Friday, July 25, 2014

The Revolution Will Be Televised: Remembering Shoulder to Shoulder

As you grow up you realise that there are things you see, hear, taste, or touch in your life that will change it. There were a number of things that I saw, heard, tasted, and touched in my life as I grew up that changed it. In the mid-1960s there was the Beatles. In the late 1960s there was Vietnam. In the mid-1970s there was British television.

I started watching British television in the mid-1970s thanks to PBS. The first British television show I ever watched was ITV's Upstairs Downstairs (1971-1975, PBS 1974-1976. Upon my first viewing of Upstairs Downstairs I fell in love with this drama of servants downstairs and masters upstairs and have been a devotee of British television ever since. As a result I watched Masterpiece Theatre religiously on Sundays and Mystery on Thursdays ever since.

Upstairs Downstairs wasn't the only Masterpiece Theatre British show that changed my life. Another was a BBC show which dramatised the suffragette movement in Great Britain, Shoulder to Shoulder (1974, PBS 1975). I was only a couple of years out of high school when Shoulder to Shoulder made its initial appearance on PBS. Since we didn't learn much, really anything at all about women's and feminist history in America's schools at the time, everything I saw in Shoulder to Shoulder was new to me and was an incredible learning experience for me. I knew nothing about the Pankhurst's, father Richard, mother Emmeline, daughters Christabel, Sylvia, or Adele. I knew nothing of suffragettes Annie Kenney or Constance Lytton. I knew nothing of women's struggle for the vote in the United Kingdom. I knew nothing of the activism, the sometimes violent activism, that helped get women, well some women, the vote in 1918. I knew nothing of the arrest and brutal force feeding of suffragette activists by the British powers that be. I knew nothing of the splits between Emmeline, Christabel, and their allies and those of Sylvia and her allies.

Shoulder to Shoulder changed all that. Shoulder to Shoulder made me think not only about human rights, something my opposition to the Vietnam War made me think extensively about, but also about women's rights. It is not an exaggeration to say that Shoulder to Shoulder changed my life. Shoulder to Shoulder made me a feminist, if an imperfect feminist.

The tale of how Shoulder to Shoulder came about is an interesting one. Shoulder to Shoulder was the creation of actress Georgia Brown, who also played Annie Kenney in the show, script editor Midge Mackenzie, and producer extraordinaire Verity Lambert (Doctor Who, The Naked Civil Servant, G.B.H., Jonathan Creek) who bemoaned the lack of shows about women and women's history on British television so they decided to do something about it. Shoulder to Shoulder is the something they did about the lack of women and women's history on the tube.

The Shoulder to Shoulder Brown, Mackenzie, and Lambert made consisted of six approximately 75 minute"plays": "The Pankhursts" (3 April 1974/5 October 1975), "Annie Kenney" (10 April 1974/12 October 1975), "Lady Constance Lytton" (17 April 1974/19 October 1979), "Christabel Pankhurst" (24 April 1974/26 October 1975), "Outrage!" (1 May 1974/2 November 1975), and "Sylvia Pankhurst" (8 May 1974/9 November 1979). Each "play" told not only personal stories of some of the women involved in the suffragette movement but also, as their lives intersected, the chronological history of the women's movement itself and the movements broader contexts.

There is another story that is as interesting perhaps as that of how Shoulder to Shoulder came about in the first place and that is the story of Shoulder to Shoulder's subsequent broadcasting and media release history. The BBC apparently rebroadcast Shoulder to Shoulder in the 1980s and rebroadcast episode two, "Annie Kenney", on 7 April 2008 ("Annie Kenney" was also shown as part of Birkbeck College's 15 May 2014 symposium Shoulder to Shoulder: Female Suffrage, Second-Wave Feminism and Feminist TV Drama in the 1970s). As of 2014, Shoulder to Shoulder's 40th birthday, neither the BBC's DVD arm, 2Entertain, nor those DVD companies which specialise in British television releases, Acorn, BFS, or Network, have released this significant show on DVD. The question why none of these corporations have released Shoulder to Shoulder (we could, by the way, also ask why academics have written sparingly on the show) inevitably raises its potentially ugly face as a result. Is it because the the Beeb, Acorn, BFS, and Network think there is no market for the show out there in consumerland? Is it because the show represents social movements which were violent and socialist in a positive light? The Daily Mail would not approve?

Thankfully, thanks to kissmequick8, it is possible to watch Shoulder to Shoulder again if in not optimal conditions on Youtube. I recently rewatched the show--you can to by clicking on the links above--and found it to be as good if not better than I rather hazily remembered it. It is, in my opinion, in the same starried league as Upstairs Downstairs and I Claudius. I can only now hope that activism among fans of the show will force the BBC to release or allow another company to release this wonderful and significant television show about one of the great social movements in world history as soon as possible.

Further Reading:
Sergio Angelini, Shoulder to Shoulder, BFI Screenonline
Vicky Ball and Janet McCabe, "Let’s Hope That the Cultural Return of the Suffragettes Lasts This Time", The Conversation, 23 May 2014
Janet McCabe, "Report on Symposium, Shoulder to Shoulder", Critical Studies in Television Online, 13 June 2014
Janet McCabe and Vicky Ball, "The Nearly Forgotten 40 Year-Old BBC Mini-Series, Shoulder to Shoulder Reminds Us Why the Struggle for Gender Equality Still Matters", British Politics and Policy, LSE, 4 June 2014

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