Mike Leigh’s new film about Peterloo goes out on general release today. We were lucky to see the preview a couple of weeks ago. It was shown at Home in Manchester, a few hundred yards from where the events actually happened,as part of the London Film Festival. We weren’t at Home but in Horwich at one of the cinemas around the country where the film and the question and answer session with Mike Leigh and Maxine Peake was relayed.

The film tells the story of the Peterloo Massacre which took place on St Peter’s Field in Manchester on 16 August 1819 and is one of the first key events in the struggle of working people in England. Manchester had grown massively from a small settlement in south Lancashire to become a dynamic metropolis of manufacturing based on the cotton industry. The mill owners became extremely rich but this was at the expense of their workers who lived in appalling conditions (described by Frederick Engels in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England written a few years later in 1845). In 1819 conditions were particularly bad due to the economic depression that followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars, which resulted in wage cuts and unemployment, and the passing of the Corn Laws in 1815 which led to increased food prices. The vote was restricted to the wealthy and there was massive disparity in representation around the country – the whole of Lancashire had only 2 MPs.

Manchester was something of a hot bed of radicalism and it was decided to organise a mass meeting on Peter’s Field in Manchester and the renowned Radical orator Henry Hunt was invited to speak and act as chair.

The local representatives of the ruling class were terrified, believing that revolution was in the air so they arranged for a military presence comprising 600 men of the 15th Hussars, several hundred infantrymen, a Royal Horse Artillery unit with two six-pounder guns, 400 men of the Cheshire Yeomanry, 400 special constables and 120 cavalry of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry.

On the day 60,000–80,000 workers and their families, including children, marched to Manchester from the city and surrounding districts, with banners bearing slogans such as “Liberty and Fraternity” and “Taxation without Representation is Unjust and Tyrannical”, and assembled on Peter’s Field, an open space in the centre of the growing city. They came from all around South Lancashire, including a contingent from Wigan. Many of them had to walk a considerable distance to get there. Perhaps some of my ancestors were amongst them.

Map of Peterloo Massacre.png
By Jhamez84 – self-made but based on work in Reid, Robert (1989) The Peterloo Massacre, William Heinemann Ltd ISBN: 0434629014., CC BY 3.0, Link

The meeting started and seeing the enthusiastic reception Hunt received on his arrival the local Magistrates lost their nerve, read the Riot Act and sent in the troops. They charged into the crowd, running over demonstrators with their horses and slashing out with their sabres. Hemmed in in a restricted area there was nowhere to run. At the end, by the time the field had been cleared there were 11–15 demonstrators killed and 400–700 injured.

Peterloo Massacre.png
By Richard Carlile (1790–1843) – Manchester Library Services, Public Domain, Link

Currently there’s very little evidence in Manchester of this pivotal event in working class history other than a circular memorial plaque high on the wall of the Free Trade Hall (where I used to go to concerts when I was a teenager and which is now a posh hotel)which stands where the massacre took place.

The events provoked outrage, summed up by Shelley’s poem, the Masque of Anarchy with it’s call to action

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.

Next year there are plans to stage events to celebrate the bicentenary and the conceptual artist Jeremy Deller has been commissioned to create a memorial to be located on the forecourt of the former Central Station, behind the Midland Hotel, close to the location of the assembly. Details of the design were released this week.

As for the film, well it’s not a Hollywood action movie. The story develops gradually , bringing to life the lives of workers in Manchester and the radical atmosphere in the city. There’s a lot of talking, using the words of the protagonists themselves, illustrating the different views on what action was needed. Those arguing for a peaceful demonstration prevailed over those agitating for a more violent response to repression. Henry Hunt himself was shown to be something of a vain and pompous demagogue. The real heroes were the ordinary men and women of Manchester and Lancashire. It builds slowly to the demonstration itself and culminates in the slaughter.

Mike Leigh believes the events of Peterloo and the reasons why it occurred need to be more widely known. I agree. His film should help.

Lady Macbeth


Last week we travelled over to Home in Manchester to watch Lady Macbeth the new film by William Oldroyd. The film isn’t about Shakespeare’s ruthless noblewoman, but is loosely based on a nineteenth century novella called Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov, which was later adapted as an Opera by Shostakovich and also filmed by Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s in 1962 as Siberian Lady Macbeth. The story has elements of both Madame Bovary and Lady Chatterley and the lead character is certainly as ruthless as her namesake.

The new version is set in wild and bleak Northumbria during Victorian times and stars Florence Pugh as Katherine, a young woman bought with a piece of land “not fit for a cow to graze upon” to marry the son of a cruel and miserable mine owner. It’s a loveless and sexless marriage and Katherine is forbidden to go outside onto the moors so has to spend her days indoors, bored and unfilled.

