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Unions in the movies: Ken Loach’s Big Flame

There are not many TV dramas that inspire the name of a group of revolutionary socialists, but the 1969 BBC Wednesday Play does have that distinction.

In these days of YouTube, DVDs and Catch Up TV, it is hard to recall how different the social context of broadcasting was back in 1969. There were just three channels, and because there was no possibility of recording, then everyone watched the same programmes at the same time. So the political impact of Big Flame was much greater than a similar broadcast would create today.

The BBC twice postponed broadcast, anticipating the furore that would follow what could fairly be described as a Marxist film which promoted the use of strike action for political ends. Big Flame was the collaboration of Ken Loach, Jim Allen and Tony Garnett, all of them committed socialists.

The full 80 minute film is above; and it is an artistically impressive piece of work. Loach is and was a master of the drama-documentary style, and in this film he creates the authentic atmosphere of working class trade union militants debating the strategy of an industrial dispute; which sparkles because playwrite, Jim Allen, is completely comfortable with the language and mannerisms, and the political content of active trade unionism.

Peter Kerrigan gives an extraordinary and convincing performance as a shop steward; and Godfrey Quigley, playing the character of an experienced Trotskyist militant, (called Jack Regan) is charismatic, and injects into a long running trade dispute the idea of making it political by occupying the docks with a work in.

Two and a half years later, the workers at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders did exactly that; and won a stunning victory to save their jobs.

The politics of Big Flame are of its era, predicated upon the existance of a self-confident shop-stewards movement, and widespread culture of class consciousness. Perhaps surprisingly, given the Communist and Trotskyist backgrounds of those making the film it is effectively an endorsement of revolutionary syndicalism.

In particular, a criticism could be made that while the film celebrates the idea that workers can run their own industry without supervisors and managers; it implies that an extended national strike committee and workers’ self management would remove the need for government. However, this argument authentically reflects a non-trivial strand in the labour movement at that time.

Perhaps the most significant thing to note is that the BBC commissioned and broadcast this programme because trade unions were too important to ignore in 1969. Let us be inspired by the film today to ensure that organised labour rebuilds its strength in society to be as important again.

One Comment

  1. Jenny Smith says:

    I only told the truth whether it was unpalatable or not.

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