Face off

Television - Andrew Billen's appetite has been whetted for a documentary on the inside story of That

On the NUM's side, the war cries were "I'd rather be a picket than a scab", "Here we go, here we go, here we go", and the self-deluded "The Miners/United/Will never be defeated". On the other side, the police's chant was, apparently, "Arthur Scargill pays our mortgage" - the overtime was that good. Their real forte, however, was percussion. Beating their truncheons on their plastic shields was the authorised police tactic of the time, and its purpose was intimidation. They took it from the Zulus.

If nothing else, The Battle of Orgreave (9pm, Channel 4, 20 October) reminded us of how ugly the Thatcher v Scargill showdown was. Eighteen years on, the defeated South Yorkshire miners turned out in their hundreds this June to a field close to the original site of the coking plant to re-enact the clash. Those interviewed by the documentary still teared up in memory of the communities that were destroyed, spat venom in the direction of Nottinghamshire, the neighbouring county of scabs, and conceded Thatcher nothing. One said he was looking forward to the day of her death, which he would mark by taking a holiday lasting two days, the first day to get drunk, and the second to sober up in.

Although a welcome return to social seriousness by Channel 4, this was a curious piece. Directed by Mike Figgis, better known these days for movies such as Leaving Las Vegas, it recorded a reconstruction organised by Howard Giles, a veteran of Roman re-enactments of the Boudicca v Paulinus variety. But the prime mover of the project was an artist, Jeremy Deller, commissioned by Artangel, the trendy situationist community art funders. Thus we had Hollywood sentimentality, military historical nerdishness and lefty cultural worthiness all in one film.

The best part was the oral history told by Figgis's excellent interviewees. Mostly, we heard from the miners, but one copper, Mac McLoughlin, spoke up vividly and honestly for his men. The bobbies lost it, he said, but when you see one of your comrades with his nose hanging off his face, having been hit by a brick, "you get pissed off". It was "bloody dangerous being in a short-shield unit" - or, he might have added, on the wrong side of one.

You could not but be moved by his conclusion: "One of the reasons I joined the police was that I wanted to do something for the community I came from - and thanks to Margaret Thatcher I did: I helped destroy it."

On another level, the show resembled the pop history reconstruction format of The Thirties House or The Trench. Less concerned with fact than feelings, it told you what it must have been "like" to be a picket. As importantly, the legions of battle re-enactors who dressed up as policemen let you understand how terrifying it must have been for the law enforcers' side, too.

The programme contained a gripping narrative tension, for the great question was whether the former miners would re-enact or refight, whether the whole thing would end in a punch-up. As it turned out, for £60 a head, the participants seemed prepared to have a good time. There was plenty of the yarn-spinning you would expect at a military reunion. One candid wit admitted: "We weren't victims all the time. We gave them a bit back sometimes. In fact, we sometimes gave them a bit back first." There was just a hint there that the 18 June 1984 was not without its highs.

The main disappointment was that the programme did not work harder to explain and present the facts of the battle. If you were too young to remember it, you would have had to listen very carefully to find out a) where and what Orgreave was, and b) what the picket set out to do (which was to prevent fuel from the coking plant leaving for steel factories). There was not so much a map or a graphic to help.

Instead of facts, we got rumour. Some of the policemen were reputed actually to be soldiers. Having known a reporter roughed up by a "policeman" with no number on his epaulette, I happen to believe this, but the film reached no conclusion. Nor was the fascinating theory investigated that the battle was set up by the government in order to deflect the union from blocking the working Notts pits: whereas motorways to Nottingham were road-blocked, large signs were erected to direct protesters to Orgreave.

The film rightly scorned the BBC news editor who "accidentally" transposed the order of the police's cavalry charge and the picket's responding missile attack (something to which the corporation later owned up), yet its own chronology was confusing. It certainly looked as if some pickets had thrown bricks at the police first. Unreassuringly, one of the battle-scene organisers said the best he could hope for was to give "a general impression".

Time makes it own judgements, of course. We now know that Scargill was right and Thatcher really did want to decimate the mines. Whether the coal industry would otherwise have had a future is another question. It is surely time for a full-scale documentary series to tell the inside story. Flawed though it was, The Battle of Orgreave paved the way by reinvigorating the folklore.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times