"In a rare portrayal of working class struggle, BBC 2 is showing Happy Lands on Sunday 15th December at 9pm. Below is the Review I did of it in early February 2013. No socialist, trade unionist or anyone interested in the epic struggles of the working class in this country should miss such an inspiring portrayal of the showdown between the working class and ruling capitalists and their state in the 1926 General Strike - an event that shook Britain to its very foundations."
It's a rare thing indeed for the working class to be sympathetically portrayed in film - without being patronised.
I had the rare privilege of seeing Theatre Workshop Scotland's 'The Happy Lands' in a pre-launch showing, with director Robert Rae and some of the cast present.
The film is a moving, epic account of the 1926 British general strike, as experienced by the mining communities of Fife. Although the three central families portrayed are fictional, the story told is rooted in undoctored reality.
Robert Rae and his team achieved this primarily through the unique methodology used: this is collaborative art at its best, where over the course of four years they sought the participation of Fifers from the (ex-)mining villages to capture what happened in the biggest confrontation between the working class and the capitalist rulers and their state forces in the history of this island.
A thousand local people took part in the project, gladly and freely giving 88,000 hours (equivalent to a combined 10 years!) of their time to telling stories handed down by family members involved in the 1926 general strike and subsequent 9-month lockout of the miners; training in theatre workshops, and eventually in many cases becoming the actors in a superb historical film of keen relevance today.
This methodology echoes some of the best traditions of real-life solidarity that the film seeks to portray.
Gritty it sure is, and spoken in the unadulterated Fife tongue (with sub-titles!), but this film is in turn funny, heartbreaking, moving and uplifting. It ranges from making you cry at the hardship of little kids, and feeling fury at the employing class and their callous methods, to hilarity in the courtroom and vivid portrayal of an indomitable spirit of working class solidarity that makes the hair on your neck stand up.
It invites you in to the miners' rows, the tiny houses they and their families lived in at the mercy of the capitalist mine-owners. It draws you into the worry, anger and fierce, determined solidarity of the miners and the women and children of their tight-knit communities - as they respond to the government's Samuel Commission decision to cut pay (by over 13 per cent), increase working hours, and grind more profit out of the miners.
One of the central characters, Dan Guthrie, is a miner, a communist, a superb and witty speaker, rooted in his own class, and a magistrate to boot. He exposes the class nature of society in his explanations to the entire community, at meetings, picket lines, in his magistrate's courtroom chair! And the authenticity of the acting owes much to the fact he is played by real-life Fife miner, Joki Wallace, himself a veteran of the momentous 1984/5 miners strike, as well as being the grandson of two miner grandfathers at the heart of 1926. The same goes for several of the female characters, played by women from mining families.
The film brings to life the automatic solidarity of the women for the strike, in full knowledge of the hardship it will mean; indeed the women participate in the meetings where it is decided, and go on to be the mainstay of making sure families and kids survive near-starvation.
The Happy Lands pulls no punches - without descending into sensationalism - in showing state brutality towards a working class that dares to challenge the rule of the rich, with kids arrested for picking bits of coal off bings to warm their houses; evictions; imprisonment of workers who dared fight back; the attempt to break the spirit and bodies of communities as they fought long and hard under the slogan "Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day".
It avoids being crude or preachy in depicting the transformation of consciousness and understanding of workers through struggle, as the devoutly religious veteran of World War One changes from being the miner opposed to strike action into the next generation of working class socialist tribunes - through his harsh experiences of being assaulted by 'Black and Tans' on behalf of the government and mine-owners.
The film evokes the power the organised working class had in their hands at the time, for example the way the strike committees decided whether or not to grant permits for the movement of goods, protecting emergency services whilst shutting down the vast majority of production.
It shows miners drilling with sticks, an under-developed reference, presumably, to the Methil workers' militia at the time of the general strike, where not only did workers challenge the power of the capitalists to produce and distribute their ill-gotten wealth, but also their resort to armed protection of the class interests of the capitalists, which is ultimately what the state forces are.
Class war - then and now
This film is working class people telling working class people's stories, real history, of stupendous significance.
The central story - a general strike that poses point-blank the issue of which class rules the country - is not just a bit of ancient history. It is immensely relevant in today's conditions, where some sections of workers are arguing for a one-day general strike against the Westminster boot-boys' assaults; perhaps a conscious filmic warning of what might yet happen as capitalists and their politicians wage class war on the rest of us.
Even the Sunday Mail editorial was moved to write:
"Class war sounds a little quaint now. Like socialism, we're meant to be past all that.
Well sometimes class war doesn't sound so quaint after all. Times like today.
When the RBS think it is just about acceptable to suggest their executives can get £250million of bonuses even as they work to convince taxpayers to pick up an expected £500million fine for fixing interest rates.
When our welfare state, our benefits and pensions, built by the blood, sweat and sacrifice of our parents and grandparents, is under unprecedented attack from a pack of Eton-educated millionaires."
Absolutely! But let's not fall for the tale that the working class no longer exists, nor is capable of fighting back; that 1926 is just ancient history.
There may not be many miners nowadays, but millions of workers being exploited for millionaires' profit remains the nature of the capitalist beast. Solidarity in struggle, and indeed socialism, are relevant now as in 1926.
See 'The Happy Lands' if you can. Laugh, cry, rage and resolve to emulate the spirit and dignity of those working class heroes, to avenge their defeat, to build the socialist future that so many of them dreamt of and sacrificed to achieve.
Originally published in the Scottish Socialist Voice 411