Peterloo and the Realist tradition

Promotional still, “Peterloo” (2018 d. Mike Leigh)

Worthy, sumptuously shot, convincingly acted and not without moments of insight – but a tad leaden. That’s my take on Mike Leigh’s new film, released November 2. I’ll give a more nuanced view in a moment but first a timeline, reverse chronology, in which Peterloo – the event, not the movie – can be framed: Orgreave 1984…Bloody Sunday 1972…Amritsar 1919…Peterloo 1819.

It’s hardly a competition but the toll of fifteen sliced to death by mounted and sabre flailing yeomanry, many of them drunk, charging into the crowds at St Peter’s Field in Manchester on August 16, 1819, is dwarfed by that of 379 mown down at Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh, April 13, 1919. As are the fourteen shot dead by the Parachute Regiment in Derry’s Bogside on January 30, 1972 – while at Orgreave in June 1984, police in riot gear and supported by dogs killed no one at all when they attacked[1] striking miners, their livelihoods on the line.

So why lump together events separated not only by centuries and continents, but by degree of homicidal intensity too?[2]

Because they share a single thread. Each in its own way showcases the response, the absolutely predictable response, of our rulers – heirs in spirit and often as not in genealogy to those rival gangsters who slugged it out at Towton and Bosworth Field – to challenge from below. I don’t say the British ruling class delights in ruthlessness.[3] Only that it can be relied on, once it deems the time for words has passed, to cast off the velvet glove.

But what does Peterloo – movie not event – do to advance our understanding of such things? Not enough, in my view; its approach barely distinguishable from the work – the admirable and at the time groundbreaking work – of Ken Loach, Tony Garnett and Jim Allen in the Days of Hope quartet more than forty years ago. Some will remember a debate then current in left intellectual circles as to whether Realism, a storytelling form rooted in bourgeois society, could ever seriously challenge the material and ideological underpinnings of capitalism’s historically unique way of exploiting the many by the few.

This criticism, of Days of Hope and similar attempts at Socialist Realism, targets two aspects of the form.[4][5]

One is an empiricism held by some – yours t. for instance – to constrain the ability to penetrate surface and concrete phenomena to tease out deeper and more abstract truths. (This limitation had Bertolt Brecht seeking dramatic estrangement via narrative disruption. A young Mike Leigh did similar, and to wicked effect, in plays like Nuts in May and Abigail’s Party and I can’t help thinking that while Leigh has grown kinder with age, he lost some of his edge along the way.)

Twenty minutes in we see a clumsy attempt – noteworthy in an otherwise finely crafted film – to explain in ‘natural’ dialogue how the Corn Laws benefited a landed gentry at the expense of both johnny-come-lately factory owners with economic but not (yet) political power,[6] and the hungry wealth creators: agricultural labour in steady decline, and a booming proletariat evicted from the land by mechanisation and Enclosure.

But inept manouevrings aren’t the issue here. More important is the fact that so able a director as Mike Leigh has to resort to them, thereby revealing this intrinsic limitation of realism. You can’t make sense of Peterloo without saying, however awkwardly, how the Corn Laws worked in the context of severe economic downturn following the Napoleonic Wars. What’s more, you still have to explain the unusual balance of class forces at this juncture, with feudalism and mercantile capitalism on the threshold of giving way to fully fledged industrial capitalism.

Nor is this a problem solely for those who seek the socialisation of wealth creation. At a more immediate level realism, even at its best, is hard put to draw together the underlying threads: a ruling class still land based and able through its rotten borough system to keep the manifestly unjust Corn Laws in place. That a hamlet like Old Sarum returned two MPs, while Manchester had none, is cited at several points but the connection and historic context – twenty-five years after France’s settling of accounts, and a scant four after Bonaparte’s defeat at Waterloo – for well heeled reformers like Orator Hunt are clear only if you knew these things already. In which case Peterloo the movie will offer little more than a well made, colourful reminder: enjoyable in its way, but hardly the stuff of filmic greatness.

In some circumstances realism can indeed tease out and draw together abstract truths, though with no great efficiency. That this film does not do so strikes me, given the calibre of its maker plus two and a half hours of viewing canvas, as pointing to constraints of a more fundamental and less personal nature.


