order to make it more approachable for the general public. A historically accurate film is all well and good, but is there any point being historically accurate if nobody watches it? Peterloo has what feels like hundreds of characters, many of whom we meet only briefly. In most films, all the characters have a purpose; they learn a lesson, develop as a person, or do something to drive the story along. Peterloo has multiple characters that seem to do nothing but make the film more difficult to follow. It lacks the neatness of fictional stories or those adapted to better suit the silver screen, like Pride and Suffragette.

Peterloo is not a bad film, but I’m just not sure what it’s trying to achieve. If Mike Leigh wanted to make an accurate portrayal of a significant event in British history, then I think he has done a good job. If he was trying to bring the story of the Peterloo Massacre to a new audience, then I’m not convinced the film will be effective.

The Book of Erebus: Archives in Blade

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There is an anecdote in my family that my parents once tried to rent Blade Runner (1982). Instead of Ridley Scott’s epic visual masterpiece they ended up with Blade (1998), an over-the-top vampire film starring Wesley Snipes. Also a good film, but very different. We will probably never know if the mistake was my parents’ or Blockbusters’, but my Mum still thinks Blade Runner is about a leather-clad vampire hunter.

I recently rewatched Blade, and apart from being shocked by the dodgy CGI, I was interested by the film’s representation of archives. Archives, libraries, and other repositories of knowledge are often used in films as a method of exposition, or of revealing some information that moves the plot along, and Blade is no different. Blade and his plucky but naive companion Dr. Karen Jenson fight their way through a club to find a vampire archive, the entrance to which is hidden in an industrial fridge.

Inside, they find futuristic data banks and a grossly overweight and flatulent archivist, who reveals to Blade and Dr. Jensen the plans of the film’s baddie, evil vampire Deacon Frost. Frost has been using the archive to translate the the Book of Erebus, the vampire bible whose meaning had been long since forgotten. Frost was trying to enact a prophecy he found in the Bible, which would give him enough power to take over the world and bring an end to humans. Blade the sets out to try and stop Frost. The archive is the means through which the good guy finds out what the bad guy is up to, thus progressing the story.

Blade archivist

The archivist in Blade is not a particularly flattering depiction of researchers (Blade, 1998).

I would say that there are two main stereotypes of archives in popular culture. The first is old, dusty stacks of books and scrolls, stacked floor to ceiling in a dark, dingy room. The other is much more modern, even futuristic, with high-tech data banks, in large, sparse rooms. The archive in Blade falls into the latter category, as the images below demonstrate (the Empire’s archives on Scarif in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) are another example of this type). I think the archives are a reflection of the vampire community in Blade as a whole; they are very old, but they have changed and developed to keep up with the times, blending in with human society. So much so, that the ability to translate the Book of Erebus has been lost, as has much of the vampires’ history and lore.

Blade vampire archive

The archives in Blade are stored on large, white data banks in otherwise empty rooms (Blade, 1998).

Blade the Book of Erebus

The Book of Erebus, the vampire’s bible, is hidden within the vampire archive. Even though the pages themselves are old and yellowed, the way they are stored is modern (Blade, 1998).

Archives and libraries are represented frequently in popular culture, often as a source of exposition or plot progression. These representations shape the way that non-researchers understand and perceive of archives, and as such I think it is important for academics to spend time analysing them, and thinking about what impact they might have. The archive is Blade is modern and hi-tech, much more so than any real archive currently is. The archivist is also much more unpleasant than any archivist I’ve ever met!

We Are Many Review

Rise, like lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number!

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you:

Ye are many—they are few!”

The Masque of Anarchy, Percy Shelly, 1819.

We Are Many Landscape

Many of you who has ever been to a protest will be familiar with at least part of the above quote, the final stanza of a poem written by Percy Shelley after the Peterloo massacre. We Are Many, a documentary film that tells the story of the Stop the War protests on the 15th February 2003, takes it’s name from the final line of this evocative poem. The film is not unjustified in borrowing such powerful words; it is a forceful and effecting documentary.

