Faith: the drama of the Miners' Strike: Interview with the director, David Thacker

We recently published a review of a film shown on the BBC entitled Faith which wove together the lives of its fictional characters with the real events of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. The result was a moving drama and an unusually honest account of this great struggle, sympathetic to the miners and their communities. The film’s director, David Thacker spoke to us about the making of the film and his own political views. We recently published a review of a film shown on the BBC entitled Faith which wove together the lives of its fictional characters with the real events of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. The result was a moving drama and an unusually honest account of this great struggle, sympathetic to the miners and their communities. The film’s director, David Thacker (well known for his work in television and the theatre, directing the plays of Shakespeare and Arthur Miller amongst many others, and as artistic director of the renowned Young Vic theatre in London) spoke to us about the making of the film and his own political views. (May 2005)

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Faith is an emotional and heartfelt drama. Tell us a bit about how you came to be involved in its making, and your own opinions of the Miners’ Strike.

I had been involved in politics for many years prior to 1984, but had not been active for some time. The outbreak of the Miners’ Strike coincided with important changes and developments in my own life – the birth of my first son, and moving to London to take up my new position at the Young Vic theatre. I learned of miners needing accommodation in London while raising money, addressing meetings etc, so my wife, Margot Leicester, and I put up two miners from Sunderland – Mick and John – for a month or so. We learned a great deal from their first hand experience of the struggle and remained supportive of the strike, raising money and so on, for the rest of its duration.

At the end of the strike a friend of mine from Doncaster, Ron Rose, suggested producing a theatre piece on the strike. This became “The Enemies Within” which we put on at The Young Vic. It was a form of theatre which has become more familiar in recent years – with David Hare’s play on the privatisation of the railways, for example – but which twenty years ago was far less widely known, consisting entirely of verbatim accounts of interviews. In fact we were very purist about this form, every word in the production was as spoken to us by people in the mining community concerned.

We travelled to Barnburgh near Doncaster and stayed at a college there for about three weeks. We took tape recordings of our conversations with people in the local community and then transcribed them meticulously. We read these to each other and then made our selections of the material to use, but nothing was added. Of course, nothing is politically neutral; there are always editorial choices to be made. In relation to politics and art, it is not possible to be non-political. Politics is everywhere and concerned with everything, so one’s ideas are always expressed to one degree or another in whatever one does. Politics is certainly in everything I put on the screen or the stage. That would be equally true if we were talking about producing an episode of Doctor Who. This does not mean it would be overtly political, but that thoughts and ideas would be developed within a certain context. Everyone has an outlook of one kind or another, which influences their work. My politics informs everything I do. Therefore before going to Doncaster I had a point of view, my own political opinions, and I supported the strike, but I was determined to keep an open mind.

Running through all the accounts we heard were two central themes. Firstly, there was the appalling violence and brutality of the police during the strike. Both in the small scale of their everyday activities, and their major operations to occupy whole communities – they were like a foreign invader occupying entire villages and towns.

This came as a great shock to everyone. These were people who had thought of themselves as decent and law abiding, and furthermore, before the strike they had respected the police. They were astonished, shocked and bewildered by their experience. They had always thought that the police were honest upholders of law and order. Instead their own experience of violence, bullying and intimidation at the hands of the police really shook them up.

Here were housewives – some of them had even voted Tory in the past – who would invite you in and show you the dent in their fridge, “that’s what they did, the police, they barged in here and smashed up our fridge.” These were ordinary people with no political agenda, and no axe to grind.

They were outraged that no-one knew about these things. This was the second recurring theme. They were astonished by the wall of silence in the media. Their experiences were never reflected nor reported on the TV. The violence they experienced and the occupation of their villages was never mentioned. On the contrary there was enormous media distortion of the facts. Even the newspapers that were supposed to support them, like the Daily Mirror, talked about the violence of the pickets but kept quiet about the brutality of the so-called forces of law and order. Of course, this was also the case on the TV news and the BBC. One miner commented “I’m in my forties and I have never been in trouble, I have never even had a parking ticket.” This was not an exceptional case but the norm. One family, the Boyles, had four members arrested and consequently they lost their jobs. They were arrested for besetting. They, like the rest of us, had never heard of such a law, it was dragged out of the history books as another weapon with which to hammer the miners. These experiences profoundly disturbed people’s preconceptions and their whole outlook.

