Big Finish Folly, Part 18b – The Peterloo Massacre, by Paul Magrs
“They say there’ll be thousands pouring into Manchester tomorrow. From all over the county, north and south. It’ll be a piece of history. People will remember this!”
Lost in the smog of the Industrial Revolution, the TARDIS crashes four miles south of Manchester, in the grounds of Hurley Hall – a grand mansion belonging to a local factory owner, a proudly self-made man. But while Hurley dreams of growing richer still on the wealth of secret knowledge locked up in the Doctor’s time and space machine, his servants hope only for a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. His young maid Cathy, for instance, whom Nyssa learns is looking forward to joining the working people’s march to St Peter’s Field, in the heart of the city. There’ll be speeches and banners and music. It’ll be like one big jamboree…
Or so she thinks. For the city’s establishment have called in their own private militia, to control the crowd. One of the darkest days in Manchester’s history is about to unfold – and the Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan are right in the thick of it.
Paul Magrs has done something akin to bringing a gun to a knife fight here. The Peterloo Massacre is a pure historical that hits all the Reithian ideals of educating, entertaining and informing, sinks Team Tardis in a peril of unchangeable history,and uses that terrifying narrative impetus to keep the listener glued to their speakers all the way through. And while it’s a script that has uncomfortable parallels in our own “modern” society, it doesn’t hang around to belabour the point – Magrs leaves events unsettled, in the ruins, unresolved and unhappy.
That’s not to say that there aren’t a few problems. I’m calling this an Essential Listen, but you may find the structure of the script as unsettling as the events of the play itself. The last episode is essentially one of recrimination and bluster, the society of the Industrial “Revolution” attempting to defend and justify unwarranted murder by a private militia. It doesn’t feel like a standard drama arc – perhaps the play stands out more because of that – and it isn’t something you can easily warm to. Perhaps the fact that this, like Aquitaine but for different reasons, isn’t main-range-by-numbers, perhaps the fact that as a pure historical it’s a breath of rare air, perhaps they actually help to overcome the slight element of overacted normality that the cast has to create in order to make the Massacre that much more powerful as an audio event.
Because powerful, it certainly is. Peter Davison’s Doctor always gets the rough end of the stick, doesn’t he? Here, he’s gone beyond that reserved put-upon demeanour – he’s in full-on RAGE mode as he discovers where and when the Tardis has deposited them. Tegan’s anger, as a twentieth-century representative of “civilisation”, mirrors our own anger at Hurley’s treatment of the workers in his factory, at the casual use and discarding of child labour in the name of production and profit. Even Nyssa is broken by the violence, witnessing the massacre at first hand, ready to wreak vengeance against the brutal yeomen on horseback. It’s an indication of how history should affect the listener, even viewed remotely, from the distance of almost two centuries of time and human rights legislation.
Believe it or not there are lighter moments and even an injection of in-jokes too, though these tend to come in the first episode of the story, before the crew venture into the hellish pit of industry that is Manchester. If you’re a Kate Bush fan then the first two minutes of the play will have you standing and applauding for having the maid Cathy (oh Heathcliff, it’s me…) stand on the moors and shout “Over there! It’s in the trees!”
Now for a slight rant. You may wish to skip the next couple of paragraphs – they’re relevant to the content of the play, to the discussion and examination of history through the lens of Doctor Who, and the part modern society plays in looking back at the past to learn from its mistakes, but they are unreservedly MY OPINION and are liable to offend anybody who still believes that Conservatives are a force for good.
You might recall I was a bit miffed about one “fan” of Doctor Who who took umbrage with The Shield of Jotunn for bringing environmental issues into play (specifically global warming, which he frothingly believed does not exist) and for having a one-line quip over the propensity of Americans to hand out firearms in packs of breakfast cereal. That tool found himself banned from the Big Finish Audio group I help moderate on Facebook when he decided to troll the group with his alleged review. So, with the tone and content of The Peterloo Massacre, I figured it would only be a matter of time before our skewed buffoon resumed his trumpery.
Well, I wasn’t wrong. In fact I missed it – he had a rant of his own on Big Finish’s own page and got duly removed. He tried it on Big Finish Listeners (the less laissez-faire hangout with a stricter door policy, passim) and the only trace now is people asking “did that happen?” Apparently he railed on Big Finish for producing socialist propaganda. Wow, Joseph, way to go – you’re suggesting that a cavalry charge on unarmed civilians by a private militia was the correct action? That people deserve to die for campaigning for some kind of human decency, for a less dangerous workplace, for the abolition of child labour? You think we shouldn’t examine our history and learn from our mistakes? Should the Doctor really have supported Hurley and taken up arms against the workers? Perhaps – horror of horrors – this story just shouldn’t ever be told in case the resonances upset some poor conservative hick who doesn’t understand that events such as this are why he’s entitled to paid holidays at work.
I mentioned uncomfortable parallels in our modern society. You don’t have to look far to see companies running zero-hour contracts, workers dependent on the fragile goodwill of their employers, income fluctuating and uncertain, the breadline inching ever closer (or ever further away, depending on which side of the line you now stand). No names, but hey, Sports Direct, huh? Meanwhile, the bosses lounge, cavort, hoard their millions, speak hollowly of “trickledown economics” at the same time as defending “austerity”. It’s a rising tide that erodes rights and services with each wave. We’re not all that far from the gates of the dark satanic mills. While we’re looking across the Atlantic at the land of freedom and opportunity, let’s remind ourselves that there’s no NHS there. You literally can’t afford to be ill. I often see Gofundme notifications from artists and writers who, incapacitated by illness, cannot afford their own treatment. They may as well have had industrial accidents in the mills for all that the US culture cares. Perhaps Joseph’s blustering Trumpery comes from a fear that 3000 miles of ocean hasn’t taken him or his country far enough away from the Industrial Revolution to be entirely safe. Let’s be fair, you don’t want to be reminded that you are only a medical bill away from penury and the workhouse, do you?
More generally, you can’t argue that Doctor Who is not, at heart, a campaigner for justice. A campaigner, and a witness. In pure historical dramas such as this, where Peterloo is a fixed point in time, he cannot be anything other than a witness. And where he witnesses inequality, injustice, criminality, murder, we will see those actions through his eyes, just as we look out at other countries and call them uncivilised or barbaric. If you’re going to complain at that, then you’re following the wrong show.
The Peterloo Massacre is a brilliant slice of history, all power to Big Finish and Paul Magrs for shining a light into darkened times and bringing Doctor Who’s original values back to life in this thrilling and harrowing story.