About the 1968 strike at the Ford factory in Dagenham by women machinists who are declared unskilled labour. They eventually fight for equal pay with men and they are led by the initially reluctant Sally Hawkins when Geraldine James steps down and accepts her as spokesperson. The foreman is Bob Hoskins who is sympathetic to the women’s cause because he had to live on his mother’s wages and life was very hard. They take their dispute to the management and the Michigan bosses find out about the strike and want it stopped. Hawkins has trouble with her male chauvinist husband as well as with male chauvinist trade unionists and communist party bosses. Geraldine James’ husband kills himself and this motivates James to join the striking women who make an impression at the TUC. conference, and then meet Barbara Castle who has to deal with American bosses and Harold Wilson. In the end the women win and the Equal Pay Act comes out in 1970.
Watching this film aroused curiosity, nostalgia and embarrassment for me. Curiosity because this is yet another film dealing with recent history and it shows the same faults as other films with similar ambitions. It’s as if this takes its cue from soap operas of the time, turning characters into broadbrush caricatures. Trade unionists and women act like TV- depicted so called ‘ordinary people’. It’s almost a humorous soap opera parody of working life and betrays the same fascinated misperception that middle class Marxists were hampered with at the time. We only see working people at moments which reassuringly illustrate their ordinariness: concern with money, sexuality, relationship with bosses and other workers as if there is no life beyond these cosy predictabilities. We are in Mike Leigh country here, I half expected Timothy Spall or Jim Broadbent to come on, playing sturdy avuncular figures. It would have been better to have Ken Loach directing this, though I only have a little more time for Loach than I do for Leigh. I think they have both made a career out of turning working people into noble savages. Showbiz perceptions of working people and work at the time came from Coronation Street and Miriam Karlin in a comedy called The Rag Trade. I worked in a couple of factories just after this 1968 strike and they were nastier places than this film shows. In Made In Dagenham the factory floor is a sort of performance art industrial theatre where personalities clash in a vaudeville stunt, whereas in reality factories were monotonous.
Sally Hawkins plays a cockney sparrer, a bit like Poppy in Happy Go Lucky. We see an early example of her bravery when she confronts the maths master who’s into corporal punishment (weren’t they all happy to cane pupils then? Mine was). Anyway her inarticulate decency hyperventilates like Billy Budd faced with Claggarts’ vileness. Then she is the feminist hero confounding the chauvinist insecurities of her boring husband. She gradually acquires articulate self confidence but it’s all done in a sort of moralistic heartwarming way, beloved of Hollywood. It’s interesting that striking trade unionists can now be regarded as heroes. Imagine trying to make such a film in the heyday of the strikes in the late 70s. Of course, it’s now at a safe distance and we can all shed hypercritical tears for what’s quaint. Hawkins gains that sentimental male approval beloved of patriarchs with a conscience, and I squirmed. Rosemund Pike plays the Cambridge educated wife of one of the Ford managers and she develops covert sisterly sympathies with Hawkins. It’s fascinating to see her suffering the patronizing imbecilities of her husband and it does concentrate the mind on how recent and still prevalent male stupidity was and is. The problem is that this is all done in a jarringly moralistic way, it’s almost Dickension in its simple sentimentality. Twenty first century audiences swallow this anodyne morality play and it amazes me. Then there’s the jarring note of Geraldine James turning up with the strikers after she had pulled out because of her marital miseries with her mentally unwell husband. It reminds me of the Comic Strip comedy team who did a Hollywood spoof on the miners’ strike.
Bob Hoskins did his usual rent-a-working-class stereotype, he’s been doing it since playing a Cockney soldier in Zulu Dawn. Hoskins is likeable but too ready with the timely noble sentiment. He is the cow eyed stalwart shedding a tear at the triumph of the just.
To remind us we are in the 60s we get the usual soundtrack of hits, and of course TV must be in black and white like in Life on Mars. This film succumbs to the dramatic requirements which insist on cartoonish simplicity. Miranda Richardson plays Barbara Castle, gets her feistiness quite well. John Sessions is good as the wearily pragmatic politician who had to keep the Americans happy, he plays Harold Wilson. Did the women strikers see themselves as pioneering feminists? The film certainly says so: Hawkins puts her partner right about his claims to saintliness based on surrendering his lordly rights.
Where are the Marxists, the factory gate paper sellers and agitators? They’ve been edited out, they’d get in the way of the feel good factor, wouldn’t they? There is nothing about the wider political context. The women are wheeled onto the public arena like Pocohontas paraded at the court of King James and the film seems happy with that trivialization..
This movie arouses nostalgia because it exposes, without meaning to, the cruel limitations of trade unionists. There was no vision beyond a decent striving for any better life than the capitalists would grant. Not really true to life then but occasionally entertaining and the acting is good.