A Lanternist’s Account of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, directed by the talented Bill Douglas

Scottish director Bill Douglas was one of the most gifted and original filmmakers British cinema has produced, yet nearly two decades after his tragically premature death at the age of 57 in 1991, his work still does not have the wider renown it deserves.

Born and raised in a bleak mining village just outside Edinburgh, Douglas struggled throughout his life to raise financing for his projects and left behind a tragically small body of work – a trilogy of three short black-and-white films chronicling his harsh upbringing: My Childhood (1972), My Ain Folk (1973) and My Way Home (1978); and one feature film: his epic account of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Comrades (1986).

Now released for the first time on DVD in an impressive two-disc set from the Bfi (who issued an excellent DVD of the trilogy last year), Comrades tells the story of the six agricultural labourers from Dorset who were transported to Australia in 1834 after daring to form a union and ask for higher wages. (The authorities convicted them on the trumped up charges of administering illegal oaths.)

Comrades - Robin Soans plays George Loveless in Bill Douglas’s epic account of the Tolpuddle Martyrs

Douglas’s sympathy for the downtrodden and dispossessed shines from the screen. Significantly, he cast little-known actors in the film’s leading roles, though Keith Allen and Philip Davis, as two of the martyrs, and Imelda Staunton, as one of their wives, have considerably more star wattage now. Meanwhile, the better-known faces (at the time) of Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Hordern and James Fox appear in upper-class cameos on the margins of the story, with Barbara Windsor also turning up, briefly, as a print-seller’s wife.

If this makes the film sound like a piece of cosy costume drama, think again: Comrades couldn’t be more different. Douglas relates the men’s ordeal with bold visual strokes and not too many words, capturing the rhythm of the seasons and the labourers’ working lives in scenes that have the expressive power of the best of silent cinema. By the time the transported men reach Australia, the rugged expanses of the Outback only amplify their heroism and resilience.

Comrades - Bill Douglas’s epic account of the Tolpuddle Martyrs

Notwithstanding Comrades’ origins in a local story (important in British labour history but unknown to Douglas until a trip to Dorchester Museum), the film is anything but parochial. Douglas wasn’t afraid of going against the naturalist grain, placing himself closer in scope and sympathy to the cinema of continental Europe than to British social realism.

Throughout the film, in a deliberately stylised gesture, Douglas uses the character of a travelling Lanternist (played by Alex Norton) to link the narrative’s various plot strands. A protean figure who bobs up here and there in different guises, the Lanternist each time appears bearing a different optical device: Diorama, magic lantern, chromatrope, zograscope, peepshow, camera obscura. For Douglas, whose lifetime collection of such devices is now housed at the University of Exeter, these entertainments are the precursors in the art of illusionism to cinema itself.

Compelling storyteller and visual poet, Douglas was the Lanternist’s worthy heir.

Released on 27th July.

To mark the 175th anniversary of the trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Bfi Southbank is screening Comrades on the big screen on Saturday 1st & Monday 3rd August.