Rebellion and rebel uniforms

Don McCullin, Northern Ireland, The Bogside, Londonderry, 1971

ESL/EFL lesson plan on the theme of rebellion and rebel uniforms including cinema, photography and music

There is an exhibition on at Tate Britain that I am currently missing. No doubt I will keep on missing it, regretfully, until the end of its run on May 6th, being unable to tear myself away from work and family life in France. My Dad did, however, get to go, and gives it a resounding thumbs up. It is a retrospective of the work of photojournalist Don McCullin, taking in a lifetime’s work on the frontline of many struggles, whether they be overseas wars or studies of homelessness back home in the UK. Many will be familiar, like perhaps the image above of unrest on the Bogside area of Londonderry, which is not alone among McCullin’s work in the way that it captures something absurd or even funny among the chaos and the fury. 

McCullin’s photo above also got me thinking again about uniforms, the subject of a recent post. It is not untopical either, given the way that current unrest in France has its own costume identity; not only the gilet jaunes/yellow vests themselves but also a counter movement named foulards rouges (red scarves), not to mention the ‘black bloc’ anarchists and the heavy armour of the French riot police. One image from earlier on in the current spell of protests was this astonishing Paris Match photo of an eyeball-to-eyeball face-off between a heavily-armed female police office and a bare-breasted, body-painted, protestor-cum-performance artist donning the persona of Marianne, the national symbol of French liberty.

It is an image of which Don McCullin would no doubt have been proud, and one that recalls another iconic photograph from an event that defines a period of British social conflict: The Battle of Orgreave. This image, by The Guardian’s late photojournalist Don McPhee, pits a striking minor wearing a toy police hat facing off against policemen sent to break the picket lines at the British Steel Corporation coking plant in Orgreave, Rotherham, South Yorkshire. What ensued of course was one of the most violent confrontations in British industrial history, but here we are frozen at a moment just prior to the carnage that would follow. It is almost like boxers squaring up at weigh-in, sizing each other up with grudging respect.

Paul Castle (far left) and George ‘Geordie’ Brealey (right) at Orgreave in 1984
Photograph: Don McPhee

I think the images work very well together as a warm-up. To develop the theme and vocabulary a bit I have added a clip from Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father, which depicts events not dissimilar to those shown in Don McCullin’s photograph at the top. Daniel Day Lewis plays a petty criminal who goes on to become one of the Guildford Four, falsely accused of the 1974 IRA pub bombings in the Surrey town. It is, frankly, an exhilirating sequence, showing how rapidly tensions between republican communities and British security forces could degenerate. It is given an extra shot of adrenaline curtesy of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile”, reinforcing the link between rebellion and rock ‘n roll.

To complete the sequence I have added a song by Lee Hazlewood called “The Troublemaker”. It is not one of Lee’s finest – it is not like the extraordinary “Some Velvet Morning“, for example – but it playfully, through its final twist, questions the conservative perception of late 60s protestors. Depicting a man whose “hair was much too long” and who “has rejected the establishment”, and would rather “wear his sandals and his flowers”, the song takes a final turn by implying the subject of the lyrics is not in fact a hippy protestor but Jesus Christ. As in the Jim Sheridan film, the costume of the rebel is very much a product of the time: the hippie look, essentially. The song has particular resonance because Hazlewood fled to Scandinavia at the height of the Vietnam war so that his son could avoid the draft. It is thus a protest song, with potentials for linking up the sequence below to my previous post about John Lennon’s Imagine and Steely Dan’s ruthless riposte.

Level: B1+


First off, you could write “rebel” on the board, and ask students to discuss what a rebel looks like.

Next, to get some rebel vocabulary flowing, I recommend a compare and contrast of the aforementioned photos. Here they are again together.

Here are some brainstorming suggestions:

  • Describe the pictures (who? what? where? when? why? etc.)
  • What similarities are there?
  • What differences are there?
  • Have you seen these pictures before?
  • How do the pictures make you feel?

