Bill Brand, a TV series broadcast on ITV in the summer of 1976, was written by one of Britain’s (and Manchester’s) greatest playwrights, Trevor Griffiths. The drama is the story of how Bill Brand (played excellently by Jack Shepherd), who is from a working-class background and a college lecturer, after a flirtation with revolutionary politics, becomes a Labour MP. It mirrors Trevor’s life and, to an extent, mine. Trevor grew up East Manchester and, unlike his brother who left school at 15 to work in a factory, he was one of the lucky working-class children who benefited from the Butler Act of 1944 and gained access to the grammar school system. In 1952 he went to Manchester University on a state scholarship to study English.
After university Trevor became a teacher, first in a school and then in a local college. By the late 50s he was politically involved in CND and the New Left. He joined a discussion group through the Left Club which included historians such as Edward Thompson and John Saville. By 1962 he was a member of the Labour Party and wrote for their local paper, Labour’s Northern Voice. But his disillusionment with the Labour Government of Harold Wilson led to him leaving the party in 1965.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s television producers of programmes such as Armchair Theatre and the Wednesday Play brought in new writers to reflect on the radical social changes going on in Britain, and particularly the experiences of the working-classes. By 1961 Trevor had written three scripts for the BBC and was now working for them fulltime in Leeds as a Further Education Officer. He said that he wanted to write plays because of “the tremendous stimulation I got from seeing rough reflections of lived experience on television.”
Many of his plays drew on his own lived experience. Trevor’s father was a chemical process worker and a Welsh Nonconformist background, whilst his mother was an Irish Catholic. When he was two years old his father lost his job and they had to leave the family home and live with relatives. Trevor was brought up by his Irish grandmother in nearby Bradford, who taught him to read before he went to school.
In the 70s our family were Irish Catholics, the emphasis being on the Irish, and we went through the Catholic selective system. That meant the 11 plus, and three different schools for myself and my three siblings; Secondary Modern, Technical High (which I attended} and Grammar. Highly divisive and highly unfair. Children who went to Secondary Modern schools usually left at 15 years, and were excluded from sitting O’Levels and were only allowed to do CSEs. This obviously affected their entry into higer level jobs, and many were destined for manual work. Not just a poverty of attainment, but the experience of not passing the 11 plus undermined people’s confidence throughout their life in many different ways.
Throughout the 11 episodes of the series we see how Bill and his brother’s life chances have shaped their futures. His brother works as a shirt cutter, but as the textile industry goes into decline he becomes unemployed. What is different about Bill Brand compared to present-day drama is that it shows the workers, including his brother, through their union, opposing the closure of their factory and taking industrial action. This collective action is a theme throughout the series. It is also great to see positive images of working class men and their families, which is something really lacking in the media today.
The 1970s in Britain were dominated by the death throes of the Labour Government, and its intertwined and incestuous relationship with the rest of the labour movement, particularly the trade unions. We see Bill Brand wrestling with this as a Labour MP: not just in his relationship with the Parliamentary Labour Party, but in his struggle to represent his constituents: whether they are workers on strike, women seeking abortions or the Irish community subject to state harassment.
In 1974 the war in Norhern Ireland came to Britain as the IRA set off bombs as part of their strategy to get the British forces out of Ireland. Many Irish people took the backlash, in terms of anti-Irish racism on the streets and in workplaces, as well as restrictions on their civil rights through so called anti-terror legislation.
In a powerful speech in Parliament, Bill explains how this legislation is affecting his Irish constituents and wrongly being used to target the irish community. It then shows how Bill’s family is targeted by fascists and when their house is attacked it is Bill’s comrades in the union who come down to defend his family. In the 70s this was not unusual for anyone who spoke out in support of a debate on the war in Ireland and it happened to many Irish people, who were activists. Bill Brand is one of the few dramas that have put the argument for a debate on the role of Britain in Ireland and shown the consequences for the supporters of the rights of Irish people.
But it is an important drama on many other levels. Trevor Griffiths shows working class culture in the home, the factory and the Labour Party. We are reminded of how rich left politics were in the 70s: a time of struggles and campaigns around unemployment, Ireland, sexual politics, Chile and anti-fascism. Trevor says about the series; “What I was trying to say throughout the series was that the traditions of the labour movement were inadequate to take the struggle further, and that we had to discover new traditions or revive even older ones. And that we had to seek connective tissue between electoral party politics, which still has a mystifying mass appeal, and extra-parliamentary socialist activity.”
In 2012 those of us who grew up in the 70s and were part of that rich political culture know how far the labour movement has diverted from that past. The Labour Party is no longer seen as the party for the working-classes and apathy dominates in any election whether at a local or national level. Trade unions have been slow to challenge the Government and local Labour councils over the cuts. In the 70s it was easy to see where and how people could challenge unfairness and injustice, these days it is not so simple and for many people there are no easy answers in how or where to begin that fightback.
Bill Brand the complete series is available fron Network DVD
Trevor Griffiths work in the 1970s and 1980s is discussed by Mike Poole and John Wyver in their book Powerplays