TWO TRIBES: WHEN POP WASN’T THE PITS

movie Pride cel­e­brates the un­likely meet­ing of Bri­tain’s strik­ing min­ers and gay-rights cam­paign­ers in the 1980s. Poverty, ho­mo­pho­bia, Aids and the de­feat of the min­ers pro­vide the back­drop. Don­ald Clarke takes pride in a cul­tural re­bel­lion

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - COVER STORY -

One ter­rific scene among many ter­rific scenes in the con­sis­tently ter­rific Pride finds a po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist en­ter­ing a record la­bel’s of­fices to re­quest support for a ben­e­fit by gay mu­si­cians for the strik­ing min­ers. It is 1984 and the re­cep­tion­ist is wear­ing the sculpted hair and heavy make-up as­so­ci­ated with Cul­ture Club and the New Ro­man­tic mob. “Sorry. None of our artists are gay,” she says.

There are truths there. This is, re­mem­ber, the era when well-known celi­bate Boy George felt the need to tell a tabloid that he pre­ferred a cup of tea to hor­ri­ble old sex. George Michael some­how man­aged to con­ceal his own gay­ness. Even El­ton John was still of­fi­cially in the closet.

Yet, as Matthew Warchus’s film clar­i­fies, it was in the early 1980s that gay cul­ture fi­nally made its first un­apolo­getic, un­medi­ated as­saults on popular cul­ture. To that point, artists such as Larry Grayson, Ken­neth Wil­liams and Noël Coward had in­vited au­di­ences to as­sume that their camp­ness was no more than a per­for­mance. After all, if they were ac­tual ho­mo­sex­u­als, they wouldn’t be pre­sented on prime-time TV or in­vited to dine with the Queen. Would they? It seems hard to be­lieve now, but the majority of lis­ten­ers felt The Vil­lage Peo­ple’s In the Navy was noth­ing more than a cel­e­bra­tion of sea­men. (Stop snig­ger­ing at the back, Spot­tis­wood.)

The film fea­tures two clas­sic gay sin­gles of the era: Bron­ski Beat’s mas­sive Why? and Pete Shel­ley’s some­what un­der­val­ued Ho­mosapien. The BBC still felt the need to ban that last song, but, for the first time in the cen­tury, gay artists felt able to ad­mit – in­deed pub­licly cel­e­brate – their sex­u­al­ity in the most pub­lic of spa­ces. Con­fir­ma­tion came force­fully and nois­ily when Frankie Goes to Hol­ly­wood, the HI-NRG Scouse Vil­lage Peo­ple, be­came “big­ger than the Bea­tles” in 1984.

Pride cel­e­brates the un­likely meet­ing of in­ter­ests that oc­curred be­tween strik­ing min­ers and gay rights or­gan­i­sa­tions at the be­gin­ning of Mar­garet Thatcher’s sec­ond term. It shows how two move­ments be­gan by agree­ing that each was an en­emy to the other’s en­emy and then went on to de­velop sin­cere col­lec­tive friend­ships.

Along the way, it re­minds us of some­thing we may have for­got­ten: the early 1980s was the most po­lit­i­cally charged pe­riod in the his­tory of UK popular cul­ture. (Re­mem­ber, be­fore scream­ing “hy­ber-bobe”, that our cur­rent def­i­ni­tion of popular cul­ture doesn’t have much cur­rency be­fore the first World War.) Mick Jag­ger may have war­bled Street Fight­ing Man 15 years ear­lier, but, re­port­ing from their vil­las on the Côte d’Azur, The Rolling Stones never re­ally con­vinced as es­tu­ary Men­she­viks. The con­vul­sions of 1968 made but the tini­est dent on main­stream film-mak­ers, prime-time tele­vi­sion and the pop charts.

