Play for Today Writer: Colin Welland; Producer: Kenith Trodd; Director: Roy Battersby
This essay continues from Part 1.
Early in Leeds United!, Annie (Teresa Anne Keegan, played by Josie Long) walks along early morning streets, picking up a friend and arriving at the bus stop on her journey to work. An ambitious crane shot accompanies her walk, leaves her in order to reverse across a street and rises above outhouses to find her further on. As she walks, we hear a male voice-over set out her new contract, the terms of which have reduced her rights. This sequence “set the tone”, according to Clive James:
ably combining the humanist touch with the analytical glance. […] their company contracts were read out in plummy tones on voice-over. ‘The company has no contractual pension arrangements covering your employment.’ Which meant that you work for half a century and they scrap you.1
This practice was so common that Welland heard about another example just a few weeks before the play was broadcast: “a 61-year-old seamstress who works in the same clothing factory as Colin Welland’s mother-in-law in Leeds was made redundant. She had worked in the same place for 25 years but because she was over retiring age she was not entitled to any redundancy pay.” Welland’s response: “Bastards, they are”.2
The combination of “the humanist touch with the analytical glance” that James identified is partly achieved through docudrama devices. When the women get to the factory, we again hear Company rules and the results of the recent National Agreement, while again following Annie; and as work begins we cut away to the Northern Regional Secretary of the Association of Seamstresses Cutters and Tailors who, talking to camera, describes the Agreement as a “milestone”, and thinks that anyone who expected more was “a super-optimist”. (This must include Annie and other workers from John Black’s who are returning to work after a week’s strike.) As if in response, the play now shows several women – some are lead characters, some are unidentified – working in various clothing factory jobs, with close shots of their labour and long shots composed as if to “observe” or “discover” them at work, accompanied by their testimony either to-camera or in voice-over. One young worker speaks happily about gaining a skill for life, and her words guide the storytelling in the sense that her words “on time” cue a shot of her piecework observer, the camera moving down to find his stopwatch. Communist shop steward Harry Gridley (Bert Gaunt) tells us that the women “bloody well deserve” equal pay.
The testimony of another woman worker confirms this, as she takes pride in her skills as a final presser (she can turn a bundle of rags into “a suit fit to get wed in”) who has been in the trade for 35 years. Again, close visual details of her work are accompanied by spoken testimony:
See these lads around me? I taught half of them their jobs, and they’re taking home two quid a week more than me. Just because they’re wearing trousers.
John Hill recently observed docudrama elements in Leeds United!, such as “the use of stills and unspecified voice-overs” and “direct address to camera (as if the character is responding to an unseen interviewer’s questions)”.3 Indeed, the interaction of audio testimony and shots of processes brings to mind John Corner’s description of the “mixed aesthetic” of Cathy Come Home,4 which “develops both as ‘story’ and ‘report’, the latter being produced through the use of images and speech which generate a documentary referentiality around the main line of action, thereby connecting this to contemporary reality in a way which differs from conventional drama”.5 Both scenes also remind me of the start of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,6 which signposts the subjectivity of Arthur Seaton through an internal monologue that motivates camerawork and editing. When Arthur says “look at Robbo”, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning cuts to a shot of Robbo – but in Leeds United! the speaker’s urge to “see these lads around me” doesn’t cue a look at them. However, the play is clearly interested in subjectivity, as she adds “that’s what [the] row’s all about as far as I’m concerned”. The point here is not a gendered reading of the gaze – men give testimony in this form too – but the play’s stress on the centrality of female experience in this situation and this form.
These strategies returned to mind recently at Tate Britain, when I saw the Women and Work exhibition of Margaret Harrison and Kay Hunt’s study of women workers at a metal box factory in Bermondsey between 1973 and 1975. Black-and-white photographs and films of working processes are similarly placed with documentation such as pay slips, productivity agreements, medical reports and lists of gender differences in job definition, skills and status. (Similarly, Battersby was aware when directing Leeds United! that the 30,000 women “were the second-raters in the industry – it was the cutters, the men, who earnt the money such as it was”.7 ) In Women and Work, the “use of sociological method as a conceptual strategy is emphasised by the minimalist look of the work itself”.8 Women and Work is described as “one of the earliest projects to tackle political and industrial issues from an overtly feminist perspective”, in which “Objective and subjective points of view coexist” and key themes include “points of contact between the personal and the political, the public and the private”, as portraits “put human faces to the facts and figures and invite the viewer to engage with the issues on more personal terms.” Leeds United! achieves comparable effects with its docudrama approach.
