”There was no Twitter back then to post what happened on the picket line”: how a new film tells the story of the Battle of Orgreave

Filmmaker Daniel Gordon tells about his film Strike: An Uncivil War, which pieces together the story of what happened during the bloodiest day of the miners’ strike, 40 years ago.

Strike: An Uncivil War (2024)

On the morning of 18 June 1984 striking miners started to arrive at the picket line at the Orgreave coking plant in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, to try to revert the closing of British collieries and to maintain their jobs and livelihoods. Forty years on, BAFTA-winning director Daniel Gordon, who was 12 at the time, has complemented his 2014 account of the Hillsborough disaster by revisiting another traumatic chapter of modern Yorkshire history for his new documentary, Strike: An Uncivil War.

Telling the story of one of the bloodiest days in the UK’s industrial history, when protesters and police clashed in a violent confrontation, the film includes a wealth of archive footage from the events alongside interviews that capture powerful recollections and the lingering pain of those who were on the frontline. Just before the film’s world premiere at Sheffield DocFest, we spoke to Gordon about the significance of its release around the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Orgreave.

What are your recollections of 18 June 1984 as a child?

Daniel Gordon

Daniel Gordon: I grew up in Manchester, so everything I saw of the strike was through television and its one-sided report of what happened on the day of Orgreave. My mum grew up in a mining village in South Yorkshire and was a big supporter of the miners, so I will have instinctively known that this isn’t necessarily how it’s happening.

What made you make a film about it 40 years later?

I made a film on the Hillsborough disaster, which was finished in 2014. We were embargoed for two years and when the film came out on BBC in 2016, I knew by then that I wanted to make the Orgreave film. It comes five years before Hillsborough, it’s the same police force, the same Thatcher government and the same media that were manipulating a news story for their own end. For me it was like, how do we tell the story about this significant event in British history when a community of mine workers were out for a year-long strike across the country.

How much of the archive footage comes from people who were at Orgreave that day and what other archives did you turn to for material?

There was a miner from the northeast who went to Orgreave on the day and filmed with a little VHS camcorder, and that’s in the film. Then a guy who was a student at the time, much later, in the last few years, went back and retrained in documentary filmmaking at Sheffield Hallam University. I happened to be giving a talk and mentioned one of the projects I’m going to be working on is this. He got in touch and said, “I filmed Orgreave from the inside in the 80s. I’ve still got the film rushes.” 

Then NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) filmed everything themselves at the time as a way of counterbalancing mainstream reporting, so they have an amazing archive. There was no Twitter back then to post what happened on the picket line so they kept it all in-house. We were also able to access local film archives such as the Northeast Film Archive, Yorkshire Film Archive and even Australia had sent proper film crews over, so we were able to get these amazing images.

It’s striking to see official manuals presented in private parties in Whitehall. Where did you find these?

Parties in Whitehall – who knew? They’re in the National Archives and some of them are published on Margaret Thatcher’s website. It’s almost like they don’t think there’s anything wrong with what they were doing. Everything’s recorded, and if you want to look you can find that they’re there. That’s one of the reasons I think they turned down the inquiry (into policing at Orgreave coking plant) in 2016/17. They knew what would come. 

With the Hillsborough independent panel report first, all the interested parties gave over all their documents and most of them said, well, you won’t find anything, but we are going to hand you these hundreds of thousands of documents. And of course, most diligent researchers look through everything and they find everything. And this is what Morag and Matt, the investigators in the film, have done.

Strike: An Uncivil War (2024)

Yet over the last 40 years, did that never become a scandal?

There are some people who would be very much against the miners and think these guys were holding the country to ransom. But in France and Germany, they closed their mines down and the people kept their skills and communities alive. Here they just ripped the heart out of everything. And they did it because, as it said in the film, they didn’t agree with the political views of the people in the mining communities. So that’s a scandal. But in Britain, who’s going to publish and who’s going to listen? The vast majority are not willing to accept that the miners had a cause.

[The government] thought it was beneficial to get rid of this workforce. In their minds, they’re never going to vote for us anyway, so it doesn’t matter what we do to them.

One of the miners who is interviewed in the film says, “I was young, and I believed the working class could rise up against the system.” How do you feel this resonates today?

I think for a lot of people it’s hard to understand that sentiment. To me, it makes complete sense, that’s what we grew up with. There seemed to be strikes all the time, so people knew what their power was. He also says this was the system trying to suppress us. And I get that, but I don’t think it resonates with anyone who is under 40, maybe even 45, who’ve grown up without unions.

Britain has been evolutionary, but it’s never been revolutionary. People have got bits here and there, but the establishment has given them enough to soften it. But people campaigning for workers’ rights were here, and a strong trade union movement was here up until the 70s. Since Thatcher came in 1979, any sort of power that the working class may have had has gone completely. Partly or majorly as the result of the miners’ strike, that whole strength just crumbled.

Strike: An Uncivil War was supported by BFI Doc Society fund and had its world premiere at Sheffield DocFest 2024. It is currently on a tour of UK and Irish cinemas.