Patrick Mulcahy on Blue Jean
There are a lot of parallels between the 1980s and the last decade. The country curdled under a Conservative government. Strikes tested the sympathy of those who supported them. Whole industries were decimated by wilful acts. The Labour Party lost the trust of the voting public. Moreover, there was an attack on morality. Today it is the so-called ‘war on woke’, limitations on the right to protest and fear of individuals transitioning from one gender to another. Back in the 1980s, Section 28 of the Local Government Act prohibited the promotion of homosexuality in schools, a consequence of moral outrage expressed by influencers such as Mary Whitehouse. The British drama Blue Jean, written and directed by Georgia Oakley, transports the audience to North East England in 1988 and the introduction of Section 28 – one more reason why gays and lesbians working in education and other public institutions concealed their sexuality. I worked for a government department in the 1980s, and gay colleagues never spoke openly about their lives. Instead, as a unit, we immersed ourselves in the application of rules and rarely socialised together outside of work.
Oakley’s film tells the story of a netball coach, Jean Newman (Rosy McEwen), whose work and life collide when a new pupil, Lois (Lucy Halliday) spots her in a lesbian bar. Lois’s sexuality becomes the subject of speculation amongst the netball team, in particular Siobhan (Lydia Page), whose position as Jean’s favourite is under threat. The tension between the two girls leads to a situation in which Jean is forced to take sides.
“OK, who knows what ‘fight or flight’ means?” Jean asks her class, a question that appears to have little to do with netball and more to do with the central dilemma in the film. Will Jean fight prejudice or flee from it? Jean watches Lois admiringly as she kicks a football in the playground by herself. However, there were no women’s football teams in the 1980s. Girls like Lois were forced to play netball, a non-contact sport.
News reports on Jean’s car radio and later on television tell us about Section 28 and the protests against it – Black Rod and several colleagues expelling three women who abseiled into the chamber of the Houses of Parliament. “I wouldn’t want to meet them in a dark alley,” groans one of Jean’s male colleagues. The staff support the sentiment behind government legislation. Jean herself tries to remain invisible, avoiding Friday night drinks at which another colleague tries to set her up with a man.
The early scenes in school are all shot with a fixed camera. When Jean enters a basement bar, joining her friends for a drink, the camera is handheld, the movement free. It is one of the film’s subtle techniques to show Jean at her most comfortable – though Oakley is less subtle when she shows Jean’s proficiency with a pool cue. Jean has a girlfriend, Viv (Kerrie Hayes), who is both tough and fragile, sensitive to being excluded from parts of Jean’s life. When Viv phones her at school, Jean puts the phone down. Viv objects when Jean asks her to leave after Jean’s sister requests that her young son spends the night. Jean is heavily judged. Her sister displays a photograph of Jean in her wedding dress, an unwelcome souvenir from Jean’s failed heterosexual marriage.
We learn little about Viv other than she lives in a shared flat with other lesbians and rides a motorbike. In the film, she represents Jean’s lesbian consciousness.
The film builds to a dilemma. How do you deal with a teenage girl – in this case, Siobhan – who is deliberately provocative and milks the censorious attitude towards gay women? Disappointingly, Oakley’s film flees from this question, instead examining how Jean should respond after making the wrong choice.
Blue Jean reeks with authenticity, a real achievement since its writer-director was only two years old when Section 28 was enacted into law. It is a triumph of research, production design and naturalistic acting. There are elements of romanticism – the steamed-up bathroom as Jean dyes her hair. The crass Saturday night television show ‘Blind Date’, hosted by Cilla Black, reminds us how vulgar heteronormality can be. The film has a crowd-rousing moment when Jean outs herself in her sister’s house, silencing a male guest who complains about the cost of his divorce. “You women don’t know how lucky you are,” he tells her before Jean throws the words back at him. She is divorced and has a house. However, it isn’t a triumphant moment. There is despair in Jean’s laughter.
Ultimately, Oakley provides an optimistic ending. Jean is resilient, in spite of her flaws. She is no corruptor of vulnerable minds. Oakley refuses to present her as a victim, rather as part of society, with a role to play.