"Peterloo felt relevant, given all the crazy and chaotic things that are happening now": 5 minutes with Mike Leigh
On 16 August 1819, cavalry brutally dispersed a crowd of 60,000 protestors at St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, leaving at least 18 people dead and more than 600 injured. The event, known as the Peterloo Massacre, became became a landmark moment in the struggle for democracy. As major film Peterloo is released, we spoke to acclaimed writer and director Mike Leigh about the challenges of filming historical events and the relevance of Peterloo today…
What was it about Peterloo that first captured your imagination, and made you think that this would make an amazing film?
Although I grew up in Manchester, I didn’t know much about what happened at Peterloo at all. Lots of us from that part of the world didn't.
I don’t remember when I first read about it, but I do remember thinking: “somebody should make a film about this.” However, it never occurred to me that that somebody might be me – at that time I didn't think I would ever make a period film. But after I'd made Mr Turner [Leigh’s 2014 film about the painter], it suddenly dawned on me that it would be a good idea, not least because the bicentenary of Peterloo is coming up in 2019.
At the very beginning of the process back in 2013, Peterloo felt relevant, but given all the crazy and chaotic things that are happening now, it's become even more prescient. We found ourselves saying “this is really relevant” on almost a daily basis.
Why do you think Peterloo isn’t better known about in 2018?
The way in which history is taught in schools today doesn't demand much in the way of how it relates to the average school child's life. But you can't talk about Peterloo without discussing what it was about and why it happened. Therefore, maybe it's dangerous in some way.
You mean because it's almost too relevant to today?
You can't talk about Peterloo without discussing what it was about and why it happened
You’re well known for developing scripts using a process of improvisation. What challenges does a historical setting – especially one based on real events – present for that approach?
You can read about history in books until it comes out of your ears, but that doesn't make it happen in front of the camera. You've got to bring it to life. It's got to feel real, and that involves making characters that feel organic and three dimensional. When you have to integrate historical facts into that process, it’s just yet another thing to stitch into the narrative.
At the heart of film are the incredibly rousing speeches of the reform movement – most notably Rory Kinnear as Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt. Why was this such an important aspect of the story to you, and how did you go about reconstructing that remarkable speaking style?
You can't make a film about a political movement that leads to a public expression of political aspiration without including those speeches.
There was a point in proceedings when I had to bite the bullet and say: “this film is going to have a lot of speeches in it.” But there's no point in worrying that the audience might find it boring. I always work on the assumption that the audience is intelligent. Otherwise you just end up patronising them and you ought to make a completely different sort of film.
We took the speeches from historical source material and did a massive amount of character work to bring them to life. Something I find particularly interesting is that the young working-class radicals, who made some of the most impressive speeches, were either self-taught or had learnt to read and write in Sunday school. Not only were they articulate and literate – they would quote the classics. They were hungry for education, and would be horrified at the way in which we have access to education today, but eschew it.
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Likewise, if all of the thousands of people who were at Peterloo got out of a time machine today and found that people have the vote but don’t use it, they would be disgusted. That was the very thing they were protesting for, and some of them lost their lives for the cause.
Peterloo is not concerned in any way, shape, or form about making things sexy
What can you tell us about working with the project’s historical consultant, Jacqueline Riding?
Every single film I've made – including the contemporary ones – involves a huge amount of research. But I'm a storyteller, not an academic. When it comes to historical research, I need somebody who can point me in the right direction and make the source material digestible – someone who can wander into the British Library or the National Archives and know where to look. You couldn't make a film like this without such a person; it simply wouldn’t be possible.
When we see this era on screen, it’s usually the ballrooms of Jane Austen, or the battlefield of Waterloo – is Peterloo’s positive reception a sign that period drama needs to widen its net?
Peterloo is not concerned in any way, shape, or form about making things sexy. It's not concerned with being glossy, romanticising or sugaring the pill. Life is quite interesting enough. And in saying that, I am implicitly making comments about other kinds of films.
Peterloo, a film about the 1819 massacre, written and directed by Mike Leigh, is in cinemas now.
Listen to the full interview with Mike Leigh on the History Extra podcast, available now
Ellie Cawthorne is HistoryExtra’s podcast editor. She also contributes to BBC History Magazine, runs the podcast newsletter and hosts several live and virtual BBC History Magazine events.