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.

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