Unlikely alliance 0

by Joe Utichi for The Sunday Times Culture Magazine

A feelgood film tells how the gay community and striking miners co-operated

There are only so many times you can hear an actor tell you their latest job has been “rewarding and inspiring” before the phrase loses all meaning. But when Ben Schnetzer says it about his role in a new film called Pride, he believes it. He plays 23-year-old Mark Ashton, a Northern Irish gay activist who, in 1984, saw striking miners and their families struggling to get by and went to their aid, rallying his friends and raising funds. The film is the story of the group he founded — Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) — and their first trip to the reticent mining communities in Wales with which they would form an unlikely alliance.

Schnetzer, an American, watched In the Name of the Father on a loop to perfect Ashton’s accent. He pursued the role even while his director — the new man at the Old Vic, Matthew Warchus — was considering his first audition tape. “I thought, ‘This thing’s way too good’, so I put five more scenes on tape.”

The cast list grew more impressive by the day: Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy, Dominic West and Andrew Scott. Talented young actors such as George MacKay, Freddie Fox and Joe Gilgun rounded out the lead ensemble. Warchus compares casting the film to putting together an orchestra: “Each actor had to play a different instrument. But it was fundamental to the meaning of the story that it’s about the group and not individuals.”

That he had such rich pickings points to the difference 30 years have made. When LGSM raised £20,000 for mining communities, the name they reclaimed for a benefit concert came from a typical tabloid headline of the time, “Pits and perverts”.

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of LGSM. Few in the cast had; and even Stephen Beresford, the screenwriter, stumbled upon them more than a decade after the fact. There simply wasn’t much cause to record their history: the miners lost the strike and the group disbanded. But when, in 1985, the Labour party moved to enshrine gay rights in its manifesto, it was the block vote of the National Union of Mineworkers that saw the motion carry. This is LGSM’s true legacy.

“I believe you can draw a line from that vote to the equalities legislation we have today,” says Mike Jackson, one of LGSM’s founding members, played in the film by Gilgun.

Beresford describes Jackson as “the keeper of the flame. He held the archive and was the gateway to all things LGSM.” Tracking him down wasn’t easy. Beresford started with only a vague legend about the group that he’d heard in a pub, but it spurred him to find out more. “Everything changed for me when I heard this story,” he says. “I realised I held a prejudice about these industrial communities — that they were homophobic. There’s that great phrase, ‘Prejudice can’t survive proximity.’ And it was true.”

For the first 10 years after the strike, while it was still front-of-mind, Jackson had fielded the advances of a number of writers, directors and producers who wanted to translate LGSM’s story to the screen. “Every single one came to nothing, and eventually they stopped coming,” he recalls.

The comparisons to Billy Elliot are inevitable — a heartwarming tale set during the miners’ strike — and Beresford didn’t discourage the association. He believed he would struggle to tell a story fronted by such a large cast of gay characters, and made it as accessible as possible. “I thought it would be incredibly subversive to sneak the gay characters in, but so far nobody’s noticed,” he laughs. “That wouldn’t have been possible until right now.”

Warchus went the other way with his direction, towards the tone of social realism practised by Ken Loach and Bill Forsyth. “We tried to balance something mainstream and something natural and unstaged,” he says. With Jackson’s photo albums as a reference point, the creative team painstakingly made a facsimile of the world of LGSM. “The most important thing was this feeling of authenticity,” Warchus says.

He knew he’d found the tone he was looking for when the film premiered to a standing ovation earlier this year in Cannes. He was asked how he had so expertly blended professional actors with non-professionals. There are, in fact, no first-timers in the cast.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that a mainly French audience got so passionately behind a film about industrial action, but Pride’s effect is more universal. On set, every cast member told me a version of what Bill Nighy said: “This story was complete news to me. I was amazed and touched and moved by it.” Beresford thinks LGSM deserves to be remembered in the same breath as campaigners such as Harvey Milk and Peter Tatchell. “This little group did something so radical, so incredible and so generous,” he says. “Yet they’re people whose stories we didn’t really know.” Until now.

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