All schoolchildren in the UK should be taught about the Peterloo massacre, according to Mike Leigh, who has directed a film about the little-known Manchester atrocity sometimes referred to as Britain’s Tiananmen Square.
Leigh grew up in Salford, a short walk from St Peter’s Field, where on 16 August 1819 government forces charged into a peaceful rally by more than 60,000 people who were demanding political reform and protesting against poverty.
Cavalry troops slashed at the crowd with sabres, and an estimated 18 protesters were killed and more than 650 injured, making it the bloodiest political clash in British history.
The incident led to an acceleration in the progress of suffrage in Britain and, two years later, to the formation of the Manchester Guardian, now the Guardian. At the time of the massacre just 2% of the population had the vote.
Leigh, whose new film, Peterloo, tells the story of the slaughter, said he did not learn about it in school, and nor did most other people. “When we were making the film, a lot of us, in quite wide-ranging ages – I’m in my mid-70s and others were in their 20s – were all from the north-west, all saying: ‘I’d never heard of it.’”
He added: “From where I grew up in Great Cheetham Street you could walk to where it happened in less than half an hour. No one took us out from school and marched us about to say ‘this happened here’, which is remarkable.”
He said children should be taught about Peterloo. “They will know about 1066 and Magna Carta and Henry VIII and his six wives and they may be told about the French revolution and the battle of Waterloo … [The massacre] was a major, major event which resonated down the 19th century into the 20th century in the context of democracy and suffrage.”
Manchester Histories, a charity, is leading the campaign for Peterloo to be taught in all schools. It has applied for money from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help schools teach about the attack, and it is developing a dedicated website and walking app on the subject and training a cohort of volunteers to become “Peterloo ninjas”.
There is no explicit mention of Peterloo on the national curriculum, though the Department for Education said teachers were free to teach it if they wanted.
(George IV, prince regent)
Leigh said he saw parallels between England then and the country of today. “In the end, why is the film still relevant? Many reasons. One of them being the difference between those who have and those who don’t have. Those who have power and those who don’t. Those who have wealth and those who are on the breadline.”
At the time of the massacre, the London-based government was ignorant of life outside the capital, said Leigh. The then home secretary, Henry Addington, who oversaw the ruthless crackdown on dissent that reached its bloody nadir at Peterloo, had never been to the north, Leigh discovered during his four years of research.
“The government, which of course was elected by only 2% of the population, had no idea what the living and working conditions were like for workers in the north. They couldn’t. So all [Addington] knew is that it was a hotbed of sedition.”
The government saw those agitating in the north as “terrorists who had to be put down”, said Leigh. “But we know that these were people with a legitimate cause. Some of them were moderate and some of them more extreme.”
The biggest problem Leigh had when shooting the £14m film was that Manchester had changed so much in the two centuries since Peterloo.
(Peterloo Massacre in August 1819, Richard Carlile)
“When we embarked on it, I said obviously we are going to shoot it in Manchester. Well, not a single frame of it is filmed in Manchester,” said Leigh, who shot the massacre scenes in Tilbury, Essex.
The site of the battle is now unrecognisable, occupied by tooting trams, Manchester’s central library and the Midland hotel.
Though Peterloo was filmed outside of the city, Manchester is to host a special presentation of the film, after the BFI London film festival decided to show a premiere film outside of the capital for the first time in its 62-year history.
•Peterloo screens on 17 October at Manchester’s Home, followed by a Q&A with the director and cast that will be simulcast to cinemas around the UK. It goes on general release on 2 November.
Peterloo – The Movie – A Review (BBC)
Mike Leigh’s Peterloo builds toward a vibrantly realised moment based on British history. In 1819, when Manchester, England had no representative in parliament and the local economy was in shambles, 60,000 people gathered in St Peter’s Field for a peaceful demonstration, waving colourful banners and waiting to hear speakers for their cause. Before it had even started, the army was planning to shut the protest down.
On screen, soldiers on horseback wielding sabers tear through the crowd, slashing at anyone in their path: men, women and children. Leigh immerses viewers in the scene, lucidly carrying us into the crowd and its terrifying chaos. He tracks specific characters we have come to know as they cower from the riders or search for family members who have vanished from sight. In reality, 15 people were killed and hundreds injured. Some of the film’s fictional characters share their fate. Journalists of the day called the event the Peterloo Massacre, an allusion to Waterloo’s wartime carnage.
