Stephen Beresford first met Jonathan Blake when he was doing research for his screenplay that would eventually turn into this year’s feel-good dramedy Pride. It’s been a dream project for Beresford, 42, who first heard the story of Lesbians & Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) and the unusual alliance the London group formed with Welsh miners during the 1984-85 British coal strike over 20 years ago. Blake, 65, who grappled with what was thought to be a death sentence—an HIV diagnosis—during his involvement with LGSM, made such an impression on the screenwriter that he became one of the script’s main characters, played in the movie by The Wire‘s Dominic West.
The relationship didn’t end with Beresford’s research. A story lost to the mists of history lives again in Pride and both Beresford and Blake have been active in promoting the film. Recently, the affable Brits traveled to San Francisco to attend a San Francisco Pride screening and to spend a day meeting the press to talk about the movie and the real-life events that inspired it.
Q: Stephen, how did you first learn about Jonathan’s story?
Stephen Beresford: [When I was researching the film,] I would look at photographs, and go, ‘Who’s that?’ And there was a photograph of somebody dancing, and it was Jonathan. That was one of the first moments when I thought that Jonathan was an important part of the story. And, of course talking to Jonathan and hearing the story. Some stories just step to the front, and his did.
Q: What was your reaction when Stephen first approached you to talk about events that happened nearly 30 years ago, Jonathan?
Jonathan Blake: I was surprised, but I was very happy to speak. Shut me up! It’s my story, so I don’t find it unusual. It’s unusual that people want to hear it, but that was fine. Basically, we chatted and that was fine. Then I get this phone call from him saying, ‘I need to come and see you. If you remember, I came and interviewed you for this film. Well, I’ve written it and not only is the screenplay finished, but it’s going to be produced and I need to come and have a talk with you.’ So the doorbell rings and I open the door and there is this tall man standing there and he says, ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ He basically says, ‘There was something in your story that just sparked my imagination and I’ve written a character and he’s called Jonathan.’ That was basically it. I thought, ‘Oh, wow! This is extraordinary.’
But again, I didn’t really think anything about it and then a few months later and they are actually now in production, I get another phone call from him. ‘The director and actor who is going to play you would like to meet you.’ Stephen arrives with a bunch of flowers, amazing flowers, cabbages roses and cabbages, an amazing mix. The doorbell rings again and there is [director] Matthew Warchus and there is Dominic West standing there, an idol, The Wire, fantastic!
It was wonderful, Matthew was brilliant. He just came in, my partner was there, Nigel, and he just asked us questions. He just wanted to know how we got into political activism, what life was like, all this, just so Dominic could hear, and then later on we walked around the garden, and Dominic and I chatted. But it was very easy, it just seemed so totally natural. It’s weird. And then seeing the movie was extraordinary. It was very difficult the first time. But they have done it such justice. It just has the feel of the time and there’s an energy there, and the intention is there. They’ve been really truthful to what we were about and what the whole thing was about. That’s very special. We’ve been very fortunate.
Q: What I have find extraordinary about it is that you take a story that essentially does not have a happy ending. The strikers didn’t win. AIDS is about to sweep through the gay community, yet the audience leaves the theater feeling uplifted and you never resort to that sentimentality that kills so many films.
Stephen Beresford: It’s probably why the material appealed to me. I love things that are uplifting and have heart and are human. I love people. Even the worst people have something in them, a human nature that I respond to. I’ve always felt like that. I like that kind of stuff, but I don’t like sentimentality, so it’s great that the story has those dark elements. That’s sort of, I think, what drew me to it. There’s a message in it, which I love, which is that failure is not an excuse. They do fail, both groups, in a sense, you could say, but it’s not excuse for not doing it.
I’m very attracted to, in a sense, history, when we talk about history—Chou En-lai said very famously, when asked what were the effects of the French Revolution, ‘It is too early to tell.’ I kind of feel that way myself. We’re fond of saying, ‘Well, that was the 20th century. That’s that in a box, and now we’re something else.’ But it isn’t true, so who knows if the strike failed? Things can change. I like the idea that we’re part of a dialogue. What we perceive to be a failure may actually be a part of a journey to something else.
Q: It’s also very attractive, because it’s two groups you wouldn’t expect to have anything in common finding common ground, simply by being human beings.
Stephen Beresford: And that thing of finding that our struggles have common cause is a very important lesson, really. It’s beneficial to those people who don’t want us to band together and find solidarity, for us to believe that we’re all divided. It’s much easier—I think that on so many different issues, if we divide on race lines or if we divide on class lines or if we divide on gender lines, if we think, ‘Well, men aren’t interested in feminism,’ well, that’s great, because it keeps feminism in its exact place. If we’re interested in equality, then what man could not be interested in feminism? What white person could not be interested in racism? Once we start to think about those terms, it’s interesting what can be achieved.
