Category: British Cinema

Pride (UK 2014)

Part of the ensemble cast of Pride: (from left, Imelda Staunton, Billy Nighy, Andrew Scott, Dominic West and Paddy Considine

Part of the ensemble cast of PRIDE: (from left, Imelda Staunton, Billy Nighy, Andrew Scott, Dominic West and Paddy Considine

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.

Paddy Considine as Dai with, from left, Freddie Fox, Ben Schnetzer, Faye Marsay, Joseph Gilgun and George Mackay

Paddy Considine as Dai with, from left, Freddie Fox, Ben Schnetzer, Faye Marsay, Joseph Gilgun and George Mackay

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):

The First of the Few (UK 1942)

An ailing R. J. Mitchell (Leslie Howard) visited by test pilot Crisp (David Niven)

An ailing R. J. Mitchell (Leslie Howard) visited by test pilot Crisp (David Niven)

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.

Brassed Off (UK/USA 1996)

Brass band

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.

Women picket

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.

Chuckles

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.

Pithead 2

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’.

Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (UK 1960)

Working class sitting-dining room

Working class sitting-dining room

Part of the freshness of the British New Wave was the films’ use of relatively unknown actors such as Albert Finney (above) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was one of the first New Wave films to focus on working class life. The film that heralded the ‘wave’, Room at the Top, had a protagonist, Joe Lampton, who is desperate to join the middle classes whereas Saturday Night’s Arthur Seaton (Finney) relishes his working status with his ‘chippy’ attitude as his opening voice over states, above an image of him working in a factory:

Don’t let the bastards grind you down. That’s one thing I’ve learned . . . I’d like to see anybody try to grind me down. That’d be the day. What I want is a good time. All the rest is propaganda.

Finney’s brilliant performance shows both the charisma of the rebel the immaturity of Seaton, particularly when his face breaks out in a childish grin when he fires pellets at a local gossip. Despite the fact that, in common with other films of the time,  it represents popular culture negatively, Seaton criticises his dad for watching television all the time (see above), its treatment of race, although incidental, is progressive. During Seaton’s introductory monologue he says ‘I’m like him’, and at that moment the camera frames one of the few Afro-Caribbean workers. Seaton identifies himself via his class and rebellious attitude and not race.

At the end of the film it appears that Seaton has been recouped for a conventional lifestyle, as he decides to wed Doreen (Shirley Anne Field) after, it is implied, they’ve had sex. However, this doesn’t stop him throwing stones at a site where the ‘nice’ semi-detached homes he’s destined for are being built.

The cast is brilliant giving a debut to some who would become stalwarts of British cinema: Colin Blakely, Bryan Pringle and Norman Rossington. Hylda Baker is a standout as Seaton’s Aunt Ada and Rachel Roberts, as the married woman with whom Seaton is having sex, is heartbreaking when faced with an abortion.