Every few years, our cheeky friends across the Atlantic uncork a rollicking crowd-pleaser of a film that compels even the most hardened of cynics to grin from ear-to-ear. The Full Monty. Billy Elliot. Love Actually. The King’s Speech. (Really, anything with Hugh Grant or Colin Firth.)
This year, that movie is Pride.
The film, written by Stephen Beresford and directed by Matthew Warchus, offers an embarrassment of riches. Vera Drake rolling about on a bed in hysterics wielding a bright red dildo; a four-minute table-dancing sequence by McNulty from The Wire; Billy Mack coming out to his wife while making a stack of sandwiches; the list goes on. But more than the talented British cast—that would be Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, and Bill Nighy, of course—Pride dramatizes a real-life story that’s almost too good to be true.
First, some context. In 1971, Prime Minister Edward Heath attempted to curb the power of trade unions with the Industrial Relations Act 1971 but, after a pair of miners’ strikes—in ’72 and ’74—Heath was forced to resign. Margaret Thatcher had served under the Heath regime as Education Secretary and witnessed the miners topple the Conservative Party. So, when she was elected Prime Minister in 1979, Thatcher made it a priority to wage war on the trade unions—in particular, the miners. Thatcher erased two million manufacturing jobs between 1979-1981 and, when she announced plans in 1984 to close 20 coalmines, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), led by Arthur Scargill, opted to go on strike with the hope of repeating history and destabilizing the government.
“What Thatcher did was destroy the working class even as a concept,” says Warchus. “The communities were destroyed by ripping out mining or the local industry without providing any alternative plans for the community.”
Pride tells the little known story of the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) campaign—an effort by the lesbian and gay communities to raise money for the striking miners. Together, the two pilloried groups formed an unlikely alliance against a Thatcher government who’d made it an offense to teach pro-homosexual relationships in school—the age of homosexual consent was also 21 at the time, punishable by law—and branded the striking miners “enemies of the people.”
Since the NUM rejected the aid of the LGSM, the group was forced to “twin” directly with mining communities across the U.K. So, the co-founder of LGSM, Mike Jackson, wrote a letter offering their support to Onllwyn, a small mining village in South Wales. They received a letter of reply saying their help was very welcome, and to come down and pay them a visit.
“We traveled down in two minibuses and a broken-down Volkswagen van and we were very nervous,” says LGSM member Jonathan Blake, who’s portrayed in the film by West. “Who knows how we were going to be received? The NUM, which we had approached initially, didn’t want to have anything to do with gay people. We came in to the miners’ welfare hall and when we opened the door, there was total silence. All the speaking stopped. We thought, ‘We’re going to have to run for it.’ And one person started clapping, and then the whole room erupted in applause. We were given the most heartwarming welcome.”
The film is told through the eyes of Joe (George MacKay), a fictional 19-year-old on the cusp of coming out who joins up with the LGSM, and takes a shine to outspoken member Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer). They connect with local miner Dai Donovan (Paddy Considine), who introduces the gang to the community, which includes supporters Hefina Headon (Staunton), Cliff (Nighy), and Siân James (Jessica Gunning), a local mother of two.
James, who currently serves as a Labour Party MP for Swansea East, helped feed 1,000 families a week during the strike across the Neath, Dulais, and Swansea Valleys in Wales.
“I came from a mining family, and it was in our blood,” says James. “When Thatcher was elected, we knew the trade unions were going to be in for a tough time. And lo and behold, she was determined to sink the mining industry, and we were determined to fight for our community. Thatcher didn’t believe in community, and we believed that community was at the heart of everything.”
The LGSM ended up raising about £20,000 for families on strike, as well as additional funds through big charity events—the biggest of which was the “Pits and Perverts” ball held at Camden’s Electric Ballroom. There, surrounded by drag queens and folks in S&M gear, Donovan delivered an impassioned speech saying, “You have worn our badge, Coal Not Dole, and you know what harassment means, as we do. Now we will pin your badge on us—we will support you.”
“It’s essentially a romance between two very different groups who find a common humanity, and who are victims of a great deal of prejudice in the papers and the public,” says West. “We’re programmed to fear the unknown—and that’s where racism and prejudice comes from. If they cease to be unknown then the fear goes away, so prejudice is beaten by proximity.”
Now, the title of that fundraising ball—“Pits and Perverts”—allegedly first appeared as a headline in Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid rag The Sun, which had, like all of the Murdoch-owned U.K. publications at the time, adopted a strong anti-strike and homophobic bent (unsurprising, considering Murdoch’s very close relationship with Thatcher).
“Murdoch was no friend of the miners, and certainly no friend of the gay community. Around HIV, they were appalling,” says Blake, who has been HIV-positive since 1982. “They vilified us.”
“His newspapers were very quick to repeat that the miners were ‘the enemies within’ and very party to propagating the whole idea that the miners were hurting the country and disloyal to those within their own communities,” added James. “It was relentless.”
Pride has been received with open arms, including critical raves and the Queer Palm award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, where it made its world premiere. Still, it took writer Stephen Beresford twenty years of pitching his story around to get the film made.
“One of the things you think when watching the film is: Crikey, look how far we’ve come,” says Warchus. “But with Pride, I still got raised eyebrows. I remember a producer saying, ‘You’re going to do the gay miner thing? Why? Who wants to see that?!’ So there’s still a wariness in the industry as far as what the general public wants to see.”
He pauses. “We’ve made progress, but there’s a long way to go.”