Under the Radar

'Peterloo' Revisits a Tragic Day in British Military History

PETERLOO featuring David Moorst as Joseph (Simon Mein/Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

"Peterloo" tells the story of a tragic encounter between British troops and working-class citizens at a rally in 1819. Director Mike Leigh's new film examines the circumstances that led to one of the United Kingdom's most violent actions against its citizens, perhaps second only to the 1972 "Bloody Sunday" incident in Northern Ireland.

Leigh writes his own films and has been nominated for seven Oscars, five times as a screenwriter and twice as director. Best known in this country for the Gilbert and Sullivan drama "Topsy Turvey" and "Secrets and Lies," the 76-year-old English director is revered in his home country as a master of films that portray the working class.

In the early 19th century, as soldiers were returning from foreign wars, activists (some of whom were fighting men) became more outspoken about working conditions in northern England. They were taxed without representation, saw their meager benefits slashed and were denied the opportunity to organize a labor movement. Neither workers nor soldiers had the right to vote at this time in British history.

In 1819, workers, civilians and veterans from all over Northern England gathered at St. Peter's Field in Manchester to listen to labor activist Henry Hunt speak about the issues. Ladies dressed in white joined Hunt onstage in the earliest days of the suffragist movement that would eventually win women the right to vote.

No one was armed at what was designed to be a peaceful gathering. Organizers even went so far as to remove rocks from the field before the event to make sure there was nothing present that looked like a weapon.

The general who was supposed to oversee the military units that day decided to go to a horse race instead, and discipline collapsed under substitute leadership. Soldiers were drinking at a nearby pub when orders came in to assemble near St. Peter's Field.

Officers in charge ordered an attack even though there were no signs of violence or unrest from the gathered crowd. Men and women gathered that day reported that Hunt made no incendiary remarks from the stage, emphasizing how important it was that the event remain non-violent.

It was a bloody and tragic attack, one where soldiers attacked veterans who were peacefully attending the gathering. Sixteen were killed, and hundreds were injured. After the event, no one was disciplined. The British labor movement survived and went on to gain valuable rights for workers over the next several decades. It later inspired the labor movement in the United States.

Leigh shared his motivations in making the film and how he grew up in Manchester without knowing the story of one of the city's most notable historical events.

Director Mike Leigh behind the scenes of PETERLOO. (Simon Mein/Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

We're coming up on the 200-year anniversary of this incident. How do you refer to it? I wouldn't call it a military skirmish.

No, it's a massacre. It's known as the Peterloo Massacre, and that's what it was. It's not a battle because there aren't two opposing equal forces. It was chaos.

Why tell this story now?

It occurred to me quite a long time ago that somebody ought to do a movie about it. It is quite an important event. Secondly, it is the 200th, the bicentenary. Thirdly, I had an instinct that somehow it would be in some way relevant and it is. We thought we'd do it, really, so we did it.

How long ago was it that the lightbulb went off for you?


And where did you think we were then in the world?

We were two years ahead of 2016, which is when Trump was elected and Brexit happened and various other disasters took place. The world has changed massively in that half decade for the worse.

PETERLOO behind the scenes (Simon Mein/Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Was this the only incident where the British military used aggression against the nation's citizens?

No. There was a famous event called Bloody Sunday in 1972 in Ireland, in Derry. But I think it's important that we don't just think about Britain. You have Tiananmen Square and Sharpeville and you name it. There's a long list of these kind of events, and they're each as important as the others.

Did you grow up with military in your family?

No, not really. My father was an army doctor in the war, but that wasn't military. That's because everybody was conscripted. So, no, I don't have any military background.

When I was born, my dad was in Southern Africa, but that's because the war was on. I was born in 1943, so lots of people were in uniform who would otherwise never have been in uniform and were out of it as soon as the war was over. So, there's nothing military about that.

Some people in this country think it's only a conservative value to support the military. Do you think there's a class divide in how people see the military?

What you're talking about is obviously framed by the fact we're talking about "Peterloo," the film, and what happens in the film. First of all, in the film, and it was the case at Peterloo, there are two sorts of forces on the day, military forces. There are the professionals, the Hussars, who came in second only because it was badly organized and who in fact went to pieces a bit. But the ones that came in first, the ones in blue uniforms, were called the Manchester & Salford, named after the two cities. They were the Yeomanry.