Directed by Amir Amirani, and first released at Sheffield Doc/Fest in 2014, We Are Many tells the story of the global protests against the imminent Iraq War on the 15th of February 2003. Up to 30 million people in nearly 800 cities took part, many of whom had never been to a protest before. The film uses news footage, interviews with participants, experts, and journalists, footage of protests, and clips of political speeches to tell the narrative of the protests themselves, as well as the events that led up to them, and the political movements they helped to inspire (you can see the trailer here).

Starting with 9/11 and the beginning of the War on Terror; the documentary traces the foundation of the Stop the War coalition; the growing opposition to military intervention in Iraq; the protests themselves; further attempts to prevent Western intervention in Iraq; the war itself; and the Tahir Square protests in Egypt. It ends with the vote by British Parliament in 2013 in which they decided against military intervention in Syria, an indication that, although the Iraq War was not prevented, the protest was not necessarily a waste of time. It is a comprehensive account, and I think it could have benefited from doing less, the last half and hour or so does drag somewhat.

2003 Stop the War March

The Stop the War march on the 15th March 2003 was one of the biggest marches London has seen in decades (Source: Channel 4).

Overall, however, I thought it was a brilliant documentary. The interviews were particularly effective: a US air force veteran who came to oppose the war and US government officials admitting the war was wrong make for convincing viewing. The documentary also featured footage of the interviewees speechless. When the narrative arrives at the 19th of March when the war started, many of the interviewees were lost for words, even after a decade. That was pretty powerful.

When a protest doesn’t result in direct changes, it can be difficult to assess its impact. We Are Many admits that the Stop the War protests failed in their primary objective, and left many so demoralised that they withdrew from political engagement. The documentary does, however, make the argument that the 2003 demonstrations had long-term, positive impacts. It argues that the democracy movement in Egypt in 2011 was the product of the global anti-war movement, and highlights that when Britain faced the choice to invade Syria in 2013, MPs made a different decision than the government made a decade before. It is an interesting attempt to assess the impacts that a protest can have.

We Are Many is a comprehensive and emotive account of the events of the 15th February 2003. The global day of protest is thoroughly contextualised in both the events leading up to it, and the possible impacts it may have had. I would recommend this film as a teaching resource about both dissent and the Iraq War, or for those who are just curious about one of the biggest globally coordinated protests the world has ever seen.

Turbulent London on Film: Save Our Heritage

Winstan Whitter. Save Our Heritage, uploaded 2011, available at  https://vimeo.com/32541973

Winstan Whitter was a film-maker in the right place at the right time. A local boy, he filmed throughout the campaign to save the historic Four Aces Club and surrounding buildings in Dalston, Hackney from demolition and redevelopment. Save Our Heritage tells the story from start to finish, from when the the demolition signs first appeared, to the end of the campaign. The documentary is a compelling example of a single-issue social movement, and showcases a mixture of resistance tactics, some official, others less so. The film is particularly pertinent now, as people feel increasingly marginalised in London, thanks to gentrification and rising house prices. Save Our Heritage tells a story that feels very familiar; it is a detailed snapshot of a process that is going on all over the capital.

The narrative is strung together by interviews with Bill Parry-Davies, a founding member of OPEN Dalston (Organisation for Promotion of Environmental Needs), a “community-based company” of local residents and businesses which started campaigning in early 2005 for the improvement of the local area. Mr Parry-Davies is perhaps not what you would expect in a prominent member of a social movement; he is a well-dressed, well-spoken solicitor, and he brings a certain degree of respectability to the film which may surprise some.

Bill Parry-Davies

Bill Parry-Davies, solicitor and founding member of OPEN Dalston, features prominently in Save Our Heritage (Source: Save Our Heritage).

The film focuses on the campaign to save 4-12 Dalston Lane, which at the beginning of the film is threatened with demolition, largely because it had been neglected by its owners, Hackney Borough Council. The buildings included 2 listed Georgian houses and a circus built in 1886, which has since served as a theatre, cinema, and nightclub. As the Four Aces Club, it was a became a well-known centre for black music in London. The roof was removed in the 1990s, presumably with the full knowledge of Hackney Council, and never replaced. The interiors deteriorated, but the building remained structurally sound. In 2005, the Council began their attempts to demolish the buildings.

