A group of young gay men and lesbians from London join forces with the people of an isolated, blue-collar Welsh mining town to fight government treatment of miners during a bitter nationwide strike.
Sounds like the Pollyanna-ish stuff of sentimental fantasy, doesn’t it? Nothing like that could possible happen in real life. That’s exactly what theatre and film director Matthew Warchus (Art, God of Carnage, Matilda the Musical) thought when he received a copy of the Stephen Beresford screenplay that became the U.K. film “Pride,” opening in the U.S. Sept. 26.
“When I heard about it before it arrived, I wasn’t too sure, because I thought it sounds a little contrived and sentimental, maybe,” said Warchus, a Tony Award winner for God of Carnage. “Then the script arrived and I realized it was a true story. I realized how fresh the writing was. I found it honestly written. I was immediately very hooked by the idea of it.”
“Pride,” set in the mid-‘80s, tells the largely forgotten story of the London-based activist group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. Spotting in British miners — whose union went on strike in 1984 in answer to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s threat to close 20 coal mines — an oppressed and demonized British people suffering from abuses and bias not unlike those endured by homosexuals in Britain at the time — a small group decided to begin collecting funds to help the financially hurting residents of a small Welsh mining town. Despite some opposition among a handful of townspeople, an unlikely bond developed between the miners and activists. The coalition culminated in a fund-raising concert called "Pits and Perverts,” held at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, London in December 1984. The event was headlined by Bronski Beat, then at the peak of its popularity.
Though he grew up in England at the time the events took place, Warchus himself was unfamiliar with the story.
“I thought it was a romantic idea, invented,” he said. “Like nearly everybody in the U.K. and around the world, for some extraordinary reason we just don’t know this story.”
In preparing for the movie, Warchus got to meet several of the people who took part in the movement, including Jim Jackson, the right-hand man of LGSM leader Mark Ashton; Jonathan Blake (West’s character), an older member of LGSM, who was also one of the first recorded AIDS cases in the U.K.; and Siân James, a member of the village who went on to be elected to Parliament as a member of the Labor Party representing Swansea East.
Warchus also visited Onllwyn, the town that was the beneficiary of LGSM’s efforts. In the end, he ended up shooting much of the film there, including shots of the exterior of the Welfare Hall, where many key scenes take place.
“That was the first place I went to try and soak up the ambiance and get a sense of the reality, but really expecting to shoot somewhere else, as usually happens,” explained the director. “We just couldn’t find anywhere that had all those ingredients: the isolation, that kind of bleak air, the Welfare Hall. So we ended up shooting in the place where people could still remember the real events. That gave us an incentive to get it right.” Warchus and his designers also benefitted from a cache of photos of the characters in action, all provided by Jackson.
“We made an agreement that we wouldn’t do a pastiche of anything of the time,” Warchus said, speaking for himself and the design team. “To help us get the authentic detail, rather than make generalizations, we looked at a lot of photographs, particularly ones given to us to Mike Jackson. We had actual documentary evidence of what people were wearing in the Welfare Hall and what the people in the LGSM were wearing, which was a mixture of cobbled together things, homemade things.”
According to Warchus, roughly 80% of what takes place in the film is based on actual happenings. “All the events in the film has roots in the real events,” he said. “There’s nothing that was completely invented.” Some poetic license was taken in the name of expediency and story concision, of course. For instance, the character of the narrow-minded miner widow Maureen — the story’s chief antagonist — is an amalgamation of several village people who were opposed to the involvement of the gay activists.
“Pride” is only Warchus’ second film, the first, “Simpatico,” having come 15 years ago. He is slated to direct the film version of Matilda the Musical. But “Pride” may have ironically handed him a future theatre project. A review of the film by The New Yorker’s David Denby observed the story “would make a good musical.”
Warchus laughed at the suggestion, but didn’t wholly dismiss it. “One would want to avoid it getting overly sentimental,” he theorized. “It’s the golden, uplifting side of it that suggests a musical. But it would be too sweet if it was all that. So one would be looking to make a musical that was quite grounded and had a toughness to it.”