Peterloo and the Realist Tradition

Still from “Peterloo.”

Worthy, sumptuously shot, convincingly acted and not without moments of insight – but a tad leaden. That’s my take on Mike Leigh’s new film, released November 2. I’ll give a more nuanced view in a moment but first a timeline, reverse chronology, in which Peterloo – the event, not the movie – can be framed: Orgreave 1984 .. Bloody Sunday 1972 .. Amritsar 1919 .. Peterloo 1819.

It’s hardly a competition but the toll of fifteen sliced to death by mounted and sabre flailing yeomanry, many of them drunk, charging into the crowds at St Peter’s Field in Manchester on August 16, 1819, is dwarfed by that of 379 mown down at Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh, April 13, 1919. As are the fourteen shot dead by the Parachute Regiment in Derry’s Bogside on January 30, 1972 – while at Orgreave in June 1984, police in riot gear and supported by dogs killed no one at all when they attacked1 striking miners, their livelihoods on the line.

So why lump together events separated not only by centuries and continents, but by degree of homicidal intensity too? 2

Because they share a single thread. Each in its own way showcases the response, the absolutely predictable response, of our rulers – heirs in spirit and often as not in genealogy to those rival gangsters who slugged it out at Towton and Bosworth Field – to challenge from below. I don’t say the British ruling class delights in ruthlessness.3 Only that it can be relied on, once it deems the time for words has passed, to cast off the velvet glove.

But what does Peterloo – movie not event – do to advance our understanding of such things? Not enough, in my view; its approach barely distinguishable from the work – the admirable and at the time groundbreaking work – of Ken Loach, Tony Garnett and Jim Allen in the Days of Hope quartet more than forty years ago. Some will remember a debate then current in left intellectual circles as to whether Realism, a storytelling form rooted in bourgeois society, could ever seriously challenge the material and ideological underpinnings of capitalism’s historically unique way of exploiting the many by the few.

This criticism, of Days of Hope and similar attempts at Socialist Realism, targets two aspects of the form.4 5

One is an empiricism held by some – yours t. for instance – to constrain the ability to penetrate surface and concrete phenomena to tease out deeper and more abstract truths. (This limitation had Bertolt Brecht seeking dramatic estrangement via narrative disruption. A young Mike Leigh did similar, and to wicked effect, in plays like Nuts in May and Abigail’s Party and I can’t help thinking that while Leigh has grown kinder with age, he lost some of his edge along the way.)

Twenty minutes in we see a clumsy attempt – noteworthy in an otherwise finely crafted film – to explain in ‘natural’ dialogue how the Corn Laws benefited a landed gentry at the expense of both johnny-come-lately factory owners with economic but not (yet) political power,6 and the hungry wealth creators: agricultural labour in steady decline, and a booming proletariat evicted from the land by mechanisation and Enclosure.

But inept manouevrings aren’t the issue here. More important is the fact that so able a director as Mike Leigh has to resort to them, thereby revealing this intrinsic limitation of realism. You can’t make sense of Peterloo without saying, however awkwardly, how the Corn Laws worked in the context of severe economic downturn following the Napoleonic Wars. What’s more, you still have to explain the unusual balance of class forces at this juncture, with feudalism and mercantile capitalism on the threshold of giving way to fully fledged industrial capitalism.

Nor is this a problem solely for those who seek the socialisation of wealth creation. At a more immediate level realism, even at its best, is hard put to draw together the underlying threads: a ruling class still land based and able through its rotten borough system to keep the manifestly unjust Corn Laws in place. That a hamlet like Old Sarum returned two MPs, while Manchester had none, is cited at several points but the connection and historic context – twenty-five years after France’s settling of accounts, and a scant four after Bonaparte’s defeat at Waterloo – for well heeled reformers like Orator Hunt are clear only if you knew these things already. In which case Peterloo the movie will offer little more than a well made, colourful reminder: enjoyable in its way, but hardly the stuff of filmic greatness.

In some circumstances realism can indeed tease out and draw together abstract truths, though with no great efficiency. That this film does not do so strikes me, given the calibre of its maker plus two and a half hours of viewing canvas, as pointing to constraints of a more fundamental and less personal nature.


The other defect seized on by socialist critics of realism is its reflection of bourgeois society’s elevation of the individual. Realist films need heroes and villains, and these must have what some call typicality.  The Everyman of Shakespeare and earlier story telling forms won’t cut it. Realist protagonists must be psychologically plausible and this too poses problems for would be critiques of the capitalist order; critiques looking by definition to the cooperative half of our dual nature as individuated but social animals. In the main I accept the truth of that constraint but on this front Leigh – who when all is said and done has been finding human universality in the particularity of idiosyncratic characters for decades – acquits himself well. Peterloo the film weaves convincing characterisation with generalisations more far reaching: such that we aren’t simply seeing Orator Hunt, but the limitations of (pre-neoliberal) Reform itself; not seeing high class butchers, snobs and effete clowns but the largely hidden face of the ruling class. In short, Leigh’s typicality  serves its subject well.

Bottom line? Three out of five. Don’t let me spoil the fun. See and enjoy this film – then tell me where I fail to get its measure.


1) The BBC infamously reversed Orgreave footage to imply that the police charged in response to stones thrown by miners when the reverse was the case.

2) The Amritsar massacre exceeded those others not only in body count but in its chilling precision. Colonel Dyer ordered the narrow exits from Jallianwala Bagh – “smaller than Trafalgar Square”, said Winston Churchill – to be sealed by armoured cars. He then had his Sikh, Gurkha and Baluchi troops fire 1650 live rounds into the densest sections of a Punjabi gathering more than 10,000 strong. When the protestors dived in panic to the ground the troops were ordered to train their Lee Enfields downwards. Churchill, not known for bleeding heart liberalism, would later describe the event as “monstrous” while Dyer said his aim “was not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience.” Not all the fatalities were instant. Long into that night – with April the most searing month in Northern India – cries from the dying and pleas for water filled the air, Dyer having denied medical relief services access to Jallianwala Bagh.

3) Indeed, a deserved reputation for hypocrisy is largely down to the British ruling class’s mix of steely determination to do the bloody necessaries, with a capacity to weep bucketloads after the fact.

3) A third criticism of socialist realism, that it fosters pessimism through its (historically accurate) focus on betrayal and defeat, is beyond my scope here.

4) Also beyond my scope is a discussion of alternatives. Defenders of socialist realism often claim, sometimes in philistine tones, that the masses don’t relish alternative forms. This is simply untrue, witness Britain’s richly surrealist tradition – at the time this claim was being made, Kenny Everett’s zaniness was constantly topping Britain’s viewing ratings. More immediately to the point, one film pulled off the balancing act, of disrupting the surface narrative in Brechtian ways without losing audience interest, with great aplomb. See The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil for its non-realist depiction of centuries of Scotland’s looting.

5) Decades after Peterloo Marx showed just why the feudal Corn Laws disadvantaged capitalists by raising the value of labour-power.

Philip Roddis writes the Steel City Scribblings blog, where this essay originally appeared.


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