Not even the leaders of the Labour Party and the TUC would speak up for the miners. It seems they were too afraid of the press turning on them and attacking them. Of course they did that anyway no matter how respectable they tried to be. In the end it was the failure of these leaders that resulted in the miners being beaten.

Around this time I was put in touch with Mark Jones, the father of David Jones who was killed on the picket line during the strike. He was very cautious about speaking to me at first. Understandably so, I could easily just be another journalist like the ones that had lied about the miners throughout the strike.

We ended up talking for about three hours. In all honesty my initial motive was to get material for my production. Our conversation was so moving I was in two minds about using any of it in the show. Then I thought, maybe we should use all of it. It was such an impressive and broad-ranging political analysis. He spoke not just about the strike but about international matters and about socialism in a powerful and moving way. He said, for example, how he would like “to meet Nelson Mandela, because despite his hardships he refused to sign away his principles, and demonstrated outstanding bravery”. This was perfect as a speech to end the show.

We also included the very moving words of Lillian Womersley whose son Paul was one of three youngsters who died on a slag heap. When did you ever hear about them? Never. If in normal times three youngsters were to die from falling down a well or something it would be all over the news, but because this was related to the strike nothing was said about these tragedies.

The play (Enemies Within) was a huge success at the Young Vic, perhaps not because of the numbers who attended – it was on in August – but because of its impact on them, including the coach-loads of miners who came down and heard their own words spoken back to them from a stage. Mark Jones’ speech at the end was especially powerful.

Margot, who appeared in the show – and I have remained close friends with Mark and his wife Doreen ever since. Every year we attend the David Jones memorial lecture in Barnsley.

Which brings us to the film Faith. Originally this was the project of Antonia Bird a brilliant producer and director, but because of a series of delays at the BBC, Antonia had already taken another job so a director was needed, which is where I came in.

The script by Billy Ivory was already in development but not finished. I wanted the piece to achieve two central things. The personal stories and political events must be intertwined. The personal story could not exist without the political situation, but also these individuals were in turn trying to affect history. There must be a dialectical interplay between the two.

At the same time it had to be very clear that this is a fictional account. The halfway-house you find in many docudramas would not be suitable here, the lines must not be blurred. The kind of method used in The Government Inspector (a recent Channel Four dramatisation of the death of weapons inspector Dr. David Kelly) for example, which was excellent, would have been inappropriate in this circumstance. This was not the David Jones Story. These events were events that could have happened. They were plausible in the situation but nevertheless fictional. This gives the piece integrity and at the same time freedom, as a piece of art, to go beyond the literal. In that way, for example, Gary’s (one of the piece’s four central characters, a striking miner) return to the picket line and then immediately meeting his death become symbolic of all struggle not just of this particular strike.

For this reason the selection and use of archive material needed to be very thorough. The images used needed to be truthful and accurate, historically and in terms of their emotional force.

So we decided to put dates on each of the fictional events in the lives of the characters in order that they coincided with the correct period in the strike, and with the correct references and archive film. The Orgreave footage, for example, coincided with Thatcher’s speech denouncing the miners as the “Enemies Within”. This was the second battle at Orgreave, and a great deal of research went in to making sure that the footage, quotes and speeches were not introduced out of their context but only alongside the appropriate period in the strike, and the same period in the lives of the characters in the film. This was necessary for the reasons I have given, but, in addition, the BBC lawyers insisted on absolute accuracy.

That answers the nonsense of the Tories and others about the film’s bias. As you have already pointed out there is no such thing as the spurious objectivity they appeal to (although never display themselves). What other reactions have you had from those who could be considered opponents of the strike?

One interesting story comes from the police. I spoke to a Chief Constable in the north east who was responsible for organising some of the policing of the strike and asked him if our portrayal of the surveillance carried out on Michele (another of the central characters, Michele is married to Gary and becomes politically active during the strike) was accurate. Whilst he couldn’t comment on any specific cases he said he would be surprised and disappointed if there weren’t such cases because that would have meant that the police weren’t doing their job properly!

For my part, I needed to be able to look Mark and Doreen Jones in the eye. A miner dies at the end of this film, on the picket line. This was not about their son, but nonetheless it required complete integrity.

You have explained the use of archive footage giving realism to the fictional drama. To what extent were the local community, miners and ex-miners involved?

