Big Flame


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Anthing about Big Flame or the context in which it emerged that doesn’t fit into any of the other categories


Posted by archivearchie on February 12, 2014

BF LogoAny returning visitors to this site will have noticed that it is a very long time since there have been any new posts.

 Work was halted on the website to allow us to completely focus on writing a book about Big Flame. For far too long progress was very slow. Now things have picked and we should complete the writing this year (though there will be another gap before the publisher brings the book out). For our latest plans for the book see “A Book about BF” – second from the right in the menu at the top of the page.

When the book is out of the way, our intention is to resume posting documents from the Big Flame archive on this site (many have already been scanned).

In the meantime there is a sufficient range of documents already uploaded to this website to keep even the most enthusiastic researchers busy.

The best way of starting to take a look at the series of posts entitled “Episodes in Big Flame History”, which run through the life of the group in roughly chronological order. To see these posts go to “BF History Series” – fourth from the left in menu at the top of the page.

Other previous posts can be accessed via the “Index of Site Contents” – third from the right in the menu at the top of the page.

Alternatively if you want to start from a list of Big Flame publications, go to “List of BF Publications” – third from the left in the menu at the top of the page.


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Posted by archivearchie on September 25, 2010

In August the political organisation the Commune (which describes its politics as “for workers’ self-management and communism from below”) held three meetings in London looking back at previous groups. The first two looked at Kamunist Kranti (India) and Potere Operaio (Italy). The final forum on the 30th August discussed Big Flame.

The person who introduced the discussion was never a member of BF (instead he was in the International Socialists until 1974). He gave an outsiders view of the organisation for the perspective of a line worker at Ford Halewood on Merseyside for seven years in the 1970s. It was at this plant that BF had its longest running base group. These previous posts discuss this intervention: Industry and Workplace and Ford Halewood Leaflets and Bulletin.

The speaker gave a vivid account of life in the Halewood plant, a massive place with 14,000 workers in the 1970s. He mentioned Beverly Silver’s book Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870 (Cambridge University Press.2003) to suggest that the nature of the automobile production process led to worker militancy. The book argues that wherever production was relocated (first to Detroit, then to northwestern and southern Europe, then to ex-colonial countries), there followed a relocation of workers’ struggles. The speaker discussed several struggles at Halewood, including one where workers fixing window glass to Capri doors were denied overalls to avoid their ripped jeans. As a result the number of shattered glass panes increased massively, with Fords calling in experts to investigate problems with the glass.

The Big Flame intervention was initiated by people from outside the plant (none of whom the speaker thought came originally from Liverpool). The leaflets they handed out at the gates were a vital source of information about what was happening across the plant. The plant was so large, that people only heard vague rumours of disputes in other sections. Later, he thought, up to five workers joined the BF (at least for a spell). The important role of BF in a long running dispute to end Friday night working (which it called “Friday Night is Music Night”) was described. In the end the Big Flame intervention at Halewood burnt out (with members moving on to other struggles). Getting up to leaflet the plant gates early most morning was “bloody hard work”.

He was highly critical of the role of the senior stewards (called the “Huyton Mafia” because they were also active in Huyton Labour Party), who thought nothing to trying to get those more militant than themselves sacked (the deputy convenor once reported the speaker to management when he let a representative of the Tower Hill rent strike into the plant to see the senior stewards to ask for support). They blamed Big Flame as the “scapegoat” when things happened with which threatened them.

The discussion ranged broadly across a variety of issues. The audience included four ex-Big Flame members (three of them involved with the planned book about Big Flame). None were involved with BF on Merseyside or were members in the early days when the Ford Halewood intervention was at its peak. However, they did there best to answer other questions about BF.

Issues raised by those present included:

  • How did the Base Groups strike a balance between providing outside support and not substituting themselves for workers or imposing lines on those in struggles?
  • What was BF’s position on its members becoming shop stewards?
  • How did BF see the relationship between workplace and community struggles?
  • What did BF understand by autonomy – of the working class and oppressed groups?
  • Why was BF much more successful in Liverpool than elsewhere in the country?
  • Why did BF grow after the downturn in class struggle after 1974?
  • Why did some former BF members join the Labour Party in the early 1980s when its politics was so different from those of BF?
  • Why did BF collapse in the 1980s?
  • Where did other BF people go after BF?
  • What are the lessons for today from the BF experience?
  • In the 1970s it was easier to identify the working class (Fords, Dockers, etc), but who are the working class today?
  • Where do ex-BF members see as potential areas of struggle today where we can win?

