Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Blood Red Roses (1986)

Courtesy of Channel 4 Television

Main image of Blood Red Roses (1986)
Freeway Films/Lorimar for Channel Four, 4-18-12/1986
3 x 55 minutes, colour
DirectorJohn McGrath
Freeway Films/Lorimar for Channel Four, 4-18/12/1986
ProducerSteve Clark-Hall
ScreenplayJohn McGrath

Cast: Elizabeth MacLennan (Bessie Gordon), James Grant (Sandy), Gregor Fisher (Alex McGuigan), Dawn Archibald (Catriona), Louise Beattie (Young Bessie), Amanda Walker (Ella)

Show full cast and credits

After her beloved father's death in 1986, Bessie McGuigan recalls her early life in Scotland, especially her school days, first job, and marriage to Communist shop steward Alex McGuigan, played out against the wider political and class struggles of the times.

Show full synopsis

John McGrath wrote about the growing political awareness of a working-class woman in Yobbo Nowt for 7:84 in 1977. Blood Red Roses (Channel 4, 1986) began life as another stage play for the company, an attempt to document what McGrath saw as the apathy and misery which overtook the working-class, especially in Scotland, under the Callaghan and Thatcher governments.

The drama covers the same period as John Mortimer's series Paradise Postponed (ITV, 1986), but whereas Mortimer explored the decline and fall of the English middle-class, McGrath was concerned with the experience of the Scottish working-class. In a 1986 interview for Sight and Sound, he explained that he wanted to write a domestic epic, set against the wider political scene, covering a period of 34 years. The struggles of battling Bessie Gordon are also those of her era, her region and her class.

The drama's central subject, the closure of the local factory - and largest local employer - following the union defeat of the multinational company which takes it over, was based on a real incident in East Kilbride. It develops in an extended flashback, with Bessie, as she ages, played by three different actresses, including McGrath's life-long companion and muse, Elizabeth Maclennan. In a device that is overly schematic for some, the birth of each of Bessie's three daughters coincides with what McGrath saw as major defeats for the Left: 1959's Conservative victory, Harold Wilson's 1964 election, and the 1982 Falklands War.

Bessie is a feisty heroine, almost too committed and brave to be true. When we first meet her, she is fighting, and she continues to fight everyone she sees as an enemy, whether it is her mother's lover or the chauvinist school minister. McGrath is concerned with sexual politics too; Bessie's political and sexual awakening coincide, but her new husband still expects her to stay at home to bring up the children. Her increasing trade union involvement inevitably puts a strain on the marriage, and eventually Bessie finds herself a single parent. Her problems worsen when she is victimised and cannot get another job, because of her union militancy. But she is a survivor. McGrath ends by bringing Bessie's story right up to date, and showing her marching with her children and other mothers at the Glasgow May Day parade, no longer alone but one of millions challenging the old order.

Janet Moat

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Industrial relations (5:20)
2. 'What's politics for?' (3:05)
McGrath, John (1935-2002)
Russell, Shirley (1935-2002)
Channel 4 Drama