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.

Pits and Perverts Revisited: ‘Pride’ the Movie and Politics Now

The Pits and Perverts Revisited panel.

The Pits and Perverts Revisited panel.

Last Friday, I went to an event at Birkbeck College called Pits and Perverts Revisited: ‘Pride’ the Movie and Politics Now. It is almost exactly 30 years since the Pits and Perverts fundraiser in Camden was organised for the striking miners by Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, the group depicted in this year’s hit film, Pride. This event was a reflection on the film and LGSM itself, with Mike Jackson and Siân James speaking, upon whom characters in the film were based. It included a screening of the documentary All Out! Dancing in Dulais and a panel discussion also featuring Diarmaid Kelliher (a PhD student at the University of Glasgow working on solidarity groups for the miners in London), and Bev Skeggs (a professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths). All Out was made in 1986, and is about the work that LGSM did for the miners. It was a great evening full of passionate discussion, which raised a lot of interesting points.

The key thing that really came home to me during the course of the evening was the importance of solidarity to protest movements. The point was made in All Out that it is illogical to fight for the right of one oppressed group or minority but not others. Solidarity can take many forms, from a declaration of support to volunteers to help man the picket lines, but all types are important. There is a long tradition of solidarity amongst social movements in Britain, for example miners from across the country joined the Grunwick strike on the picket line in the 1970s. However there is also a tradition of groups not receiving the support they need, for example many of the big trade union’s attitudes to women workers. Solidarity between different protest movements is still not a given, but as Pride demonstrates, it can be an invaluable and incredibly beneficial experience.

The original Pits and Perverts publicity poster.

The original Pits and Perverts publicity poster.

Another important characteristic of social movements that was emphasised was networks. Exchanging solidarity with other groups involves making connections, sharing knowledge, resources and experience. Several of the speakers emphasised the importance of making connections with other movements and activists, particularly internationally as many of the issues campaigned on now have international causes and implications. Academic geographers frequently analyse social movements from the perspective of networks, and it was nice to know that this is a legitimate perspective to take.

The final thing that came out of the discussion that I think is really important to emphasise is the necessity of fundraising. The main things that LGSM did in support of the miners were collections and fundraisers. At the height of the strike the Neath, Dulais and Swansea Valleys Miners Support Group needed £5-8000 per week to feed 1000 mining families. These funds were essential for the strike to continue, and without it, the miners would have had no choice but to return to work. Fundraising is not glamorous or exciting, but no campaign will last for long without some form of income.

The audience for Pits and Perverts Revisited was more mixed than your average academic seminar, which I think contributed to the vigour and practical nature of the discussion. The evening gave me a lot to think about. Pride is a fantastic film, funny and heart-warming, but it is also inspiring activism and discussion, which I think is a truly wonderful achievement.

Thoughts on ‘Pride’: What’s Left Out and Why Does it Matter?

This post was written by Diarmaid Kelliher, a PhD student at the University of Glasgow. His research is on solidarity in the miner’s strike in 1984-5, including Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, who the recent film Pride is about. Follow him on Twitter at @Diarmaid84, or go to  http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/ges/pgresearch/diarmaidkelliher/


One of Pride's promotional posters.

One of Pride‘s promotional posters.

The story of London Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) during the 1984-5 strike has circulated amongst lefties for a while but more broadly has been relatively unknown. This year, however, LGSM has featured in a play, a documentary, and the film Pride which is based entirely on the group. Pride has, rightly I think, received almost universally enthusiastic reviews. One exception is Brendan O’Neill’s ridiculous blog for the Telegraph which concludes that if the miners had been more ‘blokey and rough’ (the opposite of gay apparently) they might have won. Still, with the many positives covered so widely I want to focus on what’s missing.

The film, I think, gives an overly narrow portrayal of LGSM which, while perhaps understandable in narrative terms, somewhat cuts them off from broader political relationships, including with the larger solidarity movement for the miners. In the film, the group never grows beyond the handful of members drawn in early on. In fact, London LGSM at its peak attracted up to fifty people to its weekly meetings. There was eleven or so LGSM groups established outside London. This matters because it suggests that the politics of the group appealed to other lesbian and gay activists – and part of the point of LGSM was to engage and challenge lesbian and gay politics. As one member said at the time, they sought both to bring sexual politics into trade unionism, and to bring ‘socialism onto the agenda of sexual politics in the London lesbian and gay community’.

In the film, LGSM never grows much beyond the original members.

In the film, LGSM never grows much beyond the original members.

One effect of making the group so small is seen in the treatment of Lesbians Against Pit Closures – a group that separated from London LGSM. The split is largely played for laughs along classic leftist splintering lines. The extent to which women were outnumbered – even at the largest meetings of fifty there were never more than a few women – is not evident in the film’s small group. The idea that having a separate lesbian group was a bit silly is not easily distinguishable from the idea that LGSM itself was unnecessary – why not just work in the broader support campaigns? But how much fragmentation is too much, who decides and how?

One aspect of LGSM pushed a bit to the background in Pride is the political ideology. There is a glimpse of a hammer and sickle on the wall of founder Mark Ashton’s flat and someone calls him a commie – but you might not realise that he was a member of the Communist Party. Other activists in the group included members of left organisations such as the Labour Party and the Socialist Workers Party. The language of socialism so prominent at the time is largely absent from the film. This matters for the way in which we understand the construction of alliances: lesbian and gay support for the miners made sense not just because they were two groups of people under attack by the government, the police and the media. This was significant and possibly enough for some. But  it also relied on a broader left-wing politics which understood the different struggles in something like a totality.

Sheila Rowbotham’s recent reflections on the book Beyond the Fragments (1979) is, I think,  relevant here: ‘At the time, we had a credible word for what we wanted: “socialism” […] I still identity with the word “socialism”, but I realise that many others on the left no longer do so. To avoid unnecessary hair-splitting, I will say, then, that a vital component in “how” is imagining and articulating what else might be possible – what is beyond the beyond?’ Perhaps Pride avoids the language of socialism not as an attempt to appeal to an American market but as a reflection of the fact that ‘socialism’ doesn’t play this role any more. But part of the lesson in LGSM, for me, is the need for this alternative vision of ‘the beyond’ in building such alliances – and if that vision is not socialism, then what is it?

Diarmaid Kelliher, University of Glasgow.