Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Pioneers on Film

That well known TV face John Henshaw has a key role in a new adaptation of the classic story of the Rochdale Pioneers being bought to our screens by the British Young Film Academy supported by the C-operative Group. This splendid initiative to give the Pioneers story a contemporary twist is one of the highlights of the celebrations of 2012 as the UN year of Co-operatives.

All social movements have their mythologies, the stories they tell themselves to explain their purpose and their origins. The co-operative movement is no exception and one of the most powerful in the working class movement is the mythology surrounding the Rochdale Pioneers. Whilst we know quite a lot about the pioneers and the formation of the shop at Toad Lane, Rochdale, in 1844 we owe their story, the creation of their story, is the work of one man. One of the greatest propagandists for working class emancipation that we have ever seen, George Jacob Holyoake, memorialised in the head quarters of the co-operative movement, Holyoake House in Hanover Street, Manchester.

There where many early co-operative societies before Rochdale and very many around at the same time but there can be no doubt that Rochdale was lifted into prominence by the work of Holyoake. His history of the Rochdale Pioneers written in 1857 made Rochdale the key place for modern co-operation, followed by his, The History of Co-operation in England in 1875, and The Co-operative Movement Today in 1891 these works made him the outstanding co-operative propagandist.

Holyoake, born in Birmingham, had been an Owenite and a follower of the early sociologist August Comte and in his newspaper the Reasoner developed the idea of secularism, before becoming a co-operative activist.  His story of the Pioneers became a great way of explaining co-operative principles and practices in a way that was easy to understand and to follow in ways that a dry textbook could never have achieved, and thousands followed the Pioneers example. Holyoake’s story telling was a tremendous boost to the spread of co-operation. 

Being in the UK predominantly a consumer movement co-operators have not been adverse to a bit of marketing and the use of every tool available to sell co-operation. When film first came on the scene they quickly took it up to spread the message. In the National Co-operative Film Archive there is a stunning collection of those early films but the art form really took off  in the 1930’s and 40’s with such gems as Co-operette (1937) starring Stanley Holloway to promote CWS products and films that also had important political messages like Peace Parade (1937) or Advance Democracy (1938). The Scottish CWS where not to be outdone and they made Out of the Box (1942) about the earliest documented co-operative society the Fenwick Weavers of 1769.

Probably the jewel in the collection is the film the Men of Rochdale made in 1944 at the then enormous cost of £15,000 to mark the Pioneers centenary. This is a beautifully crafted film with a script written by Reg Groves, who had written books about Conrad Noel and the Thaxted Movement, Victory Grayson and the Agricultural Workers Union. Probably most famous in Communist circles for being expelled from the Party in 1932 for being a leading light in the Trotskyite International Left Opposition. Groves work was based however almost exclusively on Holyoakes book.

The film has very high production values Sydney Box was the co-producer, Compton Bennett director and Reg Wyer was cinematographer. These three went on to work on the 1945 hit ‘The Seventh Veil’ with Sydney Box becoming head of production at Gainsborough Studios. The score was provided by John Greenwood who worked at Ealing Studios and was played by the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) which had formed itself as a co-operative in the 1940’s.

The star of the production, easily recognised today, was John Laurie, familiar from all those Dads Army reruns. The film was easily the most popular co-op film they ever produced, seen in co-op halls up and down the country, it no doubt contributed to the spirit that swept Labour to power in 1945.

The new film is essentially a remake of the 1944 classic and is now being shown in cinemas around the country for Co-operative Group members to enjoy. It is directed by John Montegrande and Adam Lee Hamilton, whose last BYFA movie ‘Julius Caesar’ was nominated for an award at the prestigious Raindance Film Festival. The filmmaking process has been truly co-operative, with extras recruited from the local community to play supporting roles alongside professional actors, including John McArdle and John Henshaw.

The fact is that myth or reality the arguments the film presents are as relevant today as ever and this is a terrific piece of work which is credit to everyone involved in its production, just like the Men of Rochdale was all those years ago. This is a lasting legacy of the International year making the story of the Rochdale Pioneers accessible to a new generation and making the co-operative message anew in 2012 is important. So if you are a Co-operative Group member get along to one of the free screenings ahead of the film’s official premiere during the International Year of Co-operatives celebrations in Manchester. If you can’t make it be sure to watch out for its TV debut in November on Film4 as part of the channel’s British Connection Season.

To book your place or find a screening go to:

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