Film: BFI London Film Festival Guide


Suffragette City

How far would you be willing to go for equality?

Tomorrow, on International Women’s Day, the National Archives in partnership with the National Trust and in collaboration with site specific experience designers O’Neill/Ross, will launch “Suffragette City”; an immersive experience inspired by history, that will give audiences a sense of what was at stake for a suffragette fighting for women’s right to vote.

The interactive experience is part of a wider programme for 2018 commemorating 100 years of the Representation of the People Act, which gave partial votes to married women over 30 and working class men, as well as 90 years since the Amendment that finally granted equal suffrage between men and women. The National Archives house thousands of original documents of the time: Police records from the trials and interrogations, pamphlets, letters and copies of the Suffragette newspaper, that were seized during raids. But rather than putting on another exhibition for a good cause, the idea behind this project is to bring history to life allowing people to interact with these records and documents in a different, more visceral way, so they can respond emotionally to historical facts.

The designers Helen Scarlett O’Neill and Harry Ross, who were involved with the earlier productions of Secret Cinema and have previously revived London’s notorious 1930s gay club Caravan, have recreated three contrasting spaces that were of key importance to the movement, designed and decorated according to the records and documentation they found in the Archives. On site at the London Pavilion at Piccadilly Circus, which was one of the original historical meeting places of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), they have recreated the Gardenia Tearoom from where the window smashing campaign was secretly orchestrated. In the basement, the designers have recreated the WSPU secret head quarters where the women were painting banners, stored explosives, printed the Suffragette newspaper and wrote on stones. It was so important to these ladies to not be seen as arbitrary vandals that every stone that smashed a window had a message written on it. The violent nature of the militant actions caused a lot of conflict even within the movement supporters who had to constantly question themselves: how far do you go for your cause? Also on record are the many men who supported the movement in various and unusual ways. A third space is a small prison cell and interrogation room.

For the experience there are two paths and two different tickets to chose from:  If you feel like supporting the suffragettes but you’d rather keep a low profile you can join the movement at head-quarters and take part in different learning courses and activities such as jujitsu classes and banner making or screen printing, prepare the stones, read the Suffragette paper in the tearoom or join a sing-a-long. If you feel like you’ve got the guts for a militant campaign, you can book a different ticket and relive the experience of Lillian Ball; a working class dressmaker and single mother from Tooting. Working class women involved with the movement took a considerably bigger risk, as they were seldom bailed out of prison and were usually given much rougher sentences. Lillian Ball faced some very challenging decisions and, if you are brave enough, so will you.

Potential militant campaigners will receive a card with instructions in the post that they are to show to a specific person to be let into a secrets passage leading to head-quarters. Here you will meet the suffragettes and the first question, the first one Lillian Ball faced, will be: “Do you want a short sentence or a long sentence?” It is important to understand that being involved with the suffragettes is a crime. Depending on your choice, your own personal narrative will evolve. Are you happy to just help out in the office and make a banner? Would you stretch to handing out leaflets on the street? Or are you willing to take on a mission? Would you put a parcel into a post box not knowing what it is or what harm it may course the recipient? Would you look around Piccadilly Circus to single out a building you are willing to smash the windows of? Would you testify against your comrades-in-arms if they threatened to take away your child? Would you go as far as joining the hunger strike? The accounts we have of force feedings in prison are quite graphic. The fact that the military campaign will take place not in an artificial stage set but right outside on London’s busy Piccadilly Circus will add to the sense danger and really push potential suffragettes out of their comfort zone, getting a real sense of how brave, passionate and determined these women were and what risks to life and limb they took so that we today can live in the way we do and profit from the freedoms they fought to gain for us.  

The Suffragette City immersive experience will of course be safe. But that doesn’t mean it won’t get scary, so woman-up and fight for your political rights or breathe a sigh of relief that you don’t have to anymore.

Suffragette City is at the London Pavilion from 8 – 25 March. Tickets for the immersive experience are £18.50, Tickets for Suffragette City classes and activities are £12.50.