Masterpiece Theatre: Shoulder to Shoulder (1974)

Shoulder to Shoulder (1974), directed by Waris Hussein and Moira Armstrong.

Starring Siân Phillips as Emmeline Pankhurst, Patricia Quinn as Christabel Pankhurst, Angela Down as Sylvia Pankhurst, Georgia Brown as Annie Kenney, Sheila Allen as Mrs Pethick-Lawrence, Maureen Pryor as Ethel Smyth, Judy Parfitt as Constance Lytton, and Fulton Mackay as Keir Hardie.

6x episodes, written by Ken Taylor and Midge Mackenzie.

This series, based on the birth and progress of the suffragette movement, has been sadly unavailable on commercial video for years and only one episode, the one focusing on Annie Kenney, has been broadcast in the past fifteen years.

It’s a sad fate for a series which is both celebratory and controversial about issues such as force-feeding, the death of Emily Wilding Davison at the Derby, and the in-fighting between the Pankhurst family themselves. The actress-singer Georgia Brown came up with the idea and also sings the theme, Ethel Smyth’s stirring anthem ‘March of the Women’. Her Annie Kenney – the working class mill-girl whose blunt speaking balances the cultured speeches of Christabel Pankhurst and her call to arms.

Covering the whole period of conflict and change, this production from Verity Lambert retains the power to engage a viewer, to shock and even at times amuse, and to put across the facts (as they were understood in the 1970s) of this life-changing era of the women’s movement.

Great performances across the board, but a nod must go to Parfitt who only features in one episode but who is deeply convincing as the aristocratic invalid who barely survives her treatment in prison. Also good is Phillips as the redoubtable Mrs Pankhurst, who starts off a reasonable person and almost becomes a heartless monster in search of personal glory at the expense of her daughter Sylvia and friends the Pethick-Lawrences.