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The Rochdale Pioneers - Directors' Q&A
Curzon Renoir
29th September 2012

★★★☆☆

Given the Co-operative Group commissioned the film to celebrate the United Nations International Year of Cooperatives, I was curious as to whether The Rochdale Pioneers would blur the line between art and advert. Thankfully, co-directors Adam Lee Hamilton and John Montegrande have managed to stay true to their vision of the film, with the film effectively explaining the founding principles of co-operative movements, rather than just being an extended 55-minute long commercial.

Set in 1844, the plot revolves around a group of local people who club together to fund a co-operative shop, selling good quality produce at fair prices. There are naysayers (which unsurprisingly include the shopkeeper already established in the town and climbing the ladder of social wealth) and setbacks, but the film (and we trust this won't tell you anything you don't already know) concludes with a happy ending - at least for Co-op.

The screenplay from J S Papenbrock isn't exactly groundbreaking, but it achieves what it needs to. Given this is a documentary-drama with more than just a nod at real life events, the writer isn't allowed a huge amount of freedom. But he imbues the script, and characters, with enough wholesomeness to strike the right note for the sepia-toned piece.

As explained by Montegrande in the Q&A, it's the ideologies that are central to the film's purpose, rather than just pure historical fact. Here, the conscious decision has been made to make the pioneers slightly poorer than history would actually tell. Three of the 28, William Cooper (Andrew London), Samuel Ashworth (Jordan Davies) and John Holt (John Henshaw) all make the famous legendary journey from Rochdale to Manchester and back, to stock an entire shop with just one rickety wheelbarrow at their disposal. The disease and death prevalent in the mid 19th century is not present and there are no benevolent middle class folk reaching down to help the poor up. Instead, with less than one hour, the focus is kept on ordinary people working together to make something special happen.

Filmed on location in and around Rochdale and Manchester, there are obviously several gorgeous shots of rolling northern countryside. As mentioned, Henshaw has a key role and this casting of such a well-known local actor complete with thick regional accent, adds another layer of authenticity to the proceedings. The other actors are less famous and include volunteers without any previous experience, so Henshaw's inclusion makes the whole production feel more professional.

With recent UK low-budget films like My Brother The Devil being made for a comparatively huge £1 million, it's impressive to hear that the cast and crew managed to create the film and accompanying 'making of' documentaries for only around £86,000. There may not be any big Hollywood effects, but the film doesn't feel cheap.

Some line art is animated charmingly at the start of the film, packing in some more historical background to the film's premise, which is a lovely touch. The music from young composer Ed David Watkins is also worth highlighting. He uses string instruments and simple piano playing to create an atmosphere of poverty and hardship.

Admittedly there are some sound quality and colour issues, particularly towards the start of the film, but by the time The Rochdale Pioneers hits Film 4, it will have undergone further editing, so these minor problems are bound to disappear in due course.

The Rochdale Pioneers may be a straightforward piece of work with no plot twists or big reveals, but it's an interesting and educational account from young British filmmakers. Its period setting and working-class-done-good sentimentality is better suited to Sunday night TV rather than the big screen, but it's impossible not to warm to its charm.

The international premiere of The Rochdale Pioneers took place on 1st November 2012 in Manchester and the film will be broadcast on Film4 in November 2012.

Nearest tube station: Russell Square (Piccadilly)



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