The first period was spent working on the script with Billy, and with the supporting artists – what most people tend to call extras. Professional actors prefer to be called supporting artists. We recruited from the local community. Notices were put up in pubs and workingmen’s clubs. This was cleared with the union, Equity, and they were all paid Equity rates for their work. We held acting workshops in the evenings. These took place in a local pub, The Fox, thanks to its very helpful landlord Tony Clegg. We had an artistic philosophy to follow as well as a political one. That is, we made it very clear to everyone that they were all as important as one another in the production whether in a lead role or a supporting one and therefore we all have to work to the same standards. We held Stanislavsky workshops. We had to go through what was involved in great detail.

To begin with none of the miners or ex-miners would play a policeman, and, well, there was no chance of playing a scab. This is very understandable, but we tried to explain what is called the super-objective of the piece. That is, that since the overall purpose of the piece was to tell the miners’ story, then whatever part you play is working toward a good end, in this context even playing a scab is honourable.

We did a lot of work improvising and ‘hot-seating’ – interviewing and cross examining people ‘in character’ – these people had never acted before, many weren’t used to openly expressing their emotions, or even to speaking in public, in front of other people. Take Glynn Courtney who played Mickey Edwards. Glynn was an ex-miner, and I asked if he would like to play the role of Mickey, who travels back to work as a scab on a coach but is talked out of it by the pickets. He said he would love to play it. Acting is all about empathy, understanding what it is like to be another person, at the same time some people confuse drama with reality. I told him he had to be sure about playing this role, but he said he trusted us to do it right, and, although he is not on screen for long, it is a powerful performance.

The workshops continued until filming began. There were 350 at the final workshop which was concerned with filming technique, what to expect on the set etc. I asked for 5 volunteers to run workshops of their own. They had seen how it was done. Three men and two women volunteered, they ran their own workshop, and formed their own theatre group – Gage Productions.

We ran a community arts project called “Have Faith” which went into schools in Long Toft, Stainforth and Hatfield where we filmed. Parents who had never even been into the schools before got involved. We set up the Christmas scene in the school and taught them about events in the strike, then we set up the Christmas party and filmed it.

The aim was to make it impossible to tell the difference between the staged version and the real thing, archive film.

David Odd was the Director of Photography, and he had been a documentary camera-man during the strike. Our methodology was to film it as if it was then. We had some books of photos from the strike produced by Newsline and others, and these were very powerful images. We would pass the photos around and improvise around the scenes they depicted, bringing the photos to life.

Lesley Hutchison played a vital dual role as archive researcher and supporting artist co-ordinator. I have worked with her for over twenty years at the RSC and so on, staging big battle scenes like in Coriolanus, for example. There were big battles here too. It was important that these scenes had a psychological truth as well as a theatrical one. So in her research she was immersed in the images of the strike, with a memory bank full of images.

Then we did something which is pretty unique. There were 436 supporting artists altogether and we gave them all a character. We worked out the detail of who they were. Take the Miners’ Support Group women. We played out a scene with Christine Tremarco (who played Michele) where I was with seven of the women in the canteen when Christine came in so we got into character and started shouting at her for being late and everyone joined in, but Christine didn’t know what we were doing at first. She soon grasped it though. Then when you see the women around Michele in the film, in the scene where she goes from the audience up to the platform to speak in a meeting for the first time, you see the women sat around her talking to her, shouting encouragement, rather than just nodding, because these are real characters.

Despite the nonsense of the Tories claims of bias, a great strength of the drama is that while its politics are central, this is not simple propaganda.

Some people want a drama to be straightforward political propaganda, and those people were annoyed with Gary being a reluctant striker rather than an activist. This however is the film’s sense of balance. Not a spurious objectivity, telling ‘both sides of the story’, but a balance of the real people involved in the struggle. Here was a man, and there were many others like him, who found it very difficult to strike, it went against every atom of his being not to be in work; he was bored, skint and frustrated but he remains firm through class loyalty.

His wife becomes politicised, getting more and more involved in the support group, speaking at meetings, and being impressed by the university educated Martin (who is later revealed as a turncoat and a spy), who falls in love with her. Although that affair is never consummated, the relationship between the two is important. The question of the extra-marital affair (between Gary and Linda, his wife’s sister who is married to his best friend Paul, a policeman) had to be handled with great sensitivity, but it was important to the drama.