I am not sure how successfully the ex-BF members present answered these questions on the night. They are all certainly things to address in the book.

Some of those present said complimentary things about Big Flame – that ex-members must pass on their experiences to those involved in today’s struggles; that left politics today is weaker for the lack of an organisation with its politics leading some of them to join organisations with much more orthodox politics. Hopefully this website and the book will contribute to these tasks.

Archive Archie

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Posted by archivearchie on September 6, 2010



Back in May 2009 I posted about the US political group Sojourner Truth Organization. In it I drew attention to two websites (one a digital archive, one reporting on a research project – unfortunately silent for the last year). I then asked for sites on the internet which attempted a similar task for organisations with related politics to Big Flame. Amongst the responses were links to sites on the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, the Red Menace (a Toronto-based Libertarian Socialist Collective 1976-80), (in German) Maoist-influenced groups and (in French) the LCI (section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International).

I would now like to broaden out the discussion by removing the “related politics to Big Flame” tag (it should certainly makes things easier by not having to worry about what “related” means), and cover any site which contains an archive of documents of the left from the middle to later 20th century. Again I hope that others will add to my list (which are all British but international suggestions would also be welcome).

Left Groups

I was inspired in this task by coming across three recent websites.

The first which started in August 2010 is For Workers Power. It mostly consists of republications of documents from Solidarity (1960-80s). The person behind the site is involved with the Commune. Solidarity was heavily influence by a French group – Socialisme ou Barbarie.  A site launched last year is gradually digitalising the journal: Projet de scannerisation: Socialisme ou Barbarie. Starting with the first issue (No1 March-April 1949) and now up to no7 August-September 1950 (as at September 2010).

The second site was also launched in August 2010. It is Red Mole Rising. The site is intended “to contribute modestly” to a history of the IMG – International Marxist Group (1960s-80s), and is produced by a supporter of Socialist Resistance (one of the three currents to emerge when the IMG disintegrated).

The last has been around slightly longer – June 2010 – and is called IS Origins. It arose out of a temporary project (centering around an intensive 6 week course of research) aiming to provide resources for discussion and historiography into the background of what is now the International Socialist Tendency. Represented today in Britain by the SWP – Socialist Workers Party. The site focuses on the 1950s when the Socialist Review Group (SRG) split from the Fourth International. Although the 6 week period is over, the author says “I hope to update this blog regularly with updates on my work, scan and digitize as much of the literature as I can, and hopefully form the focal point for new discussion arising around this topic area”.

We should not forget Libcom which has been around for seven years now and includes on its site a vast array of documents from all currents of the libertarian communist movement.

Black movement

Other sites have made available documents from Black movements of the 70s and 80s.

Tandana is a digitised archive to record the political ephemera produced by the Asian Youth Movements in British town and cities.

CLR James had a major influence on many of the Race Today Collective. Links to writings by or about James can be found at the CLR James Links page. Many of the links are to documents in the CLR James Archive at the Marxists Internet Archive.

Women movement

Good starting points for research into British Feminism in the 70s and 80s are the Women’s Library at London Metropolitan University and the Feminist Archive North now at the University of Leeds.

The internet is increasingly becoming the source of images as well as written documents. A BBC page contains some useful clips on Second Wave Feminism. The Vanessa Engle documentary series on Women shown on BBC television is currently unavailable via i-Player, but are the sort of programmes which may well be shown again sometime in the future (there are just two, not especially interesting, excerpts on U Tube). The first episode of the trilogy contained a lot of good interviews with activists from the 70s, plus contemporary footage.

Gay movement

A full set of issues (1975-80) of the jounal Gay Left are available on the internet.

Archive Archie

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Posted by archivearchie on June 9, 2010

In an earlier post I drew attention to a couple of websites which, like this one, documented the activities of a political organisation – the Sojourner Truth Organization in the USA. This led to an interesting series of comments where sites for other groups were mentioned. In this post I want to draw attention to some sites which reflect on another aspect of the politics of the period – student protest.