Now, they were amateurs. They were publicans and shopkeepers, but they were people who were against the radicals and against reform. As you see in the film, they were irrational and they were drunk and they just moved in and they were just gunning for people, basically.

PETERLOO (Simon Mein/Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

What you're talking about is questions about attitudes to the military as such. Another important thing about the events of Peterloo, which, again, we've got in the film, is the role of General Byng, who at the beginning of the film is appointed the head of the Northern District. On the day of the event, he saw fit to go to the races at York because his horse was running and didn't take the responsibility that he should have done.

It's generally accepted as a universal fact, not least by military historians, that if he'd been there on the day, we wouldn't be sitting here talking about Peterloo; it wouldn't have happened. It would have been contained instead of being, in fact, chaos. The magistrates lost their discipline, as you see in the film. They called in the troops prematurely or wrongly, more accurately. They put in the wrong order, and it was chaos.

Your question was about class. Well, you know, the army was an arm of the government. Like all armies, you would have had people from aristocratic or privileged backgrounds in officer class. And foot soldiers from a working-class background, but they would follow the rules, as soldiers do, and do what they were commanded to do, basically.

So there is no question that the authorities got it wrong on this occasion, but that is often the case.

In the film, there's a character, a bluecoat. He's basically a voice of reason as the massacre is happening all around. He's the one saying they can't get away.

That actually happened, in fact. Amongst the chaos and these soldiers losing their discipline, that officer was actually heard to say that. In the end, what I'm concerned with, always, whatever the film, whatever the event, is human beings behaving like human beings.

There's another moment where one of the Yeomen is about to attack a woman, and one of the soldiers stops him in his tracks. These are details that matter. These are people who are behaving like people, and some of them had some sort of humanity.

But, on the whole, mostly, these forces actually behaved irrationally, but they were brought in wrongly. They shouldn't have been there. It was a mistake.

PETERLOO featuring Simona Bitmate as Esther (Simon Mein/Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Are there monuments to Peterloo in Manchester?

No, there aren't. There will be one on August the 16th, unveiled on the 200th anniversary.

I grew up there, you see, in that area, and I didn't really know about it at all. And then for some years, from sometime in the '80s, there was a plaque on a building where it happened that was very, very evasive and innocuous about what had actually happened. After a lot of protest a few years ago, it was replaced by another plaque, which was more clear and graphic about the fact that people were attacked by the authorities.

Now that there will be a monument, there's a lot of growing awareness about it. Every year for the last number of years, there's been a meeting on the site and it's grown. I haven't been there because I don't live in Manchester anymore, but I will hopefully go this year.

PETERLOO featuring Maxine Peake as Nellie (Simon Mein/Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Shelley wrote a poem called "The Masque of Anarchy" a couple of years after the Peterloo Massacre. It's quite a long poem, but it's really a reflection on the Peterloo Massacre. Maxine Peake is an actress in "Peterloo" who plays the mother of a working-class character and is very well-known both as an actress and as a radical. Every year, she reads a section of "The Masque of Anarchy" in Manchester, and then there's a ceremony of people who make speeches and there are plaques and all of that stuff. But that's been growing over the years, and it's become really quite a widely supported thing.

Here's the thing: It's important for Manchester, but it's important in a more universal sense, not just for Britain. It has some resonance beyond there.

Mike Leigh has seen Kurosawa's "Ran." You should see it, too.

Was there a military film that inspired you in making "Peterloo"?

No. People have said, "Oh, did he watch Kurosawa's 'Ran'? Did he reference the 'Battleship Potemkin' et cetera?" No, because I know those films, and they're in my DNA, so I don't think about them consciously. I'm not referencing any particular film.

I suppose I could ask, "If I'd never seen Kurosawa films, would I be as good at doing a movie like this?" I suppose. It's hard to quantify. I don't think about things that way. You see, I don't make movies about movies. That's the bottom line.

Director Mike Leigh behind the scenes of PETERLOO. (Simon Mein/Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

It's not necessarily in your wheelhouse to direct an epic military film.

It's interesting; I suddenly realized I don't see it as a military film. I mean, the military is in it, but it's not a military film.

I guess I'm thinking of "Peterloo" as more of an epic-scale film than you usually make.

