Thirty years after the miners’ strike, Josephine Grahl reviews two recent films about it. Contains spoilers for Pride.
Still the Enemy Within starts with a series of shots of the Yorkshire countryside. Desolate, beautiful and empty; this is the post-industrial landscape. Thirty years ago, the surface buildings of a coal mine stood here, providing livelihoods for 2,000 households, until the Thatcher government’s determination to break the power of the unions led to a year-long struggle to the death with the National Union of Mineworkers.
Still the Enemy Within is an unabashedly partisan trade union- and crowd-funded documentary on the events of 1984 and 1985, representing the voices of those involved. It also provides a very useful background to the strike, not least in its highlighting of the Ridley report – a set of proposals drawn up in the late 1970s on ways in which a future Conservative government might take on the powerful 1970s trade unions and win. The miners’ strike was to provide a textbook example of Ridley’s ‘major strike in a nationalised industry’, and Thatcher’s government used most of the suggested tactics to defeat the NUM. It became a landmark in British politics, beginning the process of weakening and undermining the strong trade unions of the social-democratic post-war era.
Director Owen Gower is clear that the film takes a position on the miners’ strike representing the voices of those who fought. The documentary uses news footage, still photos, and interviews with miners and their allies to revisit the period of the strike and just before, and to show the importance of the strike for British politics and civil society. The miners interviewed are superb: powerful, bitter, and clear about the importance of the strike as a formative political and personal experience.
Some of the archive footage is fascinating; I’d love to know more about the training footage of policemen being instructed in riot conditions, facing petrol bombs and brick-throwing. But if you’re going to use an Adam Curtis-style collage of clips, it behoves you to use it responsibly. You have to decide whether the news material is to be used chronologically or thematically and stick to that; otherwise, you end up with something which is nudging up uncomfortably against propaganda. I don’t believe that Still the Enemy Within comes anywhere close to bad faith or misleading use of its own material; but the occasional repetition of the same archive footage to make a point can seem slightly manipulative.
There’s also a dubious directorial decision to dramatise a couple of the events described by the miners and activists in the film; the dramatisations look cheap and unconvincing, and in the end undermine the commitment of the film-makers to the voices and stories of the people interviewed, undeniably the most powerful aspect of the film.
Pride also sets the scene with archive footage, but from then on, as a ‘dramatisation’ of real events, has some leeway which Still the Enemy Within does not have. It falls solidly within a certain tradition of British films of the last 25 years, from Brassed Off through The Full Monty, Billy Elliott (arguably, although I would argue against), and Made in Dagenham, films which dramatise, in a certain mode, the working class politics of this country. What is that mode? Reductively, one might describe it as the vision of Britain in which the brutalities of Thatcherite deindustrialisation give those affected a chance for some really fulfilling personal growth. The post-Thatcher working class film, populated by British character actors, in which the struggle may be unsuccessful but the warmth and humour of those engaged in the struggle compensates for their defeat.
Pride tells the story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, a support group which raised money for the penniless miners during the strike. As the Thatcher government had sequestered the funds of the National Union of Mineworkers, it wasn’t possible to donate directly to the central union; instead, the London LGSM group built direct links with one mining community in South Wales, raising money and exchanging visits with them. LGSM was built on a shared solidarity in part against the police, made explicit when the gays visit Wales and advise the miners and their wives on police powers and rights under arrest. It’s not subtle, but it makes clear one of the unifying elements of radical struggle in Britain, whether of gays and lesbians, black people, students, or the broader working class: the police and their abuse of their powers.
The central figure in the film is Mark Ashton, played by Ben Schnetzer, the charismatic Northern Irish activist who sets up the original group. The group are made up of Faye Marsay as spunky lesbian Steph, George Mackay as shy, barely-out-of-the-closet Joe from Bromley, Andrew Scott as Gethin, the Welsh gay man who is estranged from his family but over the course of the film becomes reconciled with his mother, and Dominic West having a whale of a time as Gethin’s posh boyfriend Jonathan Blake, getting a disco dance number to Shame Shame Shame in the Welsh miners’ hall as he teaches those repressed miners how to boogie.
As dance numbers are followed by close-harmony Welsh singing, the whole film feels halfway to a hit West End musical already (I give it three years), with the emotional and dramatic climaxes coming at regular intervals, and a mirroring of key moments of drama. As Dai, the Welsh miner, has to sumon up the nerve to make a speech at a Soho drag club, so must Mark try and win over the miners in their own working men’s club. We’ve seen these scenes before, so there’s no tension as to whether shy Joe will escape his parents and return to the struggle, or whether the mining community will, in the end, learn to embrace the alien gays and lesbians.
The film is an examination of intersectionality, demonstrating its importance not just for moral reasons – wouldn’t it be nice if everyone were nice? – but for political reasons; the alliance of different groups in order to pursue their common interests is strategically essential. The end-of-film titles point out that it was only in 1985 that the Labour Party enshrined equal rights for gays and lesbians in its constitution; the motion had been put previously, but was only carried with the bloc vote from the National Union of Mineworkers. Pride also doesn’t shy away from the fact that both sides shown here were devastated during the eighties; the miners were categorically routed by Thatcher, and shortly afterwards AIDS would devastate the gay community which had shown them its solidarity.
It’s disappointing, however, that a film which engages so thoroughly with the politics of intersectionality is so dismissive of the splintering off of the Lesbians Against Pit Closures group (all the lesbians in the film bar one leave the original group). I can’t comment on the ins and outs of the gender politics of the early ‘80s (who can?), but for the film to emphasise so strongly the importance of the alliance of the gay liberation movement with the miners’ struggle and yet treat the womens’ concerns as a joke is dismaying.
There’s also a de-politicisation of the actions of those involved. Mark Ashton, the central figure in the film, was not just a driving force in Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners; he was politically engaged well before the miners’ strike and, after it, the secretary of the Young Communist League. Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners was a national organisation, not the handful of charismatic activists we’re shown here. Yes, these things are elided or simplified for dramatic effect – but every time something is changed in order to simplify the narrative or add dramatic tension, one has to ask oneself what effect that is having on the truth.
Was there queer-bashing (or attempted queer-bashing) in mining communities against the gays supporting them? It’s possible; but it’s also difficult to find any evidence for it. Yes, there was a notorious Pits and Perverts Sun headline; but in the film it’s a homophobic miner’s wife who calls up the newsroom with a tip-off (the newspaper is carefully not mentioned in the film).
The end of the film could be the emotionally devastating moment that the miners march back to the pits behind their union banners and brass bands; but instead it finishes on a more upbeat note. The 1985 Pride march through London was led by miners’ union branches from South Wales in recognition of the solidarity shown to them by gay activists throughout the strike; and the end of the film shows the same union banners parading through London on a beautiful sunlit day.
Still the Enemy Within is released this week; Pride is in cinemas now.