“Posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts” is the pithy if not totally inaccurate verdict on the British Army made, in ‘71, by a character who had spent 20 years as an army medic. He is carrying out DIY surgery in the bedroom on Gary Hook, a young British Army private who has been left behind after a raid on a Republican area of West Belfast. Ironically, the life-threatening injuries are inflicted on him not by the initial beating by the crowd in the street but by a bomb accidentally set off in a Loyalist pub given by army intelligence black-ops operatives in order to get the Loyalists to set it off in a Nationalist area. This gives some idea of the twists and turns of the plot in this short but intense film, mostly set over the course of 12 hours in West Belfast in 1971, when the Troubles moved into a new phase.
Hook’s abandonment follows a house-search operation in a Nationalist area by the RUC (Northern Ireland police) who are given back-up by Hook’s squad. The women of the area sound the warning by banging dustbin lids on the pavement and a crowd soon gathers. A riot ensues during which a young boy makes off with a rifle and Hook gives chase but is intercepted by the crowd. He gets beaten up despite the efforts of a couple of the women from the area but he does manage to escape. In a superbly-handled sequence, he runs through a warren of lanes, gardens, abandoned pubs and houses bombed out during the pogroms in the previous year. He hides in a toilet to wait for nightfall and partially disguises himself by taking some civilian clothes from a washing line.
He has to rely for help where he can get it, whether Loyalist or Republican, as he is stalked by a group of armed IRA activists. He comes across a garrulous young Loyalist boy who takes him to the Loyalist pub where Hook (but not the boy) survives the bombing and is seriously injured. A Catholic father (the former British Army medic) and his daughter find him lying on the street. Frightened, both for themselves and Hook, to take him to hospital, they take him home, which is in the famous Divis Flats on the Falls Road, and call on local IRA leader, Boyle, to get him to safety. (Just before this period, the IRA had what was effectively a cease-fire with the Army and Boyle is in contact with the military). However he is in dispute with younger, more trigger-happy elements in the IRA and things don’t go according to plan. From here the plot becomes even more tortuous, with double-crossing taking place among both the British forces and rival Republicans, the Official-Provisional IRA split having taken place a few months before.
Although the film starts off with a familiar trope from war films – rookie soldiers undergoing basic training before being sent into battle – it quickly becomes an urban thriller with a relentless tempo and a constantly tense atmosphere. This is the first feature film directed by Yann Demange, a Frenchman but brought up in Britain, and he has made an impressive debut. It is also the first screenplay by Scottish playwright Gregory Burke who wrote the acclaimed play ‘Black Watch’ (2006), based on interviews with soldiers serving in Iraq, which was highly critical of politicians and officers, a stance evident in the film. The cinematographer is Anthony Radcliffe and much of the camerawork is done with hand-held cameras which help ratchet up the tension. The production design gives an authentic feel of the early 70s Belfast – although the long hair and sideburns of the undercover soldiers are on the edge of caricature. But the aspect of the production that particularly impressed me was atmospheric pounding score written by David Holmes (who also scored Steve McQueen’s 20 film, Hunger). He dispenses with the Celtic folk-ish music which is frequently used in films set during the Troubles and instead uses guitars and synthesisers. [Samples have been made available here:
The acting is also first class. I was familiar with Jack O’Connor who plays Gary Hook from Starred Up where he played a brutalised young convict in a violent prison but in ‘71 he is more not so much brutal as bewildered. Here he doesn’t have much dialogue to work with and has to do a lot with looks and gestures. Other notable performances are those of David Wilmot and Martin McCann, representing old and new Republicans; Richard Dormer as the former Army medic and Charlie Murphy as his daughter Brigid. Sean Harris carries his devious and ruthless persona from his role as Micheletto Corella, the Borgias’ hit man in the Showtimes television series The Borgias and is convincingly evil as Captain Browning, the officer in charge of the army black-ops team. A special word for the young actor Corey McKinley who plays the chirpy Loyalist boy with an assurance beyond his years.