The film documents the entire campaign to save the buildings, including a public consultation campaign, alternative proposals, high court injunctions, an occupation (which began to restore the buildings and acted as a form of community centre),  a demonstration outside a Hackney council meeting (in which 5 minutes were allocated for ALL those wishing to oppose the development plans). The council’s chosen plans did not provide any facilities which OPEN claimed the community needed, such as affordable housing, cultural facilities, and open green space. To add insult to injury, it emerged that TFL needed  income from the site to plug a £19 million funding gap from their station development on an adjacent site, which meant that Hackney taxpayers were footing the bill for even more upmarket housing.

Dalston Occupation

A sign attached to the roof of the theatre building by the occupiers (Source: Save Our Heritage).

This is a one-sided account of the story; there is no one representing Hackney Council, TFL, or the developers to tell the other side of the story. Nonetheless, I think it is a well made and informative film, that tells this David and Goliath story in an interesting way. Save Our Heritage is well worth 37 minutes of your time, particularly if you are interested in gentrification and the transformation which London has been through in recent years. It would also make an excellent teaching resource; it is a fantastic record of a diverse and enthusiastic campaign.

Breaking the Peace: A Century of London Protest on Film

This Monday, I went to a talk at the Birkbeck Cinema called Breaking the Peace: A Century of London Protest on Film given by  Professor Ian Christie, part of a series of events exploring London on film in association with the Raphael Samuel History Centre. Over the course of an hour and a half, Professor Christie showed us footage of the Suffragettes (1910-13), the 1926 General Strike, a 1932 Hunger March, the Battle of Cable Street (1936), Anti-Vietnam War protests (1968), the disruption of the 1970 Miss World competition at the Royal Albert Hall, the 2003 Anti-Iraq War demonstration, and Occupy London (2011). I had a great afternoon watching the footage, looking out for all the things that have (and haven’t) changed about protest in London over the last one hundred years.

NUWSS Rally Trafalgar Square Pathe Newsreel

A National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) rally in Trafalgar Square. This is a still from newsreel footage owned by British Pathe, and is available on YouTube (Source: British Pathe).

Apart from fashion, one of the biggest changes that stood out was the development, and democratisation, of film technology. The afternoon began with grainy, silent, black-and-white newsreel footage,  and finished with colour and sound, probably filmed by amateurs with handheld cameras. As film technology has developed, it has also got cheaper, allowing wider excess. In the 1960s the new TV production company Granada started making World in Action,  a hard-hitting news programme that presented London protesters in a more balanced light than older, more established sources of news. By the 2010s, the Occupy movement were making and editing their own films, presenting themselves exactly the way they wanted. Organisers of protests want their message to reach further than the people who witnessed the protest directly, and the more control they have over the communication media that spreads that message,  the more successful they are likely to be in getting that message out.

World in Action Anti-Vietnam Demo

A still from World in Action‘s coverage of the 1968 Anti-Vietnam War demonstration in London. The distinctive shape of the fountains makes it obvious that this is also Trafalgar Square. This video is also available on YouTube (Source: World in Action).

One thing which has not changed much is the language used by outsiders to describe protest. In almost every example there was the perception that a largely peaceful protest had been subverted by a small minority of ‘criminals’, ‘anarchists’, or ‘hawks’ (I particularly liked the Cold War terminology creeping in here). Protesters were also frequently described as ‘converging on London’, giving the impression of disgruntled Britons descending on the capital from all corners of the country. London is the political and economic centre of the country,  it is no surprise that it is chosen as the site of many national demonstrations.

Miss World 1970 disruption BBC News

A still from the BBC’s Witness series about the disruption of the 1970 Miss World Competition in the Royal Albert Hall (Source: BBC News)

The tactics of the demonstrators themselves has also remained largely the same. The content and methods of production may have changed, but banners and placards are still an integral part of protest marches, as is costume. The protest march itself has also changed little since the women of the suffrage movement proved it could be done with dignity and respectability. Scholars sometimes talk about ‘repertoires of resistance’- the specific set of tactics available to demonstrators to make their point. These repertoires are often shared between and within communities, including on a national scale. This means that many protests utilise similar strategies. There is also a tendency to take inspiration from what came before; the anti-Vietnam demonstrators may have mimicked the successful strategies of the Suffragettes, for example.

