Back in 1984, when he was a young person living through the Thatcher era, Jeremy Deller remembers seeing on TV what has now become an iconic moment. The violent confrontation between the police and the striking miners outside the coking plant in Orgreave, Yorkshire, and the miners being chased uphill, pursued through the village. That scene has become legendary. No single image so exemplifies the shift of the political tectonic plates in this country and the Thatcher government’s determination to break up the unions and, with them, traditional working-class communities and their way of life. The strike was to have a traumatically divisive effect, becoming an ideological battleground for the soul of the mineworkers. Families were torn apart, and the union movement split in its support for the NUM. For the young Deller, watching the police line up with their riot shields against the angry miners, it felt like civil war.
Then, in 1998, he saw an advert for open submissions to Artangel, that organisation which, in its own words, has ‘always gone where others fear to tread’ in facilitating the work of artists who think outside conventional boxes. Receiving a commission from them allowed him to do what he thought was impossible, stage a re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave. After two years of research, it finally took place on 17 June 2001 with the collaboration of the filmmaker Mike Figgis and a cast drawn from more than twenty expert historical re-enactment societies under the direction of the re-enactment tactician Howard Giles. Participants included veterans who had fought on both sides of the political battle lines.
The film weaves together original footage with re-enactment scenes and interviews. Mac McLoughlin, a former miner and then a serving police officer, talks of how he recognises, in retrospect, that he unwittingly played a part in breaking up his own community. While David Douglass of the NUM speaks about the relevance of the confrontation to the trade union movement. Tony Benn emphasises that there were deliberate distortions and untruths in the press reporting, including footage showing miners throwing stones at a phalanx of mounted police so that they looked like the aggressors when, in fact, they were responding to a belligerent police charge. An untruth that was later admitted by the BBC.
There’s also a poignant interview with the very articulate Stephanie Gregory (Women’s Support Group), whose reminiscences show the effect the strike had on family life. At first, she was suspicious of Deller’s project, but his involvement and diligence won her over. The treatment of the miners was, she said, ‘barbaric’. She insists these were ‘honest working men’ who, if they turned up for a peaceful demonstration, were branded troublemakers.
To revisit the film after all these years is to be taken back to a very different political landscape. The sound of drumming, the police with their riot shields and visors lined up against the jeering miners – many with mullets and sideburns – conjures a mediaeval battlefield rather than a labour dispute. The hurt and the anger felt by the busload of men travelling to the site for the re-enactment are still apparent. This is a subject that seems to have been talked about little, and the consequences are hardly addressed. For many, the enactment seems to be a cathartic moment when they can finally be seen and heard. As David Douglas of the NUM makes clear, the strike could have gone either way. It was so bitter because the men were fighting for their livelihoods, their very existence. If they’d won, he suggests, our political landscape might have looked very different. No privatisation. No zero-hour contracts. No food banks. Who knows, perhaps even no Brexit? Towards the end of the film, there is a shot of Thatcher, all bouffant hair and clipped vowels, insisting like some headmistress that industry must be modernised.
For Deller, it was important to include veterans of the original campaign in his reimagining. In an age of the blue-chip gallery, he is an artist who explores the differences between artifice, documentary record and historic fact, making him one of the most thoughtful around today. In the film, we encounter him in 2001 as a fresh-faced youth looking back on 1998, when he was a boy. For him, the strike clearly showed what was so wrong with this country that the government could behave like that to its own people. Now, 25 years on, its value is even more potent. This was the re-staging of a historic moment every bit as important as The Peterloo Massacre, one that occurred within living memory and forever changed the landscape of our lives. Watching it now, it seems to reflect a world with different values, one that belongs more to the last century than to our own. What was at stake was a working man’s pride in his labour and in his community. Those jobs in the pits have now been superseded by those in Amazon warehouses or shelf stacking in Iceland. However tough it was working underground, the miners could take a pride in keeping industry and the home fires burning. At the time, the print media contributed to a polarisation in society to the point where there appeared to be little space for a middle ground. Deller has no doubt that it was a pivotal moment, one that left a deep scar on this country. In all but name, it was an ideological battle between two opposing sections of British society. Now, as the event recedes into the shadows of history, The Battle of Orgreave, 2001, stands as a testament to the injustice done to the miners. It was not so much the closing of the pits as the trashing of their communities that caused so much damage. Deller has caught that devastating political moment for posterity. ‘It was,’ he says, like ‘digging up a corpse and giving it a proper post-mortem.’
Lead image: Jeremy Deller, The Battle of Orgreave, 2001. Production photograph: Martin Jenkinson courtesy of Artangel