Jim Allen: A lifetime's commitment to historical truth
11 August 1999
The internationally renowned socialist playwright Jim Allen died on June 24, 1999. He became ill last Christmas and in February inoperable cancer was diagnosed.
Allen is a key figure in British theatre, television and film, best known for his long collaboration with director Ken Loach. He was born in the Miles Platting area of Manchester on October 7, 1926, the second child of Kitty and Jack Allen, Catholics of Irish descent. His father was a labourer who couldn't find work during the depression. Jim attended a series of Catholic schools, moving from one to another without his parents' knowledge. At the outbreak of the Second World War he was 13 years of age. He decided he had had enough of formal education, left school a year early and got a job in a wire factory. Again he didn't tell his parents.
He had a series of jobs before being called up into the army in 1944, at the age of 18. He joined the Seaforth Highlanders and served with the British occupation forces in Germany. Allen was imprisoned for fighting outside a public house. It was there that a fellow inmate first roused his interest in politics.
Once released, Allen read voraciously— The Communist Manifesto and other works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. He became passionately interested in the writings of Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck and Jack London—especially his book People of the Abyss.
Though he had experience of the brutality of the church when he was beaten as a child for not going to mass, Allen did not reject Catholicism until he was in his twenties. He broke with religion when he realised that it was a barrier preventing him from educating himself. From then on he hated the church, which he saw as tyrannical and oppressive.
After he left the army in 1947 there followed a succession of jobs, mostly as an unskilled labourer in the building trade. He couldn't settle in civilian life and joined the Merchant Navy, working as a fireman on the banana boats travelling between Britain and Jamaica. In the Montego Bay area, he witnessed extremes of wealth and poverty that reinforced his socialist convictions.
In 1949 he left the Merchant Navy and again worked on building sites and the docks, finally getting a job as an underground worker at Bradford Colliery in Manchester, where he worked for several years.
Unlike the majority of socialist minded workers of his generation, Allen never joined the Communist Party. Instead he joined the small British Trotskyist movement led by Gerry Healy, the Revolutionary Communist Party, which became the Socialist Labour League in 1958. He explained in an interview that he was "always completely anti-Stalinist, long before it became popular ... long before the Khrushchev speech.... I've been chased by Stalinists, who sincerely believed I was an agent of capitalism. Once they threw me off a miners' bus travelling at high speed."
His brother John recounts how they both attended a meeting in Salford, near Manchester in the 1950s, where the then leader of the Trotskyist movement in America, James P. Cannon, spoke.
In October 1958, Allen collaborated with other SLL members, Jim Swan and Joe Ryan, in launching a political newspaper for the industry, The Miner. The paper was initially endorsed by the National Union of Mineworkers branch and won support from other local pits, like Crompton Colliery near Liverpool and Snipe Colliery in Ashton, Manchester. Along with Ryan, the paper's editor, Allen travelled around the coalfields mobilising support. They went to South Wales and Scotland and won their most significant support at Brodsworth Pit, in the Doncaster Area, where a group of miners were recruited to the SLL and collaborated in the production of the paper. This was in the teeth of opposition from the Communist Party, who held the leadership of the area NUM and regarded it as their fiefdom. The Miner called for a rank-and-file rebellion against the NUM leadership, especially that of the Stalinist national secretary, Will Paynter, who supported the National Coal Board's proposals to close 240 pits and sack 85,000 miners.
This author first met Jim when he came to Leeds with other members of The Miner 's editorial board to discuss with leading members of the SLL about the political contents of the paper. I remember him as a man of sharp intelligence, lively wit and fierce independence, who was deeply committed to the struggle of the working class.
His political work with The Miner led to his being blacklisted when he tried to return to the pit after recovering from an accident. So he went back to the building industry.
In 1962 he was expelled from the Labour Party for being a member of the Socialist Labour League, a "proscribed organisation". Shortly after this Allen left the SLL. The reasons for this are not clear. When asked he would refuse to discuss it, though he continued a supporting relationship with the party for some years after.
In the building industry the leadership of the shop stewards' movement was in the grip of the Communist Party. Allen's opposition to Stalinism and refusal to join the CP led to his isolation. He decided to try his hand at becoming a professional writer, and wrote a play about a hod-carrier. Granada TV read it and in 1964 offered him a job as a script writer for the soap opera Coronation Street, set in the north of England. He joined Granada in January 1965 and completed an 18-month stint.
