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Flickering Flame, The (1996)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Flickering Flame, The (1996)
For Modern Times, BBC2, tx. 18/12/1996
50 mins, colour
DirectorKen Loach
Production CompaniesParallax Pictures, AMIP, BBC, La Sept Arte
ProducersRebecca O'Brien
 Xavier Carniaux
PhotographyRoger Chapman
 Barry Ackroyd
MusicGeorge Fenton

Narrator: Brian Cox

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Documentary following dockers of Liverpool sacked in a labour dispute and their supporters' group, Women of the Waterfront, as they receive support from around the world and seek solidarity at the TUC conference.

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Several contemporary reviewers noted that this documentary couldn't have been made were it not for Ken Loach and his reputation. Loach was able to provide the dockers with an opportunity to speak for themselves that had previously been largely denied to them in the British media.

Loach has commented that "Working-class people have an eloquence that's very seldom recognised," an observation borne out in his documentary and fiction work. The articulacy of The Flickering Flame's protagonists is striking. Doreen, spokeswoman of Women of the Waterfront, is particularly charismatic with her direct, crisp language and polite determination in the face of unresponsive authority figures such as Bill Morris and Peter Hain.

The Flickering Flame represents an unofficial sequel to Loach's 1969 Wednesday Play (BBC, 1963-70), 'The Big Flame' (tx. 19/2/1969), written by his frequent collaborator Jim Allen. That drama showed a workers' occupation of the Liverpool docks and its brutal suppression, and was written shortly before a similar event actually took place in Liverpool. As the title suggests, by the time of The Flickering Flame it seems that the power of worker resistance had dwindled.

The programme is subtitled 'a story of contemporary morality', and Loach raises questions about the relationship between moral and legal definitions of right and wrong actions. The dockers are willing to take painful action to support what they believe is right. One docker's declaration that "if the law's wrong we have to fight it" perhaps sums up the programme's challenges to the twin establishment figures of employers and union leaders.

Though the dockers' dispute had gained little media coverage at the time, it went on to win significant publicity, thanks in part to this programme. Liverpool footballer Robbie Fowler attracted attention when he displayed a T-shirt bearing the slogan 'Support the 500 Sacked Dockers' during a goal celebration in a 1997 European Cup Winners' Cup match. He was subsequently fined by the European football authority, UEFA.

The dispute went on to become one of the longest in British industrial relations history. In February 1998 the dockers finally accepted a settlement that fell well short of their longstanding objectives. Whatever the outcome of the dispute, however, The Flickering Flame stands as a tribute to ordinary workers and their families struggling to protect their livelihoods.

The same dispute later inspired the powerful drama-documentary, Dockers (Channel Four, tx. 11/7/1999), written by Liverpool-born Jimmy McGovern in collaboration with Liverpool dockworkers themselves.

Ros Cranston

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Video Clips
1. The rate for the job (3:40)
2. 'We're still here!' (3:25)
3. Who your friends are (4:02)
Big Flame, The (1969)
Ackroyd, Barry (1954-)
Loach, Ken (1936-)
O'Brien, Rebecca (1957-)
Ken Loach: Documentaries
Liverpool: Across the Mersey
Liverpool: Speaking Out