Gridley reminds Black’s workers of the union conference that rejected their request for a shilling (“bob”)-per-hour increase, and workers vote to strike, in opposition not only to employers but also to their union. Black’s workers march across Leeds, singing for a bob an hour, calling colleagues from other firms out on strike. Their march reveals bad conditions in sweatshops, as in the real events in Leeds in 1970, when strikers were so “shocked and appalled at the working environment especially of the back-street clothing workshops” that they “decided to press for the appointment of worker inspectors in the factories.”9 In turn, sweatshop workers are cynical about joining the strike because they believe it is only going to benefit workers from Black’s, until they realise that the campaign is seeking a deal for all workers. Echoes of the mainstream social realism of the British New Wave can be found in the combination of documenting conditions and moving through public spaces – from workplaces to pubs to streets – in scenes of solidarity in campaigning marching, which recall the earlier scenes of observation and testimony: indeed, we glimpse in the crowd the young woman from earlier, and hear her words from earlier, except her phrases such as “I’m learning summat” are now acquiring a different meaning.
To describe Leeds United! as a docudrama is not to claim it as solely a project of documentation – the docudrama label raised issues that were, as we shall see, of concern to the BBC – but to appreciate the potential range that docudrama affords and the play’s specific range of generic and stylistic approaches and influences. The early combination of walking and voice-over documentation is not reductively a combination of “fact” and “fiction” but – if we borrow from the description of Women and Work – is a combination of objectivity and subjectivity, public and private. The camera’s fluid movement across and above houses and wet streets, which glisten in black-and-white photography, signposts a more expansive, even excessive style than stereotypes of social realism would expect. The style of this sequence may recall the British New Wave but it’s nearer to the opening of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil.10 The significance of this visual scope lays in its association with the women, who will play the leading role in a struggle that is marked by style as epic, heroic and even timeless. It is tempting to see the early crane shot as a demarcation of space. As the strike develops and hundreds take to the streets, and as political betrayal develops, the story unfolds in visual and narrative forms that traditionally had predominantly male authors and male social actors, including the British New Wave, political cinema and in particular the large-scale industrial-themed radical docudramas of Jim Allen and Ken Loach such as The Big Flame.11
I will return to the play’s style in these terms, and the way in which programme makers debated the influence of political cinema and its appropriateness to the subject. But there are clearly other genres at work when Mollie (Lynne Perrie) marches into various workplaces encouraging others to join the strike, and the largely female workforce gathers in buses, pubs and other locations. Regional drama and soap opera are brought to mind by the dialogue and the cast, as Kenith Trodd observed: despite the play’s move to the BBC, it “still feels like a Granada programme, not just because its stars include Lynne Perrie, Liz Dawn and half of the future cast of Coronation Street.”12 It is understandable that the study of women’s television has spent much more time on soap opera than on industrial-themed single dramas but these – and more fundamentally, single drama strands in general – should not be neglected. Leeds – United! sheds a different light on some of the issues that ran through the study of television in this period. Some of the aspects of Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy that Richard Dyer felt “defined [Coronation Street’s] fictional world” were “the absence of work and politics, the stress on women and the strength of women”.13 Social realist plays and docudramas often foreground the presence of “work and politics”.