BBC producer Tony Garnett told him that if he wanted to be a serious writer he should give up Coronation Street. Allen took his advice and walked out, breaking his contract. In an interview in 1996 he claimed that before he left he wrote a final episode in which all the main characters went on a mystery coach trip and drove off the edge of a cliff. Needless to say, it was rejected and the series is still running 33 years later!
It was while working on Coronation Street that Allen had the idea for his first major play, The Lump, based on his experience in the building industry. Granada was not interested. He was introduced to the BBC director Ken Loach through Tony Garnett. Loach was part of a team of young directors, working on the BBC drama series, The Wednesday Play.
The series had been launched in 1963 by the newly appointed head of BBC drama, Canadian Sydney Newman. It ran for six years and transformed British television drama in both its social content and its dramatic potential. With the election of the Labour Government in 1964, after 13 years of Tory rule, The Wednesday Play attracted a team of young left-inclined writers and directors, including Loach, Garnett and Roger Smith.
This was a period of great excitement and flowering of artistic talent. Within the BBC there was a furious debate going on over whether television drama, in its break from the conventional theatre style, should abandon naturalism, which in the 50s and 60s was believed to be the appropriate style for TV drama. With the arrival of videotape in 1958, drama transmissions no longer needed to go out live, but could, once electronic editing had been introduced, be made with virtually the same freedom as film editing. This new technical flexibility made it possible, in the manner of Italian neo-realism, to bring in non-professionals actors, in plays dealing with issues of the day, which were thought to be most likely to grip the audience.
Some said that the "naturalistic fallacy" was a dangerous deception. Writers like Dennis Potter and John McGrath were ardent supporters of non-naturalism, believing that, regardless of style, any portrayal of reality is constructed. They argued that the surface tension of naturalism prevents the viewer from grasping the inner contradictions, the social tensions that lie beneath the surface.
Loach and Garnett on the other hand, were anxious that their plays were not to be considered as dramas, but almost as a continuation of the news. Loach has explained that they tried to copy the techniques of World in Action, the leading investigative news programme of the time. They believed that this would enable them to deal with the issues head-on. They celebrated the ideas of the American writer Paddy Chayefsky, author of Marty, who had called on TV playwrights to look for material in the "marvellous world of the ordinary". They wanted to show working class people as the subject of drama and to show that social change would come through them. Their work was deliberately cut with a rough, raw, edgy quality. Allen, with his broad experience of working class life, his ear for dialogue, and his eagerness to tackle contemporary issues, provided them with the kind of gritty writing they needed. Allen said of the two, "What I found exciting about their work was the documentary approach to drama that enabled them to throw real people on the screen in real situations."
Allen's first television play, The Lump, made in 1967, was part of this series. It was directed by Jack Gold and produced by Garnett. It examined the exploitation of casual labour in the building trade, the same issue that provoked the national builders' strike a few years later. The main character in the play is a politically conscious worker, given to quoting Lenin and Jack London.
Despite the claims of artistic freedom in the BBC, fears were expressed within management that this play and others were so realistic that audiences would not be able to distinguish whether they were dramas or documentaries. This controversy dogged Allen, Loach and Garnett for years and was used to mask a political attack on their work.
Allen and his collaborators were undeterred and in 1969 they produced The Big Flame, which features the occupation of the port of Liverpool by dock workers. Again the central character is a "militant" and self-styled Trotskyist, who is brought in by the rank-and-file committee to advise on the running of the strike. He proposes an occupation. Like The Lump, the strikers act against the authority of the union, which slanders them as an evil conspiracy. The occupation is betrayed, the army and police move into the docks and the leaders are arraigned. The overall message of the play is encapsulated in the “Ballad of Joe Hill”, the song of the American Wobblies, sung by one of the dockers. Its transmission was postponed twice because of internal wrangles in the BBC, and at one point it looked as if it would never be screened. Like The Lump, it provoked an uproar.
These plays were written during a period of rising militancy in the working class all over Europe. In Britain, the national seamen's strike of 1966 was followed by developing opposition to the government's IMF-inspired attacks on wages. The early 70s saw a wave of mass strikes, factory sit-ins and work-ins, culminating in the miners' strike of 1974 that brought down the Heath Conservative government.
