What a lineup for Freedom: 50 Years of Pride (Channel 4), a mishmash of cabaret, musical revue, documentary and oral history that attempts to be all things to all LGBTQ+ people, and just about pulls it off. It opens with a montage to the Pet Shop Boys’ Go West that looks like an ad for an extravagant new West End musical, and eventually lands at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in south London, where Olly Alexander, Holly Johnson, Kae Tempest and more, perform, while clips from the documentary we are watching play to an audience made up of people who are in the clips.
It sounds messy, but it is surprisingly invigorating, and it captures some of the energy that has made UK Pride – in its various iterations – such a force. Members of the Gay Liberation Front explain why, in 1972, they marched through the streets of London, flanked by police officers who called them names. Archive news reports from that era, casual in their homophobia, paint a vivid picture of hostility. At the time, explains Peter Tatchell, “we were demonised and reviled”. The date of 1 July was chosen as it was the closest weekend to the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York (28 June 1969). Afterwards, they had a picnic in Hyde Park, where people started to kiss in front of passersby.
People who feature in the documentary assemble outside the Royal Vauxhall Tavern with “Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho” (Matt Tedford). Photograph: Channel 4
A kiss was a powerful protest in 1972. Even now, the question of whether to show affection in public remains at the front of many LGBTQ+ people’s minds. This zips through the Pride marches that came after 1972, pausing to explore the ones with particular historical significance. At the 1976 Pride, the Tom Robinson Band performed (Sing If You’re) Glad to Be Gay, a song as bitter as it is celebratory, though it was the celebratory chorus that took on a life of its own. Performing it on stage at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in 2022, with a multigenerational audience paying close attention, Robinson’s message takes on a new life again.
By 1980, “the year that Pride rioted”, relations between protesters and police had reached boiling point. There is a dry wit to much of this history that complements the righteous anger, such as the spark for the trouble that year: “One of the group called the Brixton Faeries had a plastic meat cleaver in his hat … ” Inevitably, and rightly, political action comes to dominate. The devastation of the Aids epidemic arrives, then section 28 is introduced into law, or, as Holly Johnson puts it, “Thatcher put the boot in”. Sir Ian McKellen talks about how he came out publicly in response to the legislation, which banned the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities, and recalls the protests, when lesbian activists abseiled into the House of Lords and hijacked the Six O’Clock News. “The dykes have arrived,” he chuckles.
In the 90s, Pride’s popularity grew, and Freedom wrestles with the Mega Pride era and the rise of corporate sponsorship and ticketed events organisers claimed were needed to fund such massive undertakings. There is a fascinating contrast between the early days of Manchester’s Mardi Gras, with its drag queens shaking buckets to raise cash for HIV and Aids research, and the heavily branded floats waving rainbows and logos that we see in most major city Prides today.
The programme can’t cover the multitude of complexities that pop up when attempting to crunch 50 years of protest into an evening’s entertainment, but I admire Freedom’s willingness to go deeper when it can. It talks about the importance of smaller, local Pride marches around the UK, and explores the depressing rise in animosity between a very small faction of lesbians and gay men and the trans community. The break-off Prides explored here, UK Black Pride and the nascent Trans Pride, leave the film on an optimistic note, speaking to what Pride can and should be about.
It is only days since a terror attack on a gay bar in Oslo and the subsequent Pride march that took place against police advice. There is a protest sign from the early 80s seen in a photograph here – “Keep Your Filthy Laws Off Our Bodies” – about the then-unequal age of consent for gay men, but that slogan still resonates today, when a Conservative MP argues in the Commons that what a woman does to her own body is a matter for “debate”. Section 28 finds a gruesome heir in the Don’t Say Gay bills in the US, and the fight for the dignity and respect of transgender people and their rights has a long, long way to go. This big-hearted documentary and musical revue is a celebration, then, but it is also a reminder to be vigilant and to know our history.