On 16 August 1819, up to 80,000 people gathered in St Peter’s Fields in Manchester gathered for a peaceful, pro-democracy rally. By the end of the day, 15 of them were dead and hundreds were injured, after being attacked by soldiers on horseback, armed with sabres.
It went down in history, but it’s been consigned to an increasingly smaller corner so that many simply haven’t heard of what is now referred to as the Peterloo Massacre. For film director Mike Leigh, whose new film Peterloo is released around the UK on Friday, even though it took place close to where he was brought up in Salford, it was only when he was at secondary school that he became aware of what had happened almost on his doorstep. “We did do it for five minutes when we were doing O levels in 1959,” he recalls. “But nobody ever said ‘This happened here.’ My old man was a socialist, but he never mentioned it. Nobody mentioned it. Nowadays it’s taught in some places and not in others. I don’t think it should be on the national curriculum – I don’t think there should be a curriculum – but I do think it should be taught in schools.”
Combining the epic with the personal, Leigh looks into the lives of some of the ordinary people who gathered on St Peter’s Fields on that day, the attitudes of the great and the good of Manchester who were opposed to the gathering, the supporters of the pro-democracy movement, including Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt (Rory Kinnear) and even the Prince Regent himself (Tim McInnerny). The huge crowd scenes, including the massacre itself, took him into new territory as a film maker. Yet he stuck to his unique method of film making, one where the script evolves after a period of improvisation and rehearsal. It’s an approach that has its roots in his student days at RADA.
“I trained as an actor and, in those days, it was very prescriptive – you learnt the lines, you didn’t fall over the furniture – and we never discussed anything. We never asked ‘what is the play about?’, ‘who are these people?’, ‘what happened to these characters before today?’ or what their backstory was. We never improvised or did anything like that and it was superficial. And I immediately felt this could be different.
“While all that was going on, other things were happening. In the cinema you had Cassavetes’ Shadows, which was famously improvised, Peter Brook was working at the RSC and Joan Littlewood was at Stratford East, so things were happening, but it felt at the time that RADA was in a time warp – it’s not like that now. I wanted to write and I directed the original production of David Halliwell’s production of Little Malcolm And His Struggle Against The Eunuchs and it started to occur to me that you could combine writing with rehearsal and directing. So I started to put together plays in that way and that’s where it started.”
Peterloo moves him away from his usual intimate, domestic dramas and into a larger setting, one where actual political speeches play just as much a part in the narrative as the actual dialogue. But when it came to making the movie, Leigh used improvisation in exactly the same way as in his other films. “When you’re working from a speech that actually exists, you integrate it and absorb it and assimilate it into the scene so that it becomes as organic as the words they say to each other.
“We did this with Topsy Turvy (1999). There’s a scene in that film where Gilbert and Sullivan are sitting on a sofa and Sullivan is telling Gilbert he doesn’t want to do any more: quite a lot of what they say in that scene is quoting from their letters to each other. We started by improvising and then worked those letters into the scene. Quite a lot of things that are said in that film are direct quotes of one kind or another. And the same is true of the Peterloo massacre. There are endless accounts. 300 people testified at an enquiry about their experiences and we’ve absorbed and assimilated them into the film.”
That massive crowd sequence towards the end Peterloo also took Leigh into new territory but, again, he saw little difference between his approach to filming that or one of his smaller scale films. “Three people in a suburban house arguing on a staircase and x-thousand people, mayhem and chaos going on in St Peter’s Fields are simply two versions of the same thing,” he explains. “It’s just a question of scale. Obviously, it took a lot of planning and organisation but the truth of the matter is that we film directors do not make films by ourselves. It’s collaborative. I work with a great team of people on both sides of the camera. It’s organised in such a way that we can then be spontaneous while we’re actually doing it. And I work with a great cinematographer, Dick Pope, who’s shot all my films since Life Is Sweet in 1990, so we know what we’re doing but at the same time we like to push ourselves into places we haven’t been before.”
Now nearing the end of a lengthy tour to promote Peterloo, Leigh plays his cards very close to his chest when it comes to his next film. All he’ll say is that he’s thinking about things but that he never talks about future projects – adding, with a twinkly smile, “not even for you!” We’ll just have to wait and see …..
Mike Leigh was talking to Freda Cooper.
Peterloo is released in cinemas on Friday, 2 November.
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