The sedate streets of Guildford played an unlikely part in an uprising this summer, probably for the first time since the barons made King John put his seal on Magna Carta in nearby Runnymede. Surrey’s county town is one of a series of historic English locations chosen to stand in for Manchester as the film-maker Mike Leigh tells the story of the campaign for parliamentary reform leading to the Peterloo massacre of 1819.
Parts of Bedfordshire, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Kent and Essex will also serve as backdrops for the director’s most ambitious and expensive film yet, because of their corners of preserved historical architecture and street furniture. Guildford boasts splendid 18th- and 19th-century buildings and is particularly proud of its “granite setts”, or original flat cobbles. But Leigh failed to stage any riots on them. His Guildford sequences are “quieter, storytelling scenes” with “no bayonets”, a casting agent confirmed.
Peterloo, which stars Maxine Peake, continues shooting until late August with a cast of more than 100 actors – to say nothing of the legions of costumed extras recruited at each location. It is a scale of production unusual for Leigh, who has worked in the margins of the industry for more than 40 years, making the acclaimed television films Nuts in May and Abigail’s Party in the 1970s, as well as more recent cinematic hits such as Secrets and Lies, Happy Go Lucky and Mr Turner.
The blockbuster project is possible because of a lucrative co-financing deal from Amazon Studios, which will distribute the film in America. Other funds have come from Film4, BFI and Lipsync. Although Peterloo is being made by many of Leigh’s regular team, including the cinematographer Dick Pope, the director has had to work differently. Customarily secretive about the content of his work until its release, this time Leigh accepted early on that “a lot of people were going to find out because of doing the research”.
“And, also, I wanted people to know I was doing [this subject], so that nobody else would,” he has said.
The subject has long been dear to Leigh, who grew up in Salford. The infamous killing of an estimated 18 protesters, and the wounding of about 700 others in St Peter’s Field in Manchester on 16 August became known as Peterloo, in a bleak reference to the battle of Waterloo four years previously. One of the Manchester dead who had come along that summer day to hear Henry “Orator” Hunt speak was John Lees of Oldham, who had fought at Waterloo.
A peaceful rally had been called to demand reforms to parliamentary representation across the north of England, but a sword-wielding cavalry charged into a crowd thought to be between 60,000 and 80,000 strong. According to the historian Michael Herbert, it was the largest crowd ever seen in England at the time. A national outcry after the massacre led to the establishment of the Manchester Guardian newspaper.
Lincoln city centre has been the centre of filming this month, with the cobbled streets of Bailgate in the Cathedral Quarter providing a match for pre-industrial revolution Manchester. The cobbled slope of Steep Hill was used for a marching scene. Old Hall in nearby Gainsborough was also used. Last month Calderdale in West Yorkshire received a second visit from the production unit. Leigh filmed scenes in Slack Bottom, Widdop Road and in Heptonstall, above Hebden Bridge. Chester Cathedral will also feature in the film, as will streets in Burnley and Luton.
One of Leigh’s concerns has been to avoid using extras with a healthy, 21st-century glow. An advert calling for the right types to come forward suggested candidates most likely to be chosen were those who looked “tired, overworked” and as if they “had a hard life” and were “quite frankly a bit hard done by”.
In Guildford, however, perhaps suspecting such characters might be in shorter supply, the casting call was simply for males with grey hair.