But when both her husband and father in law are called away on business she is left in the house alone with the servants and embarks on a passionate affair with one of the stable hands, played by Cosmo Jarvis. As the affair develops she starts to take control and becomes less and less concerned at hiding what was going on. The affair was being conducted openly in full view of the servants and word reaches her father in law who confronts her on his return. This triggers a series of events which spirals into a tragic ending (I’ll not say any more to avoid spoilers)

We are all formed by our experiences, and this is certainly the case with the lead character. Repressed and restrained by Victorian norms and attitudes towards women, here taken to extremes by her husband and, particularly, her father in law, it is perhaps not surprising that she makes the most of the opportunity when the chains are released, albeit temporarily, when her husband and his father are both away. So our sympathy was perhaps with our Lady Macbeth at first. But there are unpleasant aspects to her character and these emerge with her treated of her black maid (Naomi Ackie) and the her merciless behaviour as the story spirals to it’s tragic conclusion.

Besides some excellent acting the director creates a moody, claustrophobic atmosphere and there is some excellent cinematography of the bleak Northumbrian moors.

A cracking film

Oil City Confidential

I went to see Oil City Confidential, Julien Temple’s film about Doctor Feelgood last night. It was a special event where the film was screened at a number of selected cinemas around the country with a live feed to the KoKo Club in London which allowed the Director to introduce the film and then to show a live concert by Wilko Johnson after the film had finished.  The film was excellent. Unfortunately the live feed to the Odeon cinema broke down which meant the audience there wasn’t able to watch the concert, which was disappointing. The cinema refunded our entrance fee (in full) and gave us all a complementary ticket for another film of our choosing, which was more than I would have expected of them – so well done. But it was still a disappointment to miss out on what appears to have been an excellent gig (according to comments on Facebook from other venues where it was shown)

The film tells the story of Doctor Feelgood from when the four members of the band were growing up on Canvey Island, finishing with the death from cancer of Lee Brillaux, their charismatic singer in 1994.

The star of the film was, without question, Wilko Johnson, the band’s original guitarist.  He’s a real character. I never realised it, but the mop topped,  black suited, manic guitarist from the heydey of the Feelgoods actually started out as a long haired hippy activist, who even, in his youth, took a trip overland to India via Iran and Afghanistan (try that today!). A working class grammar school boy, he studied English at University and started work as a teacher, before quiting after a disagreement with his headmaster. Today he’s got a shaven head, but he’s still performing.  The film starts on Wilko’s roof, where he has a telescope in his own mini-observatory, and there’s a campaign on Facebook to have him replace Patrick Moore on “the Sky at Night” when he retires!

The film blends interviews with the band, their entourage and other key people (Lee Brillaux’s mum was a real character with a good story and a dry sense of humour), with documentary footage, concert clips, snippets from old British gangster films and specially shot scenes in the style of the latter. According to Julien Temple in his introduction (which we managed to see in Manchester) it was relatively cheap to produce by a team of only five people.

I was lucky enough to see the band play live (at Liverpool Stadium, now long gone) in 1975. It was a real experience. The music was raw and exciting, quite different from the prog rock and glam rock we were used to in the 1970’s, and no other band dressed like them. The group, coming from something of a backwater, were outsiders and their energy of their music and their on stage personas reflected this. They were fronted by two charismatic characters – the singer Lee Brillaux, with a great voice and agressive, cocky attitude, dressed in his soiled white suit, and a maniac of a gutarist dressed in black, with his own unique guitar style, charging around stage in what seemed like a trance.

But the rise and fall of Doctor Feelgood is probably a good illustration of what can happen in bands. Four friends who grew up with a few streets of each other, they started off small and grew rapidly in popularity with a sound that struck the right chord (sic). They made the big time because music fans were ready for something new, and theirs was a brash, raw, exciting sound performed by a group with a great stage presence. But constant touring and the trappings of success took their toll on relationships within the band leading to a split when Wilko, the creative force, left (did he quit or was he pushed?). Although they managed to chart with another single and continued touring, the decline had started. They went through several guitarists over the years, but without Wilko they just weren’t the same.

But perhaps this was inevitable. The band had come to prominence in a whirlwind and I think by the time of the split they had run out of ideas musically. They had reached a dead end.  And punk came along with groups who had the same sort of energy and aggression, but who took it to a new extreme. In many ways, the Feelgoods paved the way for punk and were an indication of what was to come and replace them.

For a fan of Doctor Feelgood, the film is essential viewing. It is a comprehensive history of he band done in an entertaining and informative way. With the bonus of clips of the band in their prime.  Anyone who likes good, raw rock music, who doesn’t know much about the band, should go and see the film when its on general release – you’ll be in for a treat.