Ex­plicit ex­plo­rations of gay life were part of this sur­pris­ing surge. After a decade in the dol­drums, the Bri­tish Film In­dus­try was kicked back into life fol­low­ing the suc­cess of Char­i­ots of Fire and the rise of Chan­nel Four Films (later Film-Four). One of the most suc­cess­ful films nudged into cin­e­mas by that quasi-stu­dio was Stephen Frears’s My Beau­ti­ful Laun­drette. Re­leased in 1985, the pic­ture is a per­fect em­bod­i­ment of the new po­lit­i­cal pop cul­ture. It fea­tures a gay re­la­tion­ship at its heart. It also deals with race re­la­tions. It ad­dresses the new en­tre­pre­neur­ial cul­ture that Thatcher’s mob hoped would re­place the mas­sa­cred man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­tries. Richard Eyre’s The Plough­man’s Lunch went among del­e­gates at the 1982 Con­ser­va­tive Party Con­fer­ence. Bee­ban Kidron’s Carry Green­ham Home spoke to the peace protests out­side that RAF sta­tion in Berk­shire.

Scorched-earth eco­nomics

When Alan Bleas­dale’s The Black Stuff, a one-off TV drama for Play For To­day, was broad­cast (two years after its cre­ation) in Jan­uary 1980, it re­ceived strong reviews and de­cent fig­ures, but it was the follow-up se­ries, Boys from the Blackstuff, that re­ally regis­tered with main­stream view­ers.

By Novem­ber 1982, the ef­fects of Thatcher’s scorched-earth eco­nomics were be­ing felt much more strongly in ci­ties such as Liver­pool. Un­em­ploy­ment was at three mil­lion. Di­vi­sions be­tween north and south seemed more pro­nounced than ever be­fore. Some­how or other, a hard-edged se­ries about un­em­ployed Scousers had be­come a gen­uine smash and Yosser Hughes’s catch­phrase – “Gis a job!” – had se­cured a place in the popular lex­i­con.

Mean­while, for­merly young, still angry play­wrights such as David Edgar, Caryl Churchill and Howard Bren­ton were barg­ing their way into the main spa­ces at the great sub­sidised the­atres. Never be­fore have so many protested so loudly in so many prom­i­nent Bully pul­pits.

Heck, even the tra­di­tion­ally apo­lit­i­cal fash­ion in­dus­try got in on the act. Re­mem­ber Katharine Ham­nett wear­ing a T-shirt bear­ing the legend: “58% Don’t Want Per­sh­ing” when she met Mrs Thatcher.

Yet it was in popular mu­sic that the wave of po­lit­i­cal anger surged most force­fully. This was not just a case of bands em­bark­ing on ec­cen­tric “per­sonal projects”. We were not talk­ing merely about ob­scure post-punk acts ex­cit­ing clutches of stu­dents in cramped dive bars. The Spe­cials’ Ghost Town, the defin­ing protest song of the early Thatcher era, spent three weeks at num­ber one in 1981. Hard though it may be to be­lieve, UB40 (named for a ben­e­fit form) were, for about 20 min­utes, a fiercely fash­ion­able out­fit and, also in 1981, they had a num­ber-seven hit with a song whose ti­tle ref­er­enced the un­em­ploy­ment rate: One in Ten.

There was some ten­sion be­tween the pseudo-Weimar club cul­ture that emerged from the New Ro­man­tic scene and the more politi­cised pop dis­tilled from post-punk and ska. But the un­ex­pected trendi­ness of the protest mu­sic soon forced those two move­ments into align­ment. For their follow up to Re­lax, a cel­e­bra­tory song whose po­lit­i­cal el­e­ments were largely ac­ci­den­tal, Frankie’s min­ders – no­tably the NME’s post­mod­ernist in chief Paul Morely – pushed them to­wards a song about the global nu­clear stand-off. For­get bearded men whin­ing about Ar­maged­don to an­cient folk melodies. The pound­ing Two Tribes stayed at num­ber one for nine weeks and sold 1.6 mil­lion copies. Have we men­tioned left­ist bel­lows by Billy Bragg, The Red Skins, The Style Coun­cil, The Beat, Elvis Costello, The Gang of Four, Lin­ton Kwesi John­son and Crass? We have now.