I have found two websites (and would be very interested to hear about more). They are:

An Emotional Involvement which covers the March 1970 occupation of Senate House at Liverpool University.

Essex 68 which covers the events at Essex University in 1968, particularly the occupation in May.

Both websites are an interesting mixture of documents and photos from the period and modern reflections back on the events. Both held reunions to bring together some of those involved.

I would also like to mention what I think is the best book about student protest of the 1960s and 1970s: Ronald Fraser 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt (London: Chatto and Windus, 1988). It is based on hundreds of interviews with activists – not just in the UK but also from Europe and the USA. Tapes and transcripts of the interviews were donated to the British Library in London, and most are available for public access (although one person who went on to became a Government Minister did withdraw his interview!).

Incidentally, both the websites include reflections (and the book an interview) with people who were later members of Big Flame.

Archive Archie

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Posted by archivearchie on June 4, 2009

This post arises out of a comment by Nate on “Who We Were” (the post rather than the page version). He asked: “is there anything written about the context that Big Flame comes out of, the time period in the UK in general and the left in particular.” My initial was there isn’t any book that covers this. On further reflection, I realise there are very many books that could be mentioned. Just that each touches on a single aspect of the context

Housing Struggles at Villa Road, Lambeth

Housing Struggles at Villa Road, Lambeth

The Libertarian Left

Today the term “libertarianism” has been appropriated by the right or, if not them, the Frank Furedi current (LM / Spiked). There are contemporary successors of the movement I want to talk to talk about – libertarianism of the 1960s and 1970s – in the green and peace movements and elsewhere. However, these don’t seem to adopt the term “libertarianism”.

The milieu of 1960s and 70s libertarianism is a complex one. It bears the imprint of the events of 1968, particularly in France. I want to distinguish between libertarian Marxism and anarchism. This is just one of a number of blurred boundaries of libertarianism. Another similar boundary merges into the Underground. Yet another situationism. A few of those involved in the milieu were members of organised political groups – Solidarity and some small Council Communist groups. The vast majority were not. Libertarians were involved in the following areas of activity:

(a)   community struggles,

(b)   squatting,

(c)   claimants unions,

(d)   local community newspapers,

(e)   arts groups,

(f)     lifestyle politics

 Housing Struggles at Villa Road, Lambeth

I am not saying that all these movements were entirely composed of libertarian Marxists. There were clearly others involved – anarchists, members of Trotskyist groups, the Communist Party, etc. But I don’t believe that in the 1960s and 1970s at the core of many of these struggles/initiatives you would have found libertarians.

From out of the strands, some of the members of Big Flame emerged (not all – some were previously members of Trotskyist, Maoist and anarchist groups). As did, but going in an entirely different direction, those who formed the Angry Brigade.


Below is an initial list of some relevant reading. It reflects things I’ve bought and read, and the fact that I‘m much less in touch with what has been published in the last 20 years. I certainly wouldn’t claim that it covers all the significant movements of the period. The absence of references on/from the women’s and black movements are only the most obvious examples. Where I know a member/s of Big Flame were involved in the struggles/initiatives I will mention this.

On Britain in general

CSE State Group Struggles over the State: Cuts and Restructuring in Contemporary Britain (CSE Books, 1979).

–   Takes a broader approach that most of the other left literature on the crisis from the 1970s e.g. chapters on education, housing, health, etc. The conclusions are somewhat vague reflecting political differences within the editorial group.

There is a voluminous literature on the political and social history of the 1960s, with a slower flow, mostly journalistic, on the 1970s. In the last few months, there have been two additions – Andy Beckett When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies and Alwyn W. Turner Crisis What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s. I have read either, so I can’t make a recommendation.

On the British left

David Widgery The Left in Britain 1956-68 (Penguin, 1976).

–   Despite a major over-representation of material from Widgery’s own group International Socialists (who became the Socialist Workers Party), the chapters on Student Politics and 1968 reveal the chaotic diversity of the left at the time. The book is also very funny.

Peter Shipley Revolutionaries in Modern Britain (Bodley head, 1976).

–   Written by someone unsympathetic to the left and in many ways flawed. Still the only book I know which seeks to cover the full diversity of the left. There are better books if you focus on specific tendencies e.g. John Callaghan British Trotskyism: Theory and Practice (Basil Blackwell, 1984). 

