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Making Films about the Working-Class: Mike Leigh in Conversation with Qalandar Bux Memon. Part-I

Qalandar Bux Memon: Let’s start with your last film, Peterloo.  I read it as an essay on a social movement. It wasn’t focused on a particular character, of course.  There was no hero, it explained how unity was build by working-class activists across divisions to demand there rights. It focused on the movement, my first question is how did you come up with that method for that particular topic?

Mike Leigh: What method do you mean?

QBM: The method of decentering the story away from ‘heroic’ leaders or simple narratives. 

ML: Oh, I see. You know that looks after itself. It is in the nature of the subject or the territory. In other words, your question is why it is that when I normally make films with very much central characters, this film does not have a central character? Frankly, I never thought about it for two seconds. This story is, put very crudely, about a lot of people. It is about society, it’s about the ruling class, it’s about the fight, it’s about individuals, it’s about collective action and it’s about law. You have to see all of that. You see when you read about the Peterloo massacre, and I am sure you have, you can read a perspective which is about the orator Henry Hunt, a major figure in this story. However, if one were to say let’s make a film about orator Hunt, that is not a film that I would have much interest in because it would quickly and inevitably evolve into the film that we now have because it is not just about him. So, there was never a decision to take a broad perspective view that the film has. That is a natural and organic way of telling the story.

QBM: Okay. I read it more as an essay on a social movement.

ML: Well it is. Whether it is an essay or not in academic terminology may not be relevant. I mean it is not a documentary. It is like all of the other historical films and other films that I have made, which means that it is, hopefully, very well researched in all sorts of ways and areas. It is not a documentary but a dramatization or a distillation.

I mean, apart from anything else, historically and therefore narratively, the film performs an enormous sleight of hand or cheat. It starts with the battle of waterloo which was in 1815 and it ends with the Peterloo massacre which was four years later in 1819. Now, there is no way that when you are watching the film you think that 4 years have gone past. You don’t think about it at all. If you did think about it, it certainly won’t be four years. If I was to make a film containing everything that was relevant to the history of those four years, it would be a very long and somewhat tedious and impossible film to make. There would be no reason to make it. All sorts of other things happened, not least the blight of Europe in the summer of 1816 arising from the catastrophic volcanic eruption in the Indonesian area. It left the whole of Europe and much of the western world blacked out. There was no summer, things didn’t grow, and that affected everything and anything. Also, there was a previous major attempt at a demonstration which was put down. Those things, and loads of other things too.

When you see Hunt coming to Manchester for the first time, historically it wouldn’t be the first time. So, this is just to explain that the film is just a distillation and a dramatization. And of course, there is, apart from anything else, a huge combination of character portraits, with greater or lesser degree of accuracy, of actual people who existed and a whole bunch of characters who were invented to tell the story. Not least, the central working-class family. Look at the example of the soldier who is finally killed at the end. There were survivors of Waterloo at Peterloo and one of them was killed at the latter event. There was a famous inquest which the authorities abandoned because too much was being revealed etcetera. Those are simply the jumping points for my eyes, you know. So, that’s what it is. I am saying all of these things in response to your suggestion, and a legitimate suggestion, that it is an essay. It is a dramatic, poetic, subjective and objective analysis or distillation of the event.

QBM: How do you feel about the subjective element? I mean you are dealing with history and you are dealing with people’s history. How do you feel, for example, as you mentioned that Hunt had gone before to Manchester but the film shows it as his first visit? How do you feel about that subjective element? How do you decide?

ML: Well, you know I am a dramatist. So, I make decisions. I am a story-teller. It doesn’t matter what the subject is. Or whatever film or play it is. There are some basic things that you consider when writing an article and there are some that I consider when putting together a play or a film, for example, that we don’t want to say that thing twice. You have to see whether something pre-empts another or if it is going to be more important at some other point. These are ordinary decisions of distillation or story-telling. For example, Hunt went to Manchester or made a trip to Manchester, previously or only less than a year previously. Unless, you are actually concerned with a detailed exposition of him, it is irrelevant. What is important is the essence of the experience of him being this so-called celebrity. Without a question, he was an extraordinary and brilliant speaker, a very loud orator and a massive self-publicist with an ego of massive proportions. We’ve got that. To simply dissipate focus by ponderously wading through stuff just because it happened is not the point.

