The Wednesday Plays: Jim Allen’s The Big Flame (1969) and Rank and File (1971)

Continuing our season of Ken Loach-directed plays for the BBC, this week we’ve got not one but two Loach plays, both of them written by Marxist playwright Jim Allen: The Big Flame and Rank and File. The two are similar, conveying both writer and director’s socialist concerns regarding workers and strikes in light of the events at the time. However, the two have different approaches to the problem.

The Big Flame came first, offering a more general vision than Rank and File. The second of Allen’s plays (his 1967 play The Lump was about the exploitation of casual labour in the building trade), The Big Flame gives us striking Liverpool dockers enacting a Communist-style system of workers’ control of the docks.

Filmed in Loach’s now-standard, quasi-documentary style, sometimes with real dockers, it’s an obvious bit of agitprop, with the workers’ communism shown as entirely successful until broken up by the police. As a result, Mary Whitehouse herself complained to both Prime Minister Harold Wilson and the then leader of the opposition Edward Heath, demanding a review of the BBC Charter because of its advocacy of a “communist takeover of the docks”; it also became the name of a revolutionary Liverpool socialist organisation.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to pay to watch it below. So much for communism.

Rank and File was a far less notorious play written by Allen once he’d observed at close hand a strike at Pilkington Glass Works in St Helens in 1970. It’s also a play that both he and Loach are less proud of, Allen saying that the play was written in three weeks and was ‘too didactic’, while Loach says it shows its ‘age badly’, having tried to catch the headlines and be topical.

Featuring many of the same cast members as The Big Flame, the play depicts the events of a wildcat strike at a family firm, caused by collaboration between a union executive and management. It is less of a mouthpiece for its author’s beliefs than The Big Flame (bar a quote from Trotsky at the end), instead flagging up as problematic the new Industrial Relations Act that made unofficial strikes illegal. Nevertheless, those who get Allen’s sympathies are convincingly written and portrayed, while those who don’t get far shorter shrift.

All the same, it’s a powerful piece and you definitely can watch it below. Enjoy! It’s free! Long live the revolution!