Suffrage Stories: My Experience Of Watching The Filming of A Scene From ‘Suffragette’

Suffragette Film Poster 2

After all that counting down – the day has arrived when all in the UK can see ‘Suffragette’. See here to find where it is showing in a cinema near you.

I’m one of four people who appears at the end of the credits as an ‘historical consultant’ – there is also an ‘historical adviser’ – and very much enjoyed answering questions that were put to me during – and after – the making of the film. The production company also bought from me some ‘suffragette’ postcards – both commercial comic and real photographic ones – to give as presents to members of the cast.

The production team had kindly invited me to be an extra during the filming – but, for one reason or another – not least because I’d already once before been a ‘suffragette’ extra in a TV programme – I thought I’d prefer the alternative – which was an invitation to watch an evening’s shooting of a crucial scene in the film.

By complete coincidence the scene took place about two minutes’ walk from my house – and about two minutes the other way from the production company’s office. Thus, one rather chilly March evening in 2014, I set out after dinner to take my seat in a tent on the roadside in Myddleton Square, opposite the house where, the previous evening, Meryl Streep as Mrs Pankhurst had appeared on a balcony to address her devoted followers.

I wondered about inserting here a ‘Spoiler Alert’ – but decided against it as the scene I mention appears in the trailer.

This evening’s shooting was to recount the aftermath of that speech. The police are closing in, intending to arrest Mrs Pankhurst, who is ‘on the run’ after having been released from prison under the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act. A decoy – a woman dressed as Mrs Pankhurst – comes out of the front door and is set upon by the police. When they discover their mistake the chase resumes – featuring all the main female leads – Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham-Carter and, of course, Meryl Streep.(The other lead, Romola Garai, who played ‘my’ Kate Frye last year in ITV’s The Great War: The People’s Storydidn’t, I think, feature in this particular scene.)

I watched as the scene was shot over and over again – from different angles – all to be spliced together in one short, sharp vignette. ‘Maud Watts’, ‘Violet Miller’ and ‘Edith Ellyn’ ensure that ‘Mrs Pankhurst’ reaches the safety of her motor car and, as she climbs in, turns to tell ‘Maud Watts’ ‘Never surrender, never give up the fight.’

I was very struck by the kindness of the production team towards me, the director’s assistant taking particular care to explain to me what was happening.  In the tent at various stages of the evening were the film’s writer, Abi Morgan, one of its producers, Faye Ward, and Don Gummer, Meryl Streep’s husband. How very supportive of him, I thought.

In between these numerous takes, as the evening advanced and the cold seeped into bones there was one ultra-surreal moment as, to keep warm, the four actresses linked arms and did high kicks on the doorstep. So appealing.

I say that was ‘ultra-surreal’ only because the whole experience had a surreality of its own. I have researched the suffrage movement in depth – in all its variety – for the past 20 years and during the last 25 have walked on innumerable occasions past the very spot where now I was watching Mrs Pankhurst being brought back, fleetingly, to life.

When I eventually left, with the filming winding down, I walked out of the past into the present, turning the corner from Myddleton Square into Chadwell Street, leaving that ghostly parallel world behind.


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  1. #1 by Jack Edwards on October 15, 2015 - 10:29 pm

    Hi Elizabeth,

    I remember seeing your name appear in the credits and saying rather excitingly to my boyfriend as we left the cinema “I’ve met her!” For me that particular scene of Emmeline delivering her speech followed by the chasing down of the crowd by the police was one of the best in the film.

    I was wondering out of curiosity, was the speech Meryl Streep’s Mrs. Pankhurst gave in the film repeating an actual speech the contemporary Mrs. Pankhurst gave, or was it based on a collection of her speeches? I’m asking this because I am intrigued to know where the line “I would rather be a rebel than a slave” comes from. I’m sure you have read about the recent controversy this quote has caused in reference to the photoshoot in which the main stars wore t-shirts with the words printed on them.

    Jack Edwards

    PS. I must thank you again for the help you gave me when I was preparing my dissertation. Without it, I don’t know if I would have still achieved a First.

    • #2 by womanandhersphere on October 19, 2015 - 1:22 pm

      Jack ~ good to hear from you. I think that Meryl Streep’s Mrs P speech was an amalgam of several – particularly one given in the Albert Hall on 17 Oct 1912. However, I’m not sure whether it contained the ‘Better a rebel..’ quote – and I haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact source for what has, as you say, become a rather contentious phrase. At the moment I just don’t have time to research that point further..Glad you enjoyed the film…
      Best wishes

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