Friday, October 29, 2010

Made in Dagenham

Today I saw Made in Dagenham, a film about the 1968 strike by 187 car-seat women machinists at the Ford plant outside London, which led ultimately to the British government passing the equal pay law. I've just been trawling through the British reviews. All of them by men, they range from condescending to sneering, with lots of nudge-nudge references to that hoary British sit-com, The Rag Trade, as well as to director Nigel Cole's previous hit, Calendar Girls.

I think you should see Made in Dagenham, and take your daughters and grand-daughters. First, it captures brilliantly the pervasive, blatant, smug, completely taken-for-granted sexism underpinning those far from distant days. The two things the men who ran the unions and the companies could agree on was the male right to be paid more than women, and be fully serviced by women at home.

The women working at Ford were probably better paid than most women factory hands, but they still earned less than the men and worked in a leaky, run-down, hot building (so hot, according to the film, they commonly took their tops off and worked in their bras). The strike began when Ford reclassified their work as unskilled, meaning, of course, less pay (though the actual details of their hours, rates, etc are far too tedious to be covered on film).

Despite union leaders' attempts to get them to back off and behave, they instead upped the ante, demanding equal pay with men. The women won the support of the union members, the Labour Government's Barbara Castle met the strike leaders, and after a partial victory for these women, two years later Britain passed a law bringing in equal pay - though still, of course, only for "equal work".

All this has been turned into a great story which will have huge popular appeal. The script, by Billy Ivory, never once made me cringe - except maybe when Barbara and Rita swap clothes chat just before their big moment with the press. It shows what the women are up against, at home as well as at work. Their uncomprehending menfolk are staunch unionists until it comes to being laid off when the lack of car-seats brings the plant to a standstill  - and then having to get their own dinners and mind their own kids, because their wives are off demonstrating and negotiating.

The film has understandably collapsed the group of women who led the strike into one, the young, attractive Rita O'Grady, played by Sally Hawkins (who starred in Ken Loach's Happy-Go-Lucky). There has to be, I suppose, one heroine, even though that wasn't how it happened.

One other thing brought home to me how much liberty most historical films take. At the end, as the credits roll, there are side-clips of the actual women involved talking about the strike - they must have been interviewed by the makers, I wish we could have a documentary as well. There's also archival news footage of them in 1968, with Barbara Castle.

The factory women look absolutely nothing like the mini-skirted, mostly young, often busty and peroxided, swinging sixties women in the film. They're a bunch of extremely respectable-looking, often middle-aged women with perms and neat cardies. They reminded me more of the women in Mike Leigh's Vera Drake. Now there was one film that really did manage to look like the times it was recreating on screen, and very grim it was too.

Still, it's much better to have this film than none, and I'm sure it will draw far bigger audiences than Vera Drake, precisely because it's a lot more entertaining to watch. Unlike most of the overseas reviewers, Charlie Gates of The Press, Christchurch, understands what it's doing:

"When was the last time you saw a film with a strong female protagonist? A proper film that wasn’t about shopping, getting a man, climbing the corporate ladder or all three. Made in Dagenham is one of these rarities and it is a pleasure to watch...Made in Dagenham is full of warmth, humanity, humour and genuine drama...It keeps a perfect balance between the intimate and the turbulent sweep of history."

Even more unusual, Gates actually checked out how true-to-life the film was.  "My partner's Nan, Flo Patston, lived near the Dagenham plant during the strike and her husband, Johnny, worked at the plant in the 1960s. I knew Flo had already seen the film, so I called her in England to see what she thought. She said it was a 'brilliant film' and gave it 'four stars and more'."

And Flo also said all the strong language the women go in for was perfectly genuine: "That’s what you heard on the factory floor. That’s how working class people spoke."

Four stars to you, too, Charlie, for your fine review. Go and see this film for yourself.

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