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Interview Telling the truth about Orgreave

ANGUS REID speaks to Daniel Gordon about his new film Strike - an uncivil war

 

TO make a film about the events of June 18 1984 at Orgreave coking works has occupied film-maker Daniel Gordon for a decade. 

In 2016 he released his BBC co-funded film Hillsborough and having established meticulous reconstruction as his own style of documentary, he knew he had to bring the same forensic attention to Orgreave.

“I knew that the same police officers were involved,” he says. ”The same police force and the same prime minister.” 

He began the research but the project was torpedoed by potential funders because, clearly, “it would tarnish Thatcher’s legacy.”

To make a documentary that would be equal to the task it needed to be entirely self-funded.

“Literally everyone,” he says, “was working for nothing.” Other documentaries have appeared, on the BBC and Channel 4, “but,” he says, ”neither of them left me feeling that there had to be an enquiry into Orgreave. One of the great things about being truly independent and not funded by anyone is that you can do that.”

His ambition was to demonstrate the nationwide character of the strike. They needed witnesses from “all the major coalfields,” he says. “Scotland, Durham, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Kent, south Wales. I wanted the full coverage. But I really wanted Orgreave to be the spine of the film.”

His plan was to construct the events of June 18 1984 minute by minute, in a way that has never been done before on film, and for this he had to gather together all the footage shot on the day. 

“The mainstream media are all behind police lines, so the way you as a viewer are looking on it, it’s as if the miners are attacking you. 

“And there’s two main cameras on the miners’ side. One’s the NUM camera, and one’s a miner who just came down from the north-east who’s got his own little VHS camera. And that’s the most, like, visceral footage, the stuff in the village where the horses are coming through and there’s houses. That’s a miner filming, and the police never expected that to be recorded.”

Along with miners’ testimonies and certain police documents they were able to reconstruct what actually happened on the day, and what this painstaking approach revealed was not just the known fact that the miners had clearly not assaulted the police as the media reported, but that there were three separate occasions on which they were charged by horses. It was an orchestrated assault, planned like a military campaign.

Then he discovered Matt Foot and Morag Livingstone’s book Charged which demonstrated that a preconceived secret plan had been agreed to engineer and escalate violent confrontations between police and protesters: “the manual.” The manual had been signed off, without any democratic or parliamentary oversight, by the Thatcher Cabinet and the Home Office.

“The manual was just off the scale in terms of what it meant,” says Gordon. It was a plan to recruit ex-servicemen into the police and to train them according to methods developed in colonial Hong Kong. “And the more we cut the film,” he says, “the more this thing had to be front and centre because it’s the thing that’s going to shock everyone. Something that we started to understand watching the footage is just how much planning — which has all come from the manual — created the police operation that day.”

As the film points out, the miners were all very law-abiding. One of them says: “When you’re growing up you never attack the police. It was unthinkable. Because the police never attack the people…”

But, as the film shows, the police officer in charge, South Yorkshire Police Assistant Chief Constable Anthony Clement, and his superior officer Chief Constable Peter Wright, were both “following the manual. And no-one else on that day knew of its existence. That’s what I find astonishing.”

“And when it was signed off,” Gordon adds, “there was a party in Whitehall organised by the Home Office, to which they were both invited. And the day after Hillsborough, Margaret Thatcher and Peter Wright were filmed together.”

What effect have these revelations had on the veterans of Orgreave?

Few of the participants realised at the time that the confrontation had been planned in advance by the Thatcher government and many remain “clearly traumatised,” says Gordon. “I’m very aware there is always an element of retraumatising people and we’re constantly checking in afterwards to make sure they’re OK.” Because the effect of seeing the film is that “they have to contend with the fact that it was planned. I didn’t realise that to begin with, and that’s a double blow. People are struggling with the knowledge that it wasn’t a spontaneous fight. 

“But,” adds Gordon, “I don’t think they come across as victims.”

Police officers also figure in the film and they too are being confronted, 40 years later, with the fact that “they were played.”

They weren’t allowed to write their own statements and, for them too, “it’s very difficult when you’ve had a strongly held view for four decades suddenly to have it, not just questioned, but ripped apart.” 

So what is it like to handle these revelations now? “They trust me with what they say, and I have the responsibility to tell their story properly.”

And the timing of the release could not be more fortuitous. In cinemas now, two weeks before a general election, it exposes the original sin of the Conservative Party. And likely to be in cinemas still after a change of government it will keep the pressure on a Labour administration to hold the inquiry and establish definitively the truth about Orgreave. 

“And once you see the film,” says Gordon, “you understand why it needs revisiting.”

Strike — An Uncivil War is on general release.

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