DVD Review: Made in Dagenham

Many films have trailers that do them slightly less than full justice. I was aware of Made in Dagenham, but even Mark Kermode’s listing of it as one of his Top 5 Films of 2010 didn’t get me past the trailer and into a cinema at the time. The involvement of the Calendar Girls director left me thinking that film might well be one of those films you label as ‘very British’ and ‘nice’, but might not pack the punch that it might have done.

Its appearance on DVD, the cajoling of some friends (of both sexes), and a quick Amazon order later, I finally spent 108 minutes in its company. And was very glad I did. Yes, it is ‘very British’ – there’s a down-home smallness to it, but appropriately so. Though fictionalised in parts (the central character, played brilliantly by Sally Hawkins, is an amalgam of several real women), its narrative arc is a true story: in 1968, 187 ordinary working women really did set in train a real step in history.

The 1968 Ford Machinists Strike really did lead to the Equal Pay Act of 1970. That equality in law has still yet to be reflected in equality in the purse is one indication that changes based on shifting entrenched attitudes takes a long time and a hard struggle. That the story of the Ford Machinists took 42 years to be included in a piece of mainstream culture surely says just as much. (Am I the only one reminded of one line from Tom Robinson’s song, Glad to be Gay: “The buggers are legal now, what more are they after?”). That the women’s action led to the Equal Pay Act within 18 months, but their – initial – struggle for re-grading of their work as semi-skilled took until 1984 is omitted from the film, to its possible loss: the lingering implication is that equal pay for unskilled work is fine, but accepting that women can be ‘skilled’ is another.

I can’t let the film off the hook for some emotional manipulation of its audience (something central to the ‘British film’ experience, perhaps?), but one scene more than any other struck as emotive rather than emotional. When Rita, our fictionalised heroine, addressed the TUC Conference, she frames the struggle for equal pay in terms of decency and doing what’s right. As she says, “You do the right thing so you can look at yourself in the mirror”. That male-dominated unions were almost as much a part of what the women had to battle as the (male-dominated) management of Ford illuminates just how taken for granted it had been that half the species could be treated as something it was perfectly ordinary – and acceptable – to patronise and dismiss. It’s a story about not just facing the mirror, but holding up a mirror to people who had something to learn from taking a closer look at what it reflected.

Thought the film maintains a lightness of touch – perhaps mindful of its task of making the story of an industrial dispute into something entertaining enough to hold a modern audience – its portrayal of 1968 shows both how much we’ve changed and how much we’ve stayed the same. The backdrop of the turmoil of 1968 isn’t omitted – the Grosvenor Square riot turns up in a news clip – and we see a late 1960s world where opportunities are opening up: young workers have modern flats (in what we now despise as “60s high-rise”), and women can be sexual predators. But there’s a historic distance too: Berni Inns are ‘posh’ in this far off world, and there’s an easy condescension of not just women but ‘people from the estate’ that might still linger but no longer passes with as little comment or opposition. There’s also a comradeship among the women that feels intangibly from a different time.

(As an aside, discussing the film with one friend raised the point that many of us possibly spend longer in front of the mirror nowadays than in 1968, but our focus is on how we present ourselves to others rather than on what we see of ourselves.)

It’s a film that sometimes misfires along the way – John Sessions is both badly scripted and badly cast as Harold Wilson, and Miranda Richardson’s Barbara Castle reminded me more of another formidable, but very different, female politician – but leaves some lingering lessons despite its light tread. One is that leadership can and does come from authenticity and integrity: these were women who’d not been on strike before, could not bank on the support of men (even those they were married to), but who acted on what they viscerally felt to be right. (And found a kindred spirit in Barbara Castle).

I also couldn’t help but notice that the now-fashionable idea of employee engagement had its early seeds here. As one character points out, companies with good dialogue between management and workforce had better industrial relations and productivity: a little mutual respect and dignity can repay the greater investment than a ‘traditional’ oppositional approach. Indeed, the film acknowledges over its closing titles that Ford is now held in high regard for good practice as an employer. If an occasional lack of grit in the film-making means more of its audience watched as far as those credits, that’s to be applauded.

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