Freedom: 50 Years of Pride, review: a joyous celebration of the fight to be accepted

·2 min read
Olly Alexander performs in Channel 4’s Freedom: 50 Years of Pride - Channel 4
Olly Alexander performs in Channel 4’s Freedom: 50 Years of Pride - Channel 4

The year when Pride rioted was 1980. After a member of the brilliantly named “Brixton Fairies” was victimised by police for wearing an offensive hat – no, really – the crowd fought back and 10 arrests were made. Hundreds marched down to Bow Street Police Station and refused to leave until their comrades were released. One of the 10, Tube train driver Julian Hows, was asked if he wanted a lawyer. “No but I could do with a hairdresser,” he replied.

Freedom: 50 Years of Pride (Saturday, Channel 4) was a perfectly pitched feature-length documentary about half a century of LGBTQ+ activism in the UK, told by people who were on the frontline. It chronologically traced how a grassroots movement grew into the rainbow flag-waving, Mardi Gras-style celebration we know today. En route, it took in the Aids crisis, age of consent campaign and protests against Section 28 – represented here by a drag queen dressed as Margaret Thatcher, whacking gay men with her handbag. It was the first anti-gay legislation for a century and actor Sir Ian McKellen recalled how fighting it prompted him to publicly come out.

Pride might now have gone mainstream, as evidenced by TV’s current season of programming, but it’s still needed. There are 70 countries where homosexuality is still illegal. In 11, it’s punishable by death. In the UK, one in five LGBT people have experienced a homophobic hate crime in the past year.

This was as much a social history as a sexual one, skilfully mixing the personal with the political. Archive footage told its own story, while well-cast contributors added their vivid testimonies. There were stories of defiance, determination and heartbreak. As 21-year-old Cat Burns, a queer black singer who found fame on TikTok, said: “We have a lot to thank the older generation for. They stepped through and trail-blazed a lot of the opportunities we all have now.”

A pulsating soundtrack combined disco bangers with live numbers that were filmed at a celebration event at London’s famed Royal Vauxhall Tavern. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Holly Johnson crooned a beautiful rendition of The Power of Love.

Pride traditionally comprises a march, followed by a music festival. Protest, then party. Fittingly, this film ended on a joyous celebratory note. It’s a Sin star Olly Alexander got the crowd on their feet, cathartically singing along to the late George Michael’s Freedom. This was precisely the sort of bold but accessible, distinctly British programming that Channel 4 should be making.