Recreating the Battle of Orgreave
- the 2001 re-enactment
By Howard Giles
In 1984, the National Union of Mine Workers (NUM) under the leadership of Arthur Scargill clashed head-on with Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government in the climactic confrontation of the miners’ strike, outside the British Steel Corporation’s coking plant at Orgreave, South Yorkshire. In a day that changed British industrial relations forever, specially trained police “snatch squads” were used on the mainland for the first time, alongside mounted and large numbers of other police units against demonstrators engaged in “secondary picketing”, still legal at the time but considered unacceptable by the government. The miners were driven from the coke plant, over a railway line and into the village itself. There were many injuries and arrests, with the police criticised for using unnecessarily heavy-handed tactics. From the government’s point of view, crushing NUM militants had been a priority and this was certainly achieved. In doing so, however, the moderate views of many, opposing the closure of mines justified by dubious economic formulae, were overlooked. What is certain is that the day left a lasting bitterness and trauma in the area, something that many local people never came to terms with.
In November 2000 specialist historical events company EventPlan Limited was invited by innovative London-based arts production company Artangel to produce a feasibility study on a very unusual project – a recreation of history as art, depicting the Orgreave confrontation. The company was specifically chosen due to my experience in directing over 5,000 historical re-enactments, firstly as Head of Special Events at English Heritage (1986 to 2000), and then as Managing Director of EventPlan. This was to be the latter's first major commission, and turned out to be one of the most interesting ever.
The project was the brainchild of conceptual artist Jeremy Deller, noted for unusual yet striking projects such as Acid Brass and The Uses of Literacy. Having witnessed “traditional” re-enactments staged by societies such as The Sealed Knot, Deller wanted to see if it was possible to recruit and utilise re-enactors for something altogether more modern and controversial. The event would be filmed for Artangel and Channel 4, the latter providing much of the significant level of funding required. When respected Hollywood director Mike Figgis joined the project, additional kudos was guaranteed.
Although initially convinced that this re-enactment was a very bad idea, I quickly changed my mind after meeting the Artangel team and receiving firm reassurances that the local community were definitely in favour of the project. Indeed, without the latter’s support, pursuing this re-enactment would have been unthinkable. Any lingering reservations disappeared once EventPlan met some of the ex-miners who had taken part in the original confrontation face to face, for it became clear that they wanted their story told. However, for the re-enactment to be accurate and non-political, it would also be important to also talk to ex-policemen, and carefully sift through all available documentary evidence.
As a result of our feasibility study, we were commissioned in January 2001 to organise, script and direct a major re-enactment on Sunday 17 June 2001, the day before the 17th anniversary - rather a short lead time for something as complex as this. However, we were up for a challenge. Initially we aimed at 1000 participants, but this later had to be trimmed to 800 for budgetary reasons. Of this total, historical re-enactors would make up the majority but in an unusual innovation, 280 local people including ex-miners and policemen present in 1984 would also take part. Although the original confrontation initially involved up to 6,000 pickets and 8,000 police, by the time the most controversial part of the day occurred – the clearance of the “battlefield” by the police, the numbers actively involved had fallen to the low hundreds. In a two-part re-enactment we could therefore give an impression of the former, followed by the latter staged on an almost one to one basis, very rare in a live re-enactment.
EventPlan’s role was central to the project and in liaison with Jeremy, included much background research and scripting. We selected the ground to be used, created a detailed script based on this and what actually happened in 1984, recruited the re-enactors and advised on recruitment of local extras, appointed key "commanders" and group leaders, oversaw the production of key props, organised the participants, arranged suitable training and, crucially, directed the action in “real time”. We also planned and provided much of the event infrastructure such as detailed planning papers, risk assessments, safety marshals, signage and some event equipment. Particularly as it was EventPlan’s first major project, it had to go well. Worryingly, friends and colleagues continually said “how brave” we were to take this on. Remembering what "Yes Minister" character Sir Humphrey Appleby meant when saying this to Jim Hacker, I do admit to a few sleepless nights! However, I was confident in our abilities and most of all, of the many re-enactors destined to take part. Most of all we wanted to bring to life Jeremy's vision in a way that would amaze onlookers. They weren’t disappointed.
