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
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.
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”
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