Such spaces are also explored in other genres, as I’ve noted elsewhere,14 including situation comedies like Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney’s The Rag Trade.15 Stephen Wagg discussed The Rag Trade as one example of how 1960s situation comedies sought to represent working-class life. Here, “the action takes place on the shop floor and revolves around the powerful advocacy of the workers’ interests by Miriam Karlin’s shop steward”. This is “an essentially sympathetic portrayal of unionised factory life” in that “Karlin’s character is militant on behalf of her class, rather than herself”, generating such “public affection” that “her frequent injunction […], ‘Everybody out!’, became a popular catchphrase.”16 The Rag Trade’s sitcom format provided a (playful) restoration of the status quo, whereas Leeds United!, despite Welland’s wit and depiction of hope, provided damning closure in its depiction of alleged betrayal. But some reviewers had this sitcom in mind as an intertext; for instance, Leonard Buckley wrote in The Times: “Everybody out! The sardonic cry that Miriam Karlin used to utter in a comedy series about the rag trade became an impassioned roar last night”.17 But the presence of other potential markers of comedy were entirely consistent with radical docudrama’s use of comedy performers (such casting is, for instance, a common feature across Ken Loach’s work). Therefore, as Greenwood observed, Joe Pike was played by “comedian Stan Stennett making his acting debut”, a boss was played by “Terence Frisby, who wrote the hit play, There’s A Girl In My Soup”, and Gridley was played by “Bert Gaunt, of the Gaunt Brothers music hall act”.18 Elements of comedy and character drama stood out for critics who were concerned with potential didacticism or identification; for instance, according to Buckley:
It was the strikers who gripped us. Their leaders harangued them. They chivvied each other. A woman stood firm while her mother died. They marched and massed and sang […] And through it all ran Mr Welland’s dialogue, vulgar and funny, sad, savage and sincere.19
But as we’ve already seen, the centrality of the women was itself seen as political, as in the coverage of the original dispute: “Left-wing militants have been blamed both by union and management. But there is no doubt that the strike is inspired and led by the women members, with whom the local officials appear hopelessly out of touch.”20
Representing the strike’s scale and spontaneity made Leeds United! a large-scale production built upon the reconstruction of mass marches and huge meetings: as Mary Malone stated in the Daily Mirror, this was a “marathon epic” with seemingly a “cast of thousands” that was “quite literally stunning […] never mind the quality feel the width”.21 It drew its extras from hundreds of people who were involved in the original events, as national newspaper coverage was keen to note. The Daily Express noted how “the workers who came out unofficially for an extra bob an hour joined enthusiastically in the making of the film, cluttering the Leeds streets again for the film crews, singing their ‘war songs,’ storming the factory barricades.”22 The Daily Mail’s Shaun Usher reflected that “I can’t recall large groups of players and extras being presented to greater effect”, and felt that “Battersby’s direction capitalised on the stirring call to the blood when masses march behind banners – ‘Smite The Infidel’ or ‘Sod The Bosses,’ still the scalp tingles.”23 Indeed, Roy Battersby’s production was praised by many, for the way that – according to Buckley – it undertook “a gigantic undertaking with ingenuity and skill. For besides the crowds and the complex strands of action it brought us all the dingy clatter of the sweatshops and their silence when the machines were still.”24 Dennis Potter admired Battersby for keeping:
a breathtakingly adept control of what could have been (visually) a cliché-ridden sprawl. His long, steady pans and elaborate tracks took on not so much the rhythm of exhortation as the subtler and more moving texture of deep emotional commitment.25
For Chris Dunkley in the Financial Times, this reconstruction element made it an “exhilarating chunk of electronic street theatre”.26 Not everyone was quite as impressed – although the Daily Telegraph’s reviewer felt that the crowd scenes were “brilliantly directed by Roy Battersby with an army of extras who appeared to be as fiercely committed to the cause as the original strikers”, he described the “resulting mob rule” as “an ugly and repetitive spectacle and doubtless intended to be so.”27
Before moving on to the ultimate example of the crowd work – the Leeds Town Hall sequence – it is worth noting the impact of shooting such scenes in black and white. It was very unusual to shoot in black and white by this time, and this is reflected in the attention that critics paid to that decision, discussing its potential reasons and effects. They argued that the play was “shot in black and white for Dickensian veracity”,28 “so that nothing should be prettified by colour”,29 making it “a story told against a grey, industrial background.”30 The “absence of the cosmetic of colour played a vital part in [its] success”, as it gained “the flat, inelegant, haphazard taste of realism; as if [then-recent “fly-on-the-wall” documentary series] The Family was covering a whole city.”31 However, the choice helped the programme makers with their aim, as Battersby put it:
to say: this is a film, it’s not a documentary. This is an enormously important social, human drama, and we want to understand it. We don’t just want to rehearse the events. We want to illuminate – what is the physiognomy of this process, how does it take place?”32
Filmmakers like Pontecorvo were a direct influence – Welland recalled that he “had just seen Battle of Algiers, and was ‘knocked out’ by it”.33 Chris Dunkley observed that it “inevitably recalled the early products of the Russian and Italian schools of film realism” and related it to the way that television stopped covering Vietnam after its “imaginary peace”.34 For Clive James, Leeds United! “had the elemental force of first-generation political dramas like October or Kameradschaft”.35 (James added that “there was no way of being distracted from it”, which was an important point given that the preview screening was so troubled by technical faults that Welland “sank into his seat, with his hands over his eyes”.) These respected antecedents seemed to heighten Nancy Banks-Smith’s sense that the original events were hardly worth the treatment given to them by the production: she argued that Welland, Trodd and Battersby “have given the little strike the chest measurement of a revolution” as if they were “sons determined to make their father’s obscure life mean more, matter more”. It “has the feel of a film” but Banks-Smith – wondering whether Welland “has some memory of Sing As We Go, with Gracie Fields toodle-ooing out of a train window on her way to right some cotton town wrong” – described it as the BBC’s “biggest play” but “Not their best.”36 The choices of black-and-white and docudrama methods were debated after the programme’s broadcast, as we shall see.