Squatters from Huntley Street, Bloomsbury Squatters from Huntley Street, Bloomsbury


On community struggles

Lynne Segal “A Local Experience” in Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright Beyond the Fragments (Merlin, 1979).

–   Discusses rather briefly initiatives in Islington, north London including a Women’s Centre and a local newspaper. Some of those involved were later members of North London BF. Some of the same ground is covered in the section “Life as Politics” in her book Making Trouble (Serpent’s Tail, 2007). See also Chris Whitbread (below).

Cynthia Cockburn The Local State: Management of Cities and People (Pluto, 1977).

Despite the then fashionable Althusserian theoretical framework, contains interesting information on struggles in Lambeth, south London. Members of South London BF were involved.

Jan O’Malley The Politics of Community Action (Spokesman Books, 1977).

–   An account of struggles in Notting Hill, west London, mostly around housing. Someone who was later in West London BF is thanked in the Introduction as involved in the activities described.

Nick Wates The Battle for Tolmers Square (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976).

–   A very detailed account of struggles against property speculators in Somers Town, north London.

Helene Curtis & Mimi Sanderson The Unsung Sixties : Memories of Social intervention (Whiting and Birch, 2004)

–   Interview accounts of a large number of projects which as Sheila Rowbotham says in her Introduction opened up a precious political space. As well as those mentioned below the sections include ones on Release, a Law Centre, Women’s Aid and a Disability Income Group. Squatting2

On squatting

Nick Wates and Christian Wolmar Squatting: The Real Story (Bay Leaf Books, 1980)


–   A wonderfully illustrated and detailed account of the whole movement.

Jim Radford “The point of a battle is to win it” in Helene Curtis & Mimi Sanderson The Unsung Sixties : Memories of Social intervention.

–    On the Family Squatting campaign. 

On Claimants Unions

 Bill Jordan “Collective Action and Everyday Resistance” in Rile van Berkel et al (ed) Beyond Marginality: Movements of Social Security Claimants in the European Union (Ashgate, 1998)

–   Draws a lot on the authors involvement in the Newton Abbott Claimants Union in the early 1970s.

Joe Kenyon “I was in the natural way of trying to put something right that was wrong, see” in Helene Curtis & Mimi Sanderson The Unsung Sixties : Memories of Social intervention.

–    On the Union in Barnsley and beyond.

On local community newspapers

Chris Whitbread “Islington” Revolutionary Socialism no4 Winter 1979-80

–   The main focus of the article is Islington Gutter Press, but Community Press, a print workshop, and Islington Socialist Centre are also mentioned.

I am not aware of anything written about local community newspapers. Therefore these books on the national Underground press must suffice. Nigel Fountain Underground: The London Alternative Press 1966-74 (Pluto, 1988) provides accounts of all the main national Underground publications. Jonathon Green’s two book (one a set of interviews, the other his own discussion) Days in the Life: Voices from the English Underground (2nd ed Pimlico, 1998) and All Dressed Up: the Sixties and Counter Culture (Pimlico, 1999) covers publications like Friends and Ink.

Many BF (future or then current) members worked on local community papers. As well as Islington Gutter Press, they include Manchester 11Ned Gate/Nell Gate and Bush News. The first series Big Flame newspaper in Liverpool can be regarded as a local community paper.

The Underground and Alternative Press in Britain from Harvester Press (already mention in Episode 1 of the Big Flame History series as a place to find the newspaper of that name) has a lot of the source material on microfilm or microfiche. Not just Friends, Ink and IT but local publications like Manchester Free Press, Mole Express, Leeds Other Paper, Hackney People’s Press and Nottingham Voice.

On arts groups

It is no doubt perverse to mention articles from an obscure and probably impossible to find source. However, the left cultural magazine Wedge included some extremely interesting articles in its short life of only three issues. The editorial collective was mostly independents, but included 2 members of IMG and 2 from BF (although members at different times). A few of the articles were:

Anon “Grant Aid and Political Theatre 1968-77 Part 1 Wedge no1 Summer 1977 and Part 2 Wedge no 2 Spring 1978.