Looking the part
Success depended on both sides looking and acting the part. We thus organised the police into correctly sized PSUs (Police Support Units) of long and short shield riot police, “ordinary” Bobbies, a dozen mounted police, “1st aiders”, and even two dog handlers. We engaged the talented art director Stephen “Abs” Wisdom as prop master, which included sourcing supplies of shields and converting NATO crash helmets into replicas of those worn by the shield and mounted units in 1984, which with the exception of the Met shield, were very different from those in use today. Meanwhile the film production company (Euphoria Films) sourced 450 police uniforms in appropriate sizes, no mean feat.
Choosing which re-enactors played what roles was one of the more interesting challenges. This was partly determined by which societies applied to take part. Some we expected to didn’t, and some we didn’t, did. Some failed to inform their members at all, or not until it was too late, whilst others were breathtakingly fast and efficient. However, once all the details were entered onto our ever-expanding database, it was all very straight forward. Wherever possible, participants were assigned to the side of their choice, senior officers chosen for their experience in commanding large bodies of soldiers and individual units generally led by their usual officers and NCOs. The police were ably commanded by Philipp Elliot-Wright of The Southern Skirmish Association (American Civil War re-enactors) and Jonathan Taylor of the English Civil War Society, with Alan Larsen of The Troop leading the dozen-strong mounted contingent. Mac McLoughlin, a local ex-policemen who served at Orgreave, volunteered to help and very soon found himself as official technical advisor for the police side. After a little further prodding he agreed to take a more active role and during the re-enactment accompanied our short-shield snatch squads in action, advising their commanders.
Only two “characters” were to be portrayed. Actor and re-enactor Simon Kirk was engaged to play Arthur Scargill, which he found particularly interesting as real-life friends and colleagues of Mr Scargill advised him on and off the field. Another actor, Tony Kirkham, played Assistant Chief Constable Anthony Clements, who commanded the police at Orgreave. Bearing a striking resemblance to Clements, he also practiced the latter’s accent so he could accurately recreate key loud hailer commands and announcements.
Casting the Police
When it came to assigning units, we first looked at the tactical roles to be recreated, including the different types of police deployed. The front rank of the police line consisted of officers carrying the long “Met” shield. Their role was primarily defensive and would take a battering from charging miners and missiles. 80 men wide in 4 PSUs, our line had to be able to advance in line and hold against determined attempts to break them. Looking for re-enactors with shield experience, we picked Romans and Dark Age groups, together with a few serving and ex-policemen. Still short of a few men, we assigned some Sealed Knot members who, whilst unused to shields, were certainly no strangers to hand to hand fighting. The result was excellent – the formation could hold their line, advance without falling apart and respond quickly to orders, particularly at the centre, which had to be able to break instantly to let the mounted and short shield units move through at speed, then close the line again.
Next, we looked at who would be best suited to fill the ranks of the two short shield PSUs. These were the “snatch squads”, who had to be able to attack quickly in formation, "make arrests" and then retire whilst (inevitably) under bombardment from “missiles” or physical “attack”. As they were to play a key role, they had to be reasonably fit to run fast, experienced and well disciplined. The Vikings formed one unit, and members of the English Civil War Society the other. Although the latter had not carried shields before, they were skilled in “falling on” (C17th terminology for charging into hand to hand combat) and quickly reforming when required. For the second part of the battle, a third short shield unit was formed from long shield officers consisting of Sealed Knot and ECWS members. In many respects these units probably had the most fun in the battle, aggressively charging about at a run although often uphill, which proved quite hard work!
The vast majority of the police line would, as in 1984, consist of “ordinary” non-shield policemen. Although we had to make do with just 3 lines rather than up to 12 as actually deployed in 1984, this still represented an impressive force of over 230 men, formed up behind the long shields. Primarily placing the non-re-enactor extras in the rear line for safety reasons, we deployed our other participants, from a multitude of societies, through the ranks. In most cases we kept units together, ensuring an ongoing “esprit de Corps” and that generally, most participants knew who was to their left and right. It worked – the formation looked good and square-bashing/arm-linking quickly moulded everybody into passable coppers. With many of the re-enactors also used to marching in column and line, they were all soon ready to “do battle”.
