Mike Leigh returns with a film featuring a Cgi-laden action sequence as 60,000 people riot on the streets of Manchester. No, honestly it does.
Mike Leigh first heard about the battle of ‘Peterloo’ for “two minutes” during an O-level history lesson in 1959. For the uninitiated, on 16 August 1819, a peaceful, democratic rally at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, turned into a bloody massacre as the forces of the British government charged a 60,000-plusstrong crowd demanding Parliamentary reform. Dubbed ‘Peterloo’ by the press, 15 people were killed and several hundred injured, but it remains practically unheard of — even for Leigh who grew up in Salford, just 15 minutes (by bus) away from the battlefield. “Why didn’t they pull us out of primary school and walk us around?” he asks, confounded. “My dad was a socialist, never mentioned it, never even heard of it.”
Years later, the 75-year-old filmmaker picked up a book about the event and, post Mr. Turner, spent four years researching, developing and making his rabble-rousing, deeply felt movie. Peterloo examines the event from every angle, from the angry workers to insulated royals, so, in his Thin Man production office in Soho, Leigh talked Empire through the various parties that played into one of the biggest tragedies in British history.
At the heart
of Peterloo is a Manchester family of millworkers led by Nellie (Maxine Peake, who wrote to Leigh when the project was announced) and Joshua (Pearce Quigley). The family represent a community of people whose hardscrabble lives were being compounded by unemployment, bad harvests, brutal laws and restrictions on corn imports. “They stand as the quintessence,” says Leigh. “There was no way they were going to be idealised or romanticised because that’s not in my nature.”
Leigh sought to undercut the stereotypical poor-butnoble family in numerous ways. Firstly, through the young bugler Joseph (David Moorst) who returns to the family fold from Waterloo a shell-shocked husk of a man, but also by showing the dissensions within the clan about the possibility of change offered by the reformers. “That came from Maxine Peake, who we know is an activist,” he says. “In a very healthy sense, her character is the voice who raises doubts. That was just an organic thing that came out of what I hope was a feasible and very real family.”
When the family converge on St Peter’s Field for the meeting (sporting their Sunday best although it was a Monday), Leigh again plays it for real — in the middle of the mass throng, they are all too far away to hear the impassioned speeches. For the filmmaker, it was a reality check that’s often overlooked in representations of history.
“You have this image of Lincoln at Gettysburg and all these thousands of people listening to him, but only a hundred people would have heard him.”
The speeches came
courtesy of the reformers.
Peterloo thrums with scenes of orators demanding change — “When we were shooting it, I was worried there were a lot of speeches,” says Leigh — often ripped from contemporary transcripts. Leigh was keen to delineate different levels of radicalism, from moderate middle-class reformers to hotheads plotting to kidnap the king. The star of the show is undoubtedly Henry Hunt, played with maximum brio by Rory Kinnear, the keynote speaker at the St Peter’s Field rally.
“He was a landowner but he embraced radical causes,” explains Leigh. “He was plainly nothing if not a massive egocentric and arrogant with it. A self-promoter.”
Out of the fallout from the tragedy, some of the reformers created the
Manchester Guardian, which subsequently became The Guardian.
But there is much debate over whether Peterloo was a turning point for free speech in this country. “Some people say it didn’t make a difference,” says Leigh. “I think it was one of the landmarks on a journey.”
Leigh also marks the role of the Manchester Female Reform Society. Although there were female radicals arguing for universal suffrage at that time, he argues, for the most part the women supported male suffrage — one man, one vote, regardless of status — on the basis that at least each household would get a say.
“It’s very easy for us to look at that period in politics through several layers of hindsight. The fact of the matter is that [supporting male suffrage] was pretty radical. On the day they were very much in evidence and very much attacked by the neurotic yeomanry.”
The yeomanry were
bully boys for the magistrates and politicians governing with rough justice and severe legislation. If the out-of-touch politicians govern from afar — “[Home Secretary] Lord Sidmouth had no intention of going to the North,” says Leigh — the magistrates loom largest, recommending a whipping for being drunk or a hanging for stealing a coat.
“We haven’t tried to make them evil or not make them evil,” says Leigh. “We are simply dramatising what it was about. Now if you are asking me whose side I am on, that is a different question. It was monstrous. They were a bunch of nutters and the actors really delivered the goods.”