–   About a lot more than just Grant Aid. Includes the author’s views on the differences between reformist and revolutionary theatre.

Newsreel Collective “Newsreel Collective: Five years On” Wedge no3 Winter 1978.

–   Written by the Agit prop documentary film group. Early version of the collective included 2 members of BF. Within a few years, one left BF and the other Newsreel.

Jane Clarke & Rosie Elliot “The Other Cinema: Screen Memory” Wedge no 2 Spring 1978.

–   Written after the collapse of the film distribution and exhibition collective, the article aims to learn from the experience.

On lifestyle politics

“Revolutionary Household Rotas” in Lynne Segal Making Trouble (Serpent’s Tail, 2007).

–   Discusses collective living arrangements.

Andrew Rigby Alternative Realities: A Study of Communes and their Members (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974)

–   A sociological study which brings out the political and religious diversity of communes (e.g. one consisting of Young Liberals). Another book by the same author Communes in Britain consists of more detailed case studies.

In addition there is a enormous literature from the women’s (and men’s) movement on relationships.

The above list is bound to leave out a lot of important books. Please tell what I should have included.

Some questions

If anyone were to sit down and read through this (or a similar) list, what would be the benefit? Well they might be better equipped to start to try to answer the following questions, which I think would improve our understanding of the impact of left libertarianism in 1960s and 1970s Britain:

(i)            Do the various strands I have mentioned have sufficient in common to bear description as a milieu, or going even further a movement? Or should I have adopted a narrower interpretation of the libertarian left?

(ii)          If there is something in common, what were the core ideas which many of the people involved?

(iii)         Am I right in thinking that the influence of libertarianism declined as the 1970s moved into the 1980s?

(iv)        If it did, what were the reasons – the impact of the national Thatcher government? the revival of the traditional left?

Archive Archie

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Posted by archivearchie on May 23, 2009

From time to time some Big Flame members argued for a change in the name. The reason it never happened is that they never came up with a credible alternative. Whatever doubts there were about the name, most people were happy that the organisation didn’t have a run of the mill left group name like the Revolutionary Socialist International Workers Communist Group League Party (or RSIWCGLP for short).

The source for the name was not the Manchester pop group (they were of 1983-86 vintage), but a television play. Part of the long running Wednesday Play series on BBC, it was first broadcast on the 19th February 1969. Unlike some other of the Wednesday Plays, it was not be wiped. So it may even appear from time to time at arts cinemas like the National Film Theatre.

“The Big Flame” had a screenplay by Jim Allen, was directed by Ken Loach and produced by Tony Garnett. The actors included Norman Rossington and Godfrey Quigley. The play also launched the acting career of the late Peter Kerrigan. A Communist Party member and former docker, who had been involved in a real dock strike in Liverpool. Kerrigan later played a terminally ill former Liverpool docker, in Alan Bleasdale’s “Boys from the Blackstuff”. 

Jim Allen
Jim Allen

Ken Loach
Ken Loach
 Jim Allen 
Jim Allen was a former miner and building worker. He began his career as a writer on “Coronation Street” (ITV). Then Allen worked on several television plays with Loach including “Days of Hope” (1975). They later collaborated on three feature films: “Hidden Agenda”  (1988), “Raining Stones” (1993) and “Land and Freedom” (1995).. Allen died in 1999.


Allen was a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party (which briefly united the different currents of British Trotskyism in the late 1940s and early 1950s). He went with the Gerry Healy current of the RCP on to the Socialist Labour League. He was expelled from Labour Party in 1962 for his membership of this “prescribed organisation”. Allen left the SLL soon after (before it became the WRP) for reasons he refused to discuss. He continued to share much of its politics.

 Ken Loach

Ken Loach was originally an actor who moved into direction with “Z Cars” (BBC). He directed six Wedneday Plays including “Up the Junction” (1965) and “Cathy Come Home” (1966). He then moved into feature films. Apart from the Allen collaborations mentioned above, his films have included “Kes” (1969), “Bread and Roses” (2000), “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” (2006) and, most recently, “Looking for Eric” (2009). 

