A look at Peterloo (M)
For those of us who love history and have studied it throughout life there’s a certain anticipation leading into a much-discussed period movie.
Such were my feelings as we headed into a local cinema to see Mike Leigh’s film about the 1819 Manchester working class protest rally.
But what we got was a never-ending series of speeches from local reformers, more at a women’s meeting where not everyone was happy with the chairperson, from radical orator Henry Hunt just up from London (Rory Kinnear, who barked out lengthy messages) and even long-winded dissertations from the bench in magisterial and higher-up courts.
In two scenes with a local magistrate presiding one elderly woman was to be transported to the Australian colonies for stealing two bottles of alcohol while a young man was sentenced to hang for purloining his master’s dress coat.
Admittedly Leigh turned the after hours social drinking get-togethers involving the magistrates and judges into caricatured scenes with the legal fraternity sneering at the working class people who appeared before them.
There was also a delicious sense of caricature whenever Britain’s two most senior politicians met to informally discuss weighty matters of state.
The Prime Minister Lord Liverpool (Robert Wilfort) seemed to play second fiddle to the Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson) as they discussed what to do with the Manchester situation.
Director Leigh has attached a noticeable lisp to Sidmouth’s speech. This lisp becomes more pronounced when he and the PM are summoned to a meeting with the Prince Regent who has his latest courtesan hovering about to pop tasty morsels into the Royal mouth.
The whole scene is quite comical in its depiction of all four characters, particularly the unfortunate ageing courtesan.
What we were all waiting for, of course, was the August assembly with a huge crowd of 60,000 Manchester workers gathered in the city square to demand an extension of voting rights.
That turned out to be the 1819 Peterloo Massacre where after some more speeches (what, even more) mounted government militiamen and Hussars charged on the crowd, swords and cutlasses unsheathed.
In the aftermath 15 deaths were recorded and more than 600 people were injured.
So what was the lead-up like as we approached the massacre?
Well, right at the start we saw young English bugler Joseph (David Moorst) in the midst of the Battle of Waterloo. He eventually wandered home to Britain suffering from what we’d call today PTSD.
And we also saw a few scenes involving war hero General Sir John Byng (Alastair Mackenzie, best known for his TV role in Monarch of the Glen) who, fortunately for Byng, wasn’t on duty on that fateful August day.
It all came down to the local magistrates and the Deputy Chief Constable (Victor McGuire), a nasty piece of work, to oversee the orders for the break-up of the massed crowd.
That was achieved without weapons being used by the protesters even though some organisers had wanted the men armed.
In one memorable scene – perhaps the movie’s best – local reformer Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell) forcefully argues with Hunt about the civilians taking weapons to the assembly.
Bamford, who gets great support from wife Jemima (Lisa Millett), tells Hunt that as organisers they should factor in the possibility of violence.
But Hunt shouts Bamford down.
Many of the penniless workers – remember Manchester was at the heart of Britain’s Industrial Revolution – had brought pikes, wheat scythes and even swords after they’d engaged a local blacksmith to make them.
Hunt overrules Bamford and all the men assemble in the square, having discarded their weapons during the march, with nothing but their bare hands to tackle the mounted soldiers and militiamen when they eventually charge among them.