Many films set during the Troubles in Ireland have been criticised for simply using the setting as an easy provider of tension and explosive violence rather than shedding light on the underlying causes of the conflict (I’m thinking in particularly of Fifty Dead Men Walking, directed by Karl Skogland in 2008, Shadow Dancer by James Marsh in 2012, and Harry’s Game, by Lawrence Gordon Clark in 1982) and I think that is the case to some extent with ’71. Indeed, apart from some local detail, it could easily be set in Iraq or Afghanistan. Burke’s script doesn’t really lead to any real understanding of what The Troubles were about. Certainly we are shown the brutality of the of RUC police during the house searches but beyond that the film doesn’t probe too deeply into the economic and political origins of the conflict, beyond a simplistic potted history that the soldiers are given on arrival in Belfast. If there is a political position, it is that the conflict is simply due to sectarian rivalry and one side is as bad as the other. When Gary tells Brigid he is from Derby and she says she has family members in Nottingham, he tells her that people from these two counties don’t get on with each other but he doesn’t know why this is. The subtext is therefore that the conflict is due to irrational hatred.
As a thriller, however, this was one of the most gripping films I’ve seen in a long time.
Here is the trailer:
Pride is a remarkable film in several ways. Its narrative is conventional (based on a true story). It isn’t aesthetically interesting but it does two things very well. One is to provide its audience with high quality ensemble performances, some by well-known and celebrated UK actors, some by relative newcomers, all of which are well-judged and represent very effectively an array of characters, each of whom gets enough screen time to act as an identifiable ‘hero’ for part of the audience. In this way a broad audience can identify with the central narrative because of their attachment to one or more characters. This is no mean feat for a film dealing with arguably the most divisive period of modern British history.
The second great success of the film, at least to my mind, is that it deals with political ideas in a way that is inclusive, but at the same time is quite precise in analysing specific issues. OK, it is conventional, it uses familiar types and it does carry a large element of nostalgia and romance about very difficult times, but I think it manages to achieve the holy grail of ‘serious fun’. In doing so it raises a number of questions that need exploring.
The ‘true story’ here is that a number of activists in London branded themselves as ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’ (LGSM) in June 1984. They then randomly chose a community in South Wales as the recipients of the money they raised. This was not easy as NUM officials and strike committees were suspicious and reluctant to engage with LGBT groups. The resulting link-up was in the end a success, but not without trials and tribulations as well as downright opposition from individuals within the mining community. The strike ended in defeat, the eventual near-collapse of the mining industry and severe hardship for the mining communities themselves. But the film doesn’t end there. I won’t spoil the real ending.
The other horror of 1984-5 to go with the scores of police in transit vans and on horseback confronting striking miners was the spread of HIV and AIDS associated at this point with ‘unsafe sex’, especially within the gay community, and represented in public health advertising on TV by images of an iceberg lurking in dark waters. In 1984 gays and miners alike needed all the help they could get in the face of Thatcher’s attacks on ‘the enemy within’ as she branded them. The disappointment is that it’s taken 30 years to put these kinds of alliances on the screen. The current ‘Con-Dem’ government in the UK is now worse in many ways in its attacks on working people, even if so far it hasn’t resorted to Thatcher’s outright violence. Instead it has allowed the rich to get richer while penalising the poor – the kind of mutual support shown in Pride is even more valuable now.
Pride has taken off slowly in the UK despite a wide release. It made number 3 in the UK chart, but the screen averages were disappointing (for the weekend – it did OK in midweek when older people go to the cinema). Everyone I know who has seen it, raves about how much they enjoyed it. It should have the legs to grow a substantial audience over the next few weeks (only dropping 11% after the first week). Perhaps some audiences have been put off by the idea that it is about something from long ago. For many younger audiences the actual struggles will be something they know little about, but this shouldn’t stop engagement with the characters. It’s noticeable that the right-wing press in the UK have given the film 5 star ratings (Daily Mail, Telegraph etc.) even though the film explicitly attacks the ideologies they support. Significantly, they have also likened the film to The Full Monty and Billy Elliot – likeable popular films but films which denigrate traditional male working class culture and the political struggles of the 1980s and early 1990s. Pride is much more akin to Brassed Off which represented the anger created by the attacks of Thatcherism and Made in Dagenham that celebrated the political activism of women workers. Both Pride and Brassed Off represent the historical importance of the politicisation of the women of the mining communities, though Pride does so much more positively.
