The real thing: LGSM members march in support of the miners, 1985. Photograph: Colin Clews
In September 2010, the writer Stephen Beresford was about to leave a meeting with film producer David Livingstone when he was asked: "Is there any story you are burning to write?" "Well, there is one," he replied, hesitating at the door, "but no one is ever going to make it." He acknowledges now that this is a line you can only use once in a pitch and explains that he went on to tell the story of miners in the Dulais valley in South Wales during the 1984-5 strike – the longest in British history – and a gay and lesbian group from London that donated more money (£11,000 by December 1984) to their cause than any other fundraiser in the UK, along with a minibus emblazoned with the logo LGSM: Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.
In a decade when a degree of homophobia was the norm, LGSM drove a couple of minibuses from Hackney Community Transport and a clapped-out VW camper van to a bleak mining town in South Wales to present their donations, uncertain what sort of welcome to expect. The events that unfolded said a lot about what it means to be empathetic, to overcome dissent and face common enemies: Thatcher, the tabloids, the police. They told a story about solidarity.
"It is a story I'd known about for 20 years," Beresford explains. "I first heard about it when I was at Rada." (Now 42, Beresford started out as an actor but is also author of The Last of the Haussmans, an exuberantly accomplished debut at the National in 2012). "The story had become a legend in the gay community. But it was like Chinese whispers – I wasn't sure whether to believe it. I did think, if it is true, I'll write about it one day."
As Beresford talked to Livingstone, he had a hunch the story's moment had come. By the time he'd finished, Livingstone's eyes were "moist" and Beresford had secured his commission. Pride – the word could not be more charged – is his first feature film as a writer. Three years later and the film, shot in Banwen, Wales, and London, and directed by Tony-winning Matthew Warchus (responsible for Matilda the Musical, and soon to be artistic director of the Old Vic), is finished.
You might assume a romcom about striking miners and 80s gays was unlikely to be big box-office, but the same was probably said of Billy Elliot. Pride looks likely to be a massive hit. It is wonderful. I've seen it twice, laughed repeatedly, wept at the end. You might wonder how, after the defeat of the miners, an upbeat ending could be legitimate, but this is one of the film's many achievements. It is directed with finesse and has a fabulous cast (including Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton and Dominic West). The story could easily have gone awry but never belly-flops into sentimentality – its feelgood factor is earned. It evokes the 80s uncannily. And what is most remarkable is that it does not trivialise the politics of the time.
It opens with a rallying Arthur Scargill on TV, saying the miners will, one day, be able to tell themselves: "I was proud and privileged to be part of the greatest struggle on Earth." Then there is footage of Thatcher, determined to smash the trade unions (a point made by a new award-winning documentary, Owen Gower's Still the Enemy Within, which describes the firsthand experience of those who lived through the strike). Thatcher appears, looking like a possessed marionette, her bossy elocution a declaration of intent, as if she means her voice to carry, to be heard generations on.
Most of the real people who were involved are alive to tell their tales, although Aids casts its shadow in the events of the film and has taken several LGSM members (this is not Pride's primary subject but readers who would prefer not to know anything about its impact on the film should stop reading here). Beresford's problem was how to make contact with the survivors from the mining community and LGSM with no obvious internet trail to help him.
But one crucial find – a half-hour documentary, All Out! Dancing in Dulais, created by LGSM for the miners – became a vital resource and makes a fascinating introduction to the cast. Its most arresting character is a charming, fresh-faced Irish boy, Mark Ashton, who died of Aids in 1987. He was one of the founders of LGSM and talks like a leader: "One community should give solidarity to another. It is really illogical to say, 'I'm gay and I'm into defending the gay community but I don't care about anything else…'."
In Pride, he is beautifully played by Ben Schnetzer with spontaneity, sweetness and swagger – a heartbreaker. Beresford says he was the hardest character to recapture, not least because: "In Wales, they still talk about Mark Ashton as if he were Joan of Arc."
In the homemade LGSM documentary, we also glimpse a tall, handsome fellow wearing groovy leather trousers, shaking a donations bucket outside Gay's the Word bookshop in London's Marchmont Street – this is Jonathan Blake. A small, bespectacled chap, busy with paperwork, is northern English leftie Mike Jackson, described by Beresford as a "keeper of the flame, then and now". Among the Welsh contingent, a young woman stands out – one of the stars of the homemade doc. She explains how the gay community educated the mining community: "Their struggle is similar to our own." This is Siân James, a young miner's wife, now MP for Swansea East. Beresford describes her as a "powerhouse, a highly intelligent working-class woman, an engine of social action".
And there is Dai Donovan, Welsh miner, courageous and open-minded, speaking with dignity at the 1984 benefit concert Pits and Perverts (the phrase was the Sun's, reclaimed by LGSM as a badge of honour. This was a wildly successful gig dedicated to raising money – £5,650 – for the miners, and starring Bronski Beat). Cliff, an older miner (in the film, a killingly funny and affecting Bill Nighy) appears in the documentary saying: "The lesbians and gays have been super duper."
LGSM members and miners dancing at the welfare hall in the Dulais Valley, Wales. Siân James (flowery dress) and Jonathan Blake (checked trousers) were key figures and are played in the film by Jessica Gunning and Dominic West. Photograph: People’s History Museum, Manchester/LGSM Archive.
