Miners’ Strike: A Frontline Story opens with a cliche. Like almost every oral-history documentary these days, we start with an outtake – an interviewee preparing to be interviewed, chatting casually with the film-makers as lights are set and cameras adjusted. “Let’s crack on,” says former South Yorkshire miner Dave Roper. But as Roper moves on to talking about why he has decided to participate, he says something that is not incidental at all. “My history [with the] media, especially the BBC, is they tend to twist what we say … it’s all about what they want, not what I want to put across.”

This programme puts that right. A Frontline Story lets miners tell the long tale of the 1984 strike, and they leave us in no doubt as to why the dispute occurred or how the result of it has reshaped Britain. The storytelling is vivid and immediate: anecdotes drawn from the memories of those who were there, without any historian, politician or journalist to smoothly, coldly contextualise them, makes the 40-year gap between then and now melt away.

Surprising, affecting details are everywhere, starting with the section on what was lost when the miners ultimately failed to win their fight. Faces that will later cloud over with anger are bright and proud as they recall the old mining villages, built around comradeship and a shared investment in dirty, dangerous, important work. One miner recounts how in the showers after another hard day in the filthy pit, it was common for workers to wash the back of a random colleague, without being asked.

Then Margaret Thatcher enacted her plan to replace state-run industry with private enterprise, to replace a sense of community with a feeling of every man for himself, to replace unionised workers whose future was secure with disempowered, precarious employees who had no leverage to fight for their rights. The announcement of 20 pit closures, with the loss of 20,000 jobs, started a battle that the Yorkshire miners recognised as existential.

Not everyone saw it that way. In Nottinghamshire, workers were split over whether to join the strikes. Two brothers who were on opposite sides of the debate are interviewed, separately, resentment and regret still burning in their eyes, while the recollections of “flying pickets” – Yorkshiremen whose own collieries had been successfully shut down, joining picket lines in Nottinghamshire – give us a powerful sense of society’s fabric starting to tear. The police responded to the flying pickets by curtailing basic freedoms, setting up roadblocks to limit travel, and prompting miners to form ad hoc intelligence networks, using routes through country lanes, coded vehicle logs and men hidden in car boots to circumvent the checkpoints. Tensions were awfully, lethally high: in Ollerton, Nottinghamshire, a miner died when strikers and strike-breakers pelted each other with bricks.

Bruce Wilson was 29 at the start of the strike, a ‘flying picket’ who was at Orgreave on 18 June 1984. Photograph: N/BBC

That episode is, again, brought colourfully to life by those who were in the thick of it – as is the experience of being part of a community coping with losing its main source of income. Stories are told about stews served in soup kitchens, made using veg pinched by the handful from farmers’ fields and with no scrap of meat wasted: diners were warned to look out for rabbit teeth. From a time of desperate adversity, the programme and the people in it pick out jolly, even funny moments: a memory of a feminist drama troupe from Cambridge University putting on a play that culminated in them blacking up to represent sooty miners, is positively hilarious. But then there are tales to stop the heart, like Roper remembering his son, Adam, dying at a week old. Striking workers weren’t eligible for funeral grants, so Dave, penniless after two months without pay, was unable to bury his boy.

The centrepiece is a devastating examination of 18 June 1984, the Battle of Orgreave. We hear how pickets thought it strange that they were allowed by the police to line up outside a coking works that had been identified as crucial to the government’s effort to break the strikes. Then they found out why. The unusually heavy police presence turned on the striking workers, charging them with horses and meting out extreme violence. Archive footage and present-day recollections are knitted together – one young man, seen on film being set on by a truncheon-wielding police officer, is now an older man weighed down by trauma, interviewed for this programme. On the key question of whether miners instigated the conflict by throwing stones at the police, it is shown that any such provocation was minimal. The picture of brutal state repression is stark.

When the bruised and bloody miners got home, they switched on the TV to see themselves portrayed as the aggressors – that, they say here, was when they could see the thumb on the scales and knew what they were truly up against. Now, at least, they have been heard.

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