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Leeds - United! (1974)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Leeds - United! (1974)
For Play for Today, BBC1, tx. 31/10/1974
DirectorRoy Battersby
ProducerKenith Trodd
Written byColin Welland
MusicJohn McCabe

Cast: Lynne Perrie (Mollie); Elizabeth Spriggs (Maggie); Lori Wells (Sadie); Josie Lane (Annie); Bert Gaunt (Harry Gridley); Stan Stennett (Joe Pike); Peter Wallis (Fred Packer)

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The Leeds clothing industry's largely female workforce strikes for better pay and conditions, but who are their greatest opponents: employers or their own union?

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'Leeds United!' reconstructs a 1970 strike in which 30,000 clothing industry workers, mostly women, came out for a gender-equal shilling-per-hour increase, but were controversially undermined by their own union. Writer Colin Welland, whose mother-in-law was involved in the strike, conducted lengthy interviews and document research, although names were changed. His script was commissioned by Granada but, when they did not make it, became a BBC Play for Today (1970-84).

Welland's script was scaled down, but was unusually long at two hours and unusually expensive at £150,000. Critics praised director Roy Battersby and photographer Peter Bartlett's Leeds location shooting, particularly the handling of crowd scenes involving hundreds of locals - including many 1970 strikers - like the passionate meeting at Leeds Town Hall. Individual actors also impressed, including music-hall performer Bert Gaunt as agitator Gridley, comedian Stan Stennett as Joe and, in the pivotal role, Lynne Perrie as Mollie.

Battersby chose to shoot in black-and-white, not simply for documentary veracity - exposing sweatshop conditions and cut with worker voice-overs and pieces to-camera - but also for ambitious style. Its makers mentioned such cinematic reference points as Sergei Eisenstein, G.W. Pabst and Gillo Pontecorvo. Its visual scope is demonstrated by its opening scene, a developing crane shot which follows a woman worker along dark early-morning streets while a voice-over reveals her limited new contract. Later, the union's contradictory behaviour is heightened by Don Fairservice's editing. Ironically, Fairservice's employment resolved a BBC dispute over Battersby's original choice of a freelance editor, which (although freelancers were not unusual) delayed post-production for months.

Unions, the Clothing Manufacturers' Federation, Leeds-based employers and Communists complained of bias and inaccuracy, but Welland replied that everything was on record. On discussion programme In Vision (BBC, 1974-75), producer Kenith Trodd faced local opponents, and the host favourably compared sequences with news footage of their real-life equivalents. On the same show, real-life strikers were supportive but criticised the swearing attributed to women workers - Battersby later wondered if women were hiding workplace behaviour from their husbands. The media widely reported the swearing complaints, which Welland hoped would not displace discussion of conditions and union tactics.

Reviewers shared concerns over swearing, but most admired its balance of epic scale and individual characterisation. Welland's skilful rendering of workplace life, wit and local idiom demonstrated the affectionate but unsentimental humanism, and ability to discuss complex ideas in accessible forms, which according to Dennis Potter ran through Welland's many award-winning TV plays.

Dave Rolinson

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Morning (2:45)
2. A bob an hour (2:45)
3. We shall not be moved (2:59)
4. Resolutions (4:17)
Big Flame, The (1969)
Faith (2005)
Rank and File, The (1971)
Trodd, Kenith (1936-)
Welland, Colin (1934-)
Drama Documentary
Play for Today (1970-84)