The Peterloo massacre is seen by many as a major turning point in the history of Manchester, leading to many of the radical reforms which helped to shape the city of today. Peterloo is the subject of a new film by Oscar-nominated writer and producer Mike Leigh, who spoke to Manchester Content Curator Simon Donohue.

Mike Leigh is waiting for our interview in an elegant glass-walled ante room within the Refuge restaurant at Manchester’s magnificently restored Principal Hotel.

He acknowledges the grandeur of his surrounding yet quips that it owes its origins to the former Refuge Assurance building, a place he says was constructed to “intimidate the masses into parting with lofty premiums”.

Mike Leigh, Salford-raised filmmaker

Then it comes as no surprise that Leigh should side with the working masses over the ruling classes, particularly as we’re here to talk to him about a tragic moment in Manchester’s history when the consequence of the latter’s oppression of the former left 18 people dead and hundreds injured.

The Salford-raised filmmaker’s latest movie is Peterloo, given a UK premiere at Manchester’s Home arts cinema in October – the first ever BFI London Film Festival premiere outside London - and focusing attention on a story that hasn’t been given the airing that its place in history deserves.

In the region of 60,000 people from across Lancashire’s mill towns had gathered for a peaceful protest in St Peter’s Fields on August 16, 1819, hoping that the Government would allow them to elect a member of parliament to represent the people of Manchester.

Instead, the protest was cruelly and savagely crushed by a cavalry charge of armed men. If there is a silver lining, it is now acknowledged that Peterloo marked a turning point in the history of Manchester, leading to the ideals which continue to make it a place of progress, opportunity and equality.

In other interviews, Leigh has indicated that Peterloo wasn’t on the curriculum at the North Grecian Street Primary School in Broughton, Salford when he attended in the 1950s, a travesty he would like to see corrected.

If not the national curriculum, then Peterloo the movie will at least ensure that many more people than ever before are familiar with the story.

Leigh had heard the story of Peterloo in the 1970s, when he first found success with the play and television programme Abigail’s Party, but didn’t then think it would be a story he would ever have an opportunity to tell.

“I thought it was a really strong story that would one day make a great film,” explains Leigh, who remains best known for the gritty and contemporary kitchen sink realism of his films.

“But I never imagined that it would be a film that I would make, and I certainly didn’t imagine that I’d make a period film. Until Mr Turner (Leigh’s biopic of the painter J.M.W. Turner) that wasn’t something I’d done.”

If Leigh is late to the project, his timing is perfect. Peterloo comes in a year of heightened awareness of Manchester’s radical history, a fact celebrated by Marketing Manchester’s #RadicalManchester campaign.

This year marks the centenary of some women being given the right to vote, a fight which began in Manchester with Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, who will finally get a statue in her honour on the anniversary of the first female vote, December 14.

The 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, on August 16, 2019, will be marked by the Manchester Histories Festival. Running from June until the anniversary itself, it will be centred on Manchester’s Central Library – a stone’s throw from the site of Peterloo, adjacent to the Midland Hotel in modern Manchester.

A new Peterloo memorial by artist Jeremy Deller will be unveiled next year on the site of the massacre.

Given Leigh’s filmmaking style, people who view Peterloo will be reassured but not surprised that it’s an authentic and almost documentary-like take on events, rather than some Hamburger Hill-style Hollywood interpretation.

Think improvised northern dialect, poverty and intense political rhetoric rather than some swashbuckling historical re-enactment.

There are difficult moments as the film reaches its tragic and inevitable conclusion, members of the Salford and Manchester Yeomanry slashing their way through the crowds. In one particularly harrowing moment, a baby is trampled by a horse.

The film itself feels painstakingly detailed. I ask how important it was to create a film that was as authentic as possible?

“We didn’t set out to make a documentary and Peterloo isn’t a documentary,” Leigh says. “But accuracy was important. Many of the characters portrayed in Peterloo are people that there are actually quite detailed records about.

“We weren’t able to make the film in Manchester because it doesn’t look like Manchester at that time (Peterloo was largely shot in Lincoln). But it was important for me to have authentic voices, not least because there are very many talented northern actors and I wanted to be able to cast as many of them as possible.”

