Thatcherism on film: the legacy of deindustrialisation

Britain has changed fundamentally since the 1980s. The process of deindustrialisation, described by Seumas Milne in The Enemy Within: The Secret War Against The Miners as the “profit and market-led restructuring of economic life” (Milne, 2004:9) into what Roger Bromley identifies as one typified by “de-skilling, casualization, insecure work, an informal economy, unemployment and pauperisation” (Bromley, 2006:55) was accelerated not just by perceived economic necessity but by the political ideology of Margaret Thatcher and John Major’s Conservative governments, who governed the UK from 1979 to 1997. The issue of the old versus the new economy came to a head with the nationwide 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, but the subsequent defeat of the miners was only the start of a drawn-out process of de – or, as some would argue of “the transition from a manufacturing to a service-based economy” (Hill, 2004:108) – reindustrialisation which transformed the face of Britain and has been fairly continuous since. Consequently, in this essay I will afford scrutiny to films concerning both the immediate effects of Thatcher’s economic policy and the aftermath thereof.

Of the films that directly deal with the 1984-5 strike, I have chosen to highlight the recent comedy-drama Pride (Matthew Warchus, 2014), feel-good hit Billy Elliot (Stephen Daldry, 2001) and the documentaries Still the Enemy Within (Owen Gower, 2014) and Channel 4’s The Battle of Orgreave (Mike Figgis, 2001.) It is arguable that some of these films have had an effect on the way the strike is perceived – according to Milne, “films such as Billy Elliot and Brassed Off (Mark Herman, 1996) rammed home the devastation of the mining communities wrought by politically driven closures,” (Milne, 2004:10) although Brassed Off deals with the pit closures of 1992 rather than the earlier strike – or at least that affecting public perceptions of the events was the product of a deliberate effort on the part of the filmmakers. When I asked Mike Figgis on Twitter what his intentions were with The Battle of Orgreave, he told me that it was “a unique opportunity to set the record straight after the Thatcherite lies via the BBC and other media.” (Twitter, 2015) Similarly, in an interview with Simon Mayo to promote Pride, actor Bill Nighy stresses that the 1984-5 strike was “not entirely well represented at the time, and certainly not from the point of view of the families,” and that he was partly drawn to Pride because “it treated them with dignity and respect.” (Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, 2014) The Battle of Orgreave alleges that somewhere along the BBC chain of command an order was given to erroneously edit footage of the industrial action at Orgreave, manipulating footage to look as if miners had behaved violently towards police before they were charged upon. Milne’s book describes the “hostile propaganda and fantasy that became so familiar during the year-long confrontation.” (2004:11)

Another such “lie” some films have attempted to redress is that of the decrepity of the mining industry, which supporters of Thatcherite policy tend to cite as the catalyst for the very logical, pragmatic removal of an archaic industry. In The Battle of Orgreave, an erstwhile miner tells us that “it was never about economics…we had the most modern coal units in the world.” But perhaps this is clearer with hindsight; as Milne says, a “political crisis over Tory pit closures in 1992” caused “something of a sea-change in popular attitudes towards the confrontation of the mid 1980s … the realisation that the Thatcher government really had been intent on the destruction of the coal industry. ” (Milne,2004:10) Paul Dave identifies Brassed Off as a “coda” to the “convulsive” national strike of ’84, “however, rather than simple nostalgia for the past powers of the industrial working class this backwards view involves and process of clarification” because “in the intervening years it had become difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Tories’ ‘economic’ arguments against the miners were hostage to their anti-union political project.” Thus, “what had been presented by the Tories at the time of the original strike as the pre-eminence of markets, competition, profitability and modernisation over the regressive ‘class-war time warp’ of the National Union of Mineworkers was, therefore, in 1992, easier to see as part of an ideological offensive.” (Dave,2006:64)

The BBC’s 2013 documentary When Coal Was King (Kate Thomas) chronicles the promotional films produced for many years by the National Coal Board’s Film Unit. Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall appears, noting a tone of desperation in the board’s later films as the industrial crisis deepened, but BFI curator Ros Cranston interprets this as them refusing to going out without a fight; “I find it very telling that in a film made in 1978 they make a point of ending on the resounding conclusion that there are 400 years’ worth of coal underground. And that was true, and to make the point at that time was quite significant; perhaps they knew that there were forces at play that meant they were under threat and might not be around for very long.” Indeed, their final film prior to their 1984 closure – a sign that the NCB were giving up any hope of promoting the further advancement of the coal industry – had proudly declared that “only coal, exemplified by the impending birth of the new Selby Coalfield and vast reserves can guarantee us a supply of energy for centuries ahead.” In light of these claims of the industry’s antiquity, the heavily miner-sympathetic Still the Enemy Within points out that, even today, 40% of Britain’s energy still comes from coal; just not British coal.