An unexpected result of utilising skilled re-enactors was that the recreated Police lines moved and manoeuvred more efficiently than their real Police counterparts in 1984 due to the latter's inexperience of the then new riot tactics, so had to deliberately "lose" some of their slickness during the battle.
Casting the miners
Perhaps not surprisingly, organising and directing the miners represented a far greater challenge. Although they had to look unorganised, for safety and scripting reasons they had actually to be highly organised. On top of this, many real ex-miners needed to be absorbed into the “ranks”, whilst remembering that the were taking part in a recreation, not a refight. This was achieved by appointing experienced re-enactors to command the 16 mixed groups of re-enactors and local extras. Simon Frame and Kevin Cotgrave of the Fairfax Battalia soon found themselves talked into taking the senior command roles, aided on the field by EventPlan’s Assistant Event Director, Ian Castle. Clothing also had to look the part, with guidelines issued and special “Coal not dole” stickers and NUM posters produced by Artangel.
Stunts and props
Specialist stuntmen co-ordinated by live action specialist Mark Griffin were engaged. These were used to working in “real time” and together with EventPlan staff planned the recreation of crucial incidents (particularly some violent ones). Safety “rocks” were produced in quantity by Stephen Wisdom for throwing at the police, primarily at the (original) site of the bitterest fighting, just over the railway bridge in Highfield Lane. Additionally, we advised the film production company on the placing and use of action vehicles, one of which was set alight on cue as part of the recreation.
Whilst the re-enactors were being recruited, Jeremy Deller and I researched the real battle and refined the script. Discovering what really happened on that hot, violent day was as fascinating as recreating it, for no single extant account was sufficiently clear. Add to this inevitable political “spin”, and if anything the facts became even murkier. Police accounts were at best incomplete, sometimes ignoring or rewriting embarrassing incidents for posterity. On the other side, police brutality was played up whilst violence by the demonstrators – especially the throwing of missiles – were often conveniently overlooked. TV documentaries tended to side with the miners, whilst news reports from the actual day attempted to vindicate the police. Working on the assumption that there are two sides to every story, we spent weeks sifting through the evidence, creating an unbiased “blow by blow” account, then checking this with people who had been present. The final piece of the jigsaw fell into place with the receipt of official police footage of the “riot”, which clearly showed the initial large-scale confrontation and police reaction.
Everything now fell into place and a final script agreed. We would show that whilst the police did appear to overreact, there were reasons for doing so (although not always justified). We would also show that a minority of police officers “lost it” and brutally handled some protestors, especially towards the end of the “battle”. We would show that police officers came under galling missile bombardment, extremely intense on at least one occasion. Finally, we would show that most policemen did remain under control and acted entirely professionally throughout. Our aim was to show how the situation gradually got out of hand, ending up with a local (if not national) PR disaster for the police and a severe physical drubbing for the miners. Those witnessing the re-enactment or watching the film could then make up their own minds on who was justified in their actions, and who was not.
As a historian, I found one of the most interesting part of the whole exercise to be speculating on why things happened the way they did, and was surprised to find that perhaps it was largely dictated by the nature of the “forces” involved. To use historical military terms (which is actually very apt), a defending “heavy infantry” force of police, with “cavalry” but no missile capacity, found itself up against a determined “light infantry” force of miners unable to stand up to close contact but able to throw missiles. A tactical mismatch if there ever was, with neither side willing to give way. The result – pressure on a shield wall, followed by a series of police charges, which captured ground but failed to drive off hard line protestors until a decisive "cavalry charge" was launched. The “battle” was violent, messy and somehow “unbritish”. But it happened, and we set out to recreate it as accurately as we could, without spin.
Training and Rehearsals
In just two days over the event weekend, theory was turned into practice, despite unseasonably cold and wet weather, totally different from the blazing heat of 18 June 1984. On the Saturday we “drilled” and rehearsed the participants and on Sunday recreated the battle. Our plans were brought to fruition with a vivid two-part recreation adjacent to and then on the actual “battlefield”, the village of Orgreave itself. Overall, we were delighted how quickly diverse groups had come together and in a spirit of friendly co-operation, smoothly set about recreating new roles within a context different to any they had re-enacted before.
