Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Rank and File, The (1971)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Rank and File, The (1971)
For Play for Today, BBC1, tx. 20/5/1971
75 minutes, black & white
DirectorKenneth Loach
ProducerGraeme McDonald
ScriptJim Allen

Cast: Peter Kerrigan (Eddie); Billy Dean (Billy); Tommy Summers (Tommy); Joan Flood (Joan); Johnny Gee (Johnny); Neville Smith (Jerry)

Show full cast and credits

Trade union members at the Wilkinsons factory in the Potteries take industrial action in defiance of both the management and their official representatives.

Show full synopsis

'The Rank and File' has generally been overlooked in favour of the ostensibly similar Ken Loach/Jim Allen collaboration 'The Big Flame' (The Wednesday Play, tx. 19/2/1969), and both writer and director seem to have mixed feelings about the piece. Allen acknowledged that the play "was written in three weeks... if you get too didactic, politically or otherwise, as I probably did in The Rank and File, it can be a lantern lecture," while Loach has commented that "the [films] we've done that show their age badly are the ones where you're trying to catch the headlines and be topical". Regardless of these doubts, one of the real strengths of the Play for Today strand (BBC, 1970-84) was its ability, as here, to fictionalise an actual event for a large audience while the issues around it were still current.

'The Rank and File' is based on the Pilkington Glass strike that took place in St. Helens in 1970, although for legal reasons the BBC insisted that the firm be renamed Wilkinsons and the action relocated to the Potteries. The play depicts a wildcat strike among rank and file union members antagonised by a too-cosy relationship between the board and union executive that had resulted in the gradual erosion of pay and conditions. Unlike 'The Big Flame', which was more obviously Trotskyite in approach, this play is more concerned with the specific events of the strike and the subsequent betrayal of the workers by both the TUC and Wilkinsons. Loach, as in his earlier work, uses a documentary approach to cover the action, and the rank and file meetings in particular look as if they were lifted directly from contemporary news reports.

Ultimately, Allen uses the events of the play to launch an attack on the then recently introduced Industrial Relations Act, which would effectively outlaw any similar forms of industrial action in the future. The result is an unashamedly partial work that shows both the strengths and weaknesses of a politically committed approach to art, in that those characters who have Allen's sympathy are convincingly written and portrayed, while others are often little more than pantomime villains. However, it's a tribute to 'The Rank and File' that its emotional impact remains powerful even though the events that inspired it have become obscure footnotes in the history of 20th-century industrial relations.

John Williams

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. 'We could have stopped the world' (6:02)
2. No picnic (4:56)
3. The two lists (2:00)
Big Flame, The (1969)
Leeds - United! (1974)
Allen, Jim (1926-99)
Loach, Ken (1936-)
Smith, Neville (1940-)
Ken Loach: Television Drama
Play for Today (1970-84)