But because this was an amateur documentary, no names accompanied the faces. The credits, luckily, included an uncommon name: Reggie Blennerhassett. Beresford contacted him on Facebook and asked: were you involved in LGSM? Eventually he met almost everyone. Yet he knew he would also need an invented character. Joe (sensitively played by George MacKay) is a sixth-former, a suburban mouse discovering hissexuality (to cover for absences from home when he is with LGSM, he tells his folks he is doing a choux pastry course). "We needed a character who, like the audience, arrives bewildered at a Gay Pride march. What happens to him is like what happens to the straight audience – he mirrors the slight feeling of trepidation. It helps to have someone who does not know where he is going because an audience can think: neither do I."
Beresford was honest with all his interviewees from the Welsh mining community and from LGSM: "I'm a ruthless teller of stories. I told them this won't be a documentary." He argued – and they agreed – that the story was bigger than anyone in it. Now, because I'm about to meet some of the original people involved, I have to ask: how has the film gone down? He admits he was "incredibly frightened" before the first screening. But at the end there was stunned silence, applause, tears. Dai Donovan, visibly moved, asked: "May I speak?" He made "an extraordinary, moving speech. He said the time had come for them to thank us, as film-makers. He said, 'None of us believed this story would see the light of day. It is a document for the future, it exists for all time.'"
And then? "After that we all went and had a roaring piss-up."
After the strike, Mike Jackson felt "sad to think that when I died this history would be forgotten. The archive is in the People's History Museum, Manchester – but nobody would have known it was there". Now his eyes shine as he remembers the Welsh miners who came to London to march with Gay Pride in June 1985. "You could glimpse a wonderful revolution, that spark of the dream of people being together. The film gets that so right." Jackson says LGSM "changed my life, it is the proudest thing I've done. But I feel the same now, if anything more angry. I hate Margaret Thatcher as much as ever."
I speak to Blennerhassett – Beresford's key to the story – and his partner, Ray Aller, on the phone and they agree that being involved in LGSM was "the best time of our lives". They tell me they were paid extras in the film's final march: "We were costumed for the 80s. It was a stirring day to relive and many younger people were fascinated. One hope is that the film might revive political interest because the activism of the left has been sidelined, the trade unions are weak, gay rights issues aren't there."
Like many of those I interview, they say the film made them weep and they see it, in part, as a memorial to Mark Ashton. Blennerhassett says: "It is very hard to watch. When you see Ben playing Mark, it is like he has come back to life – it is unbelievable."
Jonathan Blake: LGSM Member
I meet Jonathan Blake at Mike Jackson's flat and he brings along a black-and-white photo of himself dancing at the miners' welfare hall. We look at it together: he is leaning back, eyes closed, hands clapping. He is handsome, relaxed, basking in the moment. The miner's wife, Siân James, is to his left, staring directly at him, clapping too, looking as though she cannot believe her eyes. It was this image that inspired a dancing scene in Pride in which Dominic West really goes for it and climbs on the tabletops, wowing everyone in sight. It is brilliantly cut as the camera strays sideways from his dancing to stunned miners nursing their pints.
The real Jonathan is warm and bearish, with a mohican, chic specs, a scarlet fleece, hippyish brown leather shoes – loads of visual flair. "My trousers were pink and grey check," he says, looking at the photo. "I made them myself." He started as an actor but when that gave him up, as he puts it, he did a tailoring course at the London College of Fashion and went on to make costumes for ENO.
In the film, Jonathan is more actor than activist. Our first sighting of him is with fox fur and whistle outside Gay's the Word book shop. What does he think of Dominic West's portrayal? "Oh God, I love my screen character. I like to think he is me – he dances beautifully." I see the real Jonathan as less extrovert, more vulnerable and with a quiet charisma of his own. "The days in Wales were extraordinary," he says. "Who would think I would still be here to tell the tale?"
Jonathan was one of the first to be diagnosed with HIV in this country yet recently celebrated his 65th birthday. "I never thought I would get to 40 and now I have my pension, which is fabulous." The question everyone will want answered is how it is he is still alive? He believes he survived because he refused to be part of a trial in which some patients were given AZT, others a placebo. "I said, 'If this drug is so wonderful, why aren't you giving it to everybody?' At the time, I didn't care whether I lived or died. I knew I'd be dead in three months."
Joe Gilgun as Mike Jackson in the film Pride.
Photograph: Nicola Dove
When he did not die, he had to live: "I tried to get my strength up but didn't want to face the world." It was meeting a new partner, Nigel, which changed his outlook and, through him, he joined LGSM. They are still together and recently had West and director Matthew Warchus to tea. Jonathan baked a lemon drizzle cake.
Jonathan and Nigel had recently been told by Stephen Beresford that in the film Jonathan would have a different partner to real life, Welsh Gethin (Andrew Scott). Nigel took it well; the real Gethin still teases Jonathan about it. The first time Jonathan saw the film was "difficult, because all I could think about was the people who had died". The second time, he could "settle in and enjoy it". For him, the most important thing is what the collaboration led to. "With the South Wales miners at the 1985 Labour party conference, we put gay rights on the agenda. The [resulting equality resolution] became the trajectory that would lead to civil partnerships and marriages. The NUM didn't want anything to do with poofs. But Dai [Donovan] put pressure on them – he was as good as his word."