Sunday, March 8, 2015

International Women's Day 2015: Saluting BBC's 1974 "Shoulder to Shoulder"

There is no better time than today, the important worldwide celebration of International Women's Day 2015, to doff our hat to the classic six-part BBC miniseries Shoulder to Shoulder from 1974.  Remembered by entranced viewers here in the U.S. from its run on Masterpiece Theatre at the beginning of the 1975 (its fifth) season., Shoulder to Shoulder was the harrowing tale of the groundbreaking campaign for women's suffrage in Great Britain which took place over several decades around the turn of the 20th century.  Riveting, sometimes shocking and completely unforgettable, Shoulder to Shoulder is one of the few times that this important historical period and issue has been subject matter for drama.  Astute viewers will also recall Hilary Swank in the much more recent 2004 HBO TV movie Iron Jawed Angels dealing with the suffragette movement here in America.

Compared to Shoulder to Shoulder though, Iron Jawed Angels is a tidbit. As good as it was to see the latter on HBO, no one who watched Shoulder to Shoulder came away unchanged.  In the tradition of so many superb BBC dramas, nothing was spared -- least of all the audience's comfort level -- in making Shoulder to Shoulder as gut-wrenching a six hours as is seldom seen on TV, then or now.

For instance, this scene about a real march in London which took place nearly 101 years ago --

The cast of Shoulder to Shoulder was superb; actress Sian Phillips (I, Claudius, Clash of the Titans, so many more) headlined as the doyenne Emmeline of the famous suffragette-filled Pankhurst family, with Patricia Quinn -- probably best known for her role as Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show -- as her daughter Christabel, as well as other tremendous performers such as Georgia Brown (she composed and sang the theme song above), Angela Down, Michael Gough, and an up-and-coming Bob Hoskins in one segment.

Episodes of the six-parter --The Pankhursts, Annie Kenney, Lady Constance Lytton, Christabel Pankhurst, Outrage (centering around the shocking death of Emily Davison and -- gulp -- brutal force-feeding), and Sylvia Pankhurst -- were mostly titled after the leaders of the movement.  If you've never heard of Davison, here is a short documentary on how she became famous in suffragette annals --

The production of Shoulder to Shoulder was a landmark undertaking for several reasons, among them the 1970s feminist movement which was in full force at the time and the fact that no one really knew if anyone wanted to watch a miniseries about suffragettes.  It turned out that audiences were very much interested in the subject and they embraced the series and also an accompanying book -- called a "documentary" but not a film -- by author and series story editor Midge Mackenzie.

The 40th anniversary of Shoulder to Shoulder celebrated last year brought renewed interest to this unjustly forgotten -- no DVD release! -- example of superb historical drama.

The Hub at The Centre for Media, Culture and Creative Practice held a fascinating symposium entitled "Shoulder to Shoulder: Female Suffrage, Second-Wave Feminism and Feminist TV Drama in the 1970s" in May of last year; click here for the introduction, click here for a report on the event, click here for another reporter from an attendee (and some great suffragette links), and click here for more info on the participants,

Here is another article on the importance of Shoulder to Shoulder, this one written by two of the women who took part in the above symposium.  Click here to read it.

The Television Heaven blog has a nice write-up on the importance of Shoulder to Shoulder, click here.

Here are links to two really great articles by a woman who leads historical walks through London on the continuing popularity of the suffragettes as evidenced by her clients; click here and here.

You may also enjoy this interesting article about the UK. suffragette movement as played out in popular postcards of the era; click here.

In the absence of an official release of the miniseries, we are pleased to report that at this time it appears to be available on YouTube thanks to a kind uploader.  We won't embed them here, but they are available as follows so you can click to watch: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five and Part Six.

Interestingly enough, there is a new theatrical movie in production right now for release sometime this year called Suffragette starring Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst along with actresses Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter.  The film was in active production last year; for a video of some of the filming click here.

One really terrific bit about today's International Women's Day 2015 is that Dr. Helen Pankhurst, the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, joined a cadre of women in London who marched yesterday in the city to commemorate today's event.  This current Pankhurst is still very much a crusader for equality and women's rights and particularly urges women to use their power to vote, something for which her great-grandmother, among many other brave women, fought so hard to secure.  Click here for a wonderful article about Dr. Pankhurst and click here for another one.  Well worth a read and well worth remembering her message.

Happy International Women's Day 2015!

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