These developments had a radicalising influence on a whole group of young writers, directors, producers and actors. In 1969, Allen played a very significant role in drawing them into political discussion and close collaboration with the Socialist Labour League.
Other plays followed, like Rank and File, based on the Pilkington's glass workers' strike of 1970. Allen was invited to speak with the strikers and took along a copy of The Big Flame to show them. After the screening, an old man asked why he didn't write a play about the glass workers. He showed Allen his back, "lacerated with molten glass" and explained that he'd worked at the factory for 50 years and then been sacked. Allen commented, "He'd got me by the bollocks, hadn't he?"
The play was commissioned by a sympathetic producer at Granada TV, but then dropped. Eventually, it was taken up by the BBC. Once again the theme is the struggle of workers in the teeth of opposition from their union officials and the Trades Union Congress. The play ends with still photographs of children and a voice-over quoting Trotsky's final entry in his “Diary in Exile": "Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence and enjoy it to the full." Loach explained that there were battles with the BBC over the use of the quotation: "It wasn't the words the BBC objected to. It was the very fact that Trotsky had said them." Allen's own verdict on the play was that it was probably "too didactic"—"a lantern lecture".
1975 saw the screening of probably Allen's most ambitious and successful television drama, Days of Hope. Acknowledged as one of the TV events of the era, it is an epic in four parts tracing the upheavals of the British Labour movement from 1916 to the General Strike in 1926. The story is told through the lives of three young people. Ben, a young man, volunteers for the army and is posted to Ireland. His experiences of the troops being used to attack the working class, both in Ireland and in the Miners' Lock Out of 1921 result in him becoming a communist. The other two characters are his sister, Sarah and her husband, Philip, a Christian Socialist and conscientious objector. He becomes a trade union official and by the time of the General Strike a Labour MP. The waning radicalism of Philip is contrasted to the developing revolutionism of Ben and his sister.
Days of Hope is crammed with memorable scenes—the girl forced to sing an Irish rebel song among jeering rebel soldiers, and their growing sense of shame as she reminds them of their own families; the booby-trapping of a soldier by a 10-year-old Irish boy; the House of Commons reception for a Russian delegation, into which the miners gate-crash.
In the first three films, Allen develops the lives of his fictional characters within the context of historical events very successfully. His own verdict on the final film, 1926—General Strike, is that he “stayed too close to the documentary evidence” because he “was afraid of being picked up on accuracy”.
Days of Hope was greeted with a storm of abuse. The Times devoted a lead editorial to attacking it. The Daily Telegraph criticised the BBC for allowing it to be broadcast. The Radio Times published letters protesting that the portrayal of the British army was "disgusting" and "lamentable tripe ".
In a television interview Allen was accused of mixing fact and fiction and of distorting the facts to deliver a political message. He was attacked for taking "a particular case, the case of John Grey, who in June 1917 at Catterick Army Camp, was actually dragged through a pond nine times. You don't say that the War Office immediately called an inquiry and retired on half-pay the commanding officer of that Camp." Allen replied that the film also didn't mention that "39 conscientious objectors were driven insane by the same treatment".
Some critics claimed that the BBC was using its semi-monopoly on television broadcasting to advocate a left-wing political philosophy. The BBC denied this. Lord Citrine, the acting secretary of the Trades Union Congress in 1926 and one of the chief architects of the sell-out of the General Strike, was wheeled out to provide his version of events.
Loach said that Days of Hope was a story worth telling, when the revolution in Russia was a few years old and there were big disturbances in Britain. "We were really trying to reawaken the memory of that time and to rescue that history,” he said. “That's something Jim and I have been particularly concerned with in the work we've done together. When people experience political upheaval in the present it always seems as if it comes out of nowhere, but there's always a long struggle that's gone before it, and if we know what happened in the past, we can better understand what's going on now."
In 1977 Allen's play A Choice of Evils was broadcast by the BBC. It was based on a specific historic event that took place in Rome during the closing stages of the Second World War. Thirty-three German SS men were killed by the Italian partisans. In revenge, the Germans randomly arrested and executed 10 Italians for each SS man killed. The play concentrates on the attempts of Cardinal Volponi to obtain the release of Father Borelli, a left-wing priest, by interceding with Pope Pius Xll and the Nazis.