The other defect seized on by socialist critics of realism is its reflection of bourgeois society’s elevation of the individual. Realist films need heroes and villains, and these must have what some call typicality. The Everyman of Shakespeare and earlier story telling forms won’t cut it. Realist protagonists must be psychologically plausible and this too poses problems for would be critiques of the capitalist order; critiques looking by definition to the cooperative half of our dual nature as individuated but social animals.

In the main I accept the truth of that constraint but on this front Leigh – who when all is said and done has been finding human universality in the particularity of idiosyncratic characters for decades – acquits himself well. Peterloo the film weaves convincing characterisation with generalisations more far reaching: such that we aren’t simply seeing Orator Hunt, but the limitations of (pre-neoliberal) Reform itself; not seeing high class butchers, snobs and effete clowns but the largely hidden face of the ruling class. In short, Leigh’s typicality serves its subject well.

Bottom line? Three out of five. Don’t let me spoil the fun. See and enjoy this film – then tell me where I fail to get its measure.


  1. The BBC infamously reversed Orgreave footage to imply that the police charged in response to stones thrown by miners when the reverse was the case.
  2. The Amritsar massacre exceeded those others not only in body count but in its chilling precision. Colonel Dyer ordered the narrow exits from Jallianwala Bagh – “smaller than Trafalgar Square”, said Winston Churchill – to be sealed by armoured cars. He then had his Sikh, Gurkha and Baluchi troops fire 1650 live rounds into the densest sections of a Punjabi gathering more than 10,000 strong. When the protestors dived in panic to the ground the troops were ordered to train their Lee Enfields downwards. Churchill, not known for bleeding heart liberalism, would later describe the event as “monstrous” while Dyer said his aim “was not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience.” Not all the fatalities were instant. Long into that night – with April the most searing month in Northern India – cries from the dying and pleas for water filled the air, Dyer having denied medical relief services access to Jallianwala Bagh.
  3. Indeed, a deserved reputation for hypocrisy is largely down to the British ruling class’s mix of steely determination to do the bloody necessaries, with a capacity to weep bucketloads after the fact.
  4. A third criticism of socialist realism, that it fosters pessimism through its (historically accurate) focus on betrayal and defeat, is beyond my scope here.
  5. Also beyond my scope is a discussion of alternatives. Defenders of socialist realism often claim, sometimes in philistine tones, that the masses don’t relish alternative forms. This is simply untrue, witness Britain’s richly surrealist tradition – at the time this claim was being made, Kenny Everett’s zaniness was constantly topping Britain’s viewing ratings. More immediately to the point, one film pulled off the balancing act, of disrupting the surface narrative in Brechtian ways without losing audience interest, with great aplomb. See The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil for its non realist depiction of centuries of Scotland’s looting.
  6. Decades after Peterloo Marx showed just why the feudal Corn Laws disadvantaged capitalists by raising the value of labour-power.


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Nov 11, 2018 5:23 PM

For centuries the main work of intellectuals and artists in Britain has been to justify, and therefore falsify the history of, imperialism.
Stripped down to the essentials what happened in Amrittsar and Manchester was exactly the same: the natives were being punished in an exemplary fashion- the Morant Bay riots and Eyre’s reaction to them were another such iconic moment.
I haven’t seen Leigh’s movie but the point that I feel needs to be made about Peterloo,, particularly in this era of identity politics, is that the Lancashire towns and villages whose working people marched on Manchester to petition, peaceably for reform was an imperial possession. As much a colony as Bengal or Jamaica. Neitther those people nor their descendants ever benefited from the Empire- they were as much its victims as the Indian ryats, the American slaves and the Irish who were yoked to the imperial system.
It is noteworthy that, after Peterloo-the practical application of Tory local power and central encouragement from Sidmouth, Castlereagh and the bulk of the Whig opposition- the Manchester manufacturers realised that there were more subtle ways to skin the cat of mass grievance and set out to publish a daily newspaper of their own to preach submission to the starving and patience to the exploited. It is still at work, drawing the sting from radical pollitics and discrediitng its leaders.
Leigh’s sneering at ‘Orator’ Hunt, suggests that this habit of Manchester’s middle class still thrives.

