Sunday, August 09, 2015

Still the Enemy Within

When I reviewed ‘Pride’ in September last year, I ended by wondering when British cinema was going to deliver the great film on the miners’ strike, be it a Scargill biopic, a conspiracy thriller based on Seamus Milne’s ‘The Enemy Within’, an underdog drama about the vastly outnumbered Nottinghamshire striking miners or Leicester's heroic “dirty thirty”, or a no-punches-pulled visceral account of the police brutality at Orgreave. I opined that we have the filmmaking talent for any of these to be a viable project. Instead, British cinema treats the strike – surely the mostly significant socio-political protest of the last half decade – as some sort of colourful backdrop to comedy-dramas like ‘Brassed Off’, ‘Billy Elliott’ and the aforementioned ‘Pride’.

This year marked the thirtieth anniversary of the end of the strike, and we’re still no closer to the definitive feature film on the strike. What we do have though, and kudos to everyone who chipped in to help crowdfund it, is Owen Gower’s rock solid documentary ‘Still the Enemy Within’. The title, like that of Milne’s book on the government’s calculated campaign to undermine the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) references Margaret Thatcher’s heinous comment, post-Falklands conflict, that “Galtieri and the Argentians were the enemy without, Arthur Scargill and the miners are the enemy within”, sixteen words that manage to be xenophobic, imperialist, anti-union, anti-industry, anti-community and anti-workers’ rights. But we’re talking about Margaret fucking Thatcher here, so what else was to be expected?

‘Still the Enemy Within’ tells a clear-sighted story across its two hour running time, establishing a through line and maintaining a steady, informative pace. There are a few digressions, such as interviewee Norman Strike (who carried his birth certificate around for most of the strike after coppers started giving him grief because they thought he was taking the piss when asked his name) being invited onto cult BBC music show ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’: he comes marching out in the middle of a set and delivers a barnstorming speech only to be told later that the microphone hadn’t been switched on! By this time he’s repaired to the green room where, as he notes, “you want a Southern Comfort and Coke, you can have it; you want a bottle of whisky, you can have it”. As can be imagined of a man on strike and deprived of income for 35 weeks at this point, he goes to town on the free booze and drunkenly tells Jools Holland to fuck off at the end of the evening.

Another little discursion features Mike Jackson and basically recaps the story that inspired ‘Pride’, only ten minutes rather a hundred and twenty. Still, Jackson is engaging and passionate in interview, his wry humour shining through. In fact, humour is more prevalent than one might expect, particularly during the discussions of how flying pickets evaded police, including men hiding in car boots (police were especially vigilant for cars containing more than one adult male) or cutting across woodland dressed as joggers; Strike and his fellow contributors still seem chuffed, three decades on, that these schoolboy bits of field craft actually worked. Elsewhere, though, the humour is replace by a palpable anger. A discussion on the Nottinghamshire miners who continued working and who were shielded by a police presence which virtually sealed off the county hit home powerfully: Nottinghamshire’s been my home all my life and it’s still referred to as “scab county”. (I drove round some mining villages recently, researching an article for an anthology, and took a photograph of the headstocks at Blidworth, a village that was cut off and laid siege to by riot police in May 1984; I posted the picture on a mining heritage page on Facebook when I got home. The first comment was “Notts scabs”.)

Fury also drives the account of Orgreave; a pitched battle was provoked by mounted police and misrepresented by the media. The BBC reversed the order that footage was shot, leading the public to believe the police were responding to aggression. The interviewees agreed that Orgreave was the moment that the dynamic shifted and the police became more thuggish in their behaviours. Paramilitary is a word that’s used more than once to describe their techniques.

Gower features a fairly small number of former miners telling their stories, but he’s served brilliantly: Strike is immediately likeable, a working class raconteur; Paul Symonds, on whom the film opens and closes, describes the conditions miners faced, and the claustrophobic descent of the cage, in measured but evocative language – I’d put a transcript of his account against any passage in Zola’s ‘Germinal’; Steve Hamill is as direct and powerful an orator as you’re likely to encounter; while Joyce Sheppard, Betty Cook and Anne Scargill prove that women fought on the front line of the dispute as fearlessly and ferociously as anyone else.

A criticism made in several reviews is that the documentary is one-sided. Hmmm, yeah. Whatever. Successive governments and the mainstream UK media have been telling their Scargill-as-Satan version of things for thirty years, so I reckon that side of the story’s been over-represented anyway. Moreover, as Harry Paterson proved in his seminal book ‘Look Back in Anger: The Miners’ Strike in Nottingham 30 Years On’, scabs seemed ill-disposed to account for themselves. Paterson tried to interview UDM (Union of Democratic Mineworkers: a pro-National Coal Board puppet union funded by Tory money) honchos Roy Lynk and Neil Greatrex. Neither were co-operative.

‘Still the Enemy Within’ follows its account of the strike by charting the decline of the coal industry plotted against free enterprise capitalism and yuppiedom. Gower brings things up to date with an overview of the banking crisis and the big lie of austerity that Cameron’s government is still bashing the British populace around the head with. The comparison barely needs making: Cameron is Thatcher v2.0 and the powers that be still have utter contempt for workers, unions and the underprivileged. The documentary ends on a thin note of hope as Symonds notes that “the future’s still up for grabs”. With an onrush of people joining the Labour Party in the aftermath of the general election and the groundswell behind Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign, here’s hoping that Symonds’s cautious optimism is justified.

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