In The Battle of Orgreave, when the artist Jeremy Deller is explaining his rationale behind organising a re-enactment of what is described therein as “one of the most violent clashes” between police and miners, he points towards a map of the once-industrialised area, poignantly explaining that “everything this side of Orgreave is now a big hole in the ground.” Figgis interviews inhabitants of former mining towns who describe the “desolation” and “dereliction” left in old industry’s wake; “riddled with poverty, most people on benefits or working the black markets, antisocial crime, heroin addiction,” which sounds rather reminiscent of Bromley’s diagnosis of the “material hardship(s)” of the new sans work working class, as represented in Ken Loach’s My Name is Joe (1998); “the black market in drugs, a closed door on education, a killed-off community (just lean streets and shabby interiors), a narrowed-down space for love and other human relationships…the hidden injuries and brutalities of class in the present – the physical, emotional, social and spiritual damage.” Hindsight is again significant, as “at the time (deindustrialisation) affected a relatively small number of people, and has now extended to whole zones of British cities and towns, particularly in the inner cities.” (Bromley, 2006:55-57)

A number of British films produced in the 1990s and early 2000s – including Brassed Off, The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo, 1997), Among Giants (Sam Miller, 1998), Dockers (Bill Anderson, 1999) and The Navigators (Ken Loach, 2001) – dealt with the aftermath of Thatcher and Major’s economic policy after the initial shockwaves of the 1984-5 strike and the early pit closures, as well as similar dismantling of the steel, rail and docking industries, and many of them are notable for possessing a comic edge. James Leggott writes that “in referring back to the de-industrialising project of the Thatcher years, these ‘delayed 1980s films’ (Hill, 1999:168) can afford their retrospective feel-good humour and warmth.” (Leggott, 2008:95) Leggott also identifies Nigel Mather as proposing “that one of the most distinctive aspects of British cinema in the 1990s was the successful interaction of comedy and drama ‘within a group of significant and influential films’.”  Loach is pertinent as a contemporary reference point for the filmic representation of deindustrialisation, as he takes on casualization of labour and long-term unemployment in, respectively, Riff-Raff (1991) and Raining Stones (1993) but, although the “tragicomic tone” of these films was later “adopted” by Billy Elliot and The Full Monty “Loach’s plots are characterised by a fatalistic drive towards a grim dénouement.” (Leggott, 2008:72) His 2001 film The Navigators was another unblinkingly realist tragicomedy about a group of rail workers adapting in 1995 to the privatisation of their railway; a spiral of despair culminating in one of the aforementioned grim dénouements. It was written by Rob Dawber, himself a railway worker. The Navigators is not alone as a film that gives a truly ground-level view of the restructured economy; Loach’s Riff-Raff was written by manual labourer Bill Jesse and depicted the financial uncertainties of a de-unionised labour force, and Dockers (Bill Anderson, 1999), a gritty account of the 1995-98 Liverpool Dockers’ Strike, was written collectively by a number of the former dock workers who had taken the collective action, under the guidance of the writers Jimmy McGovern and Irvine Welsh. That the bitterly prolonged strike that was Dockers’ subject matter crossed over into the Blair era perhaps lends credence The Battle of Orgreave’s claim that “New Labour would almost be embarrassed by the miners’ strike, because their reaction to a similar strike would probably be similar to the Thatcher government’s.”

Paul Dave is one academic to identify links between the values of New Labour and those of Billy Elliot and The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo, 1997), claiming that they “can be read as calling on the assistance of superficial, multicultural images of collectivity in order, like New Labour, to banish an older world of class and class conflict, and move into a stylish, modernised future.” (Dave, 2006:62) The Full Monty in particular, according to Samantha Lay, “takes as its historical point of reference the collapse of heavy industries during the Thatcher administrations” – in this case the dilapidated steel industry – but “actively works to ‘heal the wounds’ through a Blairite ‘things-can-only-get-better’ optimism,” (Lay, 2002:104) which is perhaps a little Panglossian when one considers the impoverishment of many formerly industrialised communities. The Full Monty’s producer, Uberto Pasolini, “said that he was not interested in the film being a diatribe on politics or the Thatcher effect in Britain.” (Domaille, 2000:49) This focus on “the changes in male and female roles … in the 1980s and 1990s” (Domaille, 2000:9) is the reason that, as Dave notes, critical responses to these films “have stressed their presentation of class through the prism of gender… nostalgically patriarchal, impotent and domestically confined – this is a male working class that is pictured as struggling to cope with economic superfluousness along with the perceived irrelevance and anachronism of its masculinist cultural and political traditions.” (Dave, 2004:61)

