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.

12 comments on “Unions in the Movies: Ken Loach’s Big Flame

  1. “effectively an endorsement of revolutionary syndicalism.”- presumably a reason why the name was pinched by those who pinched it.

  2. whatawaytorunacountry on said:

    I am assuming that non of you ever actually met any Big Flame members. A nicer but more ineffectual bunch it would be difficult to imagine. Much of their East London membership were squatting in East London to the extent that they almost had a commune in the Swaton Rd area of Bow. Some of them had jobs at Ford but to claim they had a base there is laughable. They were always complaining in the pub how the CP kept them isolated.

    Their biggest bugbear was the fact that the working class just wanted as much overtime as possible to save to put a deposit on a house. As I have said nice people and of course the CP ran rings around them.

  3. #2 I knew a few ex-members.

    Some were very active on solidarity with Namibia.

    Another one’s now a senior Labour councillor in Manchester and a member of the board of the Housing Trust that own my former council flat.

  4. whatawaytorunacountry on said:

    There was a really nice member called Ed something who described himself as their ” theologian”. He was always turning out leaflets for the “Workers at Ford” which, as he even admitted, none of them ever read.

  5. whatawaytorunacountry on said:

    They also did a bit of using very attractive young ladies to recruit. There was a fuck off, drop dead, yeah I,m up for it one called Marina who tried to intervene in a Bow squat at Sumner House in Devons Rd in Bow in the late seventies I recall. What happened to her?

  6. “There are not many TV dramas that inspire the name of a group of revolutionary socialists…”

    What about the anarcho-situationist group ‘The Singing Detectives’, the Maoists who re-grouped as ‘Our Friends From the Orient’, or the Trotskyist ‘Mad Men’?

  7. Geoff Collier on said:

    But there were plenty of TV programmes that shared the name of leftist publications. The Week, New Statesman, Newsline, the Next Step and Seven Days are just a few that spring to mind.

  8. Michael C on said:

    Thanks for the link. Can’t help thinking a similarly robust defence of unofficial strikes and workers control – and indictment of TU bureaucracy – today wouldn’t be as warmly appreciated in certain quarters.