“Un­em­ploy­ment gave film-mak­ers, mu­si­cians and play­wrights the time (if not the money) to plot cre­ative rev­o­lu­tions in their bed­sits”

Common en­emy

What the heck was go­ing on? Well, it has be­come po­lit­i­cal or­tho­doxy to sug­gest that the great­est ben­e­fi­ciary of Thatcher’s rise was the Bri­tish Labour Party. The ar­gu­ment goes that it was her po­lit­i­cal suc­cess that forced the move­ment to patch to­gether that New Labour Franken­stein from the rot­ting corpses of the op­po­si­tion’s ide­olo­gies.

That gov­ern­ment can also be held re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing rad­i­cal pol­i­tics at home in Bri­tish popular cul­ture. For all the yelling out­side the US em­bassy in 1968, there was, in Great Bri­tain, no new en­emy against which to rail. The un­easy post-war con­sen­sus be­tween Labour and Con­ser­va­tive looked set to con­tinue for decades to come. The Americans had Viet­nam. Out­side North­ern Ire­land (another story for another time), the Bri­tish rad­i­cals strug­gled to lo­cate an ef­fec­tive bo­gey­man.

As Pride makes clear, the poli­cies of the Thatcher ad­min­is­tra­tion caused gen­uine shud­ders through­out the United King­dom. The de­ter­mi­na­tion to close down 70 pits – and a re­solve to ex­tract re­venge for ear­lier vic­to­ries by the Na­tional Union of Minework­ers – re­sulted in the evis­cer­a­tion of com­mu­ni­ties such as the Welsh vil­lage around which Warchus’s film cir­cles. Ge­of­frey Howe’s sav­agely de­fla­tion­ary bud­gets ac­cel­er­ated the rise of un­em­ploy­ment and the col­lapse of tra­di­tional man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­tries.

Whereas the great de­pres­sion seemed to re­sult from in­ex­pli­ca­ble con­vul­sions in the US econ­omy, the an­ni­hi­la­tions of the early 1980s looked to be the work of an eas­ily de­fin­able en­emy (or set of en­e­mies). No such so­cial and eco­nomic shifts had hap­pened since the war. The To­ries drifted to the right.

Un­der Michael Foot – an ad­mirable man mis­used by a bar­baric press – the Labour Party be­gan its me­an­der to the Ben­nite left. Un­em­ploy­ment gave in­de­pen­dent film-mak­ers, mu­si­cians and play­wrights the time (if not the money) to plot cre­ative rev­o­lu­tions in their bed­sits. Never have the stars been so per­fectly aligned for the emer­gence of over-ground protest cul­ture.

Then, as sud­denly as it had be­gun, the mo­men­tum swung else­where. The pretty films of Mer­chant Ivory be­gan to boss Bri­tish cin­ema. Main­stream pop gave up on pol­i­tics. The drugged-up in­fan­til­ism of rave cul­ture in­fil­trated the un­der­ground. An­drew Lloyd Web­ber’s hideous cream-puff op­erettas colonised Broad­way and the West End.

Brave folk still make po­lit­i­cally charged art, but com­pla­cency, ho­mo­gene­ity and con­for­mity have done for protest cul­ture as a main­stream force. There is plenty in Pride to make the old-school left­ist blub nos­tal­gi­cally. More than any­thing else, there is the poignant mem­ory that we once thought pop life was go­ing to be like this for­ever. What a sod­ding waste!

A MOST WANTED MAN ★★★★ Di­rected by An­ton Cor­bijn. Star­ring Philip Seymour Hoff­man, Rachel McA­dams, Grig­oriy Do­bry­gin, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright 15A cert, gen­eral re­lease, 131 min

Philip Seymour Hoff­man will re­turn for ex­tended cameos in the last two Hunger Games films, but his lead turn in An­ton Cor­bijn’s take on a 2008 John Le Carré novel stands as his fi­nal sig­nif­i­cant per­for­mance. It is a poignant plea­sure to re­late that he leaves us at the top of his game.

