With the NHS currently under attack and junior doctors forced to go on strike, I thought I’d take a look at Pride, a recent British film set during the crushing of the miners’ strike and which examines the importance of unions and solidarity even with the most unlikely of partners!
Pride joins a select group of films which are always guaranteed to make me cry –no matter how often I’ve watched them – It’s a Wonderful Life being a case in point. An unashamedly British movie, Pride is witty and moving while deftly staying on the right side of sentimentality. There are some great lines and some great set pieces. The Welsh miners’ wives on a whistle stop tour of the seedier side of gay London nightlife being a prime example. Moreover, the film is also a wonderful showcase of ensemble acting with a cornucopia of fine British acting talent including the likes of Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton and Andrew Scott. In fact, there should be a special acting award simply for Bill Nighy’s eyebrow.
The background to Pride is Thatcher’s Britain and the film recreates the vibe of that era with pinpoint accuracy. It also means the film benefits from a great 80s soundtrack from the likes of Boy George, Bronski Beat and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The film is bookended between the Pride March in 1984 to the Pride March the following year. In those intervening months the film depicts how the actions of a small group of lesbian and gay activists in supporting the miners unknowingly helped to turn gay rights from a fringe issue into a mainstream political one.
The scene is quickly set with pre-credit shots of striking miners, then cue the film proper and the first image we see is a red flag emblazoned with the slogan: Thatcher Out!, and then a TV news report on the miners striking at the proposed closure of coal pits and the loss of 20,000 jobs. As one of the miners later points out “Without the mines the villages are finished, the pit and the people are one and the same.”
From the off the tone of the movie is humorous. This is quite a feat given the film deals with two rather heavy subjects: industrial action and gay rights at a time when Britain was far more unashamedly homophobic than it is now, an atmosphere exacerbated by the AIDS epidemic which was then seen by some as a “gay disease”. These two strands are brought together thanks to an unapologetically gay activist, Mark Ashton, who believes there should be no hiding, no running away and no apologies when it comes to being who you are. Mark is always one step ahead of the game, and is the first to make the connection that the miners and the gay community have more in common than one would think at first glance. As he succinctly puts it: Both groups are hated by Thatcher, the police, the public and the tabloid press. With this in mind, he sets up a group – Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) – to raise money for the miners. As he points out, what’s the point of supporting gay rights and not supporting other people’s rights?
However, the first problem the LGSM have is finding miners who want to accept their support. The Dulais Valley Lodge in Wales is picked at random and the first image we have of this community is of an elderly Welsh lady as she slowly walks to answer a phone in an empty hall. It’s in stark contrast to the group of young and vibrant activists in London wanting to help them. Here are two opposing worlds which are seemingly about to clash. The real problems start when the activists are invited to the small Welsh community where not only is no one openly gay but it’s even considered unmanly for a man to have a bop on the dance floor. Despite the unpromising start, the two sides discover that their mutual support brings benefits to both sides whether it’s useful advice from the activists on getting miners out of the clutches of police custody, learning enough dance moves to impress the ladies to encouraging one of the activists to get back in touch with his family.
But it’s not just the money but also the moral support that the LGSM provide which proves vital to the miners. This is a point reiterated by one of the miners’ representatives, Dai Donovan in a moving speech he gives in a gay bar. “What you’ve given us is more than money it’s friendship. When you’re in a battle against an enemy so much bigger, so much stronger than you and you find out you had a friend that you never knew existed, well that’s the best feeling in the world.”
At the same time and without labouring the point in the slightest, Pride shows the intense pain of being gay and not able to admit this to those you love as in the case of Joe whose tentative entry into the gay community the film also charts to the pain of losing loved ones simply on account of your sexuality. This acute pain is vividly seen in Andrew Scott’s character, Gethin. Andrew Scott beautifully underplays the sense of loss he clearly feels and which is brought to the fore when the group chooses at random a Welsh mining community to support, and he is made to face his ostracisation from his own Welsh roots and family. The scene where Imelda Staunton’s doughty matriarchal Hefina wishes him Happy Christmas in Welsh brings tears to his eyes as it did to mine.
The general contempt that the gay community is held in by the wider community at large is evidenced when the press get hold of the story and accuse the miners of being supported by a group of perverts, and the miners are derided and mocked as a result. Needless to say pressure is placed on the union to sever ties with LGSM.
Undaunted, Mark decides to use the bad press and publicity to promote a benefit night to raise money and awareness for the miners. With his two fingers up firmly in place at the establishment, he calls it Pits and Perverts in deference to the long and honourable tradition among oppressed groups that when someone calls you a name, you take it and make it your own. As with the original fundraising, this too is not without its problems. The first obstacle is lining up artists willing to perform at the event. Despite reiterating that it’s not a gay event per se but a coming together of all different kinds of people, one company ungraciously informs him that they can’t help as they have no gay artists on their books. This is quite a statement considering they have posters of Elton John and Soft Cell adorning their walls.
A year later and the success of the Pits and Perverts benefit night behind them and the miners’ strike well and truly over, it’s another Gay Pride March with the LGSM being shunted to the back of the march when organisers decide that people don’t want politics anymore but prefer more of a party feel. That is until something unexpected happens – cue the waterworks from yours truly – the miners turn up. Dai has kept his word and turned up to support LGSM when they needed him. But it’s not just the Dulais Valley Lodge but what seems to be every miner from South Wales. It truly is a moving scene, as coachload after coachload of miners arrive. The numbers are such that LGSM along with the miners are moved to the front of the march.
The scene neatly encapsulates the great strides that this small group of doughty individuals have made from the personal such as Joe going from denying his homosexuality to coming into his own as the group’s official photographer to being literally at the forefront of the Gay Pride March, and Siân James, who goes from housewife to eventually becoming the first female MP for Swansea East to the more general. As the film points out “a year after the strike ended, a motion was tabled at the Labour Party conference to enshrine gay and lesbian rights into the party’s manifesto. Although the motion had been raised before, this time it was passed. This was due, in part, to a block vote of total approval from one key union – the National Union of Mineworkers.”
And there is no doubt that this was a crucial moment in the gay rights movement. It’s fitting then that the very last image of the film is the complete antithesis of Thatcher’s idea of Britain, when everyone was supposed to be out for themselves and there was no such thing as society. The image is the union banner of two hands interlocked, holding each other – a succinct reminder of why unions are so important. As Dai Donovan’s character explains in the film the image symbolizes the essence of the Labour movement: you support me, I support you, shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand.
There is no doubt that the breaking of the miners’ strike saw the beginning of the chipping away of workers’ rights in this country, rights that had taken workers hundreds of years of bitter struggle to win. Nowadays Orwellian doublespeak like flexibility is used to hide the iniquities of zero hour contracts which in my opinion seem to provide workers with very few rights and seemingly allows companies to take the piss. It’s disheartening to hear of young workers who have to pay for their training, their uniforms and even sign clauses which say they have to pay the employer hundreds of pounds if they leave in the first year, even if they are sacked. WHAT? That a film which deals with such a sad and ugly time in British history can make you laugh so much is genius. It also makes you realise why the hell we need unions!