Mike Leigh on class war and political hope

The British director’s latest film, Peterloo, recounts the 1819 massacre of protesters demanding parliamentary reform in Manchester, UK. He speaks to Sam Thompson about the difficulties of dramatizing a social movement and the difference between hope and optimism.

Peterloo, is perhaps Leigh's most ambitious and certainly his most expensive project yet
Peterloo is perhaps Leighs most ambitious and certainly his most expensive project yet. Photo: Gareth Cattermole / Getty

ST: You’ve made period pictures before but the scale of Peterloo must have presented a new challenge. Just the amount of historical material you need to translate into drama to make the story legible is huge.

ML: Absolutely. But at the most basic level, this film isn’t any different from any of my other films: it’s about putting three-dimensional people on the screen in a fleshed-out, plausible way. Not ciphers. Not movie clichés. Characters. Real people like you and me. Added to that, you’ve got people who make speeches, express ideas and all the rest of it – it’s complex. Everything that comes out of people’s mouths is drawn from real speeches – it’s distilled from that.

Oratory is so important. Along with pamphlets, it was the main propaganda tool of the Reform Movement in the 1800s. In the film, there are a lot of political meetings and hustings. How did you inject these scenes with drama?

First of all, what comes out of a character’s mouth must be feasible. What I do is work very hard with the actors to find the character. The criteria is: does it work for the character? Not does it work as a speech. Plus, it’s a simple job, despite its complexity, of editing, distilling, rewriting raw material, political speeches into stuff that is both digestible, and, in the proper meaning of the word, ‘entertaining’.



The star orators – like Henry Hunt, who’s the headliner at the march – are big egos and influential figures, but the film isn’t just about these personalities. It’s also about a movement – and a family – and, perhaps above all, a class. How did you approach this?

That’s a difficult question to answer. If you were to say, hypothetically, ‘I’m going to make a film about a class, or a movement’, you’d be stymied. I don’t know what you’d do. This is the way I look at life, and these are my political instincts: there are a lot of individuals. I look at a football stadium and I’m still looking at that number of individuals. You could say it’s a mass of people but to bring it to life, you’ve got to breathe life into those individuals. You’ve got to invent characters that are drawn from history or that are made up – like the family – that are as totally idiosyncratic as the characters in Abigail’s Party (1977) or Nuts in May (1976). Only then have you got your skittles in a row… only then have you got your class.

People were hungry for education and hungry for the vote. Now we have education and we have the vote, but people don’t vote

You’ve said that this history should be taught in schools.

Yes, but what I didn’t say, which was The Guardian headline, is that it should be on the national curriculum. I don’t believe in a national curriculum! I don’t think there should be any fucking curriculum!

The history of how the ruling class thinks about Peterloo is a history of blaming the working class for its own death, destruction and immiseration. Do you see parallels with Peterloo and more contemporary crises like Hillsborough and Grenfell?

Of course. It’s hard not to. That’s why when we were preparing this film over the course of three years we were saying, ‘This is getting more relevant all the time.’ We’re talking about people’s voices, people being heard, people with power, people without power, people who have, people who need, all of that.

For me, one of the tragedies of the contemporary world is that in the film working-class kids are quoting the classics. There was no comprehensive education then. These kids had taught themselves or they learnt it at Sunday School. At one point Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, talks about ‘Sunday School orators’. People were hungry for education and hungry for the vote. Now we have education and we have the vote, but people don’t vote. It’s one of the ironies of our contemporary world. Why is that? We’re now suffering from people voting for something wrongly from what you can only call ignorance after being misled, as far as Brexit is concerned. Why is there apathy about education? I’m not going to pontificate the answers, but those are questions that arise out of the film.

She’s thinking about her granddaughter and says, ‘In 1900, she’ll be 85.’ We shot that literally as my son’s partner was about to have my first grandchild.

The rally captures a series of emotions that many of us will have felt at political actions: boredom, anticipation, fear. Do these feelings resonate with you personally?

I’m not sure it’s boredom Maxine Peake’s character feels – more like frustration at not being able to hear the speakers. When I was 15, a few of us went to the Free Trade Hall in Manchester and heard Bertrand Russell speak about the bomb – at that time Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was a relatively new movement. And then I was at the Aldermaston March [an annual CND action] in 1960. I was 17. Those were incredible experiences.

At one point the son of Maxine Peake’s character accuses her of giving up hope, and she’s furious. It struck me that political emotion is a big theme throughout your work: hope, motivation, anger, apathy and the difference between hope and optimism. How hopeful do you feel?

I’m a parent and a grandparent. The bit where they’re in bed the night before [the march] she’s thinking about her granddaughter, and says, ‘In 1900, she’ll be 85.’ We shot that literally as my son’s partner was about to have my first grandchild. I was very conscious of a child being born. He’s now one – this Freddy Leigh – and you think about the same measurements, and you think about what sort of world it’s going to be. It makes you hopeful, but everything that’s happening in the world makes it difficult to be optimistic.

I consider your films political in a foundational way because they start where politics begin: caring about people’s lives and the things that expand and constrain them. They enlarge our colleagues and neighbours, push us to love them more and make the fulfilment of their potential seem urgent. Peterloo is political in an explicit way, but do you see this vein running through all your films?

Definitely, and you’ve articulated it as well as I could: they are about how we live, and what drives us, and how we behave, good and bad and in different ways, and how society functions and doesn’t function. Anybody who asks me – and you haven’t – ‘Is this your most political film?’ my answer is, ‘No shit, Sherlock!’ Obviously, because that’s what it’s about. But even if you go back to a film like Nuts in May [Leigh’s farce about a middle-class couple on a camping weekend] it lays it on the line in terms of what’s going on. In terms of class politics, it’s clear as a bell. It’s a political film. It may be a jolly old laugh, and it may take the piss out of vegetarians, but it’s about class warfare and we know whose side we’re on.

Sam Thompson writes about film and politics for Little White Lies, BFI, The Baffler and Tank Magazine. He also edits The Crowd.​ Peterloo will officially be released on 2 November 2018 in the UK and 9 November 2018 in the US. Look out for the graphic novel Peterloo: Witnesses to a Massacre, due to be published by New Internationalist in 2019. newint.org/books