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Big Flame, The (1969)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Big Flame, The (1969)
For The Wednesday Play, BBC1, tx. 19/2/1969
85 minutes, black & white
DirectorKen Loach
ProducerTony Garnett
ScreenplayJim Allen
PhotographyJohn McGlashan

Cast: Norman Rossington (Danny Fowler); Godfrey Quigley (Jack Regan); Peter Kerrigan (Peter Conner); Ken Jones (Freddie Grierson); Daniel Stephens (Joe Ryan); Tommy Summers (Alec Murphy)

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After a prolonged industrial dispute in the Liverpool Docks, the striking workers reject management demands of a return to work and decide instead to occupy the docks and run the operation themselves.

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'The Big Flame' was writer Jim Allen's second Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-70), and his first with director Kenneth Loach. After 'The Lump' (tx. 1/2/1967), about the exploitation of casual labour in the building trade, Allen used his Marxist credentials to depict striking Liverpool dockers enacting a Communist-style system of workers' control.

The play was filmed in Loach's accustomed drama-documentary format, honed on previous Wednesday Plays like 'Up the Junction' (tx. 3/11/1965) and 'Cathy Come Home' (tx. 16/11/1966). Real dockers appear, and the actors speak not well-rehearsed lines but in the disjointed, often incoherent, manner of authentic speech. It is captured on murky 16mm film, giving the picture the same quality as contemporaneous newsreel footage. Only the occasional voiceovers diverge from the apparent objectivity of this fly-on-the-wall aesthetic.

That the play is politically partisan cannot be contested. The central character of Jack Regan is, like Allen himself, a self-confessed Trotskyite. In advocating an attempt at workers' control as a beacon to the workingman's emancipation, he becomes the author's mouthpiece. The system of workers' control is portrayed not only as the logical conclusion to industrial instability, but also as entirely successful until violent intervention by the forces of the state.

Allen's script is remarkably prophetic; it foreshadowed Britain's massive industrial unrest of 1973-4 and its conclusion prefigures the explosive clash of worker and state in the miners' strike of 1984. Although they would work together frequently, Loach considered 'The Big Flame' to be Allen's "definitive script".

The mix of radical politics and the documentary approach proved incendiary. Anticipating controversy, the BBC postponed the play's transmission twice. When finally screened, it was labelled a "Marxist play presented as sermon" by the Daily Mail and it rekindled the press's vociferous interest in the ongoing debate about television drama-documentary.

Mary Whitehouse, secretary of the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association, complained that the play was "a blueprint for the communist takeover of the docks" and wrote to both Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Conservative leader Ted Heath to urge a review of the BBC's charter. The play's subject would become all too real for Heath, who, as the next Prime Minister, presided over a period of bitter industrial conflict.

Loach returned to the subject of industrial disputes on the Liverpool docks for his 1997 film The Flickering Flame, its title perhaps suggesting that the beacon for radical action had diminished over the intervening years.

Oliver Wake

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Video Clips
1. The Government line (1:40)
2. Something practical (4:32)
3. The workers' state (2:33)
4. Crushing the workers (4:15)
Arise Ye Workers (1973)
Class Struggle: Film from the Clyde (1977)
Liverpool - Gateway of Empire (1933)
Occupy! (1976)
UCS I (1971)
Flickering Flame, The (1996)
Leeds - United! (1974)
Price Of Coal, The (1977)
Rank and File, The (1971)
Allen, Jim (1926-99)
Garnett, Tony (1936-)
Loach, Ken (1936-)
Smith, Neville (1940-)
Ken Loach: Television Drama
Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)
Liverpool: Across the Mersey