After the swinging sixties and the sad seventies, the selfish eighties is a decade best forgotten. At home Margaret Thatcher, egged on by Rupert Murdoch's gutter press, deployed a militarised police force to crush the miners and the Travellers. She rewarded the bankers, devastated the post-Industrial north and privatised anything that wasn't nailed down. Britain was a divided, racist, homophobic place in the 1980s, and by the end of the decade socialism, indeed society, seemed to be a thing of the past.
Or so it seemed at the time. But that's not how the decade looks now. The Iron Lady still has her fans, but never have her ideas been so unpopular. Who now thinks we should reward the bankers or privatise the public sector? Culturally, the right may have won the battle, but it seems to have lost the war, and the way the decade is remembered in film reflects that.
Here is my top five list of films that characterise the decade.
5. Billy Elliott (2000)
The very gritty politics of the era is realistically shown, and makes a very poignant background to the story. It's also completely clear which side of the political fence the film sits on. But keeping a political event of the magnitude of the Miners Strike in the background just doesn't seem right. Okay, it's not as bad as slavery being the background to a cheesy love story in Gone With The Wind, but almost. The happy ending, when a grown up Billy is seen on stage, should have
been followed by a look at what was happening in Durham at the time: the
unemployment, the drugs and the utter despair of anyone who lacks the
skills to move to London.
4. Hidden Agenda
If Billy Elliott shows the effect of Thatcherism at home, Hidden Agenda deals with the 'near abroad', the long running Troubles in Northern Ireland. We know now that the eighties were the time when the IRA was making the first moves towards peace, signals the British government either couldn't, or wouldn't, hear. Instead the Troubles in the eighties were a time of IRA insurgency and British government response, which allegedly included a policy of 'shoot to kill'.
Thatcher's Britain was always a secret state. From dirty tricks against real striking miners to the Chevaline and Zircon affairs, to Spycatcher and the Al Yamamah arms deal, there was a lot going on we didn't know about. Hidden Agenda takes as its main inspiration John Stalker's investigation into the deaths of six Republican paramilitaries at the hands of the RUC Headquarters Mobile Support Unit, but then expands it into the area that is known collectively as the 'Colin Wallace affair'.
It's all very well done, very convincingly argued and, worryingly, very believable.
3. Trainspotting (1996)
It's not completely clear if Trainspotting is a film about the eighties. The
soundtrack certainly roots it in the dance and Britpop era of the
nineties, but the book it was based on is very clearly set in the late
eighties. The themes in the film, rising heroine use and fear of AIDS,
against a background of unemployment and social decay, are also clearly those of the eighties. Indeed, the film is such a trawl though the decade's cliches, from skinheads with pit bulls in the park, to druggies
nicking TVs off old people, that it's pretty close to being a parody.
just as it surfs the fine line between glamorising bad behaviour or
making the main characters too obnoxious to be sympathetic, it gets away
with it. We'd see a lot more of Danny Boyle over the next couple of
decades, culminating in 2012 when, along with Trainspotting musical
collaborators Underworld, he contrasted his nightmare vision of Britain
in this film with a look at all that is best in out society in his
London Olympics Opening Ceremony.
2. The Long Good Friday (1981)
Of course the main reason to watch the film is to see Bob Hoskins spectacularly losing it, and the screen debut - in a non-speaking role - of Pierce Brosnan. He was playing an IRA assassin, which suggests a bit of a theme here.
1. Pride (2014)
We'll forget about the fact that in real life the NUM didn't actually refuse to accept Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners' donation. They couldn't accept it as their bank account had been frozen and so the group, like every other miners support group, was told to send their money straight to a mining community. There was also almost no prejudice from the miners when the activists eventually arrived in Dulais, but that wouldn't make such a great story so we'll forget about that too. Instead, let's just think how wonderful it is that a bunch of communists who wanted to overthrow the government had a mainstream film made about them, and that it was a stunning success.
There is a documentary about the LGSM story, called Dancing in Dulais, and watching it after Pride you can tell exactly who is who, even if most of the actors don't look a bit like the people they were playing.
This is very much a film about activism and activists. The Miners Strike was a disaster for the Left, but as the amazing final scene shows, for activists what really matters is the solidarity. As the police officer says, the miners lost the battle, but as the end credits show the larger war was won: gay and lesbians won their civil rights. I didn't cry in Ghost or Titanic, and only a little bit in Notting Hill, but this scene always brings a tear to my eye: this scene and the one where Bronwen Lewis sings Bread and Roses. Yes, I'm blubbing just typing this. This is exactly what being an activist is all about.
And it's the activists who are now remembered. Looking back on the eighties, the Left lost the political battles, but in the long term we won the war. The man most people under 65 want to be the next Prime Minister spent the decade campaigning for the miners, for peace in Northern Ireland and gay rights. We may all live in the world Thatcher created, but nobody seems very keen on making a film to celebrate that.