it's an excellent film which I haven't seen for 20 years though Dame Babs' role is tragically short.
Comrades (d. Bill Douglas 1985)
For those interested in 'the paths less well trodden' in British film......Look out for this rarely seen and long unavailable Channel Four Production on FILM FOUR (Freeview) during February - a British film of originality and quality, in a newly restored print !
Starring Phil Davis, Keith Allen, Vanessa Redgrave, Barbara Windsor, James Fox, Michael Hordern, Robert Stephens
it's an excellent film which I haven't seen for 20 years though Dame Babs' role is tragically short.
Not seen it for 20 yrs either, but I remember Keith Allen behaving in an untoward manner...
By way of comment on the film, I can only say that this
is my all time absolute favourite one! I was raised as a
strong trade unionist (not at all the thing nowadays it
seems!) but Bill Douglas' film transcends the simple facts
of the case,and raises the spirit of human belief and
Robin Soans in particular is superb as George Loveless,
but the cast of William Gaminara, Keith Allen,Phillip Davis,
Imelda Staunton et al, shows the commitment to the
project that Douglas managed to engender in all of them.
Guest stars Michael Hordern,Vanessa Redgrave and
Barbara Windsor show a pleasing 'belief' in their roles
As to Keith Allen,(referred to earlier in this thread), for a
pleasant change, I think he is excellent in his role as the
'wrong brother'. And anyone who does not follow what I
mean by that remark,really needs to see this movie!
I was asked by a friend a few years back, what would be
my 'Desert Island Film'? Answer,'Comrades' by Bill Douglas.
Do yourself a favour if you have never seen it and watch!
About the only thing I can remember about this film is the image of Michael Clark dancing along the road.
It's brilliant and incredibly rare-I've been searching for a copy for years
It's by the very talented very underrated Bill Douglas
You can read about him here and even watch most some of his films if you're in a library schoo lor university screenonline: Douglas, Bill (1934-1991) Biography
If you've never heard of it before and you love British film you owe it to yourself to watch this
so excited I almost used a smiley!
I finally watched it having recorded it during the week.
Was it made as a low budget student project?
I've seen student films which were made better. It was overly "preachy" all the way through. He had a great cast, but wasted most of them.
If you managed to stay awake through all 3 hours of it then it did tell the story of an important event in British history. But he told it very badly IMO.
A wasted opportunity
Comrades, directed by Bill Douglas
A massive surge of trade union militancy; fears about the state of the economy; a government under pressure from employers; harsh sentences delivered using archaic legislation in an effort to intimidate workers
This may sound like the 1970s, but it also applies to a period of revolt and repression that occurred long before, in 1834, when six agricultural labourers, three of whom were Methodist lay preachers, were sentenced to transportation to Australia.
Every year they are commemorated by the Trade Union Congress, at a festival in Tolpuddle in Dorset, as the founders of the trade union movement. Yesterday, to mark the 175th anniversary of their trial, the festival screened Bill Douglas's epic, long-lost and finally rediscovered film Comrades: A Lanternist's Account of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Having attained almost mythical status since its release in 1986, the film is now being reissued by the British Film Institute (BFI).
By 1834 trade unions had been legalised, so the Tolpuddle men were charged under a nearly forgotten law that made it illegal to administer oaths. The names of the martyrs - George and James Loveless, Thomas and John Standfield, James Brine and James Hammett - might easily have been erased from history, like those of so many other hapless victims arraigned under a class-skewered legal system. Instead, the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, inspired by the co-operator Robert Owen's hopes for "a new moral world", mounted an agitation for their release. The moderate radical MP JA Roebuck noted the political implications - the case revealed "that the House of Commons does not represent the feelings of the people". This was an ominous indictment of the legitimacy of the recently reformed parliament and the Whig government. To the petitioners and demonstrators these were merely the new tyrants.
Feelings ran so high that, incredibly, the men were pardoned and granted free passage back to Britain. It took three more years for them all to come home as the authorities were more tardy in tracing and releasing them than they had been in hustling them away. Nevertheless, against all odds, the Tolpuddle Martyrs returned. The victory became a symbol to a working-class movement of the power of combination, not only in the matter of wages but in the achievement of democratic power through a charter of political rights.
Douglas is better known for his trilogy of films about his 1940s upbringing as an illegitimate child in a Scottish mining village - the stark, searing My Childhood, My Ain Folk and My Way Home (1972-78). Like many directors and actors of his generation, he was shaped by the postwar rebellion against deference and identified with working-class resistance.
While he was making his intense, introverted trilogy during the 1970s, financial crises, workers' occupations to save jobs, flying pickets and demonstrations outside prisons for the release of trade unionists were radicalising a new generation of working-class militants. Low-paid women workers in the public sector joined men in the strikes of 1978-79: these strikers were branded by politicians and journalists (who earned a great deal more than they did) as greedy and selfish, and as the creators of "the winter of discontent".
Douglas began Comrades in 1979. It was eight long years in the making, and, in these years, hopes for a more egalitarian, co-operative society were crushed. In the year-long miners' strike of 1984-85, hard-pressed working-class communities rebelled against pit closures and the loss of their livelihoods. An extraordinary movement of support developed: union branches adopted pit villages, collections of food were taken outside supermarkets, musicians performed free concerts, film-makers collaborated on a campaign video. Nevertheless, early in 1985, the battered miners marched back to work, the power of their union broken.
