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Reliving a crucial battle of the working class

Joy Macready reviews The Battle of Orgreave (2002)

IN 2001, Turner Prize winning artist Jeremy Deller orchestrated a re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave, one of the most violent confrontations of the Great Miners’ Strike. More than 800 people took part, many of them former miners, reliving events that they themselves took part in. The film of the re-enactment, directed by Mike Figgis, deftly pulls together interviews, the build up to the event and the event itself, capturing the fighting spirit of miners who fought so hard for their livelihoods and communities.

In 1984, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) went on strike. On 18 June, thousands of miners bravely defended themselves from police batons, snatch squads and cavalry charges in a field outside Orgreave coking plant near Rotherham in Yorkshire. Scandalously, the BBC – acting as part of the state’s propaganda machine – reversed the footage of the attack so that it looked as if the miners instigated the violence. The BBC was forced to issue an apology for this ‘mistake’ – but only in 1991.

The film shows clearly that the anger and rage remains, even 27 years after the miners’ defeat at the hands of Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government. There is also a continuing deep-seeded hatred of the Nottinghamshire miners who scabbed throughout the dispute. When there was talk of involving Notts miners in the re-enactment, other miners vehemently opposed it: “They weren’t on the picket line then, why should they be part of it now?”

The film interviews a number of different people, including Mac McLoughlin, a former miner who joined the police force just prior to Orgreave. McLoughlin expressed his personal shame at being on the state’s side against his former comrades. “I joined the police because I wanted to do something for my community. And I did do something – I helped Thatcher rip apart our communities and destroy our lives.” Stephanie Gregory, from the Womens’ Support Group, spoke about the effects on family life and the changing role of women in the dispute from support to fighter.

The film also draws out a few lessons learned during the dispute. One miner criticised the NUM slogan of “the miners united will never be defeated”, which was indicative of the NUM’s strategy of not calling out other unions to support their struggle. “This was the wrong slogan. It is the workers united – that is what we should have been arguing for. The miners’ strike was a working class issue,” he said.

During a Q&A session at a recent showing at the Reel Islington Film Festival in February, Deller argued against the idea that this project was about healing old wounds. “I wanted to make people angry,” he said. “This was a recreation of a huge criminal act by the state against a community.”
The Battle of Orgreave is being shown as part of an installation at the Hayward Gallery, until Sunday 13 May 2012.

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