WeeklyWorker

25.09.2014
Mark Ashton: played by Ben Schnetzer with great integrity

Moving and inspiring

Matthew Warchus (director) Pride general release

I confess I was a little worried before I went to see Pride. This is a new film telling the story of Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), a London-based group of activists who in 1984-85 provided thousands of pounds-worth of solidarity to strikers and their families in the Dulais valley, south Wales. Sure, I was partially reassured by the glowing reviews in some papers. My confidence in the film’s quality was given an even bigger boost when I read the wretched, peevishly vindictive review by a nasty little man at the Financial Times who gave the production a single star - and evidently resented even that. “Almost unwatchable,” he wrote in his almost unreadable hatchet job.

Nonetheless, I had my doubts. I feared a sludgy sentimentality-fest or, worse, a flippant sort of carry-on-campaigning ‘romp’, with lazily depicted queer and Taff ‘characters’ getting into all manner of double entendre misunderstandings and gender-bender scrapes. Thankfully, I can thoroughly recommend this fine film to Weekly Worker readers. Its touch is light and humorous, but never frivolous. It portrays the powerful emotions this epic battle produced in participants, but without a hint of mawkishness about it. I laughed, I cried. There, I’ve always wanted to use that reviewers’ cliché and it fits for Pride.

Particularly gratifying is the portrayal of Mark Ashton, acted with great integrity by Ben Schnetzer. Mark was one of the key motivating forces behind LGSM and also a comrade of mine in the CPGB’s youth organisation, the Young Communist League. He was its general secretary from 1985 - effectively the last before the organisation’s liquidation. Indeed, Mark is the beating heart at the centre of the film in much the same way he was in LGSM - and as he unsuccessfully tried to be in the YCL subsequently. The film captures some of comrade Ashton’s boundless energy, his élan and charismatic leadership style, qualities that attracted and activated people around him - or, as one LGSM activist puts it in the film, “Whatever Mark says, we do it - don’t ask me why!”

We have reprinted opposite the obituary I wrote at the time of Mark’s death in 1987. This tried to pick out some of the contradictions in the man’s political outlook. These tensions between left and right were eventually to be resolved by him in favour of a section of the right of the party of the time, the Eurocommunist trend. Thus, we felt it right to title his obituary ‘A good man fallen among Euros’ - this internal political struggle in the man had been resolved negatively, we were saying. (It is also worthwhile noting that the narrow trade union-style economism - and occasionally outright chauvinism - that Mark would have encountered amongst sections of the Stalinist left in the CPGB could have pushed him towards those like the Euros, who, on the face of it at least, were taking issues such as women’s and gay oppression seriously. A similar process saw me rebel against my Stalinist family background in Wales and adopt a quirky form of left Eurocommunism as a youth - miserable Christmases ensued!)

Through the specific story of LGSM, the film brilliantly shows the huge upsurge of creative energy that flowed into the mass movement of solidarity with the miners’ strategic battle. All that was best in the workers’ movement - and beyond - was put on a war footing for the strike. Ironically, however, for the YCL the miners’ strike was more or less the kiss of death - in vivid contrast to LGSM, in which YCLer Mark Ashton played such an inspiring role. Under general secretary Doug Chalmers - a man who invited the Hackney police into a YCL meeting in the borough to exclude a left majority (hence “Chalmers of the Yard” in the obituary) - the league managed to produce just one copy of its magazine during the 12 months of the strike. I recall Chalmers once complaining that nothing more could possibly have been done, as the organisation’s full-timers had to fill their days making sure that enough dues came in to pay their wages! They were absolutely politically pointless, in other words.

When Mark became YCL general secretary in 1985, I am sure he felt he could galvanise the organisation in much the same way he had LGSM - almost through force of character and will. But by then we were in the dark aftermath of the defeat of the strike and the CPGB’s and YCL’s programmatic degeneration was accelerating. As my brief interview with him referenced in the obituary makes clear, Mark was confused and pretty forlorn about the decline of the league and his inability to reverse it - but, characteristically, for him more action was always a possible remedy: “[we] didn’t have a programme of action adapted from Our future [the YCL’s dully opportunist programme].If Our future had been implemented, worked around and looked at, so we could have priori­tised our work …”

Of course, all of this is outside the remit of Pride (although it would have been nice to perhaps have more explicit references to Mark’s politics than a few hammer and sickle posters on the LGSM van and the walls of various London squats, or the good natured “Commie!” heckle when he begins to address the audience in a gay club. Reportedly, this aspect of the man has been consciously excluded in order not to alienate American audiences). Certainly, it takes nothing away from the fine central performance of Schnetzer as comrade Ashton.

