Tolpuddle Martyrs from the film 'Comrades'

Tolpuddle Martyrs on film

It is 175 years since the trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, six Dorset labourers deported to Australia in the 1830s, before mass demonstrations secured their pardon and return.

The epic story of the martyrs who dared to form a trade union was made into a film ‘Comrades’ by Bill Douglas, in the mid 1980s and is now being released on DVD for the first time by the British Film Institute (BFI).

In ‘Comrades’ the Tolpuddle story is related to the audience by a travelling showman using popular visual entertainments of the nineteenth century such as panoramas, shadow plays, and magic lanterns. Many of the ideas and devices from the film are displayed in the South West’s cinema museum at the University of Exeter’s Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture (BDC). The museum is named after filmmaker Bill Douglas, who, with his friend Peter Jewell, built up an enormous collection of items on cinema and optical entertainment that forms the basis of the museum’s attractions and the Centre’s research facility.

Bill died in 1991 but as Phil Wickham, Curator of The BDC says: ‘His legacy is not just his brilliant and original films but an amazing collection of moving image artefacts. Comrades uses the pre-cinema artefacts in the collection as a way of telling the story of the martyrs, whose struggles founded the trade union movement, and you can find many of the moving image devices in the film in the Centre's galleries.’
The release of historical epic Comrades follows the success of the DVD release of Bill Douglas’s autobiographical trilogy last year. Over half of the film was shot on location in Dorset and the deserted village of Tyneham in Purbeck (South Dorset) doubled as Tolpuddle. During the filming in Dorset, members of the public were cast, with important roles going to children such as Amber Wilkinson who played the daughter of the leading Martyr George Loveless and Shane Down who played the younger brother of another martyr Joseph Brine.  A significant part in ‘Comrades’ was also given to local lad Mark Brown who played the traitor ‘Legg’.  Dorset teenager Valerie Whittington sang in Comrades, and fellow teenagers, Sarah Reed and Nicola Heywood had walk on parts.

Peter Jewell said, ‘Bill loved working with non professional actors who brought authenticity to the film with their Dorset accents. Many of the children like Amber wrote to Bill with messages about their experience of being part of the film as well as everyday stories. They are quite delightful letters and would be amusing for them to read as they must be in their mid to late twenties by now. I have kept many of them as they are a testimony to the way Bill was able to encourage moving and profound performances.’

Having grown up in Dorchester, Phil Wickham recalls the experiencing of seeing the film as a teenager he said, ‘I remember the excitement of watching the film at the local cinema and seeing our town and the surrounding countryside on the screen. Telling our own story about the bravery and struggle of the Tolpuddle martyrs, six ordinary Dorset men whose story changed the world.’

Bill Douglas deliberately cast the main roles of the Tolpuddle Martyrs to unknown professional actors. A number of young actors working on the film like Keith Allen, Phil Davis, Imelda Staunton and Alex Norton went on to become much better known. 

The BFI's release of ‘Comrades’ a new, high definition restoration DVD. The special features on the two disc set include cast members recalling the making of the film and a new documentary by Sean Martin on Bill’s life and work.

Every year the Trade Union Congress (TUC) organise the annual Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival and this year, Bill Douglas Centre Curator Phil Wickham will be introducing a screening of the new DVD of Comrades at the Tolpuddle Village Hall on Friday 17 July as part of the 175th anniversary celebrations.

An exhibition of artefacts from the film will be on display at the BDC from Monday 20 July onwards as part of the University’s launch event where Peter Jewell will be in attendance and Sean Martin will screen his film Lanterna Magika

The BFI’s London screening of Comrades will be at the South Bank Centre on 3 August. Phil Wickham will introduce the film and Q and A with actor Phil Davis will follow the film.

Date: 20 July 2009

Read more University News