The Peterloo Massacre of 16 August 1819 is not one of the most recognisable dates in British history. It has never taken its place alongside 14th October 1066 (Battle of Hastings); 30th January 1649 (Execution of Charles 1st); October 21st 1805 (Battle of Trafalgar) and September 3rd 1939 (outbreak of the Second World War) as dates which previous generations of schoolchildren were forced to learn by rote.
Nonetheless the massacre – which occurred when the yeomanry scythed into an unarmed pro-democracy rally at St Peters Field, Manchester; four years after the Battle of Waterloo (hence the ingenious moniker) - was an event marked by popular outrage and the shedding of as much ink as blood. This was most eloquently exemplified by Percy Bysshe-Shelley’s coruscating poem, The Masque of Anarchy (1819).
The tremors from ‘Peterloo’ are felt to this day. Without it there would have been no Tolpuddle Martyrs or TUC, no Chartists, no Great Reform Acts. There would have been no Independent Labour Party in 1900, no old age pensions in Lloyd George’s 1909 ‘People’s Budget,’ no Welfare State in 1945, no NHS in 1948. And there would emphatically have been no Mrs Pankhurst and the Suffragettes, no votes for women and no universal adult suffrage. Peterloo was the Big Bang of British democracy which we can all thank (or curse – if you are one of the millions of our fellow countrymen and women who are clearly now of an authoritarian disposition) for our present-day freedoms.
Arguably Peterloo has acquired an even greater historical resonance in the wake of the financial crash of 2008 and the grinding austerity subsequently imposed on the country which represents the greatest transfer of wealth from poor to the rich in British history. This possibly explains why the event remains obscure. Was it that – quite simply – the powers that be hushed up Peterloo in the fear that it might trigger an even bloodier fight for self-determination as had occurred in France and the 13 American colonies only three or four decades earlier? Mike Leigh’s magisterial Peterloo (2018) does not waste the opportunity of redressing this imbalance with a gusto which at times verges on the splenetic.
The film begins on the battlefield of Waterloo where we witness a soldier, Joseph, (David Moorst) suffering what psychiatrists would now diagnose as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with the somatic symptoms of involuntary twitching, head jerking, visual disturbance and hypersensitivity to noise all too sadly apparent.
Scroll forward four years and we enter Joseph’s post-war world: a narrow, mean dawn-of-industrial Manchester delineated by cramped, rat-infested, lice-ridden, back-to back redbrick proto-Coronation Street terraces. In one of these his family of six live presided over with a tender toughness by Nellie (Maxine Peake) – his hard-working, cynical yet idealistic mother who when putting her children to bed wonders what life will be like for her daughter in 1900 when she is 87.
Against this gritty backdrop is the gathering momentum of committees - meeting in public houses and coffee shops; founded to agitate against post-war austerity and for the right to vote. These scenes have been criticised as overlong and tediously polemical but in many ways they give the film a passionate intensity and narrative thrust it might otherwise lack. Meanwhile, in London, Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth - played with spidery cantankerousness by Karl Anderson and his network of spies - watch the baccillus of revolution creep across the nation with alarm. They fear the Manchester rally will be the precursor to Britain’s own Bastille or Boston Tea Party.
Throughout, Leigh depicts the democratic pioneers and pamphleteers either as fundamentally decent, naïve provincials or would-be English Jacobins: hell- bent on giving the Establishment the kicking it deserves. The latter is best exemplified by the rousing, ominous formations of youthful militia who rabble-rouse and drill practice on Saddleworth moor in defiance of their older, more sagacious leaders. The scene in which they are spied on by the diabolically corvine Chief Constable Nadin (Victor Maguire), sent out by the factory owners of Manchester to round up the most militant young mavericks, provides an initially deceptive bucolic juxtaposition to the urban grime, over the hill, several miles away. However, this is soon replaced by undiluted terror when Nadin brutally deals with John Baggueley (Nico Mirallegro) - the hottest of the young hotheads.
By and large, however, Leigh imbues these parochial radicals with the light Dickensian charm which characterises many of his films. This, of course, is seen as Leigh’s fatal flaw: his ‘patronising’ attitude towards the working class; something Ken Loach is never accused of.
Leigh’s tendency towards caricature is most apparent in the character of the passionate, bumbling and very Lancastrian, Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell), who invites nationally famous radical and orator Henry Hunt – a vainglorious, foppish Wiltshire landowner - played by Rory Kinnear - to speak at the rally. Bamford’s initial idolisation of Hunt soon turns to an exaggeratedly cordial contempt when he recognises that Hunt appears to be less interested in making common cause with his northern comrades than in hijacking the rally to burnish his reputation. The scenes in which he arrives in Manchester and is spirited away to a safe house where he hides for several days, demanding a ‘light repast’ on arrival before issuing demands for the conduct of the march while sitting for a portrait, are delightfully comic. One wonders here whether Leigh is satirising certain young contemporary British ‘radicals’ who must remain nameless.
The rally, of course, is the centrepiece of the entire movie and Leigh sucks the viewer straight into the vortex. Firstly, we are swept along on the naïve bore of optimism and civic pride with which the families march towards Peter’s field, their banners unfurled. On the field itself; meanwhile, Manchester’s mercantile class, in their doublets and stockings, fulminate in outrage at the temerity of their minions downing tools over their glasses of port and shanks of roast beef while the marchers share out desultory loaves of bread.
Of course, we know what is coming but when it arrives it is no less shocking for its bludgeoning brutality: the charging horses, the sabre slashes, the falling bodies, the screams, the terror without end. Here Leigh is every bit the equal of David Lean in his depiction of the 1905 Bloody Sunday massacre in Doctor Zhivago (1965) or Richard Attenborough in his depiction of the 1913 Amritsar Massacre in Gandhi (1982).
As in those films there is no silver lining to the crushing of dissent. Instead the viewer is treated to a blackly comic scene which is the cinematic equivalent of James Gillray’s famous satirical cartoon of the Prince Regent, A Voluptuary Under The Horrors of Digestion (1792). Here the bloated Prince (Tim McInnerney in a grotesque parody of his Percy role in Blackadder), drunkenly demands an update on the massacre from his insipid Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool (Robert Wilfort), while being fed candied fruit by Lady Conyngham (Marion Bailey).
For the reformers and the families of the slaughtered innocents this is total defeat. For Nellie it is a terrible personal tragedy. In the final scene she buries Joseph cut down by his own fellow soldiers and countrymen a feat those of Napoleon’s army, a foreign enemy foreign power, never achieved on the battlefield of Waterloo.
Peterloo is a qualified triumph. The only criticisms which can be levelled at it are that at two-and-a-half hours it is possibly overlong and that the characters lack nuance and depth – most notably those of the Establishment all of whom are presented as villains; to the very last man. Another criticism is that it lacks truly memorable dialogue.
Otherwise it is further proof that Mike Leigh – along with Ken Loach - is Britain’s pre-eminent film director. The fact it has received only lukewarm reviews suggests that although – as in 1819 - we live in an era marked by a growing recognition of proliferating social injustice there is still some way to go before the British public ‘rise like lions after slumber, in an unvanquishable number!’ It is this which is perhaps the central hidden message in this badly-needed call-to-arms epic.
Leon Brown © 2019
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