Nov 11, 2018 8:14 PM
Reply to  bevin

To be fair bevin I don’t think Leigh sneers at all at Hunt.

Nov 13, 2018 6:03 PM
Reply to  writerroddis

I’m glad to hear it. I inferred that he did from Davis Walsh’s excellent piece at the WSWS.

kevin morris
kevin morris
Nov 11, 2018 9:56 AM

Too clever by half.

Nov 11, 2018 6:08 PM
Reply to  kevin morris

I, too, prefer Roger Ebert.

Nov 11, 2018 9:23 AM

I was thinking about the film ‘Oh, What a Lovely War!’ which tried to break the straightjacket of ‘realism’ about the horrors of WW1. How effective was that? I haven’t seen it for a long time. Have they shown it on British television recently. History, seems to have been griped by Tory patriotism these days. It’s like time’s been reversed.

Nov 11, 2018 12:17 PM
Reply to  MichaelK

Good points. I should have cited that too.

Nov 11, 2018 8:38 AM

I appreciate your points and observations, but, with respect, I think they may miss the point. In these times the fact that Leigh even managed to make ‘Peterloo’ at all, is the really important thing, compared to most of the trash that passes for cinema these days.

An esoteric debate about ‘socialist realism’ seems somewhat misplaced. As most people will never even have heard about the events at Peterloo in any way, shape or form; Leigh’s decision to make it is both both welcome and brave in the current barren political and cultural climate. I visited the museum of working class history in Manchester and there’s stuff about Peterloo there, but it’s fighting for survival with attempts to drastically reduce its funding. That would wipe out an entire slice of our collective memory.

People are so used to ‘realism’ in films and television, that departing from that pattern, is extremely difficult and risky, especially if one is attempting to tell the truth about a specific historical event, almost a form of journalism. Superhero movies are something else, where one can play fast and loose, with realism, but historical drama is different. European cinema can challenge ‘realism’, but the tradition doesn’t really exist in Anglo-Saxon film-making, unfortunately.

Personally, I think two hours is too little time to cover the events at Peterloo properly. I think a television mini-series would have been better, allowing the bigger picture to emerge and the characters to develop and the story unfold; only that’s not the kind of media culture we live in anymore, the days of ‘Days of Hope’ are long gone.

Nov 11, 2018 9:54 AM
Reply to  MichaelK


A mini-series, with Aidan Quinn as Orator Hunt (the ‘Ross’ hero), and Eleanor Tomlinson as his love interest (the ‘Demelza’ heroine) …a sort of re-located Poldark does Peterloo? No thanks! 😀

This is not in disagreement, what you say is true and needs to be said (not the bit about social realism, i thought that was true too). The UK is following the American lead in censoring its own dark history (Pheonix program: what Pheonix program?). How about someone this very morning (on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month) get up and say that all those who died, died for the vainglory of the dark fairy tale of ‘Empire’ …and the greater good of a particular brand of ‘British’ imperial capitalism?

It’s pretty disgusting when you realise that millions of needless deaths and maimings are still being milked for propaganda. Not so much ‘lest we forget’, as let’s ‘lock and load’ …’till we do it again.

Dulce est decorum est ….?

If the BBC (or HBO, Amazon, or Netflix, or whoever) did ‘Peterloo: the Miniseries’ …it would be in insult. A disempowering ‘Great Man’ (the dark haired ‘Ross’) overt historicist narrative.

As you say, to do it right – “that’s not the kind of media culture we live in anymore”. Amen to that.

I haven’t seen the film. I guess Mike Leigh said as much as he could?

Nov 11, 2018 12:56 PM
Reply to  BigB

I think you’re right BigB. Leigh probably did say as much as he could. In fact many reviews I’ve seen, panning the film – one FB comment from a union activist I know and respect called it “boring as shit” – wanted a shorter film, or at least one that got more quickly to the event. They’d likely agree with kevin morris that my review is too clever by half.