Peterloo will definitely resonate with a Manchester audience, and there are plenty of local landmarks and locations referenced.

But Leigh is resolute in his belief that Peterloo is anything but a parochial story of politics in the city region of his birth.

As important as Manchester is to the story of Peterloo, it’s also incidental in telling a story which Leigh describes as a globally significant “metaphor” of our age.

“It’s a story about democracy and history,” he adds. “I’m comfortable that it’s a story that will be of interest to people around the world. We played the film at the Venice Film Festival and they got it.”

Mike Leigh's Peterloo

What he means by metaphor is Peterloo’s relevance today, when democracy and civil liberties are once again being tested. Peterloo also appears to be a thinly-veiled attempt to explore the dynamics which resulted in a “yes” vote for Brexit and the election of an unlikely US president.

Peterloo sees upper class prejudices and fears about the dangers of the working classes conflated by half-truths and lies – the fake news of the day.

It opens – see review - with a young soldier returning to Manchester from Waterloo, where his family and friends face the privations which afflicted the working classes of the age.

While generals are lauded and rewarded for their contribution to the war effort, the working classes go unrecognised.

Leigh’s film emphasises the harsh inequalities with a pastiche of the stories of people punished in preposterous ways for trivial crimes.

We learn how half-truth and rumour stirs the ruling classes into a frenzy of fear: their belief that the peaceful crowds are plotting violent unrest is the catalyst for the armed response.

“You only have to look at the things that are still happening today,” Leigh implores, further justifying his determination decision to release a film about a 200-year-old injustice in 2018

“Only today, we hear about people banged up for protesting against fracking. We talk about Brexit, and some people will say that people were able to vote and got what they wanted. But there are parallels in the way that information was made available.”

When I suggest that Manchester has protest and progress in its DNA, Leigh responds that it’s a “fact” rather than a theory.

He talks about a previous attempt to campaign for the vote years before Peterloo, and how it too was put down by the authorities.

“There’s a long history of radical reform and protest in Manchester,” Leigh adds. “It’s why Marx and Engels came to Manchester.”

Leigh talks about the ghosts of Peterloo and the way that much of the land on which the modern city centre stands will have been walked over by the protestors heading to St Peter’s Fields, those same people passing by again in flight as violence erupted.

“There remain Peterloo sites that can be visited,” Leigh says. He talks about having been a younger man heading to London from Manchester Central railway station, now the Manchester Central conference and convention centre.

“The mound in front of Manchester Central is where the crowds stood to hear orator Hunt Hunt,” he says.

Much has clearly changed in 200 years but a wall standing adjacent to the Friends’ Meeting House is where protestors were ‘kettled’ by the authorities, he explains.

Leigh is keen that visitors to modern Manchester learn more about Peterloo at locations like the People’s History Museum, where a new mural marks the anniversary and films.

Those familiar with leigh’s film-making style – the dialogue spoken in his plays and films is always guided yet improvised – will appreciate the length to which he takes personal responsibility for the way a story is portrayed.

He explains how the birth of his grandson during the making of Peterloo shaped a scene where Maxine Peake’s character, Nellie, talks about the prospects for her granddaughter 85 years ahead.

“It’s something I’d been giving a lot of thought to when my grandson was born,” Leigh adds. “I’m 75 now and my grandparents would certainly have been around at the same time as people who were alive at the time of Peterloo.

“I was thinking a lot about my grandson and what the world will be like for him in 2050. Peterloo was 200 years ago but it’s really not that long ago. it’s important that we continue to learn from the past as we look to the future.”

Peterloo is on general release at UK cinemas from November 2 and will be shown in cinemas in the United States in Spring 2019.

Watch the trailer here:

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Peterloo

Written and directed by Mike Leigh, Peterloo is an epic portrayal of the events surrounding the infamous 1819 Peterloo Massacre, where a peaceful pro-democracy rally at St Peter's Field in Manchester turned into one of the bloodiest and most notorious episodes in British history.

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