Four modern-day riot police trainers from Lancashire Constabulary spent much of Saturday training the police, particularly the long and short shields. In a genuine tribute to the re-enactors and their professional attitude, the trainers praised them for their efficiency and said they were the best material they had ever worked with! Indeed as mentioned above, unfortunately so successful were they that we soon realised that “our” police were actually too smart and well trained compared with the real officers in 1984, struggling as they were with new tactics and insufficient training. Before we could continue therefore, some time was spent deliberately ensuring our police formations looked a little more ragged round the edges.
Safety was of crucial importance, with all participants constantly reminded before and during the event of the need to “pull their blows” to minimise any chance of real injury. A few ex-miners did get a little carried away during rehearsals, but reminders on the Sunday morning ensured that everybody remembered that it wasn’t a real battle! This worked so well that on the day, only one minor (self-inflicted) injury was sustained.
Walkie-talkie radios were extensively used, with opposing commanders able to co-ordinate movements in line with the script, acting on my cues. Because a “remote” overview of the battle was impossible during part 2 due to the same "dead ground" that hampered operational control of the police operation in 1984, I accompanied the police whilst keeping in close contact over the radio with Ian, who was accompanying the miners. As such I was lucky enough to find myself in the thick of the fighting, under a terrific barrage of “stones”, in probably the most lifelike re-enactment I’ve ever been part of.
Part 1 of the re-enactment recreated the initial confrontation between pickets and police outside the BSC coking plant (now long gone and built over) in a nearby field. After a short interval to shift locations slightly, this was followed by Part 2, a recreation the police advance over the railway bridge and up Highfield Lane into the heart of the village, which had scarcely changed. “Rocks” were hurled, a car burned, the road was a seething mass of miners confronting lines of riot police banging their truncheons on their shields. Appropriate period swearing was encouraged, so as to more fully recapture the fury and chaos of the real clash. Standing in the middle of the action, observers were hard put to tell that this was 2001 not 1984. It was as the Independent newspaper put it, “eerily convincing”.
Only one part of the real events of 18 June 1984 – the panic-stricken crossing of the Rotherham to Worksop railway line by miners pursued by police – could not be recreated for safety reasons. Apart from this, every effort was made to restage all the key phases of the original “battle”.
Within the 3000-strong audience of predominantly local people, hairs stood on end as riot police swept through the streets. The action culminated in a charge by mounted police over the village crossroads, scattering hundreds of “miners” in all directions. According to many participants and audience alike, it was like witnessing the real thing.
Ending with genuinely emotional handshakes between “police” and “miners”, the recreation had a positive effect on the local community. To the pleasure of all, it appeared to encourage a belated healing process to begin for many Orgreave “veterans”, who until the re-enactment had found the memory of June 1984 just too painful to discuss. For EventPlan and Artangel staff, this made the project more than worthwhile, let alone everything else. Sadly, since the re-enactment - itself now part of history - it has become very clear that many people remain traumatised by the events of June 1984. Despite huge support, their calls for an official enquiry remain unheeded.
Filming for Channel 4
Mike Figgis spent the weekend filming the action as it unfolded, at one stage perched precariously on the railway bridge, "missiles" flying past his head. Footage taken by the numerous camera crews was excellent and so realistic that it could be taken for the real thing when compared with that from 1984. Much to our delight the resulting one-hour film was premiered in London’s West End on the “big screen”, in front of an invited audience on 19 November 2001. This was followed by a special advance showing for participating re-enactors and extras in Sheffield in late November 2001 and screenings on Channel 4 during 2002 and 2003. It is now viewable in full on YouTube.
This event was judged to be a huge success by all and set a new benchmark for standards of planning and realism in re-enactments, whether live or staged for film. 15 years later, the re-enactors who took part still remember their achievement with pride. Thanks to everyone who took part for making the project such a success.
I hope that other filmmakers will note all this and grasp the opportunity offered by top re-enactors, utilising them for projects in the future.
Staged by EventPlan in 2001 as a live "art" event and filmed documentary-style by Hollywood Director Mike Figgis for Channel 4, "The Battle of Orgreave" is thought by many to be the most realistic major re-enactment ever staged in "real time".
See the Channel 4 documentary - including many sequences filmed at the re-enactment - on YouTube.
© 2016 Howard Giles