The critical tendency to view these stories “through the prism of gender” is a perspective strengthened by narrative decisions taken by the filmmakers, as the most common approach to these tales of deindustrialisation has been to depict the period as a crossroads not just in economic, but also social issues; one taken by Billy Elliot, Brassed Off, The Full Monty, Among Giants and, later, Pride. With its depiction of the miners as clapped-out, patriarchally, parochially small-minded dinosaurs hopelessly in hock to a lost cause one could almost, a little fatuously, suggest that Billy Elliot makes the argument that the most significant change of 1984 was that thereabouts it became acceptable for men to practise ballet; but, of course, there is a little more nuance to Lee Hall’s script, which appears to point at the old structures of heavy industry as enabling an outdated culture of hyper-masculinity. The Full Monty is similarly about redefining masculinity in a changing, feminised society, and according to Bromley raised “questions – neglected by Loach and Mark Herman – about how much the traditional working class movement was based around unreflective assumptions about masculinity, the separation of public and private spheres and the exclusion of women from work-based and non-work-based economic and political organisations,” (Bromley, 2006:64) However, Kelly Farrell has written that “questions about the actual state of masculine identity, not to mention the issue of long-term unemployment, are cemented over with the bricks and mortar of a satisfying narrative closure,” (Leggott, 2008:93) attributing what she sees as a compromised ending to the film’s comic tone and its overly optimistic Blairite leanings.

Brassed Off treats Pete Postlethewaite’s Danny as kind of a synecdoche for the vast working mass of the mining industry; an honourable, hard-working, rough-hewn old family man who proudly leads the colliery band. He’s dying, by which they mean old industry is dying. Again, we’re reminded of the prehistoric as his son Harry – reduced by crippling debt to attempting to struggle manfully in full clown regalia to get through children’s parties without bursting into a volatile anti-Thatcher outburst – shouts of his obsolescence “I’m a miner; you remember them, love; dinosaurs, dodos, miners.” Meanwhile, the dark forces of management are represented by Tara Fitzgerald’s Gloria; a feminine affront to the old way of doing things (although she is still portrayed as sympathetic character). Yet, contrary to the indirectness of The Full Monty, Brassed Off uses impassioned soliloquys to explicitly identify its enemy as the “bloody government” that has “systematically destroyed an entire industry. Our industry. And not just our industry — our communities, our homes, our lives. All in the name of ‘progress’. And for a few lousy bob.” Elsewhere, Harry bemoans Thatcher’s continued sentient existence.

As if to counter their genre’s masculinity, Dockers and Pride both concern in part the real-life radicalisation, or at least politicisation, of working class women, in Pride’s case Siân James, whose personal of history of activism began with her contributions to the family support networks during the 1984-5 strike and culminated in her being elected Labour MP for Swansea East. She praises Pride, which uses the social context of the struggle for LGBT rights to create a kind of socialist fable celebrating collective solidarity, for telling the story of her community “in such a positive way” (Labour.org.uk, 2014), echoing Nighy’s comments on Pride’s historical accuracy and sensitivity to the families affected by the Thatcherite economic project. However, in March 2015 the then-Labour MP Hywel Francis disputed areas of the film’s accuracy, claiming that “in fact there was no homophobia shown towards the LGBT support group that forged a link with the striking miners” – a notion that runs contrary to Pride’s depiction of the collaboration between gay and mining activists as eroding the latter group’s masculinist prejudices – and also that “neither was there a collapse of the alliance because of an informer – there was no informer,” alleging that the film added in adversarial elements in the name of dramatic tension. (Shipton, 2015) But, regardless of whether it’s entirely historically accurate – The Guardian’s accuracy-assessing Reel History review series conversely awarded it a very respectable A- for both accuracy and entertainment (Von Tunzelmann, 2014) – where Billy Elliot points to nothing but a bleak future for all those from formerly industrialised areas lacking in the entrepreneurial gumption to head southwards and better themselves, Pride shows a (both male and female) working class who value community over prejudice, and, as depicted in the film’s final scene, ultimately reciprocate the support of the LGBT activists. Thus the filmmakers choose to emphasise not their initial homophobia but their ultimate solidarity, the choice to set the scene to Billy Bragg’s There is Power in a Union further accentuating the film’s very clear perspective. It has had enough of a warm reception to reunite survivors from both parts of the LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) equation (Lee, 2015).

