Made in Dagenham
MADE IN DAGENHAM Directed by Nigel Cole. Starring Sally Hawkins, Rosamund Pike, Miranda Richardson, Jaime Winstone, Bob Hoskins, Richard Schiff, Geraldine James 15A cert, gen release, 112 min
OVER THE past 30 years, the demonisation of the UK labour movement has been so pervasive that the notion of a mainstream film eulogising any postwar strike sounds about as unlikely as a feel- good comedy arguing for seal culling.
You’ve seen the documentaries: rubbish piled up in Leicester Square, little kiddies turned away from playgroups. They couldn’t even bury the dead, you know.
Hats off, then, to the folk behind the broad, unsubtle, but brashly entertaining Made in Dagenham. Elbowing aside decades of Thatcherite propaganda (while acknowledging the unions’ social conservatism), the film celebrates the dispute at Ford’s Dagenham plant that led to the passing of the Equal Pay Act.
In 1968, a group of women, mostly stitching seat covers and upholstery, walked out when the management refused to designate them “semi-skilled” workers. The real issue was, of course, to do with the apparently unshakable convention that male workers should be paid more than their female counterparts. After a long stand-off, the women, following an unprecedented meeting with Barbara Castle, the British secretary of state for employment, helped trigger a change in the law.
Unfortunately (and inevitably), the film turns out to be yet
another of those post-Full Monty affairs in which an array of soapy, fictionalised characters gain self-respect by stepping outside their comfort zone.
Directed by Nigel Cole, whose Calendar Girlswas a prime example of the genre, Made in Dagenhamfocuses most of its attention on a comprehensively emblematic young woman named Rita O’Grady. Played with uncharacteristic restraint by Sally Hawkins, Rita, a smart but timid mother, has long been a peripheral figure in the union movement. When, however, her local convenor asks for volunteers to meet the management, she grudgingly raises her hand and – much to the surprise of her colleagues – speaks up against the compromise being proposed. Soon Rita is marching outside the factory gates with a placard.
There is plenty to groan about. The garish 1960s detail is layered on with the world’s biggest trowel. Even as far east as Dagenham, the workers wear “Mary Quant hot-pants” and the manager’s wives describe their dresses as “Biba, I think”. The tone finally teeters into all-out pastiche when Matt King (Super Hans from Peep Show) turns up as a fashion photographer whose “Oo, darling” patter would shame Austin Powers.
The characters, though often attractive, have been schematically constructed to take in all desired demographics. Geraldine James is moving as an older worker whose husband, an RAF gunner in the war, still suffers from post-traumatic stress. Rosamund Pike, playing the plant manager’s Cambridge- educated wife, offers the middle-class perspective.
The bold characterisation even extends to Barbara Castle herself who, in Miranda Richardson’s shrill turn, is stripped of her northern vowels and presented as a weird amalgam of Mrs Thatcher and Barbara Windsor. The film’s lowest moment comes when the strikers, unveiling only part of a banner, appear to offer the slogan “We Want Sex”. Labour’s famously robust Red Queen coos in saucy agreement. Oooh, Missus!
Yet, for all the film’s compromises, it remains a very effective piece of mainstream drama. Every deflation is balanced by a corresponding moment of uplift. The actors all make something of their often clumsily written roles. And the ultimate triumph is cannily presented as both a personal and political achievement for Rita and her chums.
More than anything else, Made in Dagenhamdeserves credit for reupholstering the reputation of the British trade union movement. True, the leaders are presented as benign misogynists who view equal pay for woman as an annoying side issue, but the film argues strongly for the industrial dispute as an honourable expression of the ordinary person’s need for justice.
Anybody who doesn’t blub at the closing credits, during which the real workers reminisce, is a scab of most ugly stripe.