‘Jack Jones: The Unsung Hero’ – making a film about a union leader

Nigel Flanagan tells the tale of the subject of the film and the means by which is was made

Sat in a room in Hurricane Films in Liverpool, we had come together to talk about making a film about a union leader and who it could be. Our discussion moved onto the film about Thatcher starring Meryl Streep. It made us decide to make a film about one of our side, born in Liverpool and a person associated with union power but probably unknown to most generations before us. The idea was simple and good. Brian Reade of the Daily Mirror wrote a script and was asked to narrate and we listed people from the movement who would talk about Jack and his life. Jack’s family themselves gave the project our blessing.

Hurricane Films went about the film making with their strong sense of purpose. They interviewed Jack’s family (who also allowed family film footage to be used), Roger McKenzie of UNISON, Owen Jones, Dennis Skinner, Len McCluskey, Francis O’Grady, author and activist Tansy Hoskins and the late Rodney Bickerstaffe.

Brian Reade’s beautiful script captured the essence of Jack. Brian had written that his three great heroes were Bill Shankly, Mohammed Ali and Jack Jones – and that he had been lucky enough to meet them all. His narration captures the young man who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, who was badly wounded and lost so many good friends and comrades and who came back to Britain, married his love, Evelyn, and set about organising workers in amongst many other places, the growing car factories in the Midlands.

The film is a work of love for Jack. Director, Sol Papadopoulus, and producer, Roy Boulton, show Jack out and about as General Secretary of the mighty Transport and General Workers’ Union, arguing and losing his case at the TUC in 1977 for the Social Contract, retiring and immediately donating his retirement gift to the National Pensioners Association and leading Pensioners in many protests about the abject level of the state pension. There is humour too as his life was not an ordinary one, but mostly there is a sense of a man who cared deeply and passionately about workers and the rare temper he had to go with it.

His wife, Evelyn, features strongly too. A committed activist who more than matched the passion of Jack, she was also reputed as the only comrade who could properly contradict him on his politics. Interviews with her show that their personal partnership was also deeply tooted in the politics they shared. But then again Jack’s son tells us in the film that often his mother would be frustrated and lonely, unable to fully involve herself in political activity. Her sacrifices are not overlooked.

There is the controversy of the allegations of him being a Soviet spy, robustly and completely refuted by his family. The debates around the TUC and the anti-apartheid movement are featured as is his final act in his union leadership career, the Social Contract. In the film, Jack accepts with good grace that he could not be an advocate for workers’ democracy and then complain when it defeated him.

There were many challenges in making the film and Hurricane Films overcame all the artistic, practical and technical ones. Even the political problems were swiftly overcome in the general goodwill that exists around Jack. Unite and Len McCluskey were vital to the film, providing material and money to make sure it got made. Every region donated and many Unite branches sent money, often with kind words about Jack from activists who still remembered him. Everyone had a story to tell. Glen Williams of UNISON North West also successfully raised money from UNISON sources to keep the film project going. Individual workers sent money with more stories about Jack. Nearly every union in Britain donated money to the film. But it was not enough.

Everybody agreed that a film about successful unions needed to be made and when it was premiered in Liverpool Philharmonic Hall in June 2018 over 850 people turned out to see it. Since then it has been shown at union organised screenings across Britain.

But we could not cover the costs to fund the footage rights to either broadcast or distribute the film. The film relies on the use of footage of the Spanish Civil War, old news items and interviews with Jack. The amount we need to do this – £60,000 – compared to the millions and millions spent on TV productions and film productions in Britain is heart breaking for us. We cannot go back to trade unionists who have already collectively raised nearly £200,000 for the film. We have DVD copies that we are not allowed to sell, and we can only screen it at private showings.

Whenever or wherever, we screen it there is a tremendous response to the film. It shows unions with power, a leader with principles who was impersonated and referenced in popular TV culture of the 1970s, reflecting the confidence the movement had at the time.

At a time when people are rightly throwing statues into rivers, what a shame that we cannot get a broadcast or distribution deal. We prefer a film everyone can see about the great life of Jack Jones to the statues of racists and imperialists that litter our cities.

If you want to arrange a showing of the film for your CLP, union branch or organisation then email nigel.flanagan@icloud.com

Nigel Flanagan is global organiser currently working from Liverpool as well as Director of the Jack Jones Trust and Associate Producer.