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Shoulder To Shoulder (1974)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Shoulder To Shoulder (1974)
BBC2, tx. 3/4 - 8/5/1974, 6 x 75 min episodes, colour
DirectorsWaris Hussein, Moira Armstrong
Production CompaniesBBC, Warner Bros Television
ProducerVerity Lambert
ScriptsDouglas Livingstone, Alan Plater, Ken Taylor, Hugh Whitemore
Incidental musicStanley Myers

Cast: Siân Phillips (Mrs Pankhurst); Patricia Quinn (Christabel Pankhurst); Angela Down (Sylvia Pankhurst); Georgia Brown (Annie Kenney); Sally Miles (Flora Drummond); Sheila Allen (Mrs Petick-Lawrence)

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The struggle fought between 1895 and 1918 by British women to gain the right to vote, focusing in particular on the determining role played by the Pankhurst family.

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There is comparatively little history of civil disobedience and organised dissent in Britain, which may explain why the protracted struggle for women's suffrage proved so divisive and traumatic.

Shoulder to Shoulder dramatises this fight and was devised by actress Georgia Brown (who also plays Annie Kenney), script editor Midge Mackenzie and producer Verity Lambert. Each 75-minute episode focuses on one particular aspect of the movement or one of its members. While organised roughly chronologically, the episodes can also be viewed as stand-alone plays, reflecting the personalities of their respective authors. Ken Taylor's three episodes ('The Pankhursts', tx. 3/4/1974; 'Christabel Pankhurst', tx. 24/04/1974; 'Sylvia Pankhurst', tx. 08/05/1974) deal specifically with the role of the Pankhurst family, and the internal divisions that would eventually split them. 'Annie Kenney' (tx. 10/04/1974), by Alan Plater, is full of the author's trademark wry humour as it follows the progress of Kenney from apolitical mill girl to militant suffragette.

The tone darkens considerably in subsequent episodes and the series doesn't shrink from depicting the terrorist activities undertaken by some of its more militant members, or the horrors of the prison force-feeding to which they were subjected. This is the focus of 'Outrage!' (tx. 1/5/1974) by Hugh Whitemore. It is the most overtly didactic episode, as evidenced by the extended 12-minute sequence in which Sylvia Pankhurst and a working woman debate the value of the suffragettes' idealism in the 'real' world. This episode also uses songs as ironic counterpoint, as when Gilbert and Sullivan's 'When a Felon's not Engaged in his Employment' is heard over a montage of suffragette arrests. The series' title comes from the lyrics to 'March of the Women', the suffragette anthem by Edythe Smith (portrayed on screen by Maureen Pryor).

The generally excellent performances include Siân Phillips' stunning portrayal of Emmeline Pankhurst and Fulton MacKay's passionate Keir Hardie. Patricia Quinn's Christabel is somewhat two-dimensional, however, depicting this complex character as little more than a ruthlessly ambitious tactician. The series also sidelines the contribution of Adela Pankhurst, a controversial figure who was finally sent to Australia and became extremely right-wing. Sylvia is treated the most sympathetically of all the Pankhurst women for her self-sacrifice and unwavering socialist idealism and humanism.

The series ends in 1918, when women of property over 30 were given the vote. It would take another 10 years before women were given the same voting rights as men.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Bringing Socialism (3:43)
2. Death in the family (4:43)
3. The Women's Social and Political Union (4:21)
Complete episode: 'The Pankhursts' (73:32)
Hoskins, Bob (1942-)
Hussein, Waris (1938- )
Lambert, Verity (1935-2007)
Phillips, Siân (1933-)
Plater, Alan (1935-2010)