Anti-Iraq War demo 2003

A still from a YouTube video about the demonstration against the Iraq war in 2003 (Source: Kino Kast).

Another constant throughout the films was London itself. Both Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square are described in the newsreels as ‘the home of free speech’, and landmarks such as Nelson’s Column act as a familiar backdrop to events. London is no stranger to protest. Due to its role as the political and economic centre of Britain, the city is full of buildings which can act as symbolic stand-ins for intangible power structures (the Houses of Parliament, the Bank of England, and foreign embassies are some examples). The fact that places like Hyde Park have become known as the home of free speech also attracts more protest groups, reinforcing the city’s reputation for protest.

Occupy London Still

A still from a film made by Occupy London about the protests outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in 2011 (Source: Conscious Collective).

The purpose of this series of events organised by the Raphael Samuel History Centre and Professor Ian Christie was to think about how film can be used for research. There is a vast amount of film of London protest available, much of it more accessible than ever thanks to resources such as YouTube. Whilst it is important to be wary of possible biases (the early newsreels are almost entirely concerned with the preservation of law and order), film is a perfectly viable source to use for investigating historical research. It’s just a shame half of my case studies occurred before the invention of film!

‘Still the Enemy Within:’ May Day Screening

‘Still the Enemy Within’ film poster.

Last Friday (May the 1st), I went to a showing of the documentary film Still the Enemy Within (2014), organised by Reel Islington and Radical Islington at London Metropolitan University. The film tells the story of the 1984-5 miner’s strike, from the perspective of those who took part. The film’s executive producer, Mike Simons, and Mike Jackson, the secretary of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miner’s (LGSM) were there for a Q&A after the screening. I have been meaning to see the film for a while, and it seemed like an appropriate thing to do with my May Day.

Still the Enemy Within reconstructs the narrative of the miner’s strike using archive footage and photos, interviews and dramatisations. It starts in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister, and runs right through to the recent anti-austerity protests, although these only get a brief mention in the last few minutes. It is engaging and entertaining, and does a fantastic job of telling the story with a nice balance of poignancy and humour. With the 30th anniversary of the strike recently, and films such as Pride and Going through the Change!, I had an awareness of the miner’s strike and knowledge of specific parts, but Still the Enemy Within improved my general knowledge of the strike immeasurably. It goes through the major events of the strike in chronological order, including how the strike began, the reluctance of Nottinghamshire miners and other unions to join the strike, the death of David Jones at a picket, and the eventual defeat.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to think of the miner’s strike as doomed to fail, but the interviews with strikers and their supporters tell a different story. Especially at the beginning of the year-long strike, the miners were confident in their ability to win, largely thanks to their victory over Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1974. The National Union of Mineworker’s (NUM) was one of the strongest in the country, and the miner’s had faith in the NUM’s president, Arthur Scargill. Hearing the story from the perspective of those who took part gives a sense of what it was like to live through the highs and lows, the joys of solidarity and strength and the bitterness of hunger, failed marriages and defeat.

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Mike Simon and Mike Jackson after the screening of ‘Still the Enemy Within’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Those interviewed for the film also have a wonderful sense of humour, which brings me to my next point. I think the film really benefited from being seen with a large group of politically-minded people. Some of the jokes and stories that the strikers tell are laugh-out-loud funny, and I enjoyed the experience of everyone else in the crowded lecture theatre laughing along with me. A political audience also made for a lively, if brief, discussion after the film. It turned out there was a former Nottinghamshire miner in the audience, who was keen to share his experiences.

However, I would highly recommend watching the film even if you were on your own. It really is a wonderful resource, and would be fantastic for undergraduate teaching. The film-makers have a list of screenings on their website, from which you can also buy the film. I myself am now a proud owner of the DVD!

‘Going through the Change!’: The Story of the National Women Against Pit Closures

A banner from the National Women Against Pit Closures (Source: Pastpixels, n.d.)

A banner from the National Women Against Pit Closures (Source: Pastpixels, n.d.).

