Shooting Thatcher: 80’s Britain on film

looks at the legacy of Thatcher’s Britain on our screens

Image: CBS Films

It is without question that the 1980s and early 1990s was one of the most turbulent periods in all British political history. With nationwide strikes, violent protests and mass unemployment, Margaret Thatcher’s premiership is remembered by many not with enthusiasm but distaste. Despite being beloved by her followers, the years since her reign have left her still seen as the eternal enemy for Britain’s left. Yet, this eventful period of division and hatred has also been the inspiration for several great British films which elevate working class life.

Four films in particular have resonance due to being so uplifting despite their somewhat depressing context. Those films are: Brassed Off (1996), The Full Monty (1997), Billy Elliot (2000) and Pride (2014). All four films are set amidst the closure or potential closure of heavy industry. The bitter Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 is the backdrop for Billy Elliot and Pride. The Full Monty is set after the closure of one of Sheffield’s steel factories, where the city and its inhabitants are experiencing a transition from the days of industry and prosperity to a period of redundancy and a stalling economy. Lastly, Brassed Off takes place during the lesser-known closure of coal mines in the early 1990s and shone a spotlight on the small town of Grimethorpe as 33,000 miners were put out of work, eroding the security and strength of the pit communities.

Image: Universal Pictures

Despite the films being united in their focus on the effects of Thatcherism, it is interesting that their success is really down to their detachment from the political nature of their respective periods.  It is true that cinema can have great political impact, but these films are so enjoyable precisely because the audience is allowed to forget the political turmoil in which the stories were forged. Despite being brought under the banner of Thatcherism on screen, these four films are loveable as they focus on the individuals who lived through the period and their unique and to some extent eccentric stories, rather than the narrative of party politics.

This effect is achieved through heart-warming stories of the unconventional and the unexpected. You forget the grim realities of the Miners’ Strike in Billy Elliot as you fixated on the likely occurrence of a miner’s son from the North-East swapping boxing for ballet. Likewise, in Pride, you are fascinated by the remarkable friendships that are created between a Welsh mining community and a group of gay rights campaigners. The depiction of inclusion and acceptance resonates across the decades but is especially moving against the backdrop of the miners strikes which tore communities apart. Similarly, the closure of the steel in Sheffield becomes immaterial as you become absorbed in the hilarious and heartfelt journey of a group of unemployed men who turn their hand to stripping and the closure of the Grimethorpe Colliery plays second fiddle to the success of the pit’s brass band.

Yes, these films were inspired by Thatcher’s Britain, but their long-standing success and enjoyment derives from a love of humanity and empathy viewers feel for the characters and their stories. In truth, these films can give us hope that no matter what the circumstance is, British communities can still pull together to overcome adversity.

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