Jonathan Blake: We live in such an atomized world. Everything is broken down. You can be an activist from your own front room, but you’re not with a group. You may be thinking that you’re changing the world, because you can click a button, but it’s being with other people who are like-minded people, touching them, smelling them, that’s what makes the difference. That’s, hopefully, what people, certainly youth, will get from this film. It is by coming together that things can happen.
Q: Jonathan, can you remember your initial reaction when it was first proposed that you help these miners?
Jonathan Blake: Basically, one was just right up for it. It was such an important point. Here was Thatcher and this government wanting to smash this union. What has come out latterly is the fact that she had planned and worked on it all along. There was a miners’ strike in 1972, which brought down the Tory government. Thatcher never forgave them for that, so she was out for revenge. This wasn’t just about smashing the union. This was real revenge on the miners that brought down the government. We knew that this was so important. As an activist and part of the Left, there was no question.
The fact that this small mining community was there was wonderful. There was real excitement. There was also trepidation. What had we got ourselves into? When we actually got there and met them—Mike Jackson, the secretary of the group, tells this wonderful story and sort of reminded me that when we arrived there, we were really kind of nervous before we go in. As the doors open when we’re walking in, there’s this awful hush. You just think, ‘Oh, shit! Do we run now or what?’ Then one person started applauding and then the room started applauding. We were just welcomed. It was amazing. We had such fun. In all that bleak time, they were so generous and warm. They were going through hardship, but you would never know. It was just extraordinary and life-changing, absolutely life-changing.
Q: And you were already HIV-positive.
Jonathan Blake: Yes. I was diagnosed in October 1982, so it was very early on. For me, it was also great, because it kept me busy. I didn’t have time to think about the virus and illness and getting ill. There was stuff to do. It was a real boon for me. I never expected to, a., live this long, or b., to see this magnificent creation that is Pride. I feel really blessed.
Q: Stephen, it’s been 20 years since you first heard the story and started pondering doing something with it. How does it feel now that it’s a reality?
Stephen Beresford: It took three years to make the film from beginning to end and 20 years to get someone to take it seriously. Looking back on it now, if I had done some of the work I needed to do in three years over 20 years, it would have been a much easier time. What’s interesting is everything was so intense—I was on set all day, every day; I was in on casting; everything, so it was like I never had a moment in which to stop and realize that this was happening..
Then one day we were filming in Wales and I came in a little later, like 6:10 in the morning,and they’d turned over the first shot of the day. I got out of my car and I looked up the road and there was silence. They’d just started and then I heard the band playing and they marched down the street. As I watched them, I had an extraordinary jolt back to a memory of sitting in my office in South London, a funny room with no windows and I remembered physically typing the words, ‘A brass band appears through the mist.’ I’m watching it happen. I thought, ‘Well, I wrote that sentence, and that sentence has made the band, the mist, the village, everything, they’re all here doing that, because I wrote those words and put them in that order.’ That’s an incredible feeling. –Pam Grady
Mary Smeekens said:
I’ve been watching the movie PRIDE on cable for over a month now. I think that it’s the best movie I have seen, forever and ever. I further believe that it should have been awarded BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY, as well as BEST CAST ENSEMBLE at the OSCAR’S! The cast is an eclectic mix of perfection! They push and pull, and feed off each other’s energy! Their timing is so accurate, they get so close to stepping on each other’s lines, but don’t! When watching the interaction between actors, one gets the impression that this cast had been touring, doing live theatre across the country, and only now, at the end of summer stock, were we lucky enough to have seen a live taping. Each actor was so perfectly placed in their role, they didn’t have to be over-bearing, just respectful of the history, by bearing witness, and sharing it through the screenplay. The screenplay was remarkable on so many levels, researching the past history of Great0p]Britain: England & Wales, Gays & Lesbians, the National Union of Miners & Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the support the Gays & Lesbians have found from each other in their ‘new’ families as their original families disown them, the violence & threats that the Gays & Lesbians live with daily without the support of the police or government, how often times strangers are kinder and more supportive than the Gays & Lesbians own families. The music in the movie was so powerful, it almost became another character. The songs chosen for the movie gave it a fullness, a body. I believe the underlying message of the screenplay was “people are people.” We all share the need to be loved and accepted, to have a purpose in life, and to serve (or help) others, but my favorite one of all – we all need to laugh, whether it’s at ourselves or others, laughter is therapeutic and a human necessity! I believe that STEPHEN BERESFORD brought all of that to life, first of all in his mind, then the printed word, and finally through each character in the movie. I’m sooooo grateful that he did. Growing up in the states, I never heard this story. Now, because STEPHEN BERESFORD wrote this screenplay, I am able to share the movie and this story with my children.
Agreed, Mary. It’s a great movie with a powerful message and an entertaining history lesson.