When I was 12 or 13 I was in London for the day with a friend, and our respective mothers, seeing the sights with exchange students from Vancouver whom we were hosting. Naturally, Buckingham Palace was high on our list and as we walked away from Queen Liz’s down The Mall, we came across a Pride parade. Not thinking too much of it, or rather not knowing what to think of it, and certainly not aware of its significance in our early adolescence, Ben and I ran – in fact skipped – hand in hand alongside those chanting for equality and their civil rights. That was the late 90s. Thankfully, in 2014, same sex marriage is finally legal in the UK and supported by a conservative Prime Minister.
As much progress as been made in recent years, the story was not the same in 1984 when an infamously conservative PM, Maggie Thatcher, was the head of Britain’s government. The year that George Orwell had prophesied of Big Brother and the Thought Police saw the UK miners’ strike; the threat of pit closures and job losses put thousands of coal-workers’ livelihoods at risk. On one side of the picket lines were hard-working, blue-collar men, on the other was Maggie Thatcher, the police and the tabloid process.
As much as these elements of the establishment hated the miners, they also hated the gays – so says Mark, impassioned and determined gay activist, during 1984’s Pride march (above), when convincing his colleagues to take a bucket and raise money for their downtrodden, marginalised and victimised brothers-in-arms from the coal mines of Britain. The support group LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) is formed.
Themselves the victims of persecution and injustice, they empathise with the striking miners and set about raising money for their plight. It will later be suggested – by one of very few true bigots in the film – that LGSM are raising money for the miners only to push their own agenda but at no point does this ring true. Altruism and philanthropy are the name of the game from the outset.
Standing outside their ‘Gay is the Word’ bookshop HQ with collection buckets they either receive a coin or two or are spat at by skinheads. More difficult still is getting through to the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers), who are willing to take their donations…until they know the name of their organisation. Cutting out the middle man they pull a name out of thin air and call a tiny village hall in the Dallais valley of south Wales. Thanks to the misunderstanding of the old dear who answers the phone, an unlikely alliance between a rag-tag group of friends and a desperate mining community is made. It will take some time for the ice to break between the two sides but when the barriers finally come down both groups unite for a common goal.
Predominantly a theatre director, Matthew Warchus is used to marshaling large casts and this experience is put to good use with the impressive ensemble assembled to tell this tale. Leader of the pack Mark is played with vigour and a steely, irrepressible determination by Ben Schnetzer. The uncertain 20 year-old Joe (George Mackay) – still a ‘minor’ in gay terms, I’m sure the play on words was intended – stumbles upon the march and LGSM by-accident-on-purpose and is very much a fish out of water upon his arrival to London. Although his coming of age and coming out is a familiar trope it does not dominate the plot as initially expected. Neither, surprisingly, does the flamboyance of drag queen Jonathan – Dominic West as you have never seen him before. Full drag, perma-tan and a combed-back, highlighted mullet which is almost a character unto itself. Those who know West predominantly as Jimmy McNulty from The Wire – as I do – will delight in his performance, the centrepiece of which is a riotous extended dance sequence in the minors’ village hall to ‘Shame, Shame, Shame‘ by Shirley and Co. I’ll leave you to imagine it, or better still see the film. Needless to say, McNulty would need plenty of whiskey in him to pull off such theatrics.
Andrew Scott is particularly impressive as Gethin, a soul haunted by the treatment he received at the hands of his mother, and others, as a result of his homosexuality growing up in Rhyl. His return home to Wales, after 16 years, prompts some of the film’s most touching moments and Scott plays his character with such fragility and vulnerability that it is hard to picture him as Moriarty in Sherlock. Paddy Considine is the respectful and reliable everyman Dai, who comes to London and meets openly gay men for the first time in his life. His words of thanks onstage in a London gay bar to an unfamiliar clientèle has him outside his comfort zone but his words are well-measured, heartfelt and genuine. His speech is one of many moments in the film that will tug the heartstrings.
Other stand outs in the Welsh contingent are Imelda Staunton – a cannonball of energy and bluster, her character Hefina accepts the newcomers as if they were her own kin, has a heart as big as her head and is the driving force for good in Onllywyn, a town with few vowels and little hope until the Londoners pay a visit – and Bill Nighy as Cliff, a retiring, reticent and weary figure that finds a renewed vitality in the pursuit of justice for his beloved community. Warchus does well to devote enough screen time to each of his characters and ensures that all threads of the plot are well rounded.
Unlike comparable films on the topic – think Billy Elliot, The Full Monty or even Milk – there isn’t too much in the way of raging against the machine, bar one or two shots of rioters jostling with coppers at the picket lines, although male stripping and some dancing do feature. Pride is a humanist story before being political. In an enlightening article written for The Guardian, Warchus explains that it is essentially a love story, between two groups of people rather than two individuals. His own life experiences also fed into the production – despite relative success with members of the opposite sex during his youth, his love of musicals was a bridge too far for some and he was all too acutely aware of how it feels to not ‘fit in’ – something which I think all of us have felt at one stage or another in our lives.
For a film that puts such an onus on sexuality there is little in the way of sexual relations – the amusing image of Hefina waving around a red dildo is as close as we come to anything that could be described as promiscuity. The spectre of AIDS and the politics of fear and uncertainty which the beginning of the epidemic engendered does raise its ugly head on a few occasions, though. James Anderton, Greater Manchester’s chief constable at the time, is heard saying that the gays were “swimming in a cesspit of their own making” and the LGSM group does not escape the disease’s ever expanding reach.
Without shouting too raucously, Pride is a film about standing up for what you believe in and standing up for who you truly are in the face of ignorance and bigotry. Its message is one of hope and defiance and is delivered with tact and compassion. You will laugh and cry and laugh and then cry some more. In the light of recent great strides forward in gay rights we should not forget that so many before have struggled to get to where we are now. Some of those people led the 1985 Pride parade over Westminster Bridge in London; they were made up of a group of friends from Camden and a number of mining communities from south Wales. Pride is a worthy testament to those pioneers and is a film to be seen by all.