On the other hand, it would be perverse to make things happen. I mean there are a lot of historical films that don’t have any sort of historical accuracy at all. Obviously, the job with how to deal with Mr. Turner is to create, with integrity and seriousness, a reality that is with what we feel is in some way accurate and is resonant of the truth.

QBM: I guess, that was my question about historical accuracy. Now, as you say the essence is important.

ML: Yeah, but on the other hand, I mean take a film like the ‘Favorite’ [d1] – it’s a historical film about Queen Ann. The decisions there were, “let’s not make them talk in period language? Let’s make them talk in contemporary 21st century language?” “Let’s not make the costumes completely accurate? Because: let’s make them a bit sexier and more modern etcetera?” Now, for me that, apart from anything else, is like throwing the baby out of with the bath water really. We took the language very seriously. Not only the language of the period as spoken by educated upper classes but also the vernacular language of the Lancaster working-class people. We took that risk – I mean they even used words which are no longer in our vocabulary. The costumes are absolutely accurate. Everything that you see visually or otherwise. Even though, we just talked, in this conversation, about the freedom to distill, you know in the end – irrespective of what the film maybe – you want the audience to believe that this is the real world. You don’t want them to be suspended in disbelief. All those things are complex and sophisticated but they all are a part of the necessary processes.

QBM: You talked about ‘The Favorite’. I can’t watch that stuff but I watched a few clips. It connects with all of the other things that are going on; like the Crown. What I really enjoyed about Peterloo is how you showed the ruling classes for what they are…cruel and able to use extreme violence against the working classes to maintain there power. The reason is that there is a normalization of the aristocratic order that is the function of things like the ‘Favorite’ and ‘Queen’, in a huge way, that is just not accurate.

ML: Absolutely.

Let’s go back and pick up on what we talked about history. Towards the earlier part of the film you see those three magistrates. You see each of them sending down people for the most minor offense – to be hanged or to be sent to Australia and to be whipped. Now those are portraits of three actual magistrates, thoroughly researched and properly cast. Each of those cases was an actual case tried by the respective magistrate. We haven’t invented anything there at all, except, the immediate dramatization in the moment. In one of the cases, a guy is convicted and sentenced to be hanged for steeling a coat. One may say that is just over the top. It happened. Such things used to happen all the time.

So, what I am saying is that some of that outrageous kind of behavior of the ruling classes you just don’t distill it, it’s there. Towards the end of the film, when the governor visits the prince regent, that we quote the letters he wrote commanding the prime minister asking the magistrates in Manchester to be commended for the way that they have maintained peace. I mean it is unbelievable, bollocks basically. We didn’t have to distill, invent, heighten, caricature, dilute or anything. That’s what happened and it is there.

QBM: Yes, it is not hard for me to believe that. That those moments came out of historical documents. But given the juxtaposition of The Crown, The Favorite and all these other things like the Queen and the King’s Speech people are going to think that’s not true, that the aristoric order is humane and like us, its sexy and they are normal people dealing with issues of love but they aren’t they are responsble for historical acts of systematic violence and oppression… you know what I mean?

ML: Yeah of course. This is very interesting because for many years now, I am committed to making historical films which reflect the contemporary world. I don’t know if you have seen this other film ‘Topsy-Turvy’. That was my first historical. It was made 20 years ago, and it was about it’s about the Victorian theatre. It’s about the comic opera world of Gilbert and Sullivan. Now, apart from wanting to turn the camera around on, we who make entertainment and take it seriously for the films on one level and apart from a delight in that particular kind of world of work and music and stuff, it was also a reaction against period dramas – costume dramas – from that time. To some degree, Merchant Ivory was one of those. I’ve had a lot of respect for those guys. For me, it was a reaction against the chocolate box or let’s say a chocolate box kind of period stuff, which is what you’re talking about.

