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Talking To The Real Life Heroes Behind Matthew Warchus’ Must-See ‘Pride’

Talking To The Real Life Heroes Behind Matthew Warchus' Must-See 'Pride'

Matthew Warchus’ crowdpleasing “Pride” tells the true story of Thatcher-era activist group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, the joint forces of London lesbians and gay men with a suffering Welsh mining community. After its astoundingly well-received North American premiere at TIFF, I was privileged to sit down with three of the real life subjects whose noble efforts were portrayed in the film: Sian JamesMike Jackson, and Jonathan Blake. 

When were you first approached about the making of this film?

Jackson: Stephen [Beresford] got the idea about 20 years ago. But he didn’t really get the opportunity to speak to anybody that would take him seriously until about 4 years or so ago. When he set about seriously trying to do something the first thing he had to do was obviously try to find the living people and make contact with them. We produced our own homemade video 30 years ago called “All Out! Dancing in Dulais.” And in it, right at the very end there are some credits. My name is like looking for a needle in a haystack: Michael Jackson. Being the clever man that he is, Stephen saw the name Reginald Blennerhassett and thought “there’s not many of them around,” so he searched him on Facebook and immediately found him. So he then kind of started meeting people. Since I was secretary of the organization I was key to most of the information. 

Were you all still in touch with each other?

James: I don’t think we were directly in touch per say, because people had made their own friendships and we’ve developed relationships with different people. So everybody concerned was in touch with somebody, and I would meet with my friends and they’d say “Guess what? Mike’s been down, oh give him my love.” So we were all in touch, but as a big group we hadn’t actually all been together in all that time. When I got involved, I’d say it was 2 and a half years in. Stephen was progressing nicely, he’d had all the initial discussions with people, things were starting to happen. He came to see me and he said: “Tell me your side of the story, people are mentioning you when I’m talking to them.” So here I am. I think the thing that most struck me was: he got it. How he actually understood how special it was. Because we knew it was special. It was very important to us in our lives and our development, and the making of us as people. You could tell people about it, but really it was difficult to get across the uniqueness of it. But Stephen did. He got it. 

Blake: Michael and I would see him. I live in London, Michael lives in London. There are innumerable demonstrations so one would sort of see people around. But in the whole terms of seeing each other day to day as one had back in ’84, no we didn’t. But Stephen had got the names, and I received a phone call from this man saying he wanted to work to make a film about the Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners and the dispute — and could he come see me? So he basically came along and we chatted for about 2 or 3 hours. It was extraordinary. He also spoke with my partner. And that was that, and he went away and everyone thought “Fine. Very interesting. Won’t hear anymore about that.” Then in probably 2 and a half or 3 years I get this telephone call from him saying “Do you remember me? I came and interviewed you about this film. I need to come and speak to you, can I come and see you?” and I said “yes by all means” — we made a date, point in time the doorbell rings. There is this tall gentleman standing at the door and he says “You don’t remember me do you?” Anyway he came in, and he basically told me that he had indeed written the screenplay and that it was going to be made into a film. Something had sparked him in our conversation, and he had actually written a character who was called Jonathan. And the film company would be sending me a letter for me to sign away my rights. So that was all fine. Again, he went away. The next thing was that I get another phone call from him when they were just in preproduction. And he said “The director would like to come and meet you with the actor who’s going to play you. Is that alright?” So we arranged to do that the next day. And I thought “fine, I’ve got enough time to make a lemon drizzle cake. You can’t have people come to tea and not have cake.” Stephen arrived with this extraordinary bouquet of flowers with cabbages and cabbage roses, and I said “you’re going to a wedding!” and he said “No, they’re for you.” Then the doorbell rings, and there standing on the doorstep is the director Matthew [Warchus] and Dominic West. Dominic West was to play me. 

How did it feel to meet the actors playing you? 

James: Amazing. The actors who are playing us — this is a big breakthrough movie, you know it’s Jessica Gunning’s first big production — although she’s a character actress of some experience with TV work and independent projects. Every time they were done with the filming in Dulais I was in London. And every time they were filming in London I was down in the Dulais Valley, back in Swansea. So I never sort of meshed in that way because there was always other things. So when I was given the name I looked her up on the International Movie Database. I looked at her and I could see that she had done these really interesting things. I shared it with all my friends of course, saying “Look! This is the person who’s going to be playing me!” and they said “My God, we can’t get over how much she looks like you.” I’ve lost a lot of weight but at that time it was like looking in a mirror. We were just sort of amazed by the care and attention that’s gone into looking at our characters. I think my poor husband has suffered more because I know that another actor was earmarked to play him, but he couldn’t get time off. But the guy who played my husband was amazing. He’s one of these characters that you [motioning to Blake] touched upon, where there was the amalgamation. So he’s had to take on a lot of roles and say things that he didn’t necessarily do. But Stephen was very honest from Day 1. He said “You know, this is not a minute-by-minute account of the whole experience. I haven’t got a cast of thousands. I couldn’t fit you all in, and all the people that were fantastic to all of this. So I’m having to amalgamate characters and there’s going to be about half a dozen people who will be main characters.” To me it was really important that the story was told. It didn’t matter if somebody was playing me at that time. But it was the care and attention that they put into our characters. 

Jackson: Stephen brought the actor who was going to play me around. And he grew up in a part of England very near to where I came from, so he’s kind of class background and he’s accented in a way that’s very sort of similar to me. He’s just a lot taller than I am [laughs]. It’s quite interesting because people from my generation were actually quite small because we weren’t as well-nourished as you are today. 

The three proceed to present a photograph of a joyous gathering in Dulais. And lo and behold: there they are dancing and laughing, looking true to the film’s depictions, 30 years ago.

