A stalwart of British cinema, Bill Nighy has charmed audiences worldwide as jaded pop star Billy Mac in perennial Christmas debate-starter Love Actually, Minister Rufus Scrimgeour in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and blood-sucking Viktor from the Underworld series.
As nervous as I am when he enters the room during a 2017 publicity tour for Their Finest, Danish director Lone Scherfig’s WWII-set dramatic comedy about female emancipation, I needn’t have worried. Every bit the witty, warm and wise gent he so often portrays on screen, it soon transpires we agree on his finest performance to date: stoically closeted miners’ union leader Cliff in Matthew Warchus’ Pride.
It’s the role he’s most, well, proud of.
“I’ve lived through a time when gay men and women were perceived, by a large part of society, as nauseating,” he says, a moment’s despair fluttering across his handsomely lined face. “There was no legislation to protect them, and I find the progress that has been made since intensely moving. Pride celebrates that fact so sweetly in this brilliant, absolutely true story. It was a wonderful thing.”
Set in London and rural Wales during the ferociously fought miners’ strike of 1984–85, the film details a strange and unlikely alliance. Then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was determined to break the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) at all costs, setting the police loose on picket lines to brutal effect and sequestering all funds sent to the union.
Ably assisted by a heinously unforgiving media, striking miners were attacked with one luridly misleading headline after another; a fate shared by the UK’s LGBTIQ+ people. Thatcher’s unrelenting assault on both groups unexpectedly pushed them together.
Gay Londoners Mark Ashton (played by Ben Schnetzer in Pride) and Michael Jackson (Joseph Gilgun), seeing common ground where many would not have, hit upon the idea of fundraising for the NUM and delivering cash directly to affected mining communities, predominantly those in remote Welsh villages.
Founding Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), perhaps their crowning glory was the racy ‘Pits and Perverts’ concert led by Bronski Beat’s Jimmy Somerville at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, the group’s most successful fundraiser.
In playing both a closeted queer man and a pillar of the miners’ resistance, Nighy was overjoyed to honour their endeavours. “It concerns two very important things which are very close to my heart,” he says.
“The miners’ strike was almost entirely misrepresented at the time. You couldn’t get any sense out of the newspaper of the decent men and women it affected. They were invented, not least by Margaret Thatcher herself, as enemies of the state, if you can imagine such a thing?”
Indeed. Not entirely unlike certain elements of the Conservative Party today, demonising Europe and immigration during the Brexit debate? “It’s the same old blue. They don’t have much of a song sheet.”
That alliance between the NUM and LGSM – as well as splinter groups like Lesbians Against Pit Closures – managed to turbo-charge the queer rights movement in the UK, with the NUM returning the favour and throwing its support behind Pride parades, influencing opposition Labour Party policy.
Never one to countenance a challenge to her authority, Thatcher’s vengeance was brutal. Her crackdown on the miners all but levelled the industry, greatly weakening the trade union movement too.
And then she came for queers, announcing at the 1987 Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool that, “children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay. All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life.”
The very next year she introduced the infamous Section 28, legislation banning schools, libraries and other local authority services from “promoting” homosexuality, a vile scar that persisted until 2000, when it was repealed as one of the first acts of the newly devolved Scottish Parliament in 2000, and then in the rest of the UK in 2003.
Noting that he’s a believer in absolute equality, Nighy says he never takes it for granted, with his involvement in both Pride and Their Finest in service of an important reminder that what was once won can just as easily be lost.
“I don’t do very many period films, because I don’t want to get caught in any of the conventions that are associated with them,” he says. “But I don’t think of Pride as a period piece. It’s a very timely story.”
Watch 'Pride' on SBS
Friday 1 March, 8.30pmAvailable after broadcast at SBS On Demand