BLOG Rhian E JonesNWR Issue 105
Not the Only Gay on the Picket Line
I was initially suspicious of Pride
. There is a certain brand of British feel-good film – pioneered perhaps by The Full Monty
, reaching its peak with Billy Elliot
– that, for all its virtuous intentions, portrays the ravages of the 1980s in a style the writer and critic Joe Kennedy describes as: ‘deindustrialisation – a great laugh where we learned a valuable personal lesson.’ In Matthew Warchus’ and Stephen Beresford’s take on the 1984 encounter between Dulais Valley strikers and London-based activist group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, I feared a portrayal of Wales even more cringeworthy than that of The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain
; I feared ‘working-class’ and ‘queer’ being presented as mutually exclusive categories. Thankfully, Pride
’s Valleys accents might be occasionally inconsistent but its politics are almost impeccable.
The receding of the Miners’ Strike into recent history means it is in danger of becoming myth, but Pride
was kept grounded by the involvement at all production stages of those involved in the real events. Rather than performing parodies or grotesques, the actors vanish into their roles, from predictably strong handlings like Imelda Staunton’s redoubtable matriarch Hefina to Ben Schnetzer as LGSM firebrand Mark Ashton. As an 80s period-piece the film also impresses, whether in its meticulously reconstructed sets, its characters’ crimped candyfloss hair and ubiquitous denim, or its tone of unapologetic political earnestness.
The film opens with news footage of the strike and its impact beyond the coalfield, with Ashton gathering support for the miners by emphasising that government and police are a common enemy for whole swathes of the UK. This unquestioned ideal of solidarity saturates the whole story. Like its repeated motif of joined hands, Pride
’s message of unity in struggle is simplistic but no less powerful for that. You can forgive the slightly one-note analysis, along with the odd moment of poetic cliché – all the Welsh characters can sing like dirty-faced angels at the drop of a collection bucket, for instance. This is because it is refreshingly un-shy of making its unfashionable politics explicit.
The story starts in London, with the LGSM’s founding and quest to distribute the miners’ support funds they raise. This means that both gay characters and we are introduced to the Welsh as exotic creatures from far afield: a neat reversal of the strikers’ own expected attitude to interlopers from That London. The culture clashes that take place in the coalfield are juxtaposed with the intolerance and hostility that also exists in the capital – Andrew Scott, as gay expatriate Gethin, observes in a moment of grim foreshadowing, ‘I don’t need to travel to Wales to get my head kicked in.’ The belated coming-out of Bill Nighy’s diffident village elder Cliff is comically underplayed, but its nonchalant acceptance is contrasted with George MacKay’s unwilling outing and rueful retreat from his uncomprehending family in the London suburbs.
The illegality of police harassment, in south Wales as in Soho, is referenced early on, but the political conflict of miners vs state is mostly a backdrop to more whimsically presented socio-cultural conflict. The film’s true villains are bigotry and ignorance, portrayed in the toxic 80s concordance of a rampant right-wing press, moral panic over AIDS, and the concern with protecting working-class and masculine dignity from stigma by association. The latter is an anxiety to which Lisa Palfrey’s pinch-lipped refusenik Maureen and her followers fall victim. Pride
’s advocacy of wider solidarity here anticipates the aftermath of the strike, in which mining communities were made conscious of their marginalised position in Thatcherite Britain, as pitilessly outcast as any ‘deviant’ subculture.
I found myself appreciating the film’s preference for poignant understatement over mawkish melodrama. However, I also felt frustrated by its somewhat soft-focus take on what was a brutal and remorseless time whose ending was certainly not happy. The strike’s eventual breaking and the miners’ return to work provides a note of downbeat dignity here, though its significance is largely swept away in the crescendo of the film’s finale. At the 1985 Gay Pride March, the seeds of current struggles between class and identity politics are suggested in a conflict over whether the march should be more party than protest. Ultimately a cop-out compromise is averted by a cavalry consisting of coachloads of miners returning the LGSM’s support. The film thereby achieves a final impression of victory in cross-cultural solidarity despite the strike’s defeat. At the same time, however, it emphasises the relative absence of avenues for such solidarity today.
It’s some achievement to make this viewer nostalgic for the earnestness, certainties and communities of the 80s, but Pride
does manage it. It is a moving, inspirational and valuable film, even if its reminder of how British miners are firmly entrenched on the losing side of recent history makes it more bittersweet than straightforwardly uplifting.
Rhian E Jones
’ latest book is Clampdown, Pop-cultural Wars on Class & Gender
previous blog: American Interior in Welsh
next blog: For the Birds, RSPB Ynys-hir Reserve 2–5 October 2014