We first glimpse the crowd through an upstairs window. A mass of pallid figures and block-colour banners, bathed in unbroken Manchester sunshine. Given the period setting, it looks like the prelude to the storming of the Bastille. England has rarely looked so alive on film.
In a country famous for its ‘stability’, the popular agitation for parliamentary reform following the Napoleonic wars was never going to end well. Fresh from indulging his taste for comic opera at the English National Opera, Mike Leigh has produced a fine dramatisation of the ensuing bloodbath – one that’s symptomatic of the left’s increasing cultural salience in what, with any luck, we’ll soon be calling Corbyn’s Britain.
This is a homecoming for Leigh, a Salfordian by upbringing, after a career spent largely in the London suburbs. It’s also his most ambitious picture, tying together the two major strings to his film-making bow, social commentary and historical features.
The film opens with a premonition of the coming carnage: a dead British soldier on a battlefield, presumably Waterloo. Nearby, a harmless-looking bugler wanders confusedly as the heavy guns sound. In the next sequence he is trekking home, pausing at a mill village to ask the way to Manchester, and finally collapsing into the arms of his mother Nell, played by Maxine Peake. When he next ventures out, into the pouring rain, it’s to search for a job in the town’s smithies.
Beyond this, and despite the hulking great factories that dominate the skyline, the world of work hardly intrudes on the story. Three alternative settings are preferred. One is the state, in its various institutional forms: the House of Commons, voting to stuff the Duke of Wellington’s purse with gold; the Home Office of Lord Sidmouth, a cankered reactionary; and the Manchester assizes, presided over by the Judge Jeffries, who will issue the fatal order to disperse the reform demonstration.
The second is public meetings, which come with a regularity those on the left will be familiar with. This is an overwhelmingly verbal political culture: though we see a newspaper being printed, we don’t see one being read. Leigh is very taken with the power of the spoken word to move ‘ordinary people’. Bit by bit, the strong language hurled against ‘that infernal monster they call parliament’ stirs the ponderous menfolk in Nell’s family into a commitment to reform.
The third is the family home. Natural light pours into the one-up, one-down working-class quarters, illuminating each speaker, whereas the magistrates’ grander residences are scene to shifty goings on by candlelight. We could turn the sound off and still be in no doubt who’s on the side of the angels. Nell’s tirade against the landowning aristocracy in parliament for raising the price of bread through their tariffs on imported grain had reviewers at the press screening in Soho Square reaching for their notebooks. Working-class history is all very well, but Brexit’s endangering of free trade is a good deal closer to bourgeois hearts.
A difficulty for Leigh is that the reformers and the authorities are so little in contact with one another. Until arrests are made and beatings dealt out, there’s not much scope for conflict as each set of protagonists goes about its preparations. Nell’s family are all cut from the same cloth – no secrets or lies here – while in London, Lord Sidmouth and permanent secretary Henry Hobhouse are so much of the same mind they virtually finish each other’s sentences.
The best of the preliminary scenes are those in which these consensuses begin to fray. There is a tactical disagreement between two larger-than-life radicals, Middleton weaver Samuel Bamford and Wiltshire gentleman Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt over whether to arm some of the crowd for self-defence. ‘This is Lancashire, sir,’ warns Bamford, where the authorities are ‘politically and personally averse’ and ‘meetings invariably end in violence’.
When the denouement comes, it’s a relief to see St Peter’s Fields looking so full. The preceding scenes of soldierly drilling up on the Lancashire moors had looked a bit underpopulated. Nell waits expectantly for the speeches, sharing her bread with strangers; Hunt and Bamford quarrel in an undertone on the hustings; the blue-coated volunteer Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, instruments of the magistrates’ vengeance, wait their moment rowdily toasting ‘King and Country’.
There’s something of David Lean about Leigh’s controlled handling of the big set-piece. The camera is held still as the mounted yeomanry hack indiscriminately at the crowd, joined by the regular hussars. We could be watching the Battle of Rorke’s Drift. The young bugler is as lost in this mayhem as he was at Waterloo, and just as vulnerable.