The Town Hall sequence is the ultimate example of the play’s large-scale techniques. By this stage of the play, the strike has spread across many firms in Leeds and the North East, despite the union’s claim that the strike is specific to Black’s. The union has called for a return to work, but the strike holds firm despite welfare concerns, family bereavement and threatened victimisation. At a meeting in Leeds Town Hall, 2,000 workers passionately reject the calls of their union – and, surprisingly, Gridley – to return to work. Workplace politics have been central to Leeds United!’s characters, through an emotive focus. Gridley will argue that “Emotion must make way for reason”, but such politically loaded statements are undermined in the Town Hall by the personalised testimony of female workers, who talk about their experiences. Union leaders calling for a return to work are drowned out by songs of solidarity. This sequence’s centrality to the play was reflected in previews and reviews. In October 1973, before the scene was shot, the Daily Telegraph noted that this scene “re-creates a meeting in Leeds Town Hall and calls for 500 ‘extras’, reinforced by 1,500 of the factory workers who were actually involved.”37 For the Daily Mail, the Town Hall sequence “ought to have failed miserably” but “they brought off [this] extraordinary section” as “striker after striker called for solidarity and resolve, in a steadily mounting, sustained chain of emotional peaks.”38 Dennis Potter thought that the Town Hall sequence “was masterfully orchestrated, protest breaking against the platform in wave upon wave of thunderous indignation.”39 Even Nancy Banks-Smith, who as we have seen was no great fan of the play, picked out the Town Hall scene as evidence of how Leeds – United! “is a team endeavour about groups, marches, meetings, large lumps of people. It is conducted and sung like a performance of Messiah. The silence of the workshop and, on the dot, the sudden rev and roar of sewing machines. The wave on wave of singing in the Town Hall scene and the cut to the concussed silence of the bosses meeting.”40 One way in which research into Leeds United! could be developed is to dig more deeply into the way extras are used, with testimony from people involved in the original events and their reconstruction – as Charlotte Brunsdon has suggested, this could add to studies of, for instance, the 1984 ‘Battle of Orgreave’ reconstructed in 2001 by artist Jeremy Deller and the subject of a documentary in 2002.41
But the women’s disruptive performance in the Town Hall also suggests that we can add to the aforementioned political, social realist, sitcom and soap traditions mentioned earlier. For instance, 1974 was also the year of the suffragette drama Shoulder to Shoulder,42 which Vicky Ball gave as an example of how some types of “female ensemble drama” served to comment on “marginalized aspects of women’s history”.43 We have already seen, from my opening quotation from Katrina Honeyman, that Leeds United! partly corrects one specific area of marginalized history. Leeds United! is very much focused on the “working-class communities of women” and “the ‘backstage’ or mundane aspects of women’s work in factories” that Ball mentions among the different ways in which the female ensemble drama since the 1960s has served to demonstrate “television’s attempt to construct and address a more pluralized sense of female identity”.44
The showdown at the Town Hall demonstrates worker solidarity but also foreshadows the betrayal to come. Mollie’s accusatory renaming of ASCAT – “the Association of Scabs, Arse-lickers and bleeding Traitors” – leaves us in no doubt that the biggest threat will come from the workers’ own representatives rather than the employers. However, the depiction of the employers was a point of contention for some critics. At first, some of the employers are relatively amenable to the requests made by the strikers – they need the support of the union to help push through planned job losses and are aware that employers were favoured by the recent Agreement. However, the boss of Black’s takes a more hard-line approach and pushes for a united statement refusing concessions and claiming that the strike is the work of a few left-wing anarchists leading a mindless rabble – a common tactic that the programme has partly disproven by showing not only the scepticism of workers to Communist shop steward Gridley but also, more fundamentally, by presenting the women as active agents in events. Soon, they will be pushing to continue the strike, in opposition to Gridley’s moves to end it. I say “partly disproven” because, as Shaun Usher noted, the makers of Leeds – United!, although not “boss’s men”, were “clear-eyed and fair enough about worker vulnerability to con-tricks and double-shuffles by their own leaders.”
