Pride and joy: gay activism and British film

Pride, a heart-warming new film about gay activists who stand up for striking miners in 1984, launches in cinemas this weekend. But what queer activism had come before them, and how was it shown on film?

Alex Davidson
Updated:

Pride (2014)

Pride (2014)

This week sees the release of Pride, a crowd-pleasing comedy about the culture clash that occurred when a group of gay and lesbian activists offered their support to Welsh miners striking in 1984-5. The film won the Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, and features terrific performances from Bill Nighy, Andrew Scott and Imelda Staunton. The film opens in cinemas across the UK with a number of special Q&A events, and kicks off a new monthly LGBT film night at the ArtHouse Crouch End.

Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners filmed their work for the wonderful documentary All Out! Dancing in Dulais (1986), available to watch online. It was the latest in a long line of gay activist movements captured on film, both fictional and documentary. We peel back the years to survey films and TV programmes that caught landmark moments of LGBT history prior to the events shown in Pride.

Pre-legalisation

South (1959)

South (1959)

Male homosexuality was partially legalised in Britain in 1967, but gay men had appeared in films long before then – and not always in a negative light. Although not explicitly activist, TV drama South (1959) offered a sympathetic gay character in the shape of an exiled Polish officer wrestling with his homosexuality. The Daily Sketch was not amused, sniffing: “I do NOT see anything attractive in the agonies and ecstasies of a pervert, especially in close-up in my sitting room”. The following year, Peter Finch gave a moving portrayal of the title role in The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960).

Victim (1961)

Victim (1961)

Then came Victim (1961), a huge leap forward for screen representation of gay people. Dirk Bogarde took a real career risk in playing a lawyer who, following a string of blackmail attempts against gay men, begins to realise his own homosexuality. Many feel Basil Dearden’s film helped liberalise attitudes and pave the way towards tolerance towards gay people. Lloyd Reckord’s Dream A40 (1965), a surreal tale of a gay couple’s road trip, which descends into a disturbing guilt fantasy, was similarly pro gay equality.

In 1964 and 1965, two TV docs offered fascinating if rather depressing glimpses into the rights of gay men and women. This Week: Homosexuals (1964) is very much a product of its era, with a well-meaning but offensive commentary from Bryan Magee. “You’ll pass half a dozen every five minutes” he intones solemnly, a statement with unfortunate “you’re never more than 10 feet away from a rat” connotations. Fortunately the gay interviewees, appearing in silhouette, come across as articulate and sympathetic. This Week: Lesbians (1965) also offers a grimly revealing snapshot. Lesbianism has never been illegal in the UK, and some interviewees aren’t afraid to appear on camera, but self-loathing prevails.

The World Ten Times Over (1963)

The World Ten Times Over (1963)

Lesbians were rarely represented in a positive light at the cinema, although Cicely Courtneidge in The L-shaped Room (1962) and, depending on how you read the film, Sylvia Syms and June Ritchie in The World Ten Times Over (1963) were exceptions, and could be seen as promoting tolerance for gay women.

Cicely Courtneidge and Leslie Caron in The L-Shaped Room (1962)

Cicely Courtneidge and Leslie Caron in The L-Shaped Room (1962)

Post-legalisation

Legalisation, when it finally came in 1967, was limited, allowing two consenting men aged 21 or over (five years over the age for heterosexual people) to partake in homosexual acts in private. Activist Peter Tatchell claims homosexual persecution increased after the partial legalisation.

TV documentaries such as Speak for Yourself: Homosexual Equality (1974) and Young Lesbians (1978) offered visibility to gay people and gave them a voice. In one of the strangest of modern legal cases, Mary Whitehouse took Gay News to court for publishing a homoerotic poem about Christ, citing blasphemy laws – and won. This medieval ruling was brilliantly documented in Blasphemy at the Old Bailey (1977), featuring fascinating interviews with Gay News editor Denis Lemon and Whitehouse herself.

Sebastiane (1976)

Sebastiane (1976)

Gay fiction films explored gay rights. Derek Jarman’s feature debut Sebastiane (1976) drew parallels with the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian and contemporary gay persecution, while Nighthawks (1978) showed the sympathetic lead being threatened with unemployment for discussing his homosexuality with class. Homophobia was being interrogated and criticised – but things were about to get worse.

The 1980s

Framed Youth: Revenge of the Teenage Perverts (1983)

Framed Youth: Revenge of the Teenage Perverts (1983)

Framed Youth: Revenge of the Teenage Perverts (1983) features queer teens discussing their sometimes harrowing experiences in Thatcher’s Britain, while open and honest gays and lesbians partied hard in the charmingly right-on One in Five (1983), celebrating sexual diversity and challenging homophobia.

The outbreak of the AIDS virus provoked a wave of homophobia in the media, with the fear of how to treat an unknown killer disease morphing into a witchhunt. Gay people were the enemy once again. Groups such as OutRage! and ACT UP filmed their protests against the poor government response to the AIDS epidemic, claiming political homophobia informed the lack of action – if it was gay people dying rather than straight people, fighting the disease was low priority.

The Two of Us (1988)

The Two of Us (1988)

Often art reacts to the political climate, but the situation was reversed with the broadcast of The Two of Us (1988), a sweet romance between two gay teenagers that, bizarrely, caused huge controversy owing to the recent implementation of the noxious Section 28, which forbade the teaching of gay sex education in schools. It is a true sign of the horrendous Thatcherite times that this sweet romance between two gay teenagers caused such controversy on its initial release. MPs called to have it banned, the tabloids whipped themselves up into a lather and, most outrageously, the furore ensured that the film was censored, cutting a couple of kissing scenes and ending with one of the boys returning to his girlfriend.

It was in this resistant climate that Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners made their voices heard. These wonderful men and women and their legacy live on through Pride, a fitting tribute to their commitment to fighting injustice.

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