If you are even vaguely familiar with the news, the issues and machinations depicted in Peterloo will strike a chord. “In the period we were developing it, we did go on an almost daily basis, ‘This is so relevant and so prescient,’” says Leigh. From a Southern-based government with no feel for the realities of the North (“I think it’s a bit reductionist to talk about the North/south divide,” Leigh counters) to broader disparities around those with a voice and those without, Peterloo is rife with resonances for the modern day. But Leigh is adamant he didn’t want the film to be prescriptive in its point-making.
“In my view, there are other anomalies and paradoxes to think about,” he says. “People were educating themselves because they were hungry for education, they were hungry for the vote. Now we are in a world where many people have education but don’t value it, and have the vote but don’t use it. Not least with this film, I am in the business of making films that invite you to reflect on things rather than to ram black and white conclusions down your throat.” It’s an approach that Leigh applies to the ‘haves’ as well as the ‘have-nots’.
Leigh isn’t shy
about taking the ripples of the story all the way to the top, with a blissfully ignorant Prince Regent (Tim Mclnnerny) and his mistress Lady Conyngham (Marion Bailey) receiving updates in Parliament or palaces. Leigh drew inspiration from Georgian artist Thomas Rowlandson’s caricatures but still wanted to keep it real.
“A couple of people have said they didn’t like the introduction of the panto with them,” says Leigh. “I think that’s absolute crap. He did wear make-up. He was over-the-top. That is documented all over the shop.”
Mclnnerny has form with comedic royal fops in Blackadder II and even passed on playing the Prince Regent in Blackadder The Third to avoid being typecast. Was the BBC show in Leigh’s mind when he cast the role?
“I don’t think that is relevant,” Leigh says. “You have to evaluate what he does in the context of the film. There’s a serious undercurrent of resentment, arrogance and paranoia that is going on, and I don’t think those complexities were there in [Blackadder’s] cartoon caricatures.”
All the points
converge on the rally at St Peter’s Field, as the yeomanry and the Hussars break it up in the most horrifying manner. The result is a collector’s item: a Mike Leigh action set-piece — a prospect previously as unlikely as a Pixar sex scene — full of horses, swinging sabres, chaos and bloodshed.
“I’d made all these films about people in suburban houses shouting at each other in threesomes up staircases,” he laughs. “So for me personally, it was a learning curve, but every film you make is a learning curve.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Leigh rejected a storyboard artist — “I said, ‘Over my dead body,’ because that’s not how I work” — and plotted the carnage with first assistant director Dan Channing Williams and stunt coordinator Steve Dent. Unable to shoot in modern Manchester, the team recreated St Peter’s field at Tilbury Fort, Essex, with just 200 extras and CG crowd replication to swell the crowd to 60,000, often sending three cameras into the mêlée to capture and energise the action.
“It’s different in those obvious ways but it’s about people,” he says. “We’d done all the character work long beforehand, we’d prepared those exchanges by themselves and slotted them into the event. It’s just doing what I do with all the other stuff going on.”
He describes Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin as “obvious references” but didn’t overtly draw on them. “As a passionate watcher of movies all my life, all that stuff is in your DNA. I don’t think about film. I think about what it is about.” Perhaps this is what led to Leigh’s decision to end the film without presenting any statistics or personal fates.
“We had a big debate about that,” he says. “I just said, ‘I want the audience walking away carrying the emotions at the end.’ If you want to find out about it, you can go to Wikipedia or something. Anything you put distracts the audience from its emotional response and feelings of anger and care.”
“Anger and care” might be a good summation of Leigh’s philosophy in making Peterloo. If there’s any justice, it should elevate the black mark of 16 August 1819 into more than just a footnote in history.
Here: The protest at St Peter’s Field was a family affair.Below: Maxine Peake’s steadfast Nellie cradles her granddaughter.Below left: Mike Leigh on set.Above right: Orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear, centre) in action at the rally.
Here: Leigh, who famously encourages input from his actors, preps a scene in the ultra-draconian magistrates’ court. Right: Mike Leigh on set with his Hussars. Below: Tim Mcinnerny as the primped, disengaged Prince Regent.