Nov 11, 2018 12:37 PM
Reply to  MichaelK

MichaelK, you’re right about the debate being esoteric but unless we play to the gallery in workerist and philistine ways, as some defenders of socialist realism have, that doesn’t make it irrelevant. Does the fact Marx’s labour theory of value is lost on most people make that irrelevant too? Surely, the question that matters, in both cases, is: what is true?

Nevertheless you make a powerful point in your final para. Some of the longer TV series, American in particular – I’m thinking the likes of Breaking Bad and Mad Men – are able, with their vaster canvas, to escape or at least mitigate some of the criticisms made in my review while remaining solidly realist. That neither of these examples is remotely critical of capitalism is not the point. Ditto the example I used, Kenny Everett.

Apropos of nowt, I’d draw a distinction between socialist realism within and in opposition to bourgeois ideology, and socialist realism in post or mid revolutionary conditions. The splendid work of Mikhail Sholokhov springs to mind. But for the fact Stalin liked him, he’d have the standing he deserves in the West, the standing the lesser writer, Solzhenitsyn, had until he began criticising Britain too!

Nov 11, 2018 1:58 PM
Reply to  writerroddis

It’s a big subject to get into. Leigh’s working within an aesthetic and commercial structure that’s extremely confining and hard to navigate. It requires extraordinary talent and will. Take Bergman’s ”The Seventh Seal’, it’s both epic, historical, and breaks the normal conventions of ‘realism’, whilst at the same time the story revolves around characters in a world we see as being real. But, Bergman was a genius working in a different era.

Personally I think a lot of modern films lack really strong characters and strong dialogue and haven’t a strong enough story to tell in a robust style. I think the photography is too ‘flat’ and lacks the vibrancy of analogue technicolor film. I love John Ford films, especially ‘Stagecoach’ and I adore ‘The Searchers.’ Those films look ‘realistic’ but really they aren’t. Both, if one looks away from ideological criticism, powerful films that touch the emotions of the audience and their hearts. I think they are stunningly effective films within the boundaries they set themselves. In contrast, I think a lot of Brecht lacks emotional resonance, warmth and heart. It’s somewhat ironic that Brecht imagined he was breaking down barriers, when he might have been building new ones that alienated the very audience he was attempting to reach out to.

What’s bizarre about the age we now live in, is that, ‘realism’ has almost vanished, replaced by reality shows which if anything are even more staged and unreal than fiction! Plot and logic, a narrative curve, seem antiquated and massive internal contradictions and holes in the plot have become close to the norm, and for younger viewers this doesn’t seem to matter at all, as long as the individual scenes are entertaining and exciting in themselves, they don’t need or have to make any real sense in the wider context of the rest of the film.

In another life I was being pushed into screen writing by my agent. I met producers and I found that they didn’t want anything new, but just wanted me to write ‘new’ versions of old films. I wasn’t keen on this approach at all, evne though the money was fantastic. What an idealist I was in those days. As a joke I suggested, off the top of my head at one meeting that we made a version of Titanic in space, that was my pitch, as I’d just heard that Alien was pitched as Jaws in space. You should have seen their little eyes light up. I didn’t write Titanic in space, because it was a joke, a parody. Now, looking back, I’ve had second thoughts about the idea, as it seems to fit the times we live in like a glove.

Nov 11, 2018 8:11 PM
Reply to  MichaelK

Interesting. We should get together over a drink or two to explore further!

Gezzah Potts
Gezzah Potts
Nov 11, 2018 2:56 AM

Everything is subjective, but I personally would rather see a Ken Loach film any day over a Mike Leigh one. While reading, kept thinking about the ‘invisible hand of the market’ for some reason. And of course, many many examples of where the ruling class has removed the velvet glove if the status quo has been threatened.

Mulga Mumblebrain
Mulga Mumblebrain
Nov 11, 2018 8:52 AM
Reply to  Gezzah Potts

But, but-don’t you know? Ken Loach is an ‘antisemite’, ie he thinks Palestinians are human beings and their endless, brutal, oppression by ‘Beautiful Israel’ is a crime.

Fair dinkum.
Fair dinkum.
Nov 11, 2018 2:34 AM

Perhaps Leigh figured historical accuracy was a waste of time.
After all, psychopaths are devoid of empathy.