Two very disparate communities forge an unlikely and unexpectedly close bond when a London gay and lesbian group decides to support a village of Welsh miners during the 1984/5 Miners’ Strike.
Land And Freedom by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The unlikely feel-good plot of Pride seems too good to be true but, amazingly, the events really happened and some of the film’s principal characters are based on the actual participants. Stay and watch the end credits and you’ll find out what they’re doing today. Inspired by fund-raising activist Mark Ashton (a very ’80s fresh-faced Ben Schnetzer), a gay and lesbian group centred on the iconic Gay’s the Word bookshop in London collect money for the miners, who are in a bruising strike against the National Coal Board under Margaret Thatcher’s government. He sees that both groups are united by hatred – the hatred against them, that is. For one group it’s a homophobic society that daubs slogans on the shop window and goes ‘gay bashing’ and for the other a Conservative government determined to break the power of the unions.
Although it was only 30 years ago, 1985 really does seem like a foreign country. The period is brilliantly recreated both with archive news footage of violent demonstrations and patronising Thatcher interviews, and in its dingy interiors, clothes, music, politics – when unions were still unions – and its social and sexual attitudes. And woven into the film too is the newly emerging threat of AIDS – those first doom-laden John Hurt-voiced public information films – as it starts to attack the unsuspecting gay community, giving rise, amongst other things, to an understated but emotional cameo from Russell Tovey and an added poignancy.
When they try to make contact with miners to hand over the cash they’ve collected for them, at first Mark’s group – now calling themselves LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) meets the same hostility as from the rest of society until finally – without at first realising exactly what they’ve got themselves into – the little Welsh mining village of Onllwyn agrees to host a visit by them. Onllwyn committee man Dai (Paddy Considine) is a fish out of water in London when he makes a speech to a gay pub gathering but his patent humanity bridges the gap. Turning up at the bleak miners’ social club in the battered van of Jonathan’s (a camp Dominic West) alternative theatre group, the little band of well-meaning lesbians and gays are similarly fish out of water in this traditional macho community. “Dai, your gays have arrived,” middle-aged and innocent Gwen (Menna Trussler) announces ingenuously. However, Jonathan’s flamboyant dance routine (an eight-shirt epic during filming) breaks the chilly evening ice in the social club, the gays and lesbians are billeted on apprehensive villagers overnight and as a result, barriers melt.
It’s a very well-written comedy drama script by Stephen Beresford (an actor, this is his first writing credit), which uses the devices of naïve 20-year-old Joe accidentally joining the group – “the thing is, I’m from Bromley”– and his involvement precipitating his eventual coming out to his bigoted family, and also of focusing on a small group of people, to make the unfamiliar understandable. Its structure is bookended by two Gay Pride marches a year apart.
Not only does the screenplay contain witty one-liners capable of cracking up a screening room full of hardened critics, it takes what could have been treated as stereotypical characters and turns them into rounded, living, breathing human beings with the help of some outstanding actors. Imelda Staunton as the formidable Hefina – who orders the reluctant miners to socialise with their visitors “Get out there and find a gay or a lesbian right now!” – reveals unexpected layers of warmth and compassion under her ferocity. Bill Nighy plays against type as stooped and elderly, tweed-jacketed Cliff, a sensitive supporter of the group, who surprises himself by finding inner strength in the kitchen over the bread and butter. There’s mischievous Gwen, with her childlike questions for her first lesbians and gays and her motherly almost adoption of them. And for Gethin (Andrew Scott), Jonathan’s reserved boyfriend, who hasn’t been back to Rhyl since his mother disowned him, the renewed connection with Wales is a catalyst that spurs him to deal with the past.
As, in winter, the miners are squeezed even harder by the government and their benefits are stopped, LGSM organise a benefit concert for them in London to keep up their morale and their money (headlined by Bronsky Beat, who else) and the committee travel up from Wales to help out. Both groups end the evening with a sweetly hilarious drunken gay-club crawl, when the unshockably curious Welsh women insist on being shown “everything” they’ve ever heard of, including a request for “the rubber scene”.
But this isn’t a fairy tale and despite Hefina’s show-stopping put-down to a prejudiced local – “I’m on my way to a massive lez-off” – not everyone is as tolerant. This leads ultimately to both sides being pilloried in the tabloids and an unhappy sneak decision being taken in the village, while, in the wider world, the miners’ strike ends with a proud march back to work behind brass bands and tearful partings of the two groups who had grown so close. But it’s not the end. The recurring visual motif of hands clasping across a divide symbolises the power that seemingly incompatible communities can grasp by coming together, as the NUM repays their debt by supporting the gay and lesbian community with their block vote to give them rights in the Labour manifesto.
Pride’s director Matthew Warchus is known mainly for his theatre work. Pride is his second film. It’s powerful, glorious, funny and uplifting – a kind of Ken Loach with extra laughs – and avoids being worthy or simplistic. It is more than likely to make tears flow at its surprising and wonderful ending – where, at demonstrations even today, it’s not over until Billy Bragg sings. Its message of unlikely groups recognising that they can draw strength from their differences and by recognising their similarities is as relevant as ever in today’s political climate. It’s a British film to be genuinely proud of.
Pride screened in the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Queer Palm award.
Pride is released on 12th September 2014 in the UK