The screenwriter and director were both new to me. Because I don’t follow theatre I was not aware of Matthew Warchus who has had a stellar career as a stage director. It’s interesting that in aesthetic terms Pride is not particularly ‘theatrical’ in terms of lighting and mise en scène. This is only Warchus’ second feature and I liked the way he focused on the ensemble acting performances, the great dialogue scenes and the use of music. There are several interesting interviews with the pair, e.g. this one in Empire magazine. Writer Stephen Beresford tells us that the idea for the film arose in the mid-1990s during the second and final round of pit closures and, echoing a scene in Pride, Beresford had answered a call to support the miners with a “what have they ever done for us [gay men]?” kind of comment . . . and then somebody told him the true story. But it took more than 10 years to get the film into production because it seemed to break too many rules. It didn’t have a single hero, it had a lot of politics etc. It’s worth reading the interviews to get a full sense of just how conservative the UK film production community is.
The film doesn’t analyse the causes of the strike or the politics behind it, but what it does do is to focus on the idea of solidarity and mutual support, of committing to a cause and not forgetting who are your comrades and who is the enemy. The two other outcomes/’tie-ins’ for the film are the music and the associated news and feature stories. The music includes a host of 1980s club classics but also three great songs of solidarity, ‘Solidarity Forever’ by Pete Seeger, ‘There Is Power in a Union’ Billy Bragg and a spine-tingling rendition of ‘Bread and Roses’ by Bronwen Lewis. A soundtrack album adds more 1980s songs and is likely to prove very popular. See the film’s website for details. Meanwhile, the true story is circulating via various press features like this one in the Observer about Mark Ashton played by the American Ben Schnetzer (beware spoilers about what happened to the historical figure).
Go and see it – you won’t be disappointed. Here’s a ‘making of’ featurette to introduce the film to US audiences (opens 26 September):
Earlier this year I posted on Miyazaki Hayao’s anime The Wind Rises. BBC2 recently transmitted the British equivalent film to Miyazaki’s hymn to the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane. The First of the Few celebrates the work of the aero designer R. J. Mitchell whose designs included the prize-winning Supermarine S5 and S6 floatplanes, winners of the Schneider trophy in the 1920s, and then the single most important fighter of the Second World War, the Spitfire which first flew in 1936.
The First of the Few has several similarities with The Wind Rises. Both designers are inspired by the flight of birds, both are obsessed with their work, both visit Germany – and admire the Italian love of high speed planes. Both have important relationships with understanding women that end tragically. But there is also a major difference in that the British film began shooting in 1941 and was completed in 1942 just two years after the ‘Battle of Britain’ (the title is taken from Churchill’s speech about the debt owed to the fighter pilots who flew the Spitfires – and in larger numbers the Hurricane). It was therefore produced in the context of the war effort and has been described as ‘propaganda’. I’m not sure that is the most useful term. The film doesn’t work crudely to ‘persuade’ its audience – it assumes that the audience understands the aims of the war effort. Nevertheless it doesn’t refrain from milking the emotional response to a British success story which was crucial in 1942 when the outcome of the war was still in doubt. German and Italian figures in the 1920s and 1930s are shown as sometimes comical characters, though like the Powell & Pressburger films of the period, some Germans are shown sympathetically (e.g. the airmen of the the Great War in the Richthofen Club).