However, Usher also noted that the play’s “romantic bias towards the underdog” had infuriated the worthy clothes manufacturers of Leeds”.45 Not everyone agreed that the play had such romantic bias – Geoffrey Sheridan stressed that “has nothing whatever to do with romanticism”46 – but Leonard Buckley’s argument that “It was the strikers who gripped us” was made in contrast with his belief that “There was no doubt where our sympathies were meant to lie. The employers, prissy, devious or bovine, were largely shown as men who went on playing their golf. The union officials were all bluster and procedure.”47 For Nancy Banks-Smith, the depiction of the employers was a problem:
The bosses even when they were excessively fat were excessively flat. Such cartoon characters that at first I thought Welland must be pulling my leg. For all I know all bosses may be bastards but I’ve not seen them wear their birth certificates so jauntily in their hatbands before. Take the farcical fellow on the golf course and his line of chat. ‘They’ll be scuttling back like rabbits in a couple of days.’ The dialogue had too many lines like that […]48
This concern was shared by other critics, even those who were more positive about the play than Banks-Smith. Clive James noted that “The masters gathered on the golf course for some Hooray-Henry dialogue on the subject of cheating the swine back to work.”49 Sean Day-Lewis felt that the employers “were drawn to present obvious types and attitudes rather than people.”50 Usher thought it a “major flaw” that the bosses looked and sounded “stereotyped, with jut-jawed, frowning Bernard Archard as the most reactionary in a collection of crypto-twits, sharks, and pantomime fat men.”51 Complaints from employers – such as a Clothing Manufacturers’ Federation spokesman calling it “inept, inaccurate and insolent” and “a clumsy beginner’s manual on how to organise an unofficial strike and terrorise women into joining it”52 – prompted Welland’s response:
If the bosses had enjoyed the play I would have been worried. This is exactly the reaction I expected. They are behaving like a wounded animal at bay. Every event described in my play is a matter of record. I portrayed the events as they happened. The people of Leeds will be the true judge of what I have written.53
(Some of “the people of Leeds” would soon appear in the media in order to “judge” Welland’s play, as we shall see.) The employers, despite their scheming, are left to bleakly consider new national pay negotiations and the strikers seem to be on the brink of victory. However, outside the Town Hall meeting, the strike committee chairman Fred Packer (Peter Wallis) tells a reporter that, although his mandate is a shilling, they are open to offers. Packer and Gridley meet individual bosses then telegram the Association to offer a return to work for an interim reward plus negotiations. The employers celebrate victory. Therefore, despite complaints from employers about their depiction, Chris Dunkley observed that “the main villains in this play were the all too real gutless trade union leaders and perfidious Communist agitator. The employers by contrast were shown as Punch and Judy figures.”54 As Geoffrey Sheridan argued, the play shows the strike being betrayed by “the elected leader of the unofficial strike committee prepared to wheeler-deal with bosses in a council flat, behind the backs not only of the strikers, but the rest of the committee, the Machiavellian manoeuvres of the Communist Party member on the union district committee.”55
The betrayal is brought home to Maggie (Elizabeth Spriggs) in a sequence which underlines the centrality of female agency and silenced voices. When Gridley starts to talk to the small meeting of the strike committee, we hold on a shot of Maggie. Earlier in the play, contextualising voice-overs played over footage of women at work – either male voices giving the employer’s line on contracts or female voices charting their own experiences. Now, we look at Maggie while Gridley starts to speak – and his words are drowned out by Maggie’s words as the sound from another sequence is played over her shot, as she remembers addressing a mass meeting on Woodhouse Moor. The combination of sound and image cues a subjective narrative movement as we see Maggie’s speech: “When a woman looks at her wages and thinks of the hours she works and the