Peterloo: review by Steve Fielding

Labour MP Chris Williamson certainly seems to have enjoyed Mike Leigh’s new film Peterloo, which recreates the 1819 massacre in St Peter’s Field in Manchester. Williamson, the Corbynite member for Derby North quoted in his enthusiastic tweet the Shelley poem, The Mask of Anarchy. Shelley wrote it to commemorate the massacre during which 15 people were killed and an estimated 700 injured when armed yeomanry attacked 60,000 peaceful pro-democracy and anti-poverty protesters

Williamson is a keen supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party – one that celebrates proletarian struggle and solidarity, even when it has sometimes led to conflict. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, infamously described the violent student protests of 2010 as “the best of our movement”. So it was always likely that Peterloo, a film about the bloody suppression of a popular demonstration would find favour on the left.

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Journalists have always fascinated writers, filmmakers, poets and dramatists. On the big screen, small screen, in novels and plays, thousands and thousands of cultural outputs concern that often morally compromised, usually slightly shabby and very occasionally heroic maker of news. Even Shakespeare featured one, the loveable rogue Autolycus in A Winter’s Tale, who sold dodgy ballads about scarlet women and criminals, ‘very true, and but a month old’ to gullible rustics.

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Agitprop meets Victoria Wood

Miners used to be left-wing dramatists’ catnip. The visceral, often fatal, nature of their work, as well as their leading position in the labour movement, saw them become the roaring lions of socialist drama. Death and Revolution is a heady mix. As ever, real politics and drama were intertwined: it was no accident they were a popular subject for TV plays and series during the 1970s as that was when the National Union of Mineworkers brought down the government of Edward Heath. But after the disastrous 1984-5 strike, the mining industry rapidly shrank into insignificance and the once-mighty NUM became a sad shadow of its former self.  When NUM President Arthur Scargill left Tony Blair’s Labour party in 1996 hardly anybody noticed.

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That's entirely a matter for you...

The Secret Policeman's Ball wasn't the first of the annual comedy galas held in aid of Amnesty International, but it was certainly the most significant. There had been no event in 1978, as Amnesty wanted to explore ways of using the shows to raise money beyond the sales of tickets on the night; John Cleese and comedy impresario Martin Lewis were put in charge of the project, and decided that the following year's show should both be marketed like a rock concert, with accompanying spin-offs in other media, and match the energy of the new wave of 'Alternative' comics.

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This month Steve and Emma discuss the Warren Beatty classic Reds. Released in 1981 - the height of Reaganism in America, this audacious film tells the story of John Reed and his wife Louise Bryant. 

Reed wrote the seminal Ten Days That Shook the World about the Russian Revolution and Bryant was an activist and feminist. This film tells their story and that of left-wing politics in the early part of the 20th century in America and Russia. 

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Hateful and Hollow: Morrisey's lifelong campaign to piss off his fanbase

n the bleak mid-80s, life was tough for young people in general, and in particular for those of a more sensitive disposition. Sensitivity wasn't cool. Cool was brash, buccaneering, blokey. 

So when The Smiths came along, they spoke to a generation of (mostly white) dispossessed young people of a sensitive and mostly left wing bent.

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Podcast Animals

This month, Emma and Steve look at the BBC's ill-fated attempt to do a "This Life" on Westminster - Party Animals. 

It's an enjoyable drama and in many ways an admirable one. Certainly its stated intention to show Westminster in a more positive light is something that has been missing from most depictions of British politics. 

But coming out in 2007, just before the crash and the expenses scandal, it never really chimed with the national mood and wasn't commissioned for a second series. 

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Podcast, Nigel Barton

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Following the sad death of Keith Barron at the end of 2017 we thought this was an ideal time to re-examine the Dennis Potter plays, Stand up, Nigel Barton and Vote, Vote, Vote For Nigel Barton. 

First broadcast in 1965, these still speak to very live discussions about class, social mobility and the role both play in our lives. The second play in particular looks at the role of class in electoral politics. 