It is epic, relative compared with most of my other films. We actually were extremely lucky with raising the money to make the film because I never have a script. And it so happened by a very fortunate fluke that my producers found themselves talking to Amazon Studios almost as soon as they started. And Amazon Studios said, "No, great, we'll do that. "

We were absolutely blown away by it because it was a much bigger budget than anything I've had before. I now have to say Amazon Studios were immaculate. They never interfered with the form or the content or the casting or the cut or anything. They were supportive all the way down the road, but as backers should be.I made the film with complete freedom.

As an audience member, what would you want me to think about when I left the theater?

Now, that's a very interesting question. I don't really have an answer to that for a very particular reason. If familiar with my other films, you will agree with what I say, that I've never made a film that says, "Think this." You go away from my films with stuff to think about, to reflect on, to argue about, to ponder, to meditate about, to consider how it might otherwise have been.

This film is no exception. I leave you in a very emotional place in the film. I don't tie it all up. There are a lot of things that this film is inviting you to think about. I could say, "The film is saying this" or "The film is saying that," but I don't really think in those terms. It's more about a point at which I hand it over to you.

So, I'm a bit reluctant. I think it's kind of reductionist to say to an intelligent audience participator, "Think this; this is the message." There's actually quite a lot of messages on different levels.

PETERLOO featuring John-Paul Hurley as John Thacker Saxton, Joseph Kloska as Richard Carlile, Victoria Moseley as Susanna Saxton, and Dorothy Duffy as Mary Fildes. (Simon Mein/Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

You know you've got big crowd scenes in this. You said you didn't have a script when you began, so how do you manage that? Did you end up with shooting script and storyboards?

Well, we have ways of going about it that are organized, but always in the way is to liberate it and make it possible to explore and make things happen.

In that big sequence, there was no storyboarding, for example, because that storyboard belongs in a different kind of filmmaking where you plan everything in advance and then you make it happen. Whereas, I make films where you make things happen, and then you work out how you're going to film them.

So, what can I tell you? What matters is what's on the screen. Sometimes you have to be organized in order to be disorganized. If you want to create the space for things to be organic and spontaneous, it has to be organized in order for that to happen.

It's almost like if there's too much freedom, you make a mess.

In this particular film, we're talking around an event that involved [60,000]-to-100,000 people and all those things during the massacre.

If you break down what you saw in that sequence, you've got the people on the hustings, the people who were making speeches, and you've got the family on the ground and the magistrates in the house, and various other factions. We worked for six months before we shot anything, working with actors. They already knew who they were and how to play the character.

You're not talking about people showing up on the day with no idea who they are. We prepared the supporting artists and the extras. I worked throughout the entire project with a wartime historian. We made sure that for every time there was a new lot of support artists, time would be allocated for them to explain to them graphically who they were playing, what the situation was, what was motivating them, what the issues were, et cetera, et cetera.

Thus, what you see is that they really are acting the situation. They're not just standing there like sacks of potatoes. It's about coordinated effort and organization. I've worked with the same team of people for years.

PETERLOO featuring The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry (Simon Mein/Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

What do you think a citizen's responsibility is when a leader doesn't even have a concept of history?

Well, that's a tough question. That's a very tough question. I don't know the answer to that. We all have a responsibility. It's not a question of what our sense of right and wrong is. It's what we can do about it. That's the problem.

This film is about democracy and -- well, there's democracy and then there's democracy. It's a film about people having the vote. The film is about people struggling to get the vote because only 2% of the population in Britain had the vote at that time.

People have the vote and then what happens when people have the vote? You may say, well, "Good news," but people had the vote in Germany in 1933 and they elected Hitler. People elected Trump; people had the vote in 2016 and voted for Brexit. By a tiny, slender majority, a large number of people voted in ignorance, paranoia and xenophobia. We have the results, so the questions that you're raising are complex and imponderable in many respects.

I think the subject matter is universal. When the Americans pulled out of Vietnam at the beginning of the '70s, we -- and by we, I mean particularly my generation who all had long hair and all the rest of it -- we actually thought genuinely that now the world would grow up and that would be the end of nonsense.

If you described to us the world as it now is, we would have been horrified. Similarly, when the wall came down in 1989, it was "Oh, thank God, the Cold War is over. Now, peace on Earth."

And what are the Russians doing now? It's desperate; it really is.

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