The LGSM ensemble around him are fun, with sparky and engaging performances - in particular from George Mackay as Joe, the young, still-in-the-closet member of LGSM. However, it is the Welsh contingent that offers something special, in my - possibly slightly biased - view. Bill Nighy as the gently diffident, but magnificent when roused, Cliff confirms his status as an outstanding actor, with a huge comedic talent. Emelda Staunton is formidable as Hefina, doughty matriarch of the support committee and ‘she who must be obeyed’ for the young miners in the welfare. Paddy Considine is courteous sincerity and warmth personified as Dai Donovan, the first direct contact LGSM have with the Dulais miners.

Far and away my favourite, however, has to be Gwen (the women in the film get all the best lines). Played with gusto by Menna Trussler, Gwen is the type of older woman I recognise from my youth in an ex-mining village between Swansea and Llanelli. This is the sort that, as my family would say, “speak as they find and scratch where it itches”. She gets some lovely lines and delivers them with fine comic timing. (Imagine your granny on a London night out with hard-partying LGSMers telling them, “We want to see everything. Including the rubber scene.”) However, she also has two short, seemingly throwaway lines that thematically top and tail the film for me, in that they epitomise the transformative effect LGSM’s engagement had on many in this small mining community. When Mark Ashton and squad first turn up in the Dulais welfare, Gwen is the first to encounter them. Without tearing her eyes away from these colourful new arrivals for an instant, she leans back, cracks opens the door of committee room, and delicately shouts: “Dai - your gays are here!”

By the time of the film’s closing sequences, we have Gwen bustling out of the van that has transported her and others from Dulais to the 1985 Gay Pride march in London, Tupperware box containing her unique take on vegan sandwiches in hand, demanding, “Right, now where my lesbians?” As the real-life Dai Donovan put it in his 1984 speech in a London gay club, re-enacted in Pride, “You have worn our badge, ‘Coal, not dole’, and you know what harassment means, as do we. Now we will pin your badge on us - we will support you. It won’t change overnight, but now 140,000 miners know that there are other causes and other problems … we will never be the same.”

Of course, this process was not an easy one and the film does not shy away from depicting the suspicions, ignorant prejudices and lazy assumptions that stood in the way of solidarity - both on the part of mining communities about gay people and of some gay and lesbian activists about the miners. A scene depicts a difficult meeting at the very start of LGSM, when one northern man in the audience addressed by Mark Ashton refuses to become involved, as those “bastards beat me up every day” because of his sexuality.

Dave Douglass - a striking miner in 1984-85 and a pretty regular contributor to this paper - sent us some thoughts about the film that address this process of trust-building: “Truth was, the generosity and openness of the gay community made us an offer we couldn’t refuse and even the most terrified in our community weren’t so blind as not to see it. True, too, we were breaking down all barriers of our self-imposed strictures and culture. About women firstly, and then non-whites, and the far left, and religious groups, then gays and lesbians.”

I am sure all those involved in Pride had no intentions to make a profound piece of art about 1984-85. However, the truth is that through an honest, affectionate and partisan engagement with a pivotal moment in British history, this entertaining film does say some profound things about that time and those people - firstly, I think, about the potential for solidarity and struggle to transform people and then the need, and the potential, for the working class to become the hegemon of all democratic struggles, the champion of the oppressed. (There is a neat political point made at the end of the film, where we see LGSM activists on the aforementioned 1985 Gay Pride march in an unseemly intersectional squabble with a split from their ranks, Lesbians Against Pit Closures. The whole spat is superseded positively when a fleet of coaches pull up and disgorge hundreds of miners joining the demo.)

A latter-day example of this transformative effect might be the Pride screenwriter himself, Stephen Beresford, who told The Guardian that before he came to the story “The idea of trade unions seemed to me as old-fashioned as flares or the penny farthing.” Perhaps the popularity of films such as Billy Elliot, Made in Dagenham, Brassed off and now Pride show that there may be a slowly dawning realisation amongst swathes of the population that, far from being old hat, strong, militant trade unions, political parties of the working class and the traditions of solidarity and societal transformation that they embody at their best are actually traditions that are increasingly relevant to today’s world.

Pride is a moving and inspiring film. Go see it.

Mark Fischer

mark.fischer@weeklyworker.co.uk