The character of Martin was a very difficult one. I carefully prepared an entire history for him. He was 33 years old and had been a student at Sussex University in 1968, the most radical college in the most radical of times. He had been a genuine socialist, involved in one or other of the Trotskyist groups that was around then. Years of working in social services had worn him down. He had been bought off at some stage, and of course from then on he is hooked for fear of exposure. That’s how the security services work. So he had had to rationalise his own betrayal. This is the stuff he spits at Michele in the scene near the end of the film where she discovers his treachery. He really is in love with her. He has lost all faith. She has not.

As soon as she got the part of Michele, Christine attended the 20th anniversary conference of the Women’s Groups at Wortley Hall. This was her first introduction to the situation. It was perfect, she was able to meet the real people involved, and at the same time the conference itself was an inspiration. It was completely outward looking, with visitors from Cuba, Iran, and American miners. Bernadette Devlin spoke particularly passionately about Iraq.

The actors who played the four central characters were very dedicated. We went up to Yorkshire to rehearse a week before filming. I suggested to Jamie ( Jamie Draven who plays Gary) that he go up a week earlier to meet people, go around the pubs and just chat to people, and he did so at his own expense and made a lot of friends.. The whole situation got inside them by the end.

The captions on the screen at the end of the film (in which details are given of those who died in the dispute along with other facts that have emerged since including the admission by mi5 that surveillance and spying took place) presented us with a very difficult and complicated question. First of all it had to be very precise and very accurate. In relation to the safety man who died whilst working down a pit, for example, we had to make it very clear that this was not a scab but a man carrying out necessary and agreed safety work.

Then was the thorny question of the taxi driver (killed by a boulder dropped from a bridge above while carrying a scab as a passenger in his cab). Some of those I spoke to were adamant that his name should not be included. This is a very emotive question. I turned for advice to Mark Jones, a man who surely more than most had a right to an opinion on this question. His view was clear. This man was a victim of the dispute and a victim of the Tories too, he has a family like everyone else. To not include him would be to sink to the level of the Tories. If this had been simply a monument to the miners his name would have been omitted but it was not just that.

It reminds me of the difficulties that used to arise over whether or not to work in South Africa under Apartheid. Some took the view that it was wrong at all times on point of principle. I always thought the best approach was to ask the ANC what they thought in each separate case. Asking Mark Jones here was similar to that approach. I also asked Ann Scargill, who agreed that his name should be included but not in any way highlighted.

When filming ended instead of rushing off home as usually happens we organised a ‘Have Faith’ celebration. This was to thank the supporting artists and all those that had helped. We performed the screenplay as if it was a theatre piece, which is quite an unusual thing to do. Half the original cast of ‘Enemies Within’ came up and we performed that too. Twenty years on it is still a fantastic piece of theatre. The verbatim method is very powerful. Of course some of the predictions that were made in those words turned out not to be true, but they were all recognisable, that is how it was then. Gage also put on their own show about the strike and then we had a social event. Finally, the screening of the film took place in Yorkshire not in London as is usually the case. 200 of the supporting artists came to see it in a cinema in Sheffield.

Before we finish – and there is a lot more to discuss so I hope we are able to meet again to talk about many other subjects – there is a general election coming up, what are your opinions, how would you define your own political outlook?

I can’t bring myself to campaign for Labour this time. They had the facts in front of them, yet they voted for this outrageous war. We all knew there were no weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, did you know anyone who didn’t know that, who believed they would find these mythical weapons?

My local MP voted for the war in Iraq. It’s obscene. I am attracted by the idea of strategic voting, to be honest. It is ironic that I agree more with the ten points the Liberals claim to stand on than what Blair says. Still a Labour government with a much reduced majority giving power to those opposed to the leadership, to more radical elements in the House of Commons and to backbench revolts would be the best outcome. But Blair has to go.

Ultimately what is required is worldwide socialism. An international socialism but it must be democratic, it must have elected governments.

These days the word socialist has become almost meaningless to many people. It is like religion, you can say that you are a Christian without upholding or believing any of the things any of the different churches say. In the same way even someone like John Prescott can claim to be a socialist of one kind or another.

Whether you are a socialist, a communist, or a Marxist, the important thing is what you do, not what label you wear. Where are you when a strike takes place? Which side are you on in a struggle and what do you do about it?

My hopes are with young people. The youth are the key to the future. As you get older you become used to living under capitalism because it is all you have ever known, but the youth are not used to it yet. They care about the important things, about saving the planet, about war, international events, about the big picture. That is where hope lies. The youth can and will change the world.