Made In Dagenham

UK (2010) Dir. Nigel Cole

I don’t know if it should be regarded as a disappointment that 50 years after the strike for equal pay by female workers at the Ford factory in Dagenham that women are still fighting for the same thing. Conversely, this story might stand up as a valid reminder of why the fight still exists in the first place and why it is destined to continue.

Back in 1968, things were very different in the workplace – all the top brass positions were held by men and women did “unskilled” job for far less pay, whilst also being housewives and mothers. For the machinists making car seat upholstery at the Ford factory in Dagenham, being downgraded to “unskilled” labour became a union matter.

Supported by Albert Passingham (Bob Hoskins), shop steward Connie (Geraldine James) and Rita (Sally Hawkins) along with union rep Monty Taylor (Kenneth Cranham) take the threat of strike action into a meeting with Ford management Peter Hopkins (Rupert Graves). Instead of seeing the matter settled, it escalates into an all out strike across the country that brings Ford to its knees.

Writer-director Nigel Cole has changed the names of the principal players of this tale and taken some dramatic liberties with the subplots but the basic gist of the story is based in fact. It is interesting to note that these events took place 50 years after women first got the vote and now it celebrates its own half-centenary anniversary as a landmark victory for women’s rights.

Employing genuine news footage from the era, Cole has captured the essence and the spirit of 1960’s working class London visually and with the music soundtrack of great pop hits from the period. The vibe of the women’s patois is as loose as the men’s with salty language and ribald teasing of any young males who enter their workspace, making a sort of gender inversion of On The Buses.

True to the period, they are mostly housewives, some with husbands actually working in the main factory, like Rita’s other half Eddie (Daniel Mays), so their day doesn’t end at clocking off time, as there are mouths to feed and cleaning to be done. Once the strike begins and the ladies hit the road to gather support, the men struggle with domesticity and the absence of other uxorial duties.

One can see that the primary message being imparted here is not just about equality as it is about not taking women for granted because of the roles they play in life. At every step of the dispute, the ladies are “just women” and seen as inferior in every way, right down to the law ensuring the pay gap is perfectly legal.

During the meeting with Hopkins, Monty tells Rita and Connie to sit quietly while he does the talking, but it is soon apparent he is saying what both sides want to hear but in a way that benefits his standing as union rep. Rita decides enough is enough and produces some material, asking Hopkins to make a seat out of it, then tell her she isn’t skilled.

Setting the scene for the remainder of the story, the men continually underestimate the ladies and the power of their defiance. A one-day strike leads to a derogatory letter from management and further two-faced prevarication from Monty that results in the ladies downing tools completely, travelling to other Ford plants to gain their support.

With no car seat covers being made, no car seats can be fitted, thus no cars leave the factory meaning the entire UK Ford production line grinds to a halt. The bosses in the US refuse to capitulate to the strikers’ wishes because it would cost them too much money, a problem that makes this a thorny political issue when newly appointed Employment Secretary Barbra Castle (Miranda Richardson) is told by Prime Minister Harold Wilson (John Sessions) to fix the problem but don’t upset the cash cow that is Ford.

And all of this for a few quid and a bit of respect. That might see reductive but that was pretty much the sum of the whole situation. As opined earlier, this remains an issue in today’s world but the tide is very much turning in favour of the women with less fuss and recriminations because of the precedent set by the Dagenham strikers.

Cole arguably is a little heavy handed in representing the archaic chauvinistic attitudes of the era through the character of Lisa Hopkins (Rosamund Pike), the well-to-do wife of Rita’s boss. She is in fact a history scholar but as a married woman, she is resigned to the role of a kept trophy wife which she resents. Morally, Lisa is the sort of woman Rita is fighting for but without Lisa standing up for herself, is the struggle truly reciprocated?

It’s not all oppressive politics and melodrama, with some good, if often bawdy, humour to illustrate these aren’t delicate flowers we are dealing with, while the drama of the men struggling to fend for themselves and resenting their absent wives is fairly predictable. But, it is a necessary evil in painting the entire picture of what it was like for women in an era of established gender specific roles.

The cast is an ensemble of old and new British faces who, despite being more photogenic than their real life counterparts, bring the requisite natural earthiness to the roles where necessary, to counter the pomposity of the management. Sally Hawkins leads the charge with another spirited yet nuanced performance, suffusing credible vulnerability into her role as the feisty Rita.

During the end credits, the real life strikers are featured along with a note that in 1970 Barbara Castle did get the Equal Pay bill passed as law. So, if you enjoy a fair wage today, remember the catalyst was Made In Dagenham and if you want to know more about it then this uplifting film is a fine tribute to this historic moment.