The wartime context allowed the producers to get the active support of the RAF and Vickers Supermarine. Mitchell was played by Leslie Howard who also directed the film. Howard was a major star who tragically died, shot down by the Luftwaffe on a civilian flight, in 1943. The other ‘marquee’ name in the film was David Niven who was released by Sam Goldwyn in exchange for the US rights to the film. Unfortunately Goldwyn decided to rename the film Spitfire in North America and to cut around 35 minutes from the 123 minutes UK running time (supposedly because as the test pilot, Niven didn’t appear throughout the film). There is a great deal of background on the film’s production on the website of ‘South Central Media’ (i.e. the locations around Southampton) and also on this Leslie Howard appreciation blog.
The Leslie Howard website (see above) reveals that the story and script of the film went through several processes to end up with the final version in which the development of Mitchell’s ideas to eventually produce the Spitfire is told in flashback to a group of young pilots by the Niven character Crisp, now a Station Commander during the Battle of Britain. The film begins with one of those familiar wartime montages introducing the threat of invasion (though it seems bizarre that the British audience of the time would have needed such an intro – this may have been deemed necessary to introduce the story to an American audience). It ends with a quasi mystical image of a Spitfire flying into the sun as seen by Niven, now up in a Spitfire himself. These last few shots seem to prefigure the Powell and Pressburger films A Canterbury Tale (1944) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). In the first of these a flying hawk from a medieval Canterbury noble is transformed into a Spitfire flying over Kentish fields – an iconic image as many writers have noted. In A Matter of Life and Death, Niven is again an RAF officer, this time caught between life and death and quoting Andrew Marvel as his Lancaster bomber crashes into the sea on its return from a bombing raid.
Howard plays his role very well and portrays Mitchell as a sympathetic character. He and the test pilot (Niven) are solidly middle-class, supposedly from the same school with Mitchell as introspective and Crisp as outgoing. In reality Mitchell was a working-class lad from Staffordshire, imposing and athletic with a temper. It’s interesting to conjecture how different the film might have been if made in 1944 or 1945 when working-class characters were starting to appear in lead roles as the country prepared for a Labour government. In the 1930s, most British leading actors were middle-class (or played as such) and in 1942 Howard and Niven certainly sold the film to audiences. But by 1945 someone like Eric Portman might have played Mitchell ‘for real’. Although a biopic of sorts (but only covering Mitchell’s later life), a great deal about the story of The First of the Few has been changed – the trip to Germany for instance never happened – with focus on the Spitfire presented at the expense of Mitchell’s other work. One aspect of the film that does represent the realism of documentary however is the brief montage of the craftsmen at Vickers working to produce the parts for the first prototype Spitfire. Watching the film now is to be reminded how much has been lost in the UK with the neglect of engineering in the last 40 years. The other ‘documentary’ feature of the film is of course the appearance of ‘real’ RAF pilots, some of whom had fought in the Battle of Britain themselves. There seems to be a suggestion in the writing about the film that the focus on the young pilots (many of whom were lost in aerial combat) and the pre-war struggles to get the Spitfire built meant that the film had a very different tone to that expected by Goldwyn. There are relatively few combat scenes and there is an emphasis on how only Mitchell’s brilliance saved the UK in 1940. If this is propaganda it is of the ‘warning to future generations’ kind. In fact the RAF were seeking a fighter like this from the early 1930s onwards. The First of the Few is also a romantic picture in which the shy Mitchell seemingly dies from overwork in completing his design. In reality a very successful top designer suffered from cancer which killed him aged 42. Just as tragic but perhaps not as romantic.
30 years on from the pivotal miners’ strike of 1984 the anniversary recalls a key time in late C20th brutal capitalism. One contribution was the screening of the drama-comedy Brassed Off at the Hyde Park Picture House on Yorkshire Day. As the audience suffers the travails of another capitalist crisis the film was a poetic reminder of what has been taking place.
This is a drama/comedy that manages to combine an amount of gritty Yorkshire humour with a series of bleak personal dramas. The film is set in 1992 at the Grimley Colliery. Following on the victory of the government, the police and their paymasters: coal mine after coal mine is closed, miners rendered redundant and mining communities suffer economic, social and personal dislocation.