He was a member of the Labour Party from 1964 to the mid 1990s. In the 1960s and 70s Loach was one of a group of producers, writers and directors – such as Roy Battersby, Trevor Griffiths, Kenith Trodd, Roland Joffe and Tony Garnett – who were in the orbit of the Socialist Labour League (with varying degree of closeness). Since the 1960s Loach has been a friend of Alan Thornett (then of the SLL/WRP, later of the WSL and ISG), picking Thornett as his “hero” in a 2007 exercise conducted by The Independent newspaper. In recent years Loach has alligned himself with Respect and Socialist Resistance.

Tony Garnett

Tony Garnett

Tony Garnett

 Tony Garnett began his working life as an actor, became a script editor and then a producer. He produced twelve Wednesday Plays, G.F. Newman’s tv series “Law and Order”, and the film “Kes”. After a spell in Hollywood in the 1980s, he formed an independent production company. This has achieved success on television with “Between the Lines”, “This Life” and “Ballykissangel”.

Garnett was part of the same circle around the Socialist Labour League as Loach. In a 1993 interview with The Independent, he denied earlier newspaper stories about his membership of various political organisations: “None of them true; I’ve never joined a political party in my life.”


Documentary Dramas

Documentary drama television plays adopted the style of documentaries. They were shot on location with hand held cameras and often with unknown or amateur actors.

In the 1960s and 70s there was a press campaign again these plays on television for their perceived left wing bias. They were also criticized for blurring the line between reality and fiction, and thereby confusing the viewer. “Cathy Come Home” and “Days of Hope” were particularly subject to attack. On the one hand it was argued that the facts they were based on were distorted and untrue. On the other they were wrong to pretend they could report reality. Viewers might be lulled into accepting their viewpoint, rather than taking them as pure entertainment.

In a 2002 interview Ken Loach gave a good response: “The idea was not to ask ‘Is the play true?’ but “What truth is there in the play? …The whole argument about objectivity is an impossible concept. The point is: what are they defending in the guise of objectivity?” (in Anthony Hayward Whose Side are You On? p71).

The Play

WPThe Big Flame” was one of three plays on political subjects with Jim Allen as the scriptwriter which helped spark this controversy. The first was “The Lump”, another Wednesday Play from 1967 about the Building trade, with Garnett and Jack Gold as the director. The last was “Rank and File”, a Play for Today from 1971 about the Pilkington Glass strike, with Loach and Graeme McDonald as producer. “The Big Flame” was about an occupation of the Liverpool docks. It was made after the Devlin report recommended decasualisation of the docks and before the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders sit-in. It was filmed entirely on location in Liverpool in 20 days (19 Feb to 16 March 1968).

“The Big Flame” was set in the “near future”. A strike in the Liverpool docks is lead by an unofficial strike committee including Danny Fowler (Norman Rossington) and Peter Connor (Peter Kerrigan). They go out on strike in defiance of their union, mainly as a response to the threatened casualisation of the workforce. Strikers are seen discussing the progress of the strike, while voice-over narrators provide analysis. After six weeks the strikers are persuaded by a blacklisted union organiser Jack Regan (Godfrey Quigley), a former Communist turned Trotskyist,  to move the strike from the “the industrial to the political” by occupying the docks and running them. Regan argues: “There’ll be no revolution, but you’ll have lit a bonfire” (hence the Big Flame). After 5 days the occupation ends when the police and the army move in during the middle of the night .  Fowler, Connor and Regan get three year prison sentences. Outside the court young workers start organising again. The message of the film is clear when on the last night of the occupation an American sailor sings “The Ballad of  Joe Hill”. He may have been killed, but he didn’t die.

Recently Ken Loach talked about “The Big Flame”: “In 1968, I made the film The Big Flame in Liverpool, a fictional story set in the Liverpool docks written by the late Jim Allen, who was from Manchester. I was just stunned by the political maturity of the people I met. They were sophisticated, militant and organised. …That whole experience had a big effect on me – much bigger than making a film like Cathy Come Home. …People talk a lot about the humour of Liverpool people, but they absolutely miss the politics. That’s what I found very impressive – and it’s still impressive.” (Liverpool Echo 7th March 2008) 


The play was ready for transmission by May 1968. The BBC postponed showing it twice, and there were doubts that it would ever be broadcast before  its February 1969 appearance. There was a predictable storm of protest. The Daily Mail labeled the play a “Marxist play presented as sermon”. Mary Whitehouse, Secretary of  the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, complained that the play was “a blueprint for the communist takeover of the docks” and wrote to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition urging a review of the BBC’s charter. Tom Jackson, General Secretary of the Union of Post Office Workers, also wrote a letter of protest to Lord Hill, Chairman of the Governors of the BBC.

