Sometimes, the spark of a movie can come from a photograph. That’s the case with the new British comedy “Pride.” Screenwriter Stephen Beresford had already settled on telling the true story of gay activists reaching across a cultural divide to help embattled coal miners during a desperate strike in homophobic early 1980s Britain.
But then Jonathan Blake, one of the surviving activists, showed Beresford an image of one night when Blake and his friends met and partied with the crusty, culturally conservative miners in the little Welsh town where they were on strike.
“It’s a rather stunning shot,” Blake, 65, says. “All these miners and their wives, gay people, dancing all around me.And me in the middle, clapping my hands with joy!”
It was a breakthrough moment for two unlikely political allies, and it’s the money shot of “Pride.” Beresford wrote the union hall dance scene. Director Matthew Warchus and his choreographer concocted over four minutes of choreography. And the producers scored the rights to that disco anthem, “Shame, Shame Shame.”
“Jonathan has this exultant look on his face in that photo,” says Dominic West, who plays Blake in the film. “They all look like they’re having a really good time — miners, gay activists. That’s the movie, right there, that these two very disparate groups became such close friends.”
West, of “The Wire,” the new Showtime series “The Affair” and films such as “300,” took the supporting role in the film, which stars Ben Schnetzer, George Mackay, Imelda Stanton, Paddy Considine and Billy Nighy, just for this moment. It’s not every day he’s asked to dance a little disco.
“I’m not a very good dancer. I had a good two or three months training. And on the day, with this four minute long scene, all this choreography, I had to be toweled off between takes. Nine shirts. Just exhausting!”
It paid off.
“When West, playing an actor hitherto soured on political activism, jumps on a union-hall table and lets his freak flag fly to Shirley & Company’s disco anthem ‘Shame, Shame, Shame,'”critic Geoff Pevere of Toronto’s Globe & Mail says, “all resistance melts.”
West got to meet Blake, a stage actor and one of the first people in Britain diagnosed HIV-positive, and found the key to playing him in that meeting.
“This remarkable and courageous man has had this HIV death sentence hanging over him ever since those days, the early ’80s,” West marvels. “I got a sense of what it’s like to have that hanging over you. So, in the film he starts in despair. He’s lost any purpose in his life. But what he and his fellow activists try and do for the miners gives him a renewed reason to go on.”
The activists struggle to get miners to accept their help. They endure abuse and rebuffs. Then, walls come down. And the sour and somewhat cynical Jonathan finally cuts loose — dancing on the table.
“One wants to make sure that when he breaks out of this despair, he does it in some considerable style,” West laughs.
Blake says that, no, that’s not literally his life being portrayed on the screen. But he doesn’t disapprove.
“Oh, I would LOVED to have been the Jonathan that Dominic played. Witty and warm. Life of the party. And a great dancer.”
And for his part, West is happy to have been a part of a film that tells part of a story he has known all his life. West, 45, grew up in Sheffield, home to the headquarters of Britain’s miner’s union, and remembers that ’84-85 strike. In playing Jonathan Blake, gay man who befriends previously homophobic miners, he tried to keep in mind the message of “Pride.”
“Our director said, “Proximity destroys prejudice.” Only through ignorance, not knowing them, can you fear them. You meet somebody, you lose your fear of them and your prejudice. That’s a nice thought to take to work every day, making a movie. I hope viewers of the film take it with them, too.”