There are no easy answers in Potter's plays. The fact is we're still asking all these questions today. But these were a fascinating - and highly autobiographical - look at the system that has stymied too many British lives for far too long, and the inability and unwillingness to change that from all classes. 

It's a Wonderful Podcast

Merry Christmas! 

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And what would Christmas be without an exposition on the ills of untrammelled capitalism, a discussion of the merits of small town America over the big city and a end so collectivist in nature yet small town in values it melts the hearts of socialists and conservatives alike. 

It's a Wonderful Life was not a success on release but it has since become the quintessential Christmas film. Here we discuss why it's endured, what it has to say about the politics of the time it was made and what it still has to say to us now. 

Episode 4. The Podcast of It

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OK, We admit it - the title doesn't work so well this month. But we like the formula so we're stuck with it! 

This month we look in depth at two works from Armando Iannucci - The Thick of It and The Death of Stalin. Is he too cynical about politics or not cynical enough? 

We also discuss the unfolding dramas of the Westminster Sexual Abuse and Misogyny scandals and fall out of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. At the point the Podcast was recorded many that we now know of have not broken including regarding Kevin Spacey. This is clearly going to run on. 

The "Easter Egg" at the end is from one of Emma's favourite podcasts being nice about us. Find out more about Left of Leftfield here

If you enjoy this please rate and review on itunes! 

Episode 3. Our Friends on the Podcast

Listen to Our Friends on the Podcast

This month, Emma and Steve are joined on the podcast by Jonn Elledge, Editor of the New Statesman's City Metric website. 

We discuss the recent competition the World Cup of Political TV that we hosted on Twitter and the differences between the finalist, the idealistic American drama The West Wing, and the ultimate winner, cynical British comedy The Thick of It. 

We all also discover just how old and cynical we are now by rewatching Our Friends in the North. Did we really once think that Nicky was a hero? Did we always realise how badly Mary has it? Or have we - like Eddie - become old and stale in our middle age? 

Episode 2. To Kill the Podcast

Listen to To Kill the Podcast

This month, Emma and Steve look at how historical fiction is used to make contemporary political arguments, from Poldark to Dunkirk. Is it easier to persuade people - even surreptitiously - of your political argument when they're really tuning in to see Aiden Turner's chest? 

We also look at how popular culture is dealing with the age of Trump. From the late night talk shows to Saturday Night Live, there is a renewed sense of vigour in political coverage, but is it having any impact? 

We particularly focus on the new Sam Bourne (pen name of Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland) thriller To Kill the President. As a (slightly) fictionalised Trump-like president threatens the world with nuclear Armageddon, what is the right thing to do? 

Episode 1. A Very British Podcast


The very first episode of The Zeitgeist Tapes introduces our thoughts on the interplay between politics and popular culture. In the first half we discuss a range of current and recent cultural products that have had a profound influence on the way politics is viewed from The Thick of It* to The West Wing via Love Actually. 

In the second half, we discuss A Very British Coup, the 1988 drama based on a book by Chris Mullin, the left wing editor of Tribune who would then go on to become an MP and minister in the Blair government. Many of the themes of the programme are reflected in today's politics and the rise of Corbyn. This drama from nearly 30 years ago still offers a great commentary on what challenges believe they would face if they came to power. 

We'd love to hear your thoughts on what we've discussed and what we should cover in the future. Please comment below. 


*The name of Rebecca Front's character in The Thick of It is Nicola Murray. 

Welcome to the Zeitgeist Tapes Podcast

The Zeitgeist Tapes is a new podcast brought to you by Steven Fielding, Professor of Politcal History at Nottingham University and freelance journalist and communications expert Emma Burnell. SUBSCRIBE HERE

We believe that pop culture has a great deal to say on both power and politics. From the way the soaps address issues of the day, to the way politics is framed through shows like the West Wing and the Thick of It, understanding the interplay of culture and politics is essential to understanding both. 

Each month we will discuss timely pieces of art, theatre, film, television and music, the impact they have had on politics and the impact politics has on our present cultural scene. We will also do a deep dive into a particular piece of culture relevant to the political moment.