The direction gathers pace once violence turns to rout. The camera sweeps along close to the ground tracking the affray. And then, out of a tangle of horses’ legs, Leigh segues to galloping jockeys at a racetrack, cheered by the leisured classes for whom the agonies of Manchester go entirely unregarded. The bloated Prince Regent – played by Tim McInnerny, unrecognisable from his Blackadder days – can’t even recall the town’s name.
The privilege of pronouncing the moral of Peterloo falls to the trio of newspaper correspondents who witness it, including one from the London Times. Free speech and free assembly must be defended by a free press. The working-class response to the massacre, untold here, was for people to throw their energies into trade-union organisation, and to begin theorising about the uses of a general strike. On the screen, there’s simply stunned grief.
Until the bicentenary neared, generating a successful campaign for a memorial – commissioned from artist Jeremy Deller – Peterloo had little purchase on popular memory. In literature, there is Shelley’s ‘Masque of Anarchy’, its closing appeal to the many against the few resurfacing in the title of Labour’s last manifesto.
One of the only visual markers of the massacre in Manchester, aside from the obligatory blue plaque, is the street-sign of the Briton’s Protection pub – a recruiting centre during the Napoleonic wars and, perversely, a popular drinking spot for the left in the 1970s. The sign shows the yeomanry trampling reformers underfoot, a setback for the martial spirit displayed on older paintings lining the pub’s hallway. St Peter’s Field itself was lost when the burghers of Victorian Manchester planted their Free Trade Hall and enormous neo-gothic town hall on the site, the latter built not so much to rival Westminster as in slavish emulation of it. Director Phyllida Lloyd was allowed to use it to mockup the corridors of parliament for her sycophantic The Iron Lady (2011).
The larger part of the surviving open space is named in honour of the Queen’s Consort. From Albert Square it’s only a short walk down Brazennose Street past the statues of free trader Richard Cobden and Abraham Lincoln to the Spinningfields office complex on Deansgate, where Barclays, HSBC and Deloitte all have presences. Royalism, liberalism, Yankee capitalism, City financialism – such are the celebrated forces in Manchester’s civic centre.
In this field of force, what can a film about Peterloo mean? The nearest comparable historical reconstruction is Renoir’s La Marseillaise (1938), buoyed by the radical energies of Blum’s Popular Front. The Corbyn ascendancy in the Labour Party puts a similar gust of wind into the creative sails of Peterloo. More than just a satire on those parts of the Old Regime still standing – the monarchy, the courts – it’s also a celebration of radicalism analogous to Ken Loach’s 2013 intervention into the politics of austerity Britain, The Spirit of ’45. As the Thatcherite settlement comes unstuck, these two longstanding critics of it from the left loom larger in the national culture, telling of how the vote was won and what it can be used to achieve.
Before we get too carried away, a couple of caveats are worth adding. First, giving the mill-owner and shopkeeper volunteers who staffed the yeomanry no screen-time prior to the bloodletting makes their vicious enmity toward the protesters inexplicable. That Peterloo happened in Manchester is no surprise: here, the interlockings of an archaic political structure – Old Corruption – and leading-edge manufacturing sector came under the greatest strain.
Second, Leigh gives more ground to the establishment’s exculpatory version of Peterloo than he might have done. Sidmouth urges restraint as an afterthought; a magistrate lustily reads the Riot Act from an open window, but alas goes unheard; the regular soldiers are perfectly decent sorts. One prevents a member of the yeomanry from striking at a woman: ‘You, sir, are a coward.’ A minimal reading might conclude that it is merely necessary to temper law with humanity.
Still, we should be grateful the film was released amidst the media’s annual ramping up of the Remembrance Day commemorations and their underlying message that there really is no finer thing than to die for your country. At these times, it’s a relief to have a film-maker as accomplished as Leigh strike a note of dissent.
Tom Hazeldine is an editor at New Left Review. Peterloo opened in cinemas nationwide in November 2018
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