After “The Big Flame” a new regime at the BBC insisted that in future all plays should have no more than ten minutes of outside filming. This led Tony Garnett to quit the BBC. In time the BBC stopped showing plays in the documentary drama style.

The Allen/Loach/Garnett plays were also criticised by some on the left. Some found their politics too simplistic and didactic. Other criticised their realistic style. For example, those associated with the theoretical film journal Screen claimed that it was impossible for the “classic realist text” to offer any perspective for struggle due to their inability to investigate contradiction. To be truely subversive a film needed to be radical in form as well as content.

I must confess that I have never seen “The Big Flame”. Therefore, it is hard for me to defend the film from these critics. However, sticking to the general issues and not defending all the films in the drama documentary style, I am strongly critical of the perspectives of Screen and its ilk.

Archive Archie


Read more

The following articles have helped me write this post:

BFI Screenonline on “The Big Flame”

Wednesday Play site on “The Big Flame”

Essay on “The Rank and File” (another Jim Allen/Ken Loach collaboration) by John Williams on the University of Hull site (which also discusses “The Big Flame”)

Also helpful were some books which mention “The Big Flame”: Jacob Leigh The Cinema of Ken Loach (Wallflower Press, 2002); Anthony Hayward Whose Side are You On?: Ken Loach and his Films (Bloomsbury, 2004) and a chapter on Jim Allen by Paul Madden in George W. Brandt (ed) British Television Drama (Cambridge University Press, 1981).

There is a Jim Allen archive at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford (from whose website I borrowed the photo of Jim Allen)

Jim Allen Archive

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Posted by archivearchie on May 17, 2009


The internet has transformed the way in which information is available, but traditional archives can also be a valuable resource. Many former members of left groups will arrive at a time when they start to ask themselves: shall I carry on keeping that dusty box of my former group’s publications in my attic or storage cupboard. One alternative to throwing the lot in a bin is to give them to an archive.

 In the case of Big Flame, a number of former members have recently chosen this path. Unfortunately these donations are still to be fully catalogued, and if you go to the websites of the institutions which received them, the Big Flame material is not mentioned.

For anyone who might like to look through these archives, I provide relevant details below. I also give the website addresses of the institutions. Even if there is no listing of the Big Flame documents, there will be other vital information, such matters as location, opening hours, and whether an advance appointment is required.

 University of Leeds

Special Collections
Leeds University Library
Woodhouse Lane
West Yorkshire



A deposit by Max Farrar contains a variety of political documents from the 1970s, 80s and 90s, as well as Big Flame material. The Big Flame documents cover the period 1975-81, and include most magazines and pamphlets; some papers; Internal/Discussion Bulletins; minutes of the Anti Racist/Anti Fascist and Education Commissions and some National Committee minutes. 

Special Collections also houses the Feminist Archive North (see This has a considerable amount of Big Flame documents: issues of the newspaper (Manchester edition, 1975–77, 79), the magazines Big Flame Journal (1974-76), Revolutionary Socialism (1980-81), the Internal Bulletin (1976-77), the Women’s Commission 1976 conference report, and two runs of Women’s Struggle Notes.


Working Class Movement Library, Manchester

Working Class Movement Library
51, The Crescent
Salford M5 4WX



This deposit is called the ‘Big Flame collection’. It combines donations from three different former Big Flame members and includes: copies of the second series of the newspaper from no.2 Aug 1972 to no.114 Jul/Aug 1983 (the last issue) with some gaps, plus the special unnumbered Jan 1974 issue and three issues from the 1985-86 reprise; all issues of Big Flame Journal (1-2) and Revolutionary Socialism (1-10); many pamphlets; Internal and Discussion bulletins; conference documents; Industrial Commission papers; documents on Big Flame activities on Merseyside including a folder of material from the Socialist Unity campaign in the 1979 Edgehill, Liverpool by-election.

Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, Coventry

Modern Records Centre
University Library
University of Warwick



This collection has been given the accession number 672 and will be listed as ‘Big Flame’. The dates covered are 1970-81. The earliest item are copies of the Big flame Bulletin from 1970-71. There are also copies of the newspaper from no.1 June 1972 to no.112 Feb-Mar 1983, though there are gaps in the sequence.

A search of the MRC archives reveals a few other Big Flame related documents: a folder in the International Marxist Group collection (MSS 128/257), the pamphlet Introducton to Big Flame – Our Politics, History, Structures and Publications and a few other items in the Andrew Whitehead collection (MSS 21/1538/212), the same pamarchive3phlet and A close Look at Racism and Fascism in the S.E.Taylor Collection (MSS 21/1571/22), and The Revolution Unfinished? A critique of Trotskyism in the Harry Wicks papers (MSS 102/5/3/25).

 These are not the only documents in archives in Britain or abroad. However, most simply consist of one or two pamphlets or copies of the newspaper. A couple are worth mentioning.

Liverpool Record Office 

Liverpool Record Office,
Central Library,
William Brown Street,
Liverpool L3 8EW



This institution holds three copies of the first series of the newspaper: no.1 February 1970, no.6 May 1970 and no.7 July 1970. The reference number is M329 COM 36/9.

 Women’s Library, London Metropolitan University

The Women’s Library
London Metropolitan University
Old Castle Street
London E1 7NT



The relevant collection is the ‘Papers of Sheila Rowbotham’ (7SHR). This contains her correspondence and drafts for books, resource material, including Women’s Liberation Movement papers, socialist periodicals and campaigning papers, all from the period 1969-88. The Big Flame material includes discussion papers on women from the West London BF group; on men’s politics from the East London BF group; the pamphlets Walking a Tightrope and We Won’t Pay, and three issues of Women’s Struggle Notes.

There is another deposit at the women’s library which would have been of interest. Unfortunately because it is not catalogued, it can not be viewed. This is the ‘Papers of Nina Hutchison (nee Helweg)’ (7NHH). The archive consists of her personal working and political papers including correspondence and resource material from the period 1969-94. Nina was a member of Big Flame and the archive apparently contains documents relating to this. She died in 1994 and these items were deposited on her behalf in 1998 by her literary executor.

 Final Comments

 If anyone knows of any other significant deposits of Big Flame documents in archives, please tell me.

 If you are a former Big Flame member (or someone who accumulated their documents) and want to dispose of them. Please do consider giving them to a archive near you.

 Archive Archie

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Who We Were

Posted by happyhenry on April 3, 2009

Big Flame newspaper - after the Brixton riotsBig Flame were a Revolutionary Socialist Feminist organisation with a working class orientation in England. Founded in Liverpool in 1970, the group initially grew rapidly in the then prevailing climate on the left with branches appearing in a number of cities. One of the key sentences in the platform published in each issue of the newspaper was the statement that a revolutionary party was necessary but that “Big Flame is not that party, nor is it the embryo of that party”. This had the advantage of distinguishing them from some small groups who saw themselves as much more important than they were, but posed the problem of the ‘party’s’ real reason for existence.

They published a magazine, also entitled Big Flame, and a journal, Revolutionary Socialism. Members were active at the Ford plants at Halewood and Dagenham.

They also devoted a great deal of time to self-analysis and considering their relationship with the larger Trotskyist groups. In time, they came to describe their politics as “libertarian Marxist“. In 1978 they joined the Socialist Unity electoral coalition, with the International Marxist Group.

In 1980, the anarchists of the Libertarian Communist Group joined Big Flame. The Revolutionary Marxist Current also joined at about this time.  [Please see corrections in relation to the LGC and RMC in comments on the version of “Who We Were” which  was moved from being a post to its own page. Access this from the menu at the top of the homepage].
However Big Flame was wound up in about 1984. Ex members of the group were involved in the launch of the mass market newspaper the News on Sunday in 1987, which folded the same year.

The name ‘Big Flame’ came from a television play, The Big Flame (1969), written by Jim Allen and directed by Ken Loach for the BBCs Wednesday Play season. It dealt with a fictional strike in the Liverpool Docks.

Please add your memories of Big Flame by adding a comment below.


Angus Jardine, April 2009


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