Many of the events taking place in coalfields around the country to mark the 1984-5 pit dispute are celebrating the outcome of the strike as an unprecedented achievement for the mineworkers: their victory was to have held out for as long as year against Margaret Thatcher’s government and the full force of the state.
Wonderland, Beth Steel’s new play about the miners’ eventual defeat and return to work, is a faithful portrayal of their struggle and will be a source of great pride and encouragement to activists who are determined to seek justice for the mining communities.
From the moment the play opens (at the Hampstead Theatre until 26 July 2014) the audience sense the physical challenge, heat and even brutality of life underground. The set is dominated by a pit cage; constant crashing and banging along the carriageway to the coalface add to the reality.
The contrast could not be greater when events switch to London and the offices of Peter Walker, Secretary of State for Energy, Ian MacGregor, chairman of the National Coal Board, and David Hart, the rich, shadowy adviser to Mrs Thatcher.
Beth Steel’s inspiration was that she came from a mining family. Her father worked as a miner for thirty-five years and she draws on a deep understanding of the family conflicts that arose among men of the Midlands pits as they struggled to come to terms with the strike and then endure months of hardship.
The theatre programme promises “a genuine attempt to understand all the key parties’ motivations” and I could not fault the play on the content and chronology of its account of what went on behind the scenes once MacGregor announced twenty pit closures; scenes exploring the difficulties Walker faced in carrying out Mrs Thatcher’s edicts, and Hart’s behind-the-scenes machinations manipulating the working miners of the Nottinghamshire coalfield, all rang true.
But I sensed a sleight of hand about the production. While the dialogue captured the miners’ puzzlement and even disbelief at the tactics being deployed by the National Union of Mineworkers, at no stage did we get a hint of the control being exercised by the union’s president Arthur Scargill, nor were we offered an explanation of the NUM’s tactics.
Scargill’s mistaken belief that he could win the dispute simply by the sheer strength of the miners’ militancy had the briefest acknowledgement in the closing scenes when pit manager Tilsley gave his peroration: “They’ve broken King Arthur”.
As events kept moving from the pit head to the plotting in London of Thatcher’s lieutenants, I waited in vain for a flashback to the planning and plotting at the NUM’s headquarters in Sheffield. We saw rank and file pickets obeying orders but were offered not a scintilla of information about who was pulling the strings and why.
What has been so noticeable about events this year marking the 30th anniversary is that little mention is made of Scargill’s role. There is no wish to dwell on the dilemmas that faced the NUM and whether the president’s leadership was at fault.
Beth Steel has followed the orthodoxy of the activists a little too closely and as a result has all but written Scargill out of her script.
Notwithstanding my personal disappointment at her failure to raise even a question mark over the strategies that the NUM president deployed as he marshalled the strongest regiment of the British trade union movement, she captures the grim reality and turning points of the year-long dispute.
Her portrayal of the Battle of Orgreave is far too realistic, indeed almost uncomfortable to observe. A clash between pickets and police that would have done justice to a medieval battle scene is brought to life not least by the two-way commentaries between a police chief and special branch. David Hart is there too, seemingly helping to direct events and encourage the police.
There is mention of the miners attempt to repeat their success of 1972 when flying pickets closed the Saltley coke depot in Birmingham but again there is no explanation as to why the NUM’s leadership sent off its shock troops to walk into a trap rather than picket the coal and oil being supplied to the power stations.
While I am all for dramatic licence, Beth Steel does let her imagination rip when even before the battle has commenced, she has Hart suggesting that Mrs Thatcher’s reach has extended right into the BBC’s newsroom in London; the dialogue from the build-up to the confrontation suggests a conspiracy at the very heart of Television Centre.
Chief: What about the media?
David: Journalists will be behind police lines.
Chief: The BBC will be here.
David: Not to worry, their footage will show miners attacking first.
BBC newsroom minutes did record the day after the Battle of Orgreave that editors were concerned that the 5.40 p.m. television news bulletin “might not have been wholly impartial” and it might have left viewers with the impression that the use of truncheons and horses had been in response to unprovoked violence from the miners’ side.
Having spent considerable time interviewing David Hart in the years before his death, I heard him make many boasts about his skill in orchestrating the working miners of Nottinghamshire and the steps that led to the formation of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers.
But never once did he claim that either his reach, or that of the Prime Minister, extended to the advance deployment of BBC journalists and editorial control over the television newsroom.