Friday, 6 March 2015

Leeds United! (1974)

And so to another blog post about Colin Welland.

Welland's 1974 Play For Today, Leeds United!, remains a deeply powerful and important piece that crackles with incendiary energy throughout its epic two hours.

The play reconstructs the 1970 'rag trade' strike in which 30,000 clothing industry workers, most of them women, came out - like their comrades at Fords Dagenham in '68 (see the 2010 film Made In Dagenham and the subsequent West End musical) - for a shilling-per-hour increase that would give them equal footing with male workers. Despite the strength, committed determination and undoubted passion the workforce felt, the four week unofficial strike was controversially undermined by their own union, posing a timely reminder that when unions get too close to the masters, its the workforce who are left out in the cold, struggling on the breadline. 

Colin Welland was inspired to write this because his mother-in-law who normally "wouldn't say boo to a goose") was involved in the strike,  and he proceeded to conduct lengthy interviews and extensive detailed research that shows on the screen, despite the name this case to protect the guilty perhaps?

Originally intended for Granada, production moved to the BBC and its Play For Today strand when the ITV network got cold feet. It would prove to be one of the BBC's most expensive contemporary dramas at that time, at £150,000. Like the depth of research, this too shows on the screen with director Roy Battersby and photographer Peter Bartlett's crowd scenes and location shooting in and around Leeds, being especially impressive. It's scale and the commitment to tell the story as honestly and authentically as possible is at times breathtaking, especially when one considers such things are normally reserved for sweeping historical epics of notable figures and not the working classes of the North of England. There's more than a touch of Eisenstein to director Battersby's grand visual scope, whilst the documentary style black-and-white (complete with voice overs and pieces to camera) combined with the naturalistic performances from the likes of Lynne Perrie, Lori Wells, Elizabeth Spriggs, Stan Stennett and Bert Gaunt makes it genuinely feel like real life rather than a re-enactment.   

There's the occasional miss-step, composer John McCabe (a Huyton lad who sadly died just last month aged 75) delivers a very accomplished eerie score that feels a little out of place in scenes of shawl wearing women standing on street corners in the twilight or the morning gloom. They're waiting for a bus, but the score makes you feel like they're waiting for a knife wielding menace. But I think this miss-step is probably down to changes in style and fashion since the production was made, rather than anything that would have deserved criticism at the time.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Leeds United was met by some controversy upon its transmission, with the unions, Leeds-based employers and the Clothing Manufacturers' Federation all complaining of inaccuracy. But Welland remained firm and pointed to the fact that everything he had gleaned in the making of the film was, by then, a matter of public record. Perhaps the most wounding criticism however, came from some of the real life strikers, whose support for the production was somewhat soured by the swearing attributed to them. On reflection though, perhaps they were just concerned that their real workplace behaviour and language had been shown in stark unflinching display for their husbands to see. What remains is the film's authentic depiction of the workplace life, its rough and ready Yorkshire flavoured wit  and the pride and vibrant determination of a class of people kept down, but never out. It is these qualities that are consistently depicted affectionately but, perhaps crucially, without sentimentality and, for my money, Colin Welland is one of this countries most overlooked playwrights. 

Staggeringly, Leeds United remains seldom repeated and unreleased to DVD or VHS. To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays please sign the petition I started here

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