Mike Leigh:
When the smog clears

One of the country’s leading film makers has returned to his Manchester roots with his new film about the Peterloo massacre.

Hero image

Mike Leigh has been on a nostalgia trip. The acclaimed writer and director – raised in Salford, before moving to London to pursue his career – recently visited Manchester to attend the premiere of his latest film, Peterloo. The red carpet event brought Leigh back to the city for the first time in many years. As a filmmaker, Leigh’s northern roots have remained ingrained in his storytelling.

“I actually thought, as many of my generation did, that all buildings were black.”

“My old man was a doctor and we lived on Great Cheetham Street in Higher Broughton,” says the 75 year old, who rose to prominence with television plays, including Abigail’s Party and Nuts in May. “It was a very working-class area. I went to a local primary school and then Salford Grammar School. We then moved up the road to a slightly more suburban area. The horrors of all of that can be found lurking about in a lot of my films.”

Leigh left Salford at 17, having won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he trained as an actor. Upon graduating, he opted to focus on directing theatre productions, including an assistant director role with the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1971, Leigh released Bleak Moments, the first of many feature films. He soon became known for using lengthy rehearsal and improvisation techniques to develop his characters, dialogue and storylines. In 2015, he was awarded a BAFTA fellowship in recognition of his outstanding contribution to film and television.

Peterloo brings together a largely northern ensemble cast including Maxine Peake, David Bamber and Pearce Quigley. There is a focus on the character Joseph (David Moorst), part of a working-class family living on the breadline during a period of famine and unemployment following the Napoleonic Wars. The film builds to the violent events of 16 August 1819, when cotton mill workers from across Lancashire gathered at a protest rally on St Peter’s Field, Manchester to demand parliamentary reform and representation. Fifteen people were killed when cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000-80,000 people.

The tragic event, which became known as the Peterloo Massacre, is often overlooked in history books. “Nobody mentioned it when we were growing up and this continues to be the case,” acknowledges Leigh. “I did cover it briefly at school, so I half knew about it, but it was only relatively recently that I started to pay attention to it.

“I remember old people in the area who would’ve been born around 1880. They would’ve had a direct link back to people around at the time of Peterloo, so I have a definite sense and memory of real working folk who had been through it.”

Leigh himself was born in 1943, shortly after Manchester was heavily bombed during the Blitz. The bombing gutted the Free Trade Hall, constructed on the site of the Peterloo Massacre. The city continued to decline physically after the war but then had a pop culture renaissance in the 1960s and of course has been transformed once more with recent development.

“If you’d said to me and some of my mates in the late fifties that Manchester would soon be the centre of the music industry and the magical place it became we’d have been pretty sceptical,” he says, in reference to bands such as The Hollies and The Bee Gees. “Not to mention what it is now, to a considerable degree.”

Leigh initially experienced Manchester prior to the introduction of the Clean Air Act 1956. This legislation called for landmark buildings across the city to be given a much-needed facelift, returning them to their original state following industrial and wartime pollution.

“I actually thought, as many of my generation did, that all buildings were black. To see the town hall after they’d got the scrubbing brush out – looking like it was supposed to – was a shock because everything was black from the worst industrial smog you could imagine.”

Leigh’s recent visit allowed him to revisit his childhood haunts, but he admits to becoming disoriented in once familiar surroundings.

“We drove in a taxi from town and went past Pendleton Church. I had to say to the driver ‘Is that Pendleton Church?’ because, as far as I could see, not one single building that surrounded it, nor the configuration of the roads, had any resemblance to the corner by Pendleton Church around which I used to pass every day, to and from school.”

What does Leigh think of the modern redevelopment he has seen in Salford and Manchester? “I understand the resentment of a lot of posh apartment blocks going up where once there were other things,” he admits. “For better or worse, it’s a completely transformed landscape.”

The film Peterloo highlights the lengths that previous generations went to in their attempts to secure universal suffrage, which Leigh is disheartened to see being under-used today. “It’s occurred to me that if all the folk who were there on [that day] jumped in a time machine and came forward to now, they would be horrified to learn that the vote they were fighting for isn’t used by some people. They’d be appalled by it.”

The film recreates the Peterloo Massacre where 15 demonstrators were killed by charging cavalry

He is also saddened that the most vulnerable members of society continue to suffer at the hands of the government. “People are not only homeless and going to food banks in the north – it’s all over the place,” says Leigh, a supporter of Humanists UK. “I think it’s useful and comfortable to talk about this as a northern issue – because Peterloo is a Manchester story – but it’s a national problem.”

In the aftermath of Peterloo, criticism of the government became more prevalent among the press and led to the establishment of the Manchester Guardian in 1821. This followed the forced police closure of the Manchester Observer, which was deemed to be too radical, having sided with the protesters in its coverage of the massacre. Does Leigh consider traditional press to still hold influence in the digital age? “There’s no question about it,” he says, as a supporter of UK press self-regulation.

“You’ve only got to read the newspapers to see that it’s true. The other news sources [we have today] – the outlets for discussion, the dissemination of ideas and argument – are still the ‘press’. Technology has simply broadened the beam.”

Leigh goes on to contemplate the role of protest in the present day, which remains vital for the working-class and local communities. This year alone, there have been rallies and marches on the streets against harsh austerity measures, the gig economy, NHS cuts and Brexit. Although he is reluctant to speak on behalf of others, he is keen to voice his support for the long-standing anti-fracking protest that continues near Blackpool. He is frustrated at the government decision to overturn Lancashire County Council’s original ban on fracking*.

“What’s infuriating about what’s happening with fracking is that plainly the government have flown in the face of democracy and now protestors are being criminalised,” says Leigh, who was awarded an OBE in 1993.

As the date of Britain’s departure from the European Union looms, Leigh dismisses the possibility of another event on the scale of Peterloo taking place in the near future. “I think it’s difficult to think in terms of another event quite like that because of the conditions back then, but what would happen if, for one reason or the other, Brexit didn’t happen?

“I would be absolutely delighted, but a lot of people would be very angry and you might ask: ‘Would those people take to the barricades?’ If you think of healthy demonstrations, that’s one thing, but if you think of eruptions of violence that’s another thing altogether. All things are possible.”

Ahead of next year’s Peterloo bicentenary, Leigh says the film’s release couldn’t be more timely. Amid an increasingly changeable political climate, there remains a strong desire for further parliamentary reform. He hopes that retelling the story on the big screen will inspire audiences to stand up for what they believe.

“I always make films that leave you with stuff to take away and work with. Peterloo should make you angry and you should feel sadness and grief, though it’s not for me to say. You can only decode it in terms of your own life in the world we live in. People want to change things – that’s what reform is all about – and it hasn’t gone away.”

Peterloo is released at cinemas on 2 Nov. *Read our latest fracking coverage here.

Main photo: Howard Barlow

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Mike Leigh: When the smog clears

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.