On Tuesday evening I went to the London premiere of the film Going through the Change! at the Bishopsgate Institute. Made by Anne-Marie Sweeney, it is a film about the 20th anniversary weekend of the National Women Against Pit Closures (NWAPC) in 2004. Anne-Marie Sweeney and Bridget Bell, Joint Secretary of the NWAPC, both spoke and led the discussion after the film. Because of the recent 30th anniversary, the 1984-5 miners’ strike has been the focus of renewed attention, most prominently in the form of the film Pride. Going through the Change! is a reflection on this commemorative process, as well as a celebration of the past, present, and future work of  working class female activists.

The NWAPC is a national organisation set up to coordinate the efforts of local Women Against Pits Closure groups that sprang up around the country almost as soon as the miners’ strike started. The film is made up almost entirely of footage from the weekend held to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the strike. It uses footage of the weekend’s speakers, many of whom were involved in entirely different campaigns from the miners’ strike, to show footage of other disputes, including dock strikes in Liverpool, action by the Fire Brigade’s Union and protests demanding improved treatment of asylum seekers. In this way the film really emphasises the importance of solidarity between campaigns and social movements, in terms of moral as well as financial and practical support.

A badge from the 20th anniversary of the NWAPC, with a stirring message (Source: Feminist Times, 2014).

A badge from the 20th anniversary of the NWAPC, with a stirring message (Source: Feminist Times, 2014).

One thing that the film and discussion made me think about was the way in which anniversaries such as the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike are used. As I said, many of the speakers shown in the film were from campaigns that were nothing to do with the strike, many of them still ongoing at the time the footage was filmed in 2004. Then, as now, the NWAPC is using the anniversary not as an excuse for a nostalgia trip, but as a focus point for what is still yet to be achieved. In a similar way, the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners group (LGSM) has received a boost from the publicity surrounding the anniversary and Pride (see @LGSMPride on Twitter). Unlike other historical events, the anniversary of the strike is being used as an opportunity to look forward as well as back.

Women grappling with police during the miners' strike (Source: Bristol, 2014).

Women grappling with police during the miners’ strike (Source: Bristol Radical History Group, 2014).

When the women of the NWAPC do look back, it seems to be mainly for the purpose of taking inspiration and lessons for future campaigns. Education is clearly an important part of campaigns such as this one. Many of the women involved in NWAPC had no experience of activism or politics before the strike began. The title of the film Going through the Change! initially invokes thoughts of the menopause, but is actually a quote from one the speakers. And the change she is referring too is that from housewife to political activist. All of the women featured seemed to have experienced this sense of empowerment, the realisation that actually they can make a difference and cause change. They were fierce and proud, and perfectly capable of articulating themselves in public, something several of them said they never dreamed they would be able to do before they were politicised. As campaigns continue and develop, more women will be empowered in this way, will learn how to use direct action and campaigning to fight for their goals. Women who have already gone through this transformation should be able to help based on their own experiences, which is another reason that solidarity and networks between different campaigns are so important.

Going through the Change! is an inspiring film, and it was a pleasure to be part of a discussion where so many of the women from the film were present. These are strong women who have had long, accomplished activism careers, and who continue to fight in times that they see as just as bad, if not worse, than the 1980s. Many of them are now fighting for the futures of the grandchildren rather than their children, but they remain as passionate and fierce as ever, and a lesson to us all.

The people involved in making Going through the Change! are keen for the film to be seen. If you would like to buy a copy, or arrange a screening, then get in touch via their Facebook group.


Sources

‘Going through the Change!’ Bristol Radical History Group. Last modified 6th February 2015, accessed 4th March 2015. http://www.brh.org.uk/site/events/going-change/

Graham, Sarah. ‘Women Against Pit Closures: memories from the miners’ strike, 30 years on.’ Feminist Times. Last modified 5th March 2014, accessed 4th March 2015.  http://www.feministtimes.com/women-against-pit-closures-memories-from-the-miners-strike-30-years-on/

‘Greetings card: The Banner of the National Women Against Pit Closures.’ Pastpixels. No date, accessed 4th march 2015. http://www.pastpixels.co.uk/en/product/greetings-card-banner-national-women-against-pit-closures