James: I think that picture captures the flamboyancy. We were talking about the ‘thrift shop chic’, the sort of people from that background who didn’t have a great deal of money in that period. Since I was bigger I had to grab whatever came past that was big and get it on. My daughter said “don’t do that wardrobe!” but I told her I had to literally hook whatever fit me off the rail as it went past. We didn’t have money to buy new clothes. Very much that picture with the flamboyancy, you know, the different clothes that people from London wore… the styles, the hairstyles… people didn’t dress like that in our community. The colours you wore!

Blake: Well I made those trousers. 

James: See, it was things like that. We had a friend who wore this shocking pink sweater. With his bright red hair, he walked down my street — he had this really shocking bubblegum pink, hand-knitted… we didn’t know any men who knit, you know men didn’t knit — and he would walk down my street and all my little blue-rinse neighbours would go “hello David!” and he’d go “hello ladies!” You know he was like a comic going across. And it was that different. It was a very grey period. 

Blake: Oh yes. It was bleak, wasn’t it?

How would you compare the fight for LGBT rights, equality, and even grassroots activism then vs. what exists today?

Jackson: I think before you talk about LGBT rights, you could have come out much broader. The reason that we fought to support the miners is because we didn’t believe what the Thatcher government said the dispute was all about: the economics of the coal industry. That was a lie, we knew that. It was about trying to destroy traditionally the strongest British trade union, which was the coal miners. And we knew if coal miners were beaten in this then the whole trade union would be dealt a really serious injury. And as lesbians and gay men, if the trade union was beaten then our future was going to be bleak. So that’s why we supported them. And sadly, Thatcher more-or-less won. The trade union has less than half the membership that it used to be. Although there’s still 6 million people, so it can’t be sniffed out.

Blake: But it doesn’t have the industrial muscle that it used to have.

Jackson: Now what’s ironic is in the movie that’s what this is all about. Ironically, the lesbians and gays want something, gain something, because the miners turned round to support us. So actually the lesbian and gay community, we’ve got rights now that none of us ever imagined we would have. If young lesbians and gay men just want to go and dance and have a great life and a good time, good for them. But you know we fight oppression to get rid of it.

Blake: You’ve always got to be vigilant. And what slightly concerns me is that the youth is not aware of the fights that we all went through in order that these rights were won. And they are the people who’ve got to maintain them because the rug could be pulled out from under their feet if they’re not careful. It’s happening all over the world. You know there are still 77 countries where lesbian and gay men can be imprisoned, executed….

Jackson: India went pro-gay for a while, but now it’s in retrograde. It’s gone back. 

James: Look at what’s happening in Russia. People being openly homophobic, people teaching their children to be homophobic. I mean that appalls me. Here in our little valley, it wasn’t huge but it made a difference to our community. And there’s a community of people and our children who know that that’s not acceptable. If our children came to us and said that they were gay — and it’s happened — people don’t sort of say [groans], we say “Well, you’re gay! Do you remember all that wonderful support we got from those gay men and lesbian women who came down? That’s amazing isn’t it?” And that’s when people learned, in the bone as they say, that people are the same. They have the same values, the same fears, the same concerns. I think that’s where it moved on then from the promise that we would support and always stand up for things. We were very adamant as women that when you gave us the van we wanted your logo painted on the side.

Jackson: They came to us and said “we need to buy a van with the money” because they are communities in the valleys so physically it’s very difficult to get around to peoples’ homes, get food around, and they needed a new van. They asked us if we would give them permission to put pink triangles on the side and say ‘Donated by Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’ — can you imagine us? We went: “There won’t be a problem with that. That’s fantastic.” 

James: It’s in the film, you know that little scene. All the men said “is this practical? If we paint the van we devalue it.” We women said: “Well, so? We take the hit.” We were so proud of that van because it allowed us to do all that essential work of getting food around, buying more food, transporting it, getting it back to the feeding centres. We couldn’t get coal for the pensioners, because obviously coal was being mined… so we provided wood and my father-in-law and other landowners, they allowed the miners to come on and saw wood and cut trees down and things. We didn’t worry about regulations at that point, we just got on with it. And they bagged up the wood for the pensioners, and the pensioners said “We don’t care if we’re getting coal. As long as we keep a fire in the house. We use wood.” So there were all of these things going on, but the van mainly allowed the women to be more active. It allowed us to support other communities outside of our own area. It allowed us to go picketing. And in the end the women were organizing all of that, because we became more and more constrained by the government and rules were being introduced, and if you did this you could be sacked. The women had to go and do the picketing. If we got arrested it didn’t matter. We couldn’t be sacked. Their husbands could be. Our fathers and our brothers and our cousins. But without that van we wouldn’t be able to do that, so were very proud of the van. I remember one occasion stopping at the traffic light and a man going “Hiya ducky!” to us, and we made a great play of hugging and kissing each other. We took great delight in shocking other communities because we wanted people to see, hey, it’s not a shock. Get over it.

How have reactions to the film, in Swansea and overseas, been thus far?

James: Some of the families came up to the first showing, where we were shown it. I knew they would’ve done a good job but we were all a bit apprehensive. Because you have signed your name away. How will they portray you? Before we went in my husband said “if it’s dreadful we’ll just pretend we had nothing to do with it” [all laugh]. Then the minute the credits started rolling you could hear a pin drop. It just went silent. 

Blake: Then Dai Donovan got up. Dai Donovan was sort of the union organizer, and he’d been amazing throughout the strike and he was instrumental in putting pressure to put gay rights on the labour party agenda. He got up and he made the most wonderful speech. Thanking them all for what they’d done, and that they had been truthful and honest. The integrity was there, and it’d be something they’d be able to show their children, their grandchildren, their great grandchildren, so that they had an understanding of what had happened during that strike. Because that is very important. 

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