Of course, Hoff­man has al­ways been a master at play­ing flat­tened, dis­ap­pointed anemones who know more than the sleek fish cir­cling above. Le Carré’s nov­els abound with such crea­tures. Gün­ther Bach­mann, a Ger­man in­tel­li­gence oper­a­tive, is a good bit younger than George Smi­ley in the Karla tril­ogy, but he has the same fas­tid­i­ous bent and the same de­sire to do the best in im­pos­si­ble cir­cum­stances.

The world Bach­mann in­hab­its is even more morally am­bigu­ous than that of the Cold War. Op­er­at­ing in Ham­burg, the city that ger­mi­nated the 9/11 plot, he has re­spon­si­bil­ity for mon­i­tor­ing the var­i­ous refugees from Mid­dle-East­ern con­flicts who ar­rive – hope­fully, in­no­cently or men­ac­ingly – into that hub.

Aw­ful bal­anc­ing acts must be em­barked upon. On the one hand, Bach­mann has to en­ter­tain the pos­si­bil­ity of another ter­ror­ist atroc­ity. On the other, he has to re­strain overly en­thu­si­as­tic Americans ea­ger to im­pose ren­di­tion on ev­ery pass­ing for­eigner. “Con­trol al­ways said that good in­tel­li­gence work rests on a kind of gen­tle­ness,” Smi­ley ob­served in Tin­ker Tai­lor Sol­dier Spy. Bach­mann must do ter­ri­ble things, but he man­ages to live by that dic­tum.

This is a ter­rific por­trayal of a good man adrift in an en­vi­ron­ment where it is im­pos­si­ble to act well at all times. Cor­bijn makes a fully fleshed-out enigma of the fag-smoking, booze-swig­ging in­tel­li­gence oper­a­tive. A de­scen­dent of Gra­ham Greene’s whiskey priests, Bach­mann is de­voted to mak­ing some small sense of aw­ful chaos.

Un­for­tu­nately, as is the case with many of Le Carré’s post-Cold War nov­els, the plot loses some di­rec­tion as it set­tles into a dull fug in its mid­dle act. A Most Wanted Man con­cerns a Chechen refugee (Grig­oriy Do­bry­gin) who ar­rives in Ham­burg with a mis­sion to make con­tact with a shady banker (Willem Dafoe).

The Chechin’s le­gal po­si­tion un­sure, he soon con­nects with a lib­eral lawyer spe­cial­is­ing in im­mi­gra­tion (Rachel McA­dams). Mean­while, a CIA agent (Robin Wright) cir­cles, ruth­lessly ea­ger to close in on a man who may or may not have ji­had on his mind. Much of the plot deals with the labyrinthine pro­cesses that de­fine the fi­nanc­ing of con­tem­po­rary ter­ror­ism.

This is one of those trou­bling films that only re­ally makes sense of it­self in the fi­nal 10 min­utes. View­ers may find them­selves frus­trated with the char­ac­ters’ de­ci­sions and be­mused by the ob­scu­rity of the plot. For­ward mo­men­tum is some­times in short sup­ply.

Hap­pily, Cor­bijn, who has shown his taste for icy dis­tance in Con­trol and The Amer­i­can, makes the best use of Ham­burg lo­ca­tions since Wim Wen­ders’s The Amer­i­can Friend back in 1977. The sense of end­less bus­tle and ob­scure cor­rup­tion is lay­ered on as Benoit Del­homme’s cam­era soaks up the fetid am­bi­ence. Read­ers who re­mem­ber Cor­bijn’s NME pho­tog­ra­phy in the early 1980s will be de­lighted to hear a brief snatch of Der Mussolini by Deutsch Amerikanis­che Fre­und­schaft as we whis­tle through a seedy bar.

There is, how­ever, lit­tle doubt that A Most Wanted Man is Hoff­man’s film. He doesn’t just dom­i­nate the pic­ture; he wears it like a scruffy but well-fit­ted suit. It’s an hon­ourable last bow.

Above and be­low: Scemes from Pride, star­ring Imelda Staunton, Paddy Con­si­dine and Bill Nighy. Right: Frankie Goes To Hol­ly­wood, Lin­ton Kwesi John­son, Billy Bragg

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