Peterloo is purest Mike Leigh in the best sense: class-conscious, beautifully acted and filmed and a call for social change. It is also, despite that kinetic battle scene, a film of ideas and political conversation, not action.
The historical problems Leigh’s characters confront are presented in exquisite detail, down to the sympathetic working class’s rotting teeth and the smug ruling class’s lace and finery. But the ideas are also designed to resonate today: an economy that short-changes workers, callous politicians without conscience or empathy, even an assault on truth and a defence of the journalism that might pierce the government’s lies.
As he has done when tackling other issues – abortion in Vera Drake, or race in Secrets and Lies – Leigh personalises those issues through his characters. The film begins at the Battle of Waterloo itself, explosions sounding while a young soldier named Joseph stands on the battlefield. In an extreme close-up, the film captures his blood-spattered face, his eyes bulging and staring in a disconcerting way. He makes his way home to Manchester, suffering from what would now be recognised as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
His poor, labouring family members are among the film’s central, fictionalised characters. They include his politically active father, grown siblings and their children, and his mother, Nellie. Maxine Peake (among only a handful of familiar actors) stands out as Nellie, who sells pies to earn a trifle of money and sees the need for reform, but is sceptical about the demonstration. Peake brings all that worry to the character’s face, but even with her, Leigh is not concerned about developing full characters. Joseph and Nellie are effectively used emblems.
Other characters are even less distinct, including journalists who arrive in Manchester to report on the protest. Some characters are in a single scene, including a servant who appears in court and is sentenced to hang for taking one of his master’s coats. That the master had two coats and the servant was cold is not considered an adequate defence by the judge.
The local magistrates and government representatives arrayed on the other side are even less defined, except by their shared condescension. Dismissing the lower class as “honest, gullible folk”, is the kindest word anyone in the ruling class has to say. They fear insurrection and decide they must keep the lower classes under their feet, bluntly stating that squelching the protest with violence will teach the upstarts a lesson.
In a brief but gleefully mischievous scene, the London ministers report on this trouble to the Prince Regent himself, played by Tim McInnerny as a bloated, vain, cartoonish narcissist with rouged cheeks. It’s hard not to see this bewigged caricature as Leigh’s nod to Donald Trump.
The ministers regularly distort the truth on the Prince’s behalf. When a potato is thrown at his closed royal carriage, the act is labelled a violent assault and used as another excuse to repress all protests. As the film moves between workers’ meetings in Manchester and the government’s preemptive plan to end the protest, Leigh creates a nightmare version of Downton Abbey’s upstairs/downstairs divide.
Straddling the two is Henry Hunt, a historical figure played by Rory Kinnear. A famous orator, he arrives in Manchester to speak out for workers’ rights. But he is also vain and snobbish, proof that political allies are not always the heroes you want them to be. Hunt’s presence and flawed character is the best evidence that the film won’t descend to simplistic versions of good and bad factions.
All of this is exquisitely shot by cinematographer Dick Pope. Along with Mr Turner and the delightful Topsy-Turvy, Peterloo is among Leigh’s most visually ravishing films. In chiaroscuro he depicts the dark browns inside the workers’ cottages, the light on their faces reminiscent of Rembrandt. Outside, there are wide shots of vast green fields in clear bright vistas, as a local militia prepares for battle. During the massacre, the red uniforms of the soldiers on horseback tower above the dull colours of the masses.
For all its strengths, there’s no denying that the film is talky. Joseph’s family debates whether the protest will be safe. In Manchester, some demonstrators want to carry arms, while others believe that will only provoke violence. The camera is fluid and active, so the scenes are never static. But all that dialogue may make some viewers restless during the 154-minute running time. The deliberate pacing is a risk Leigh is willing to take, as he holds back on the action and allows the conflict to simmer.
Some Leigh films are easy to like and others, such as Naked, with David Thewlis as a homeless brute, are more demanding. Peterloo requires viewers to accept the slow boil that leads to its explosive and sad end, but it is also the uncompromising work of a master.