TV Review: Flickering Flame

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The Independent Culture
It is unlikely that Flickering Flame (BBC2) would have reached our screens if it hadn't been directed by Ken Loach, one of the few film- makers in whom the desire to make a film about a long-running industrial dispute is matched by a reputation large enough to push the subject through. And if any other film-maker had managed to get this commissioned, it's almost certain it wouldn't have looked anything like this. While it's just about conceivable that Modern Times would have bought a film about the Liverpool docker's strike, it would surely have expected something a little more visually seductive in its treatment, more wryly detached in its observation of a struggle that can look as anachronistic as the activities of Civil War re-enactment enthusiasts. But Loach's film wasn't a detached act of journalism - it was one of conscious redress. He began with a title card which noted the absence of media coverage for the story and then effectively handed over his screen to the strikers. For the second time this month - the first occasion was Jimmy McGovern's Hillsborough - television was employed as a megaphone for voices which had found it impossible to make themselves heard in other ways. And in its way, this documentary was just as remarkable as the earlier drama.

It wasn't its craft that aroused your admiration, though some elegantly simple decisions had been made about broadcasting historic footage in sepia and contemporary footage in colour. Nor was the film a model of logical structure - once Loach (or the dockers) had explained the historical context for the dispute and demonstrated the lack of enthusiastic support from the TUC it began to ramble a little, perhaps aware that there was no narrative device open to it but indignant repetition (one of the difficulties of a long dispute is that you keep having to say the same things again and again). There was an odd section in which a local trade union official was accused of withholding a management offer to reinstate the five men whose sacking had sparked off the strike. "This dispute should never have happened and would never have happened," said one striker vehemently. But was he really suggesting that, but for this mysterious communications failure, the elemental conflict between management and workforce would have melted away? Surely not; if the preceding 30 minutes meant anything, they meant that the strike was about far more fundamental matters than hasty words and wounded pride. Not all of the arguments were equally honourable either. "It's about removing them scabs from my job," said one man, and you wondered briefly how his right to a job so comprehensively eclipsed theirs - not on the hereditary principle, one hopes, although several dockers claimed that they were fighting not just for their children's future but for their childrens' children too.

What made Flickering Flame impressive, though, was its nerve and its clarity of feeling. Most sympathetic directors would have shied away from opening their film with footage of picket lines shouting abuse at workers entering the docks, the sort of scene most likely to arouse the prejudices of uncommitted viewers. Loach didn't though and he went on to rehabilitate that first image. His account of the stealthy reconstruction of a culture of exploitation, in which men are treated as disposable assets, obliged to the company but owed no obligations in return, amply explained the anger of the strikers. He also restored some lustre to the tarnished cliches of solidarity, with moving film of the emotional closeness of the strikers. It isn't very fashionable to admire this kind of communitarian feeling these days, partly because it is associated with a dated vocabulary of "fraternal greetings" and the sometimes bullying morality of the picket line. But it is admirable, in its courage and its acceptance of private sacrifice for a common good. There were gaps in this account - why had the dispute remained "unofficial" if the cause was so just? - but it properly exploited television's ability to make you feel indignation on behalf of people you had never encountered before.