PRINT January 2002


Mike Figgis’s Battle of Orgreave

JUNE 17, 2001. In a muddy field in the north of England near a giant slag heap, British film director Mike Figgis is engulfed in a crowd of picketers who are slugging it out with massed ranks of bobbies in full riot gear. As the protesters hurl themselves against a wall of Plexiglas shields, only to be driven back by mounted police brandishing batons, Figgis dodges missiles and blows and keeps on filming. The conflict shifts to the nearby village of Orgreave, and the intrepid auteur is still there in the thick of it, clutching his Steadicam. The acclaimed director of 1995’s Oscar-winning Leaving Las Vegas and the split-screen, digital art-house hit Timecode (2000) has relocated from Hollywood to this remote and unprepossessing spot to shoot British artist Jeremy Deller’s reenactment of the “Battle of Orgreave,” one of the most painful and momentous episodes in Britain’s recent history.

It was in Orgreave, almost exactly seventeen years earlier (on June 18, 1984), that some five thousand striking coal miners clashed with—and were savagely routed by—a force of nearly eight thousand riot police outside the South Yorkshire village’s coking plant. The Battle of Orgreave, as the events of that day were quickly dubbed, marked a pivotal moment in the bitter dispute between Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government and Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Miners (NUM). Ostensibly, the miners were striking to save their communities and livelihood from Thatcher’s draconian program of mass pit closures. But both sides were well aware that Orgreave was just one part of a care fully planned campaign to break trade union power and introduce market forces into Britain’s state-owned industries. And the campaign succeeded.

Last summer’s rerun of the Battle of Orgreave—commissioned by the art agency Artangel—forms the core of Figgis’s film of the same name, which premiered at the London Film Festival in November and will soon air on the UK’s Channel 4. Using a straightforward documentary format—no split screens or Hollywood FX here—Figgis spliced footage of Deller’s scaled-down version of the original conflict with a mixture of archival material and, most crucially, firsthand accounts by Orgreave veterans who also participated in the performance. Figgis adeptly demonstrates how Deller’s project acted as a poultice to draw out individual and collective memories of an episode that, despite its enormous social and economic consequences, has now largely been buried amid a welter of misinformation. (It even emerges that the BBC reversed the sequence of its news footage to present the miners throwing stones and the police charging in response, when in fact the police instigated the violence.

Deller’s Battle of Orgreave was more than playacting. Although the event was orchestrated by Britain’s leading reenactment expert, Howard Giles, and involved enthusiasts from more than twelve historical societies more accustomed to assuming the roles of Roundheads and Cavaliers, over a third of those taking part in the reenactment were volunteers who had been involved in the original conflict, both miners and policemen. In an extra twist, some of the police were played by former miners, and vice versa. The event provided an opportunity for reunion, reminiscing, and the airing of still-raw grievances. During rehearsals some of the ex-miners were, apparently, a bit overeager to settle old scores when faced once again by rows of police uniforms.

Jeremy Deller was still at school in 1984, but he remembers clearly what have now become the iconic TV images of Thatcher’s army attacking the pickets. The miners’ strike had already played a key part in his two best-known works, both of which consolidated his reputation for tapping into elements of British culture that the art world rarely reaches. Acid Brass, 1997, involved a traditional Northern England brass band—the kind that continues to define mining communities even after the mines have closed—playing (and releasing an album of) classic acid-house anthems, thus achieving the convergence of what Deller considers the two defining social phenomena of ’80s Britain: acid house and the miners’ strike. Deller’s Unconvention, 1999, a multifaceted exhibition/event based on images and activities referenced in the lyrics of the Manic Street Preachers, included NUM president Scargill delivering in person an impassioned indictment of capitalism in front of a case of relics from the Spanish Civil War. However, unlike the presentations of some artists who showcase folk art—Jim Shaw, for example—Deller’s collaborations tend to be so complete as to render him invisible. Just as many fans of Acid Brass still have no idea that an artist was involved, so Deller’s Battle of Orgreave has taken on a hybrid life of its own, of which Figgis’s movie is yet another chapter.

By filming the reenactment of an event which itself has been subject to multifarious interpretations and agendas, Mike Figgis complements Jeremy Deller’s desire to lay bare the subjectivity of even the most recent history. Like Deller’s project, Figgis’s movie lets events and participants speak for themselves and throws up shards of (sometimes contradictory) memories that refuse to settle into a neat picture. As Deller has said of his version of the battle, “It’s going to take more than an art project to heal wounds . . . [This is] about confronting something and not being afraid to look at it again and discuss it.” In the case of the British miners’ strike of 1984–85, it is a scrutiny that is long overdue.

Louisa Buck is a London-based art writer and broadcaster.