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United they stood

A playful yet passionate homage to the Tolpuddle Martyrs

Not many historical pictures feel so unlike a history lesson, or so urgently modern without courting anachronism, as Bill Douglas’s Comrades (made in 1986 and about to be released on DVD). It calls to mind a number of influences – Derek Jarman, Bertolt Brecht, Ken Loach, Michael Powell, René Allio, Lindsay Anderson (a friend and mentor to Douglas), Joan Littlewood (under whom Douglas, at first an actor, worked in the late 1950s) and the great arts documen-taries of Ken Russell. But the tempo, voice and breadth are all its own. In plot terms, we are in historical biopic territory: Douglas traces the Tolpuddle Martyrs from the formation of their prototypical trade union, the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, in 1832, through their arrest and transportation to Australia two years later, and on to their eventual return as heroes in the late 1830s. But the tale’s telling bears as much resemblance to conventional cinema as Tolpuddle does to Botany Bay.

Weaving the scenes together is the Lanternist (Alex Norton), a travelling showman who pitches up on doorsteps offering entertainment and illumination from his magic lantern. It is through this narrative device, which involves shadow puppetry, the panorama and eventually photography, that the story is conveyed at one remove; Comrades may be about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, but that isn’t all it’s about. To symbolise the enduring presence of storytelling and myth-making, Norton crops up in a further ten roles, among them a French silhouette artist and a hapless Italian snapper. What industry unions felt about this duplication of labour in the cast list was, alas, not recorded.

While this structure is playful, the drama housed within it runs straight and true. Robin Soans, who makes a tender, consoling George Loveless, recalls that Douglas instructed the cast “not to do any fussy acting because he didn’t want anything to get in the way of the purity of the emotions”. The director advised Soans: “Don’t rush it, Robin, don’t rush it. Remember, this is 1830, not 1980.” You can feel Douglas’s patience and curiosity in the easygoing domestic scenes between the farmworkers and carpenters and their families, and in the attentive scenes of men at work, dwarfed by humbling, Gainsborough-esque landscapes.

The casting in even the small roles is delicious, mixing emblems of period-drama prestige (James Fox, Vanessa Redgrave, Robert Stephens) with not-so-sore thumbs: Barbara Windsor brings her Carry On giggle to the party, Keith Allen his indignant glare. The dancer Michael Clark arrives to perform the “Sailor’s Hornpipe”, then jigs off towards the horizon. Something in his brief, controlled exhibition of passion makes me think of Douglas.

“Comrades” is released on DVD and Blu-ray by BFI on 27 July. The Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival runs in Dorset from 17-19 July.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, King and Country