In an essay on Allen's work, Paul Madden writes: "The play articulates a powerful attack on the Catholic Church which had concluded a Concordat with Adolf Hitler, a notorious accommodation effectively ensuring that the Church turned a blind eye to the Nazis' extermination of the Jews.... Throughout the play a chilling image persists—of a pope, civilised, withdrawn and contemplative, indifferent to the life-and-death struggles raging outside the Vatican, sitting in a quiet garden engrossed in a book, whilst the rest of the world goes literally to hell."
Borrelli is offered the chance of obtaining his freedom by denying the principles by which he has lived his life. In an attempt to persuade him to make the cynical choice, the cardinal reveals the deal Stalin had made with the West to prevent the spread of revolution and carve out spheres of influence in post-war Europe. A Choice of Evils is between Catholicism and Stalinism. Borrelli refuses both and chooses death rather than betrayal. The play was written in 1971, but was not produced until six years later.
Like A Choice of Evil, Allen's play Perdition is also based on historical events in the closing months of the Second World War. Despite the fact that Germany was losing the war, half a million Hungarian Jews were transported to the concentration camps and murdered because of the collaboration of leading members of the Jewish community in Budapest. The Zionist leaders in Hungary did a deal with the Nazis that allowed certain selected people to leave the country, provided that instructions were given to the vast majority of Jews to board the trains going to the camps. The truth came out in a trial held in Israel after the war.
Every national newspaper attacked Allen and Loach. In the Evening Standard Lord Goodman accused them of peddling anti-Semitic lies and suggested that they were trying to deny the Holocaust ever happened. Bernard Levin of the Times attacked the play, whilst admitting he had never read it. Most critics argued that if you attacked Zionism you were attacking the Jews as a people. Under pressure from the Zionists, the play was called off by the board of the Royal Court the day before it was due to open.
In an interview with myself and Vicky Short three years ago, Allen explained what happened: "It was a very bad experience. We never got it on the stage except a shortened version at the Edinburgh Film Festival, where it appeared for one night. It is just impossible to explain the pressure. The bloke who put it on said, 'I've never known such pressure, I'm a nervous wreck. The phone never stopped ringing from all over the world.'
"After it was blackballed, one Zionist leader in London said to Ken Loach, 'I've got six friends who are very powerful, and we'll stop it going out.'
"One man—a big producer in the West End—did agree to put it on. Within 24 hours he phoned back to Ken and said to Ken, 'I'm sorry, forget it. I've had phone calls telling me if I put Perdition on I will never open on Broadway again. And I am responsible to directors and so on. I'm sorry.'
"And so it went on. They followed us to Ireland. Wherever we went they followed us. The campaign they orchestrated with the press was incredible—the Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph ... and it reached so far out. It was attacked in America.... And I was getting calls from Germany. It was an orchestrated campaign and it terrorised people. And arising out of that came the libel action. For two years I think my earnings were about £10 a week. Plus I was going through a bad time personally because of my wife's illness—phone calls, abuse. You've no idea what it was like....
"Then we, a group of us, put it on for a week in London, in some secular society, I forget its name. We showed the shortened version and it appeared for a week. It was packed, mainly with Jewish people, because this was a chapter of their history they didn't know, like Land and Freedom for the Spanish people.
"I'm not exaggerating, there were some people there crying—old people—because of some of the facts that came out in the play about the Zionists doing everything they could to disorganise the Jews in Hungary.”
In 1990 the film Hidden Agenda was released. It was scripted by Allen and directed by Loach. Parallax Pictures were able to raise finance for their joint projects, usually from Channel 4 and foreign co-production sources . Hidden Agenda was a fictional version of the Stalker Affair. It was a tense facts-based thriller about a mainland police detective's investigation into the RUC's "shoot-to-kill" policy. It highlighted British "dirty tricks" in Northern Ireland—the existence of death squads, black propaganda and torture. It began after a proposal from David Putman at Columbia Pictures. But Putman left Columbia and Loach and Allen had to raise the necessary £2 million themselves. The film received critical acclaim, but was attacked as being pro-IRA. At the Cannes Film Festival some right-wing politicians dubbed it "the IRA entry". Some British cinemas refused to show it.