conditions, she knows she is a slave.” She adds that “if the employers and the unions cannot put the house in order, then we the women will do it for them”.56 Editing juxtaposes the two sequences in order to draw a contrast between two resolutions: the rank-and-file workers’ vote to continue the strike and the strike committee’s vote to give up. The committee stated that people were returning to work and the strike was crumbling – James Thomas argued that the play showed “how wild enthusiasm can slide, sadly but inevitably, into desperation: the drift back to work of the ‘mindless rabble’ as one of the masters called them, the realisation that the system cannot be beaten, was movingly illustrated.”57 However, the Town Hall and Moor sequences have shown collective solidarity. The docudrama reconstruction of real events – the Moor sequence – may imply documentary objectivity but it is also subjective, as it rejects Gridley’s political discourse. Shaun Usher picked out this sequence as a “vivid, intentionally confusing, sequence” which put across the confusion of workers, achieved by “Welland and Battersby and film editor Don Fairservice […] cross-cutting between a mass meeting baying for the strike to continue, and […] the strike committee, the following day. Somehow, despite the apparent ‘No surrender’ climate, the thing was settled. None of the rank and file knew why.”58 Later, Mollie rejects similar discourse more emphatically when she slaps Joe in the face for saying that “Politics is the art of the attainable”. It is the slap of docudrama’s affective discourse.
The betrayal of the rank and file by union leadership is a common theme across several pieces in this period, including Ken Loach and Jim Allen’s The Rank and File and Days of Hope. For critics like Peter Lennon in the Sunday Times, the play did not describe “the role of the union” as satisfactorily as it did the “impersonal ruthlessness of the employers” – therefore, “investigating the hidden official motivation of the union would have powerfully strengthened this film”.59 There were more specific concerns from some quarters regarding the Communist Gridley, who – as Sheridan put it – “led the workers out, then ratted on them – he was interested in an abstract revolution in the future, not a concrete one here and now.”60 John Hill recently noted that Leeds – United! “does clearly concur with the WRP’s analysis of a ‘crisis of leadership’ within the Labour movement”.61 The Workers Press, the publication associated with the Trotskyist Workers’ Revolutionary Party, welcomed the play’s attack on Stalinism.62 Speaking to MacCabe, Trodd accepted that “there’s no doubt it was informed a little by the insights of the WRP – the only trace of it in the film is the voice-over at the end, spoken by one of the women, which says, the next time we have a fight, we’ll trust ourselves to those who won’t let us down. There’s a kind of message there, but it didn’t offend it dramatically.”63 However, Hill felt that “its ‘anti-Stalinist’ polemics against the Communist Party does seem to strike an unnecessarily sectarian note”.64 Indeed, the Morning Star, Stewart Lane criticised the play’s treatment of the Communist shop steward as “a snide distortion”, and compared “Welland’s version” with “the facts”.65 Lane pointed out that the strike “won the biggest wage increase ever paid in the industry, revitalised organisation and increased union membership”, and that the real Communist shop steward was sacked, “along with 39 other cutters, which included other members of the shop committee”, in August 1970. In another Morning Star piece, Lane challenged the view that the strike was a failure. He interviewed Benny Mattison, treasurer of the real 1970 strike committee, who said that, although the strike was “not a spectacular victory in the immediate sense, […] the workers did get an increase, and it was the only year in which union membership went up.” Lane noted that “Communists played an active role in the leadership of the strike” and summarised Mattison’s belief that “There was never […] any betrayal”.66
To look more fully into responses from those who were featured in the play, the third part of this essay will move us onto a feedback discussion programme that was broadcast on BBC2 the night after the play was broadcast on BBC1.
This essay continues in Part 3.
Originally posted: 31 March 2014 (Part 2)