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Pioneers and pamphleteers

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The following article records Meg meeting film director Michael Apted and learning how the techniques of modern lobbying were forged in the anti-slavery crusade of William Wilberforce.

Published by the The House magazine, see: http://www.epolitix.com/EN/Publications/House/1210_32/home.htm


This year is the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade: while the government will mark this important anniversary on 25 March in Westminster and around the country, in cinemas it will be celebrated with the release of Amazing Grace. This film, directed by Michael Apted, tells the story of anti-slave trade campaigner and great parliamentarian, William Wilberforce.


Michael Apted is the noted director of a variety of films including Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorky Park, Gorillas in the Mist, Enigma and the James Bond film The World is not Enough. So when I met him last week, I was keen to find out why he wanted to tell this particular story.


“As a citizen of the world, I was depressed and annoyed at the lack of interest in politics, and so I was looking to tell a contemporary political story,” he explained.  “Then I got sent this material as a biopic - of Wilberforce’s spiritual life - yet in the middle of this was the anti-slave trade story, a truly heroic story, resonant today”. 


As a parliamentarian I found the parallels between the processes that take place today, and those depicted in the film, fascinating - lobbying, articles/pamphlets, petitions and boycotts. Michael agreed, “I love the fact Wilberforce didn’t wake up one morning and realise the need to do something about slavery.  I liked the idea that he was led into it by Pitt, the Quakers and the abolitionists, and ultimately public opinion. It was the first time that public opinion was the beginning of real influence and change.” 


“Although I had to have villains [Lord Tarleton, played by Ciaran Hinds] - they had an intelligent opinion, that by undermining the slave trade you undermined the sugar industry and the country’s economy.” 


As a Minister directly involved with the government preparations for marking the bicentenary, I was amazed to discover that I was born 200 years to the day after William Wilberforce. It led me to think about the amount of time, many years, Wilberforce had spent on this campaign. Michael agreed that Wilberforce was single minded, and while others fell away or gave up, he kept going. But for Michael, the relationship between Wilberforce and his wife, Barbara, was vital.  She was as important, continually urging him on.


It was the importance of the relationship that led Michael to structure the film in a particular way. “The trick of the film is explaining the back-story to her.  I loved her in this story; she gave him a swift kick up the backside to get on with it.”


Like me, while making Amazing Grace, Michael Apted found connections to the story behind the abolition of the slave trade everywhere.  He recalls filming a particular scene in a library, where they found a book that included a passage by Henry Thornton, Wilberforce’s cousin and a key abolitionist who also features in the film. 


I asked Michael about how he felt about criticism that his film doesn’t tell the story of slavery, but instead focuses on one white man’s involvement. Michael explains that he wasn’t drawn to the film because of slavery; he came at it from the approach of wanting to show politics in action. Wilberforce himself had never seen slavery, so Michael wanted to show it from his perspective.  


He argues that there are 40 films in the story of slavery, and you have to decide which film to make. For instance, he could have shown more of Wilberforce: the man, who was behind a number of great social reforms, not just the abolition of slavery, or more about the great numbers of people involved in the anti-slavery movement.


He could have shown the role of the Church, and the Quakers in particular, who were “politically disempowered at this time, but were also the organisational element”, as Wilberforce and his colleagues waged the first modern political campaign, using petitions, boycotts and mass meetings to get their points across.


I asked Michael how they had chosen locations. Two locations were of considerable importance to the film’s production: the docks, and the House of Commons.  While most of the old docks were created using new computer technology, the rest was filmed at Gloucester, while an old church at Chatham became the House of Commons. He explained that with a small budget it was important to find key locations and then film other scenes in places nearby. Nevertheless in total they filmed in seven counties.


The key message for the government’s approach in marking the bicentenary is “reflecting on the past, looking to the future”. This will be achieved by raising awareness of the horrors of the slave trade, while also highlighting the slavery that continues today. I wanted to know what Michael Apted wanted audiences to take from Amazing Grace.  For him, as with us, it is about learning from the past and looking to the future - and highlighting that Parliament and politics matter and do make positive changes.


“What drew me to the film is a sense that politics is important,” he says.  “I suppose if you don’t get that you’ll complain about the lack of images of slavery - but you can only affect change through the legislative process.” 


“I want people to come away with that it can be done, you have to have expectations of politicians, and you have to tell them what you want. I want to make people more active in engaging with politics and know great things it can do.”


The photo shows Meg with Michael Apted.

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