Allen's last major work was Land and Freedom released in 1995. It deals with the betrayal of the Spanish revolution by the Stalinist Communist Party and made a tremendous impact, especially in Spain where knowledge of the events has been lost.
In his interview with Vicky Short and myself, Allen explained why he took up the theme:
"Initially, the reason why I wrote the film was because Ken and I had been discussing, with the fall of Stalinism, with the coming down of the Berlin Wall and the West saying, 'That's it. Communism doesn't work. It's finished!' And the likes of [British Labour Prime Minister] Tony Blair and company jumping on the bandwagon. 'The God has failed. Go back to your factories, your dole queues and forget it. It's the free market that works.'
"So we wanted to do something that would show that of course communism and socialism never existed in the Soviet Union, that Stalin was a monster, etc. We were looking for subjects that could project this and I came across this pamphlet put out by the International Brigades Committee in Manchester and I thought, 'This is it'".
Allen explained the tremendous difficulties involved in making Land and Freedom. The biggest problem was the lack of finance that restricted their artistic freedom. They needed at least £4 million, very little by modern standards, but after four years they had only raised £2.5 million. Allen had to "write and re-write and re-write the scripts. The huge scenes in Barcelona, which was a fantastic place to have been, if you have read Orwell or anybody else—the great scenes in Barcelona, the role of the women especially—all that was included in the other drafts, but we couldn't afford it. So I came up with this device where, because we couldn't afford to shoot the scenes, we had to have a voice-over. That's the girl in Liverpool telling people what it was like through letters, because we couldn't afford to show it. It was a pity."
The film tells the story of the conflict between Stalinism and the centrist party, the POUM. They tried to do this through the relationships between people in the film. In the original script the character David was a member of the Independent Labour Party that supported the POUM all the way through the war. But to emphasise the betrayal of the Stalinists, his character was rewritten as an idealistic member of the Communist Party of Great Britain who tears up his membership card in disgust during his experiences in Spain.
Blanca was originally a German girl, who already had knowledge of what fascism meant. Again this was changed because one of the main characters had to be Spanish and must in some way embody the revolution. The most powerful moments in the film are the execution of the priest for collaborating with the fascists, a discussion about the seizure of the property of the landlords and the final scene when the Stalinist troops disarm POUM and shoot Blanca in the back. When she is killed you know that the revolution has died with her.
Allen explained that most of the actors, professional and non-professional, had no knowledge of the events depicted in the film and kept on asking, "Did this really happen?" On one occasion an old POUM member who had come on to the set, broke down and wept because it brought back memories of the events of the Civil War.
Allen wrote scripts for other films, including United Kingdom and The Spongers directed by Roland Joffe, (who went on to direct The Mission and The Killing Fields), and Loach's Raining Stones. His work was recognised, especially in Europe, where he was awarded prizes at the Cannes and Prague Film Festivals.
He achieved a great deal, but had ideas about many other projects. In his interview he said, "There were things that Ken and I wanted to do and couldn't. We spent ages and ages. I wrote a script called The Stolen Republic, about Ireland, the Tan Wars and more importantly the Civil War after. About the true role of Michael Collins, who Churchill provided with guns and cannons to blast the Republicans out of the forecourts—things that people don't know much about. And again we walked up and down Wardour Street, knocking on doors. We couldn't get a penny, so we abandoned it."
He described the attempts of Roland Joffe and himself to make a film about the rise of fascism in Germany. "We went to the BBC.... We went over there, we crossed into the East before the wall came down, talked to old Communist Party members of that period, and discussed the Stalinist policy which divided the German workers and which let Hitler in. But after doing all the research, I was starting to write and it was banned—well not banned, just stopped."
Things had changed at the BBC since the heady days of the 60s. Allen describes the atmosphere there as being like a "League of Frightened Men". Producers would corner him in a bar and tell him, "I agree we should make these things ... but you know." Allen added, "He doesn't say it but the reason is his mortgage, his living and so forth. Nobody wants to be a hero. They prefer the safe, police material or whatever."
