Directed by Robert Rae
Shown at the Plaza 17th May 2016 to mark the 90th Anniversary of the General Strike
Reviewed by Ritchie Hunter
My Granddad was 70 when he retired from working down a pit in Durham. When over 80, and his faculties going, he would repeat warnings to young miners about accepting low ‘yardage’ rates for coal. Occasionally out of a well-worn channel in his mind would come a statement such as: “Aye yi can fight. But leaders aalways let yi doon”. My Granddad’s Great-Granddad had come down from Scotland, in parts of which, up to the end of the eighteen century, miners were still serfs. Peoples’ lives in mining communities were defined by their history and measured in terms of mining struggles. Dates of incidents were remembered by attaching them to strikes, lock-outs, or mining disasters. Watching The Happy Lands reminded me of this.
In 1926 miners were subject to casualization, sometimes not even working a full week. So when the mine-owners decided to impose even worse conditions they refused to accept the new contract. Shouting the mantra, ‘Not a Penny off the Pay. Not a minute on the day’, they went into battle.
The Happy Lands script is based on the experiences of a Fife mining community involved in the subsequent nine-day General Strike, and the following seven months of bitter struggle to survive the coal owners’ lockout. It is a major film funded from BBC and Heritage money which does credit to all those involved, taking four years to make and with over a thousand voluntary participants. Many of the actors are the same people whose memories and stories have passed down through the generations; these have been collected and woven into the local story. At the beginning and end of the film some of these ‘Fifers’ reflect on their family experiences and say what it means for them now.
The national picture of 1926 is portrayed through a sub-plot of Home Office bureaucrats and the Economic League, who instigate an undercover project to break the unity of the village, and then send in the troops. Film footage of the 1926 events is also used to give a sense of the time. And then, of course, there is the hostile press. My Granddad said, “Papers aalways mek lies agin the miners”.
The great thing here is the involvement, not only of those in Fife, in the film, but the audience watching, who hopefully go away stimulated to know more, and also to ask the question why the anniversary of 1926 has not been more publicised by trades unions.
The lessons of this period are with us today. The solidarity of workers, the use of spies to undermine strikes, campaigns and protests, and the introduction of regressive laws, such as the Trades Union Bill now going through Parliament, reflecting the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act in 1927, which forbade sympathetic strikes and mass picketing. Earnest Bevin, the ‘great’ union leader, condemned this law at the time and said it would lead to insurrection. Interestingly, Bevin used this same act, as Minister for War, to imprison workers.
Was my Granddad right then?
Reflections, themes and points for discussion from the film: gender, structure and politics.
This film shows us that despite dire poverty and brutality of the state and bosses, a sense of community and solidarity persisted, with gender equality a prominent feature. This film can be used to give a picture of what it was like during the 1926 struggle in the rest of Britain. But hold on, we know from the 1985 miners’ strike, when there was an interaction between people in cities and striking miners, that many of these men had distinct ideas about gender roles, with themselves as the dominant partners. A lot of this was broken down in the course of the strike as women found their voices, organising Support Groups, soup kitchens, and speaking at meetings. In Fife in 1926 at the first strike meeting, with everyone from the community present, the strongest voice is that of a woman, exclaiming that it is their involvement that will win the day.
Memories are not a true reflection of the past. And it seems that the community involvement in the making of this film gives it a ‘wishful thinking’ gloss. There is a cohesiveness of thought and action here against adversity which is commendable, but a little idealised.
Over a million miners were locked-out in 1926. Surely a force this big could shape the world? But no, let down by leaders again! Of course, the failure of leadership is recognised in Fife, but for all this knowledge, there is no search for alternative ways of changing the status-quo. Is this a judgemental statement, on my part, which belies the historical fact that although they were beaten in 1926, they went on to win real advances in health, welfare and standard of living, though not before being pushed even further down the slope of misery?
There are no real antagonistic characters within this close-knit community – antagonism comes from outside the fold. And therefore there is a lack real lack of tension between characters. The nearest we come to this is Michael Brogan, a Great War veteran with a medal for valour, who has real doubts about going out, but who ends up contrasting the fight for the country with that for his community, and disgust for the waste of life. Possibly, if Michael’s doubts had been built up into the character of a scab, we would’ve seen the tension needed. This begs the question, “How can you make a film with the full involvement of a community without upsetting, or challenging the memories of that group?” When Jimmy McGovern made ‘Docker’, remember the controversy around the scab, played by Ricky Thomlinson? He became a sympathetic character and no-one wanted this.
There is only a passing reference to the church, and the priest has a minor role (played by Bill Gilby, who was at the Plaza in person and gave us background on the making of the film before this showing). Here the village is a communist stronghold, with the revolutionary icons of Lenin and Marx on their banner, and at meetings everyone is called comrade.
Another area for minor tension, which could maybe have been built up, is that of a young woman of the Guthrie family, in ‘trouble’, internally affected by this stigma. Family and friends don’t seem to be overly bothered though, and don’t realise until nearly too late what’s going on. Surely, this is another overlaying of today’s values with those of the time.
There was politics here, but not much political analysis of what was going on and why. Oh for Ken Loach, interweaving political discussion into situations of struggle.