Shoulder to Shoulder, the great 1974 BBC drama series about the Suffragette movement which is happily available at present on You Tube, has recently been getting some new attention as the antecedent of the film Suffragette.
While Suffragette covers the topic mostly through fictional characters, Shoulder to Shoulder centred heavily on the members of the Pankhurst family who set up and ran the Women’s Social and Political Union, and on Annie Kenney, the one working-class woman who became a senior figure in the organisation.
Although, in keeping with much TV drama of the period, it employed several writers and directors, the basic artistic shape of Shoulder to Shoulder was attributed to the trio of actress Georgia Brown, film-maker Midge Mackenzie and producer Verity Lambert.
Many of the plot ideas of Suffragette feature coincidentally in one particular episode of Shoulder to Shoulder, the fifth, entitled “Outrage”. Both feature Emily Wilding Davison and her fatal protest at the Derby horse race in 1913, the authorities’ force-feeding of suffragette prisoners and the extension of the campaign into the working-class east end of London.
Suffragette follows a long tradition of films set in Britain around World War One, such as A Room With a View, The Shooting Party, Chariots of Fire, A Month in the Country, The Wings of the Dove and Howards End. An outdoor scene like Derby Day with wide vistas and large crowds in authentic dress is a familiar element of a period drama. The scenes of violent struggles between the suffragettes and police and of their force feeding in prison are reminiscent of smaller-scale and lower-budget scenes in Shoulder to Shoulder.
Mostly, however, director Sarah Gavron creates a distinctive picture of the London of the period, with use of fast moving camera, close-ups and subdued lighting. Her ending also takes us by surprise. As the suffragettes leave for the funeral of Emily Wilding Davison, fiction fades into the real-life footage of the elaborate cortege and the packed streets. Just as we grasp that this event, with the Pankhursts this time only as spectators, might have been one of the real turning points in the whole suffrage struggle, Gavron adds the Brechtian educational touch of a list of the dates when women in various countries around the world gained the vote.
Shoulder to Shoulder was notable for its championing of the stirring “The March of the Women”, composed by suffragette Ethel Smyth, as its theme music. “Outrage” was an episode where other music was inserted pointedly. A solo rendition of the hymn “Thy Way Not Mine O Lord” accompanies the actions and funeral of Emily Wilding Davison, who says that she is guided by God in her political action, rather like Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire. “A Policeman’s Lot” and “Land of Hope and Glory”, incongruous in different ways, suggest both how the suffragette protesters were disturbing many aspects of British conservative society as well as how their actions were becoming as familiar as music-hall songs or patriotic celebrations.
In many places it is Gavron’s restrained use of music which helps prevent the narrative lapsing into sentimentality or melodrama. For example, her single use of “The March of the Women” is a brief acappella snippet in the middle of the narrative.
Abi Morgan’s script for Suffragette presents a cursory snapshot of Emily Wilding Davison as a committed militant who has undergone many prison sentences but, in Shoulder to Shoulder, Hugh Whitemore scrutinises her more closely. She is quiet, solitary, intense, something of a mystic even. A fellow prisoner describes her as “a real tough nut” with “a look in her eye”. We see her enduring cold water hoses and force-feeding by nasal tube. “I feel the influence (of God) very strongly. I never act without it, ” she says. Her contact with Mary Richardson in Shoulder to Shoulder is similar to that with Maud Watts in Suffragette, but, in the former, the actual moment of her death is conveyed only by her imagining the horse’s neighs and hoofbeats and then Richardson’s shocked report afterwards. “She seemed out of place, as if she wasn’t really there ( but) her hand was so steady (and) she seemed to be smiling.”
Whitemore and director Moira Armstrong parallel the real-life death under the hooves of a royal racehorse of the middle-class Davison with the death under a brewery cart of a fictional working-class east ender, Maisie Dunn, who has shown a nascent interest in politics. The news of her death is relayed to Sylvia Pankhurst by her husband. The scene between the two is designed to highlight Pankhurst’s fierce interest in the lives of working-class women, but some of its power now comes from the fact that the husband is played with vivid individuality by the then unknown Bob Hoskins.
On the subject of male actors, the one real weakness of Suffragette for me was the character of the Irish police inspector, played by Brendan Gleeson. It is too easy for the viewer to imagine the pre-production meeting where one or more executives worried that the film needed a male protagonist to make it sellable and Gleeson’s authority figure, experienced in dealing with trouble-makers in Ireland, seems naggingly similar to the Sam Neill character in TV’s Peaky Blinders. The poor decision is emphasised by the fact that actor and director clearly couldn’t make up their minds whether the character is supposed to be ruthless or sympathetic, and thus confuses the tone of the film whenever he appears.