QBM: Yes. 

ML: Again, if you have seen my film ‘Mr. Turner’, it is a period film and that was to some degree the same thing [reaction against the chocolate box kind of period films] but also a reaction against quite a lot of films about painters. However, there are some great films about painting. I’m merely saying that to some degree, you know, the things one does are at a certain level and only at a certain level a reaction to other things as much as they have to do directly with the content.

QBM: Right. So why Peterloo now? I mean why recently? Maybe because of Corbyn coming into leadership? Was it connected to your…

ML: Well there a number of basic things or reasons. First of all, there has never been a film about it [Peterloo Massacre]. And it had occurred to me quite a while back that there ought to be one.

At a very minor level, I actually grew up in Manchester and didn’t really know about it because it wasn’t talked about very extensively. Then we knew that if we made the film, when we made it, it would be made in time for the bicentenary of the event, which was last August.

But most importantly and relevantly – and your question is correct – we decided to make the film in early 2014, and almost as soon as we started to prepare it and research into things, we started to find ourselves saying “you know what this is becoming increasingly prescient and increasingly relevant”.

I think, by the time you get to Trump being elected and the Brexit referendum and a whole bunch of other things happening around the world, we’re already well into preparing the film said and it was ahead of the game in that sense.

I mean the film is about democracy and, of course, questions of democracy are on the slab, full stop.

QBM: Right. I think the film stays and it does its work. For me, because I see myself coming from that tradition of Peterloo – the organizing tradition and of people coming together collectively to try to change things – it stays as an inspiration – almost a tool kit.  I think these types of films have their moment as an intervention, but then they have this longer history which you just can’t account for. Thank you for making it, is what I am saying.  We really need the Battle of Algiers and we need Peterloo, we need The Wind That Shakes the Barley…

A friend of mine who is a filmmaker wanted to ask this particular question and it’s perfect. She asks, how can we make radical films with the existing distribution? Do we need to then reconsider how we distribute? Because…

ML: Well, history is itself answering that question and solving the problem. Even this film, was backed by Amazon Studios, which meant that after a certain point in time, it was no longer available for theatrical distribution. It was going to go up on Amazon’s platform. is still available, whatever you want to watch it on Amazon. And in a way, although this isn’t politically or ideologically, in the spirit of your friend’s question, the truth is that there are now alternative means of wider distribution in the world that exists, which are digital platforms. Although, this film was not distributed theatrically in France or Germany, a large proportion of people in France and Germany have watched it on Amazon.

I think your friend’s question is still very relevant and legitimate. Although, there are some relatively radical distribution outlets that distribute a wider range of international cinema and so on. Part of the answer to that is that no matter what we do, we are up against the monster-behemoth-giant corporations of Disney and all the big companies who dominate. Historically, we know that during the First World War, the Americans spotted that they could actually create markets for movies. After all, movies could travel more easily at that time because they didn’t have a language problem, they were silent. They could get into the world market. That world market has been dominated and monopolized by Hollywood ever since.

Apart from anything else, in the context of your friend’s question the big issue is that what we’re up against this brainwashing of a large proportion of the world’s cinema-going public into the notion that films is Hollywood. The fact that world cinema exists and that all kinds of stuff is happening everywhere in the world, which has got absolutely fuck-all to do with what happens in Hollywood, is very important. But it’s a battle because throughout the world film is Hollywood, film is popcorn film. It’s the movies.

The full interview will be published in Naked Punch Review issue 22, to be released in the Winter of the year 2021.


Mike Leigh is a multiple academy-award winning filmmaker based in the UK. He is known for films focusing on the British working-class and for period/historical films. Most of his films and plays involve development of the script through collaborative rehearsals with actors. Some of his most well-known films include Secrets & Lieghs (1996), Peterloo (2018), Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) and Another Year (2010). He has served as the Chairman of the London Film School for 18 years and is also a Fellow of the British Film Institute.

Qalandar Bux Memon is editor of Naked Punch Review. His forth-coming book is Pegagogy of Resistance: Notes on the philosophy of Third Worldism (forth-coming March 2021).  

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