In the early 1840s a young German revolutionary called Frederick Engels spent three years in Manchester. He observed how rapid industrialisation had made working class lives a misery.
The result was his classic book The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844.
Now Deirdre O’Neill and Michael Wayne from Inside Film are planning to turn Engels’ work into a theatre production and film that explores the connections between working class lives in Manchester then and today.
The idea came to the pair when they re-read the Engels book a couple of years ago, Deirdre told Socialist Worker.
“What struck us was how relevant the book is for today,” she said. “In many ways working class lives haven’t changed that much.
“For factories we now have call centres. But the working class is still paying the price for the mistakes that capitalists make.”
Deirdre and Michael spent a while considering how they flesh these links out in film form. Then they came across Not Too Tame, a Manchester based theatre company.
Deirdre describes them as young drama graduates that specialise in “working class theatre for working class people”.
“We approached them to help us put on workshops to talk about Engels’ text with local people.
“Hopefully at the end of this process we’ll have a theatre production based on scenes from the book, one that’s both contemporary and historical.”
They also film the whole process, from workshops through scripting to the final production.
But they are appealing for help from ordinary Mancunians to make the project happen.
“We’re not working with professional actors or contacting universities,” said Deirdre.
“We want to make links with working class areas and involve working class people in every aspect of the film.
“Whether it’s stage production or lighting, we want to organise this collectively.”
Certain aspects of Engels’ book stand out for Deirdre. “He’s very good on the geography of class. He notes that you can get round the city without crossing through working class areas.”
This situation persists today, she adds, with Manchester’s huge out-of-town council estates.
Other issues that link then and now include overcrowding. Many ordinary “two up two down houses” in east London house three or four families, she notes.
Engels also pays attention to the leisure habits of working class people and contextualises them in a world of alienation and poverty.
Deirdre notes how his approach contrasts sharply with today’s lurid mainstream press coverage of the average Saturday night out in town centres.
The films and workshops run on a tight schedule. “We’ll be in Manchester from the end of April to the middle of July,” Deirdre says. “The whole process will take two or three months.”