The Big Meeting review: a powerful pageant of working class pride

I’ve never been to the Durham Miners’ Gala, but The Big Meeting makes me want to hit the north.

Given the stature of the event, it would have been easy for filmmaker Daniel Draper to focus on the big names in attendance, but this 90-minute documentary is all the better for telling the story of the day through the eyes of a student working in a radical bookshop, a member of a silver band and a WASPI woman.

What Draper captures so well is the pride of those who attend; a pride stoked by the history of the event itself, but also by their attendance and the attendance of their families throughout the years.

First held in 1871 when miners from the Durham coalfields – the “aristocrats of the working class”, according to Paul Mason – took advantage of the new railways to travel into the city and “take it back” from the middle classes, today the event is attended by an estimated 200,000 people from all over the world.

Draper threads the film with archive footage of miners and past rallies, (alarmingly including a voyeur using binoculars to spy on courting couples) and cleverly uses split screens to reflect the energy, bustle and inevitable chaos of the day.

There are sections on the event’s international links, on the key role played by women during the miners’ strike and a fitting finale in the city’s famous cathedral.

Where as the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival celebrates the individuals behind the trade union movement, the Big Meeting celebrates the movement itself.

And that’s what the film reflects so well: a powerful pageant of working class pride, a set piece of passionate political theatre, a stirring story of solidarity and defiance. It’s no substitute for the real thing, which is cancelled this year, but watching this film will warm your heart during the dark days of lockdown.

You can buy the film on DVD or pay to watch it on Vimeo here.

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