Allen could have made a lot of money. His daughters told me that the actor Micky Rourke phoned him several times asking him to fly to Los Angeles. He had bought the rights to the Bobby Sands book and wanted to discuss the possibility of Allen writing the script. Allen told him that if he wanted to talk to him, Rourke would have to come to Manchester—which was a polite way of saying no. He knew that if he had accepted the job, he could have become a very rich man but would have had no artistic control and the results would have been rubbish. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Allen's integrity was more important to him than money. He once told his daughters, "I can look at myself in the mirror with no regrets."
His wife Clare was a teacher and was the regular breadwinner in the family until her tragic death in 1987. Throughout their marriage, Allen used to get up at five o'clock every morning to work undisturbed, before taking on the main domestic duties of shopping and cooking for his family of five children. When she died his youngest child was 12 and Allen carried on with his caring role as long as his children needed him.
His work meant everything to him. He did meticulous research, saying, "I live in a world of books". Unlike other playwrights of his generation he dealt with the major themes of the twentieth century—Stalinism, fascism, anti-Semitism, the role of the trade union bureaucracy and the crisis of leadership that has dogged the working class. His abiding hatred of Stalinism, his commitment to the working class, and his deep feeling for their problems are expressed in all his writing.
It is remarkable that Allen maintained such a high level of commitment on fundamental political questions throughout his life. He often worked in conditions of severe isolation, without the advantage of learning from others of like mind, the collaboration and constructive criticism of peers that would have nourished and developed his talent. As well as the self-imposed artistic constraints of the realist school, he was constantly under attack from the Stalinists and Labour and trade union bureaucrats, from the right-wing press, and establishment figures, ready to seize on any minor inaccuracy in an attempt to undermine his ideas.
Loach recalled one of the ways this impacted upon Allen. They were shooting a scene towards the end of Days of Hope, when the General Strike is called off and there is a conflict between a group of miners and union bureaucrats. Allen was still rewriting the scene the day before it was due to be filmed. When Loach told him it was too long and was undramatic, Allen's reply was, "Yes but we've got to cover ourselves against the Stalinists." This striving for strict factual accuracy restricted his artistic freedom to let the story flow through the development of his characters.
Allen's funeral was not a very big affair. There were people from the local area, from the pub where Allen used to drink, but the glitterati from the BBC stayed away. His family was undismayed. They said that the people that their father really cared about were there, including Ken Loach, Roland Joffe, Jack Gold, Roger Smith and Neville Smith. And that is as it should be.
Nevertheless the absence of so many of Allen's contemporaries is symptomatic of the profound intellectual shift within the milieu of which he was once a part. Though honoured in Europe, here in Britain Allen was—for some—an embarrassing reminder of their own former radicalism and subsequent accommodation to the existing order. They could not, with good conscience, make such a public profession of respect and friendship for someone who had refused to compromise his own political and artistic principles.
There will no doubt be attempts to portray Allen narrowly as a man who wrote about the social problems facing the working class in Britain and to belittle or minimise his more political work. After his death the BBC chose to show one of his lesser works, The Spongers, in tribute. But Allen's canon, including those plays not performed during his lifetime, cannot be so easily dismissed. He was dealing with very complicated questions, working under severe limitations of financial resources and under difficult political circumstances.
In his interview, he told me that he once said to Loach, "Well, if ever I win the lottery, the first thing I'll do is hire a theatre and put Perdition on. Apart from that there's no chance." Allen didn't win the lottery, but he lived to see his play staged in London under the direction of Elliot Leavey, a young man whom he felt confident had done his research and would be able to defend the ideas behind the play. He was too ill to travel to London to see the production. It was staged in the tiny Gate Theatre, which seats no more than a hundred people, by actors working for expenses only. He derived great satisfaction from the fact that it was a co-production with the Royal Court, who had originally banned the play. He told his daughters, "It's about time. It shows that the truth will win out."
He received letters from members of the audience who told him that they had opposed the play 11 years before, but now understood what had gone on in Israel. Some had broken down in tears and told the director of the play how wrong they had been.
It is a fitting tribute to Allen that he could overcome such ingrained prejudices and make people start to think—and to question. His was a noble attempt to chronicle the life and experiences of working people across a century of political and social convulsions. It is for this constant striving to illuminate historical truth that he will be remembered.
British Television Drama, edited by George W. Brandt
Loach on Loach edited by Graham Fuller
Agent of Challenge and Defiance—The Films of Ken Loach edited by George McKnight