Meanwhile, Comrades had lost its original producer, Ismail Merchant, in a dispute with Douglas, who had also run out of funding for the film. It had been cut and then defiantly restored, and it finally appeared when Thatcherism was at its zenith. The times were not propitious for a long, slow film celebrating working-class heroes. Comrades received limited distribution and faded from view.
In his trilogy, Douglas filmed in black and white, but Comrades reveals his extraordinary feeling for colour. The seasons change in the Dorset countryside from green, to brown, to snow white. The silent landscapes are filmed in a painterly manner, the camera moves slowly through the mud of the village street and pans the bare interiors of the workers' homes. The dialogue is sparse, pared down; the characters communicate in close-up. Gale Tattersall's photography not only takes in the vast sweep of the fields and homes in on the intimacy of domestic life, but transmits us into the blinding sun of Australia, where the prisoners feel dislocated, yet have been released from the hold of parson and squire.
The gulf between the rich and the poor structures the visual composition of the film. The worker in the field looks out at the carriage that passes in the distance; the camera moves to the scene from the carriage, showing the harvesters in the field so carefully positioned that they could be in a landscape painting. The inequality textured into Comrades suggests that people from differing classes are not quite real to one another.
Douglas was influenced by his work with the experimental leftwing director Joan Littlewood at her theatre in Stratford, in the East End of London. One result was that while well-known actors such as James Fox and Vanessa Redgrave play upper-class characters in Comrades, many of the parts of the martyrs and their friends are played by relative unknowns. This is in marked contrast to Miles Malleson and H Brooks's 1937 play, The Six Men of Dorset, in which Lewis Casson took the role of George Loveless and Sybil Thorndike his wife, Betsy.
Douglas wrote and rewrote the script: what could be inferred and imagined by the viewer was to be as important as what was said. And what is said is so carefully controlled that we dwell on looking and, in looking, enter the rhythm of 1830s rural life. Even when there is dialogue, Douglas reminded his cast not to rush. He wanted to focus on the emotions of the martyrs and their families, presenting the interior life of unionisation. The men are promised an increase in wages and then abandoned. Hope and betrayal knot into anger. Driven by want and resentment, they organise to get paid a few more shillings, but there is something more - a vision of human union expressed by a mother to her daughter: "We only have to love one another to know what we must do."
The lay preacher Loveless, wonderfully played by Robin Soans, comes across not so much as wholly good but as actually likeable. He charms the printseller's wife Mrs Wetham (Barbara Winsdsor), and, when young James Brine walks out of the Anglican church in disgust at the message of grovelling humility emanating from the pulpit, Loveless's warm and cheery "Welcome lad" makes the popularity of Methodism intelligible (Comrades is excellent PR for the Methodist church).
The film presented Douglas with a problem he didn't have to confront in his autobiographical trilogy - dealing with public figures and a mass social movement when his inclination as a director was towards the finely crafted image and the individual emotion rather than political debate and historical fact. Having read a leaflet about the Tolpuddle trade unionists at the Dorchester Museum, he was attracted to the story because so much remained unknown about them. This freed him to imagine the impact of the world beyond the village through fanciful glimpses of the comings and goings of outsiders - a beautiful dancing sailor and the lanternist of the film's subtitle, played by Alex Norton, whose acting background had been in John McGrath's leftwing theatre group, 7:84. The lanternist, who assumes 14 guises, entrances the maidservant with kaleidoscopic patterns, excites the children to wonder with his shadow shapes behind a screen, and causes a benign Loveless to conceive a Union of Lanternists.
But there's a flaw in the film: the lanternist is an awkward external device and the delightful magic of pre-cinematic illusion cannot communicate the extraordinary movement of which the Tolpuddle labourers were a part. Nor can Douglas's still, silent cinematic style capture the radical turbulence of a trade unionism that reached out not only to the skilled but to the unskilled, women and children alike. Despite his sympathy with the martyrs, Comrades fails to do full justice to the complex politics of the times.
The labourers were not, in fact, completely enclosed in Tolpuddle. Loveless corresponded with a brother in London who told him about the Owenite Grand National Consolidated Trades Union. When the union organisers came to the village, the labourers were wary about the implications of swearing secret oaths of fealty and had to be persuaded that this was how they should proceed. After the martyrs were brought home, the working-class movement turned away from unionisation towards the political rights of the charter, and George Loveless was elected as a delegate to the first Chartist Convention in 1839. His poverty meant he was able to attend for only four days, but he continued to be interested in the Chartist agitation, which reached into the countryside. During the 1840s, after he and other former Tolpuddle martyrs had emigrated to Canada, his brother sent him news of the Chartist Land Plan - a scheme for cooperative smallholdings. Loveless was, after all, the man who had denounced the "land and money-mongering taskmasters". He might have been good, and likeable, but he was more politically canny than the character in the film.
The flaws of Comrades derive from the grandeur of Douglas's cinematic ambition. It's a film that defied the values of Thatcher's Britain and expressed his empathy with the cause of striking workers, but used styles and imagery that failed to break with theatrical and documentary conventions. The strain in making the film is particularly evident in the section shot in Australia, when the sun refused to shine and the money was running out. Yet, in retrospect, the transported men's sporadic revolts, their disorientation and their solitary calls for freedom contain a truth about neoliberalism's impact on the psyche of the English left.
Today, with the money-mongerers in disarray, still getting their bonuses while workers take wage cuts, the relevance of the Dorset pioneers of trade unionism is obvious. As my Tolpuddle Martyrs' tea towel, bought at a trade union conference, reminds me, "The fight for JUSTICE goes on".