Whilst these films take a very humanistic angle, Patrick Keiller’s deeply experimental films London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997), polemical documentary-narrative hybrids, examine the post-industrial landscape in static shots of “decaying urban spaces” (Leggott,2008:24) and crumbling manufacturing plants, as Paul Schofield’s dry voice-over tells you how a Canadian corporation evangelises “total team culture; in which overtime is unpaid, and union members fear identification”, how the United Kingdom “has the least regulated economy in the industrialised world” and lists off the foreign conglomerates that own vast lots of land in globalised Britain.

Although there are certainly avant-garde outliers like the work of Keiller, many of the films made on the topic of deindustrialisation are in some ways the last gasp of an old tradition of realist filmmaking concerning the industrial working class, as class definitions have shifted amorphously along with the economy, meaning that “working class men could (at least in market research terms) be better identified by what they bought or watched or where they went on holiday, than by the type of job they did.” (Lay, 2002:107) or, in the words of the Office For Budget Responsibility, “definitions like manual and non-manual have stopped being relevant. We have moved towards a service-based economy, and our social classifications have to adapt to that.” (Bromley, 2000:55) These films also fit within a newer bracket; what Claire Monk calls ‘the underclass film’, concerning “a post-working class that owes its existence to the economic and social damage wrought by globalisation, local industrial decline, the restructuring of the labour market and other legacies of the Thatcher era.” (Leggott, 2008:91) But what all the films I have studied that deal with deindustrialisation share is a common belief that it, and the governments who propagated it, have left behind, in the words of Francis, “a negative legacy … with the closure of the mines and the loss of jobs and job opportunities” (Shipton, 2015) and damaged communities in ways that are perhaps irrevocable.

 

Bibliography

Dave, P. (2006). Visions of England. Oxford: Berg.

Domaille, K. (2000). The Full Monty. [Harlow]: Longman.

Friedman, L. (1993). Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hill, J. (1999). British cinema in the 1980’s. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, (2014). [Radio programme] BBC Radio 5 Live.

Labour.org.uk, (2014). Meeting Pride star Siân James. [online] Available at: http://www.labour.org.uk/blog/entry/meeting-pride-star-sian-james1 [Accessed 16 Apr. 2015].

Lay, S. (2002). British Social Realism. London: Wallflower.

Lee, B. (2015). Miners and LGBT activists who inspired hit film Pride reunite. [online] the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/mar/16/miners-lgbt-activists-pride-film-reunite [Accessed 16 Apr. 2015].

Leggott, J. (2008). Contemporary British Cinema. London: Wallflower Press.

Milne, S. (2004). The Enemy Within. London: Verso.

Munt, S. (2000). Cultural Studies and the Working Class. London: Cassell.

Powrie, P., Davies, A. and Babington, B. (2004). The Trouble with Men. London: Wallflower Press.

Shipton, M. (2015). Labour MP criticises the film Pride as he launches a book on the Miner’s Strike. [online] walesonline. Available at: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/labour-mp-criticises-film-pride-8831045 [Accessed 18 Apr. 2015].

Twitter, (2015). Mike Figgis on Twitter. [online] Available at: https://twitter.com/TheMikeFiggis/status/586647200396115968 [Accessed 13 Apr. 2015].

Von Tunzelmann, A. (2014). Pride: a quirky tale of ‘pits and perverts’ gets the facts straight. [online] the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/sep/18/pride-film-gay-miners-strike-campaign-reel-history [Accessed 17 Apr. 2015].

Warchus, M. (2014). Matthew Warchus: why I made a romcom about gay activists and striking miners. [online] the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/may/21/matthew-warchus-pride-gay-activists-miners-strike [Accessed 14 Apr. 2015].

 

Filmography

Key films in bold.

 

Among Giants. (1998). [film] UK: Sam Miller.

Billy Elliot. (2000). [film] UK: Stephen Daldry.

Brassed Off. (1996). [film] UK/US: Mark Herman.

Dockers. (1999). [film] UK: Bill Anderson.

Like Father. (2001). [film] UK: Amber Films.

London. (1994). [film] UK: Patrick Keiller.

My Name Is Joe. (1998). [film] UK: Ken Loach.

Pride. (2014). [film] UK/France: Matthew Warchus.

Raining Stones. (1993). [film] UK: Ken Loach.

Riff-Raff. (1991). [film] UK: Ken Loach.

Robinson in Space. (1997). [film] UK: Patrick Keiller.

Shooting Magpies. (2005). [film] UK: Amber Films.

Still the Enemy Within. (2014). [film] UK: Owen Gower.

The Battle of Orgreave. (2001). [film] UK: Mike Figgis.

The Full Monty. (1997). [film] UK: Peter Catteano.

The Navigators. (2001). [film] UK/Germany/Spain: Ken Loach.

The Scar. (1997). [film] UK: Amber Films.

When Coal Was King. (2013). [film] UK: Kate Thomas.

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