Three perspectives on the 30th anniversary of the 1984-1985 UK Miners’ Strike: one older film, Billy Elliot, one new film, Pride, and one new theatre production, the National Theatre of Scotland’s In Time O’Strife. Set in three different mining locations, the North-East of England, South Wales and the Fife area of Scotland.
I don’t know the precise reason why writer Lee Hall and director Stephen Daldry set Billy Elliot during the Miners’ Strike, as its narrative of individual working-class struggle and triumph could have been located in many other periods of the 20th century. However, having chosen that period, they do include some vivid images and details.
Billy’s widowed father is a striking miner and, early in the film, we see a classic image of industrial militancy with him on a picket line pushing against rows of policemen as he yells in protest at a bus of working miners. However, the intimidating image of the miners’ enemy, the armoured police, is also shown as less frightening by the indifference of Billy and his ballet friend Nicola as they stroll past a tall row of waiting policemen and her scraping stick bounces unnoticed from brick wall to riot shield. It is Nicola’s more middle-class father, whisky glass in hand but speaking in the same heavy north-east accent as everyone else, who quotes the wider popular argument for the closure of uneconomic pits.
Billy’s older brother Tony, also on strike, is involved in more violent protest activity. As he goes out in the middle of the night with a hammer, his father tries to stop him, leading to physical violence between them. Massed ranks of police, truncheons banging on riot shields, chase Tony and others in and out of houses. Tony, bloodied, is put into a police van. The police aggression is only slightly softened by the comic moment of the non-miner disturbed during his car washing.
The strike stretches to Christmas. We see a few seconds of a defiantly celebratory Christmas party but this is quickly undermined by the melancholy of Billy’s dad, chopping a piano for firewood and bursting into tears over their shabby Christmas dinner. In desperation, he is willing to join the working miners in order to pay for Billy’s travel costs for the London audition, but Tony intervenes to prevent him. The announcement of the end of the strike, because “the union caved in”, contrasts with the Elliot family’s exultation over Billy’s acceptance letter.
Pride, written by Stephen Beresford and directed by Matthew Warchus, deals with the campaigning efforts of Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners. I must confess that, although the Miners’ Strike was a news event which I paid a great deal of attention to at the time, I had never heard of this campaigning support group or of its high-profile benefit concert at the Electric Circus venue in London.
Although the narrative of Pride is more directly imbedded in the events of 1984-1985 than is Billy Elliot, it does equally concentrate on individual stories which are tangentially connected. Much of the film deals with the self-discovery or development either of the LGSM characters Joe, Mark, Gethin, Steph and Jonathan, or of the Welsh characters Sian, Maureen, Cliff and Hefina. However, a main theme is certainly the bonding of two communities who are superficially entirely different but who feel similarly embattled and therefore become comrades in arms. The film closes with the London Gay Pride march in 1985 being led by a NUM delegation, an event which seems like the unlikeliest possible Hollywood concoction but which did apparently actually happen.
Pride does show brief scenes of picket lines and of the miners marching back to work at the end of the strike in March 1985, but mostly centres around fund-raising and organisation and support. As in Billy Elliot, Christmas is portrayed as a time of gloom and setback, but at least in Pride the miners’ visitors are available to provide significant additional cash, moral support and fresh campaigning impetus.
In Time O’ Strife was written in the 1920s by miner Joe Corrie, and the play which Graham McLaren puts on stage is still that of the General Strike, although some of his directorial touches refer to the 1980s.
Corrie’s play is a naturalistic one, an authentic representation of working-class life, although his characters are also written as mouthpieces for different arguments about the strike. Most harbour doubts at some point in the play, feeling acutely the division, sacrifice, hunger and illness which it is causing. McLaren has added to the text some of Corrie’s poems which, addressed directly to the audience, add extra Brechtian ferocity and empowerment.
The look of McLaren’s production follows the 1920s naturalism of the play in many ways. For example, the set is a huge convincing room of the period complete with patterned wallpaper, lights, doors, exposed pipes and furniture. Costumes include waistcoats, pit boots and loose calf-length dresses. However, the “pit clothes” also include 1980s NCB jackets, a TV screen on the wall shows 1980s footage and the radio broadcasts interviews and news reports from that more recent strike. Before the play starts, we are in a community hall where all the characters play and share music: the arrangements are mostly appropriately traditional, although the songs originate from various protest periods .
Once the play starts, music and dance seems to show an emphasis towards the 1980s: hints of the Pogues, Talking Heads, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and perhaps even the choreography of music video . Dance movements are often added to conventional characterisation nowadays and in certain sections here the ensemble uses twisting movements of body and anguished facial expressions to suggest, as far as I can see, the struggle of the mining community under their impossible yoke. A similarly eye-catching scene in Billy Elliot is Billy’s enraged outdoor kicking dance in defiance of his family to the tune of the Jam’s A Town Like Malice. Of course, both Billy Elliot and Pride, like any films set in the recent past, draw readily from the pop and rock of their period, although Pride’s strongest musical moment is the Welsh women’s rendition of the earlier 20th century “Bread and Roses”.
Art and culture are seen as luxuries which must be sacrificed in the desperate scraping to keep living. Billy’s deceased mother’s jewellery is converted to cash in Billy Elliot and her piano destroyed, just as a favourite violin is pawned in In Time O’ Strife.
Although scenes of hardship in Billy Elliot and Pride are vividly depicted and easily remembered by those of us of that generation, you are made aware how life was tougher still in the earlier era of In Time O’ Strife. Both practical help and emotional support were less available, sacrifice was more intense and harsh. Jenny’s fervent desire to have a better life in Canada is pushed aside when the money to achieve it can only be earned by strike-breaking. Her brother Bob, like Tony in Billy Elliot, is arrested, but here he is sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for his unspecified offence of desperate protest.