Reviewed by Stephen Basdeo
As a fan of English radical history (did I mention I once wrote a book about Wat Tyler?), I was really looking forward to Mike Leigh’s Peterloo (2018). For the first time I’d see a visual representation of the infamous Peterloo Massacre which occurred in Manchester in 1819; I would see the great radical orator Henry Hunt delivering one of his famous speeches (well, I’d see an actor doing it, but as a historian, this is as close as I’m going to get in seeing one of my heroes in action). The artfully edited trailer made it look a little bit like an English Les Miserables.
The event itself was a national scandal. In August 1819, nearly 60,000 pro-democracy demonstrators gathered in St. Peter’s Fields, Manchester, to hear Hunt speak on the subject of parliamentary reform. The crowd, which was socially diverse, as neither the middle nor the working classes had the vote at this point, had many grievances. These included the fact that none of them could vote, as well as the fact that the largely aristocratic British government had enacted the Corn Laws–tariffs on imports of grain which protected the businesses of the landed classes and kept the price of bread high–the effects of which were exacerbated by high unemployment following the demobilisation of soldiers after the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815). But at the meeting, from an upper room in a house in Mount Street, the Manchester Magistrates grew nervous and called the cavalry out on the protesters who, drunk, attacked the peaceful protesters with their sabres.
It is estimated that around 15 people died on the day, while a further 700 were injured, and countless more may have died of their injuries later. The event was a national scandal and became an important moment in British working-class and labour history.
One of the things that the film does very well is the depiction of the actual massacre itself. There is little background music to dramatize the situation which lends a sense of realism to the portrayal of it; we see the protesters gathered as normal trying to catch a glimpse of Hunt and hear him, then at the back of the crowd the cavalry begin charging at them. To the viewer, as it must have seemed to the crowd at the time, this is initially a bit confusing–just why are the cavalry, who are not exactly galloping fast at first, coming towards the crowd? Then the cavalry begin striking people, and the carnage ensues.
I have also changed my mind about another aspect of the movie which I initially disliked: the political speeches. A good portion of the movie is taken up with various characters uttering speeches at meetings in favour of political reform, with some of the dialogue taken directly from primary sources. Initially, I was a bit underwhelmed; the actors chosen, such as Nico Mirallegro, are not ‘great’ orators, and on a first viewing I felt that he did not give enough ‘umph’ to his demands for liberty. Yet this does actually convey the fact that the ordinary working men who gathered in taverns and in fields in Manchester in 1819, would not have been great orators.
Of course, this is a qualified change of heart on my part. While the sheer amount of speeches in various places does nicely illustrate the fact that there was lots of radical political activity going in many places and promoted by members of both the middle and the working classes, there was no need to quote some of the speeches in their entirety. As any undergraduate history student is told: do not give lengthy quotations; your job is to distil the information and create an argument or narrative out of the information you had. The filmmakers did not follow this basic rule.
In fact, as a historian, I feel as though I am betraying my profession when I say this, but: sometimes movie-makers can pay too much attention to detail when making their films. Let me explain: Maxine Peake is a brilliant actress, and played the part of Nellie admirably, yet her explanation of the Corn Laws was so dry and academic that I half-expected a fully formatted Chicago Style footnote to flash up on the bottom of the screen listing the source. Now, obviously, working-class women in the nineteenth century were intelligent and often well-informed about political matters, but it would have been enough to simply say something along the lines of “the price of bread is high”. It felt a bit too academic.
While the above are minor quibbles, my real problem is with the portrayal of Henry Hunt as an arrogant and self-centred arse who is dismissive towards poorer people. This is simply wrong; Hunt was named at the time as:
The Poor Man’s Protector.
He spoke over a thousand times at mass meetings about parliamentary reform and of about the need for working-class (a term which he largely pioneered) and middle-class representation in parliament. This was often at great personal financial cost to himself.
After the massacre, Hunt was arrested for two years yet from his cell continued to campaign tirelessly for political reform. The final verdict on his character, however, should be given by the people of Manchester themselves. The Newgate Calendar records that:
Hunt was drawn about two miles by women, and ten miles by men. In fact, his return was one long triumphal procession, waited upon by thousands, on horse, on foot, and in carriages, who hailed him with continued shouts of applause. The sensation produced throughout the country by this fatal business was intense. Hunt’s conduct was universally applauded, and he received the thanks of nearly every county in England, and those even who opposed him on principle now forgot their enmity, and hailed him as the uncompromising champion of liberty. His entry into London was public, and some of the first characters of the day honoured him with their presence, whilst hundreds of thousands welcomed him with deafening applause.
Ultimately, the film is visually impressive, but at a personal, human level it fails to impress.