The strength of the film is in the performances of a team of experienced and talented character actors. Leading them is the now sadly lost Peter Postlethwaite as the bandleader, Danny. His son, Philip (Stephen Tomkinson), imprisoned during the 1984 strike, is caught in a catastrophe of debts and family breakdown. Two stalwarts of the band, Harry (Jim Carter) and Greasley (Ken Colley) provide humour but also sympathetic support. Whilst Jim (Phillip Jackson) represents the harder edge of the group.
Much of the personal drama is conventional, especially the romance between Andy (Ewan McGregor in a role that fits his distinctive talents) and Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald), And there are conventional but distinctive moments of humour – the fish and chip shop call ‘In Cod We Trust’: the recurring pool games at the pub which Andy continually loses: and the band sequences in their rehearsal hall. And there is the local bus company with international destinations like New York on their logo but also ‘mainly Grimley’. Then there are the two wives cum fans, Ida (Mary Healey) and Vera (Sue Johnston), who travel to the Band’s concerts and sport the band’s colour – purple.
The film does attempt to present equally positive representations of women. The success of this varies. We frequently see the picket outside the pithead of ‘Women Against Pit Closures’. But the film fails to develop the characters involved. Harry’s wife Rita (Lill Roughley), a member of the picket, remains a cipher. Equally the film fails to develop a sense of the community in the mining town. Only once do we see a large set of town characters, waving the band off to the finals. The standout among these supporting characters is Melanie Hill as Phil’s long-suffering wife Sandra.
The travails of their family life – with financial problems and debts undermining the family – are among the most moving in the film. Scenes focusing on Danny are equally powerful. He is completely convincing as the bandleader, down to his conducting. (Harry’s stand-in performance by comparison is amateur, presumably deliberately). There is a great shot, set against the pithead, when Danny’s illness finally catches up with him. And the hospital scenes following are also extremely effective.
Without being overly didactic the film also vents the anger of the mining community about their treatment. Phil has an almost surreal scene as he performs as Mr Chuckles (a party clown) at a middle-class children’s party. Whilst Danny has the great set piece delivery at the penultimate and climatic sequence in the Albert Hall.
Unfortunately the opposition are also undeveloped and fairly conventional characters. These include the smarmy manager leading the closure of the pit and one miner who just wants ‘to take the money – bribe’. For the film the most powerful enemy in the story is the disillusionment amongst the miners themselves.
What works best are the scenes of the community of miners: at work and in their off-duty hours. The pit brings out the best qualities of cinematographer Andy Collins. The short montages in the mine and at the face are incredibly effective. And there are some luminous shots of the great pithead at dusk and at night.
The other splendid contribution is the Brass Band music, provided by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. They provide both non-diegetic music and on screen performances, including near the beginning in the band’s rehearsal hall with Joaquin Rodrigo’s ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ – ‘orange juice’: at a series of open-air competitions in the Saddleworth area: and finally at the National Brass Band Finals at The Albert Hall. These are frequently played over montages of developments in both the personal and the community life. We also hear Hubert Party’s ‘Jerusalem’, Percy Grainger’s ‘Danny Boy’ and Edward Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance March’ (‘Land of Soap and Glory’). The tunes are familiar and a number evoke a traditional, almost whimsical sense of English or British culture. But the strength of the film is that this suggests, not the conformist ambience of ‘The Last Night of the Proms’, but a different England, closer to that described by Richard Hoggart.
The last suggests an England that has passed on, which is the case. But the new, nastier, more competitive England still bears all the ‘birthmarks, moral political and intellectual’ of the earlier periods. Brassed Off manages to suggest this. And whilst the feel-good ending may seem a little too upbeat it is accompanied by on-screen titles reminding the viewers of what has been lost.
An added pleasure was that the film was screened in a pretty good 35mm print.
There is now a successor to this feel-good drama, Pride (2014). Set in Wales in 1984 it takes actual events involving gay and lesbian supporters of the miners to create a comedy-drama.
It opens at the National Media Museum in September and there will be a Study Day to accompany the screening on the 14th, ‘Miners – One hundred years of film’.