Have students discuss in pairs or small groups, before soliciting suggestions from the whole class, noting down any relevant vocab for all to see. For the interest of later discussions, try to elicit from the idea of uniforms and costumes (if they don’t come up with it themselves).

You could further the discussion with some historical context. What do they know about the social movements shown? What other social movements are happening in the world today or have happened in their lifetime?

Clip analysis

Step one

Have the students watch the first 45 seconds of the clip and ask them to make notes on what they see:

  • Describe the clip. Who? Where? When?
  • What do you think is happening?
  • What do you think will happen next?
  • Which of the social contexts in the photos do you think it is linked to? Why?

Depending on the level, you might want to play this first fragment without the sound, as the explanatory voiceover might prove difficult and frustrate them. Otherwise you could play it once without sound, then a second time with the voiceover, and ask them to make notes about what they understand.

Allow students time to share their obervations in pairs/small groups, before holding a plenary discussion and noting down useful vocab for all to see.

Step two

Play the rest of the clip and ask the students to make notes on the following:

  • Describe the action (what happens, why and how?)
  • Describe the use of music. How does it make you feel?
  • Describe the environment shown (buildings, colours, weather)
  • Describe the camerawork and cuts
  • What do we learn about the situation in the area at the time?


Allow students time to share their obervations in pairs/small groups, before holding a plenary discussion and noting down useful vocab for all to see.

Song analysis

Tell the students they are going to listen to a song called “The Troublemaker”. What do they think it will be about? What style/genre of music do they think it will be?

Next, have them listen to the song once, before discussing with a partner the following:

  • Describe the mood
  • What is the song about? Does it tell a story?
  • When do you think the song was written? Why?


Afterwards you could do a gap-fill exercise, with or without the missing words available to the students (level depending). Alternatively, you could cut the lines into strips and have students reassemble them, during or after listening. Personally, I would remove words related to the same lexical field (establishment, mob, trouble-making, disrespectful etc.), but you might want to choose a different approach. Here are the lyrics – as far as I know they are not reproduced anywhere else online:

“The Troublemaker”, Lee Hazelwood, 1969:

I could tell the minute that I saw him
He was nothing but the trouble-making kind
His hair was much too long
And his motley group of friends
Had nothing but rebellion on their minds
He’s rejected the establishment completely
And I know for sure he’s never had a job
He just goes from place to place
Stirring up the young folk
‘Till they’re nothing but a disrespectful mob
And I know he never tried to join the army
To serve his country like we all have done
He’d rather wear his sandals and his flowers
While others wage the war that must be won
They arrested him last week and found him guilty
Sentenced him to die that’s no great loss
Friday they’ll take him to a place called Calvary
And hang that trouble-maker to a cross

Finally, have students discuss the song:

  • Who is the troublemaker?
  • Who is the narrator?
  • What do you think the message of the song is? Why?
  • What do you think the social context is? Why?

If the students do not realize the troublemaker is actually Jesus, and that the song is an ironic take on conservative attitudes towards the late 60s counter-culture, then try to elicit it!

Productive/creative tasks for students

You could do one or more of the follow-up activities:

  • A debate/discussion on rebellion (What protest movements are there in the world at the moment? Do the students agree or disagree with the actions taken by the “rebels”?)
  • Have the students invent a costume/uniform for a revolt. What is the cause and what actions would the protestors take? There are more suggestions around this idea here.
  • Students research and present a particular social movement from the past or present.

Possible areas of language focus

  • Modals for deducing the situation in the film clip (“It must be in Northern Ireland”)
  • Vocabulary related to the lexical field of revolt and rebellion
  • To help the students express themselves you may need, level-depending, to help them with prepositions of movement. This could accompany some technical vocabulary to explain the different shots in the film. In fact, most explanations of standard film shots include a fair number of prepositions so it could be an interesting way to teach them.

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