Forty-odd years ago, back in the 1970s, a group of skilled workers at Lucas Aerospace UK were threatened with redundancy. Concerned for their future, and questioning the ethics of the products that they were designing and making, these engineers decided to band together and create a plan to instead design ‘socially useful and environmentally sustainable’ products, that would allow them to both keep their jobs and make a meaningful contribution to society. The Plan (That Came From The Bottom Up) aims to tell the story of this group and their ambitious and innovative plan, setting it in its historical context, and against the changing background of politics and industry in the UK.
The Plan is an incredibly ambitious documentary, and the research that went into making it must have been vast. It is packed, end to end, with (mostly black and white) archive footage, including newsreel and still photos, giving a real flavour of the time that it is focused on. This archive footage is interspersed with recent film of the central players of the Lucas Plan, talking about and reflecting upon their experiences, and narration is used to add context and commentary.
The story of the Lucas workers is an interesting one. Many of the products in their proposal – solar cells, wind turbines, carbon capture from coal, and a hybrid fuel pack for cars – were way ahead of their time, and The Plan aims not merely to tell their story but also to make us reflect on why their proposal was rejected and how things might be different today if it hadn’t been. This is an important story, and one that is highly relevant today, in our world of snowballing capitalism and runaway climate change. It’s a story that deserves to be widely heard. But I’m not sure that it will be.
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I’m not convinced that The Plan will reach its intended audience. In fact I’m not entirely sure who its intended audience actually is. At three hours and 32 minutes long, it is unlikely to attract the casual viewer, the man or woman in the street who might be surprised and inspired by the story. Few people, I imagine, commit to three and a half hours of film unless they know what they are getting into, and unless they have a pre-existing interest in the subject matter. It may be that The Plan, partly because of its running time, falls into the trap of preaching to the converted, missing out on the opportunity to be a rallying cry for revolution.
There has to be selection and refinement in deciding what to put in and what to leave out of a story. A documentary need not be exhaustive in its content; it is not a scientific report. The Plan, in its attempt to bring transparency to its subject, manages to pile on so much information that it almost obscures what it is trying to highlight. It takes a leisurely hour to set the political, economic, and industrial background, and it is frustratingly wandering and slow whilst it does it.
It feels, for much of the time, fragmented and unstructured, with no driving force behind it, despite its neat division into titled chapters. Once it passes the hour mark it begins to get to its point, and picks up the pace and the interest somewhat, but with a further 180 minutes to go it still feels like something of a slog. And, sadly, it just doesn’t feel accessible enough, mostly because of its overly long run-time, but also partly because of its meandering structure. If the aim is to tell a forgotten story, then surely accessibility should be a key consideration? I did get a lot of out this documentary, but I also felt that its salient points could have been packaged into 90 minutes and would reach a much larger audience.
This is a case of needing to separate the medium from the message. The memories and thoughts of the workers themselves are at the heart of The Plan, and are where its real strength lies. To hear them talk is educational and inspiring. What they tried to achieve, and how they so nearly succeeded is worth hearing. Their story should not be forgotten.