Made in Dagenham (UK 2010)

Women power!

The Equality Commission report was published today stating that women are still earning 16% less than men; this followed a report, published in August, that suggested, at the current rate of progress, equal pay would occur in 2067. That’s one year shy of a century after the events portrayed in this film, which precipitated the Equal Pay Act. So it’s great to see this story being told and I could even forgive the ‘artistic license’ of having the women strip to their underwear because of the heat.

Channel 4 News got involved in the marketing of this film by taking the original ringleaders of the strike to meet Theresa May, the most prominent of only four women in Cameron’s cabinet. The reporter cajoled May to say that the women were right to strike; she wouldn’t but clearly without the right to strike workers would be even more exploited than they often are.

The script does well to pack in so much into the feelgood narrative: the snobbery of the Grammar school; the transition from communal to electronic music; the rise of sexy fashion at the expense of the frump; the imprisonment of middle class women in subordinate roles. Nigel Cole’s also has the odd flourish such as the long take when the wife of a Ford boss (Rosamund Pike) is dispatched to get the cheese and biscuits, her long walk to the kitchen is shown in full.

I also liked how the unions were portrayed as patriarchal, believing that the class struggle had no room for feminists. However it was the women, with Castle’s support, who took on the unions, and multinational companies, and scored a victory (albeit one that hasn’t delivered what it promised). It shows we shouldn’t be cowed by the thought of offending ‘big business’ (memo to Vince Cable: refer News Corp’s attempt to buy the 62% of Sky it doesn’t own to OFCOM).

Miranda Richardson, as Barbara Castle, seems to have been struggling for decent roles recently; a victim of being ‘old’ and female in film industry terms? However her brief appearances in the film are electric. And the cast, all round, take their opportunities with relish, offering some great ensemble acting.

I’m too young (or is that not quite old enough?) to remember 1968 clearly, but the period detail seemed to me to be genuine; though a friend reckoned the use of ‘fuck’, that’s given this film a 15-certificate, wasn’t used so prevalently at that time. I doubt whether many youngsters will be attracted to the film, and the audience I was in made me feel youthful, but it is one that they should see, particularly females.


  1. des1967

    I was a bit more ambivalent about the film than Nick. Even before I saw it I was aware of the The Full Monty/Calendar Girls connection (I disliked the former and the premise of the latter meant I avoided its mixture of “sauciness” and prurience like the plague – I had read the reviews of the stage production). I felt the spirit of Benny Hill permeated this film, not to mention (as Philip French suggested in the Observer), that of Miriam Karlin as the shop-steward in The Rag Trade (you’d be far to young, Nick) or Reg Varney and On the Buses.

    I found the character of the union convener character (played by Bob Hoskins), sympathetic, but felt his characterisation was also indicative of some of the film’s weaknesses. His commitment to the women’s cause is expressed in terms of his own personal history, having been brought up by women – a common experience during the War. And while personal experience is of major importance in a person’s formation, there is also the collective experience that many union militants, then and now, draw on, known as politics. Could his attitudes not also be formed by his political formation as well? He’s shown after all pointing out the absurdity of the literalness of the CP-influenced officials quoting Marx about “Man (ie not women} making history. (And union officials can be sell-out merchants but somewhat more subtle than the ones portrayed in the film).

    Apparently there were historical inaccuracies in the film but this didn’t bother me too much as historical films can be enriched by “True Invention” as well as harmed by “False Invention” (to use Robert Rosenstone’s terms) but I felt that, while the visit of the women to the Ford Halewood for solidarity is portrayed, it’s regrettable that there’s little reference to the support offered by trade unionists –male and female – from across the labour movement.

    This may be more of a quibble but I would have preferred the captions which ended the film to mention not only the equal pay legislation but the epic equal-pay battles that followed, especially the Trico windscreen-wiper worker equal-pay dispute of the mid-70s which was longer and bitterer than the Ford dispute – and took place several years after the legislation was passed.

    There was a sentimental core to the film which made me a little uncomfortable and I said to my partner in the last few minutes of the film, “Here comes the freeze-frame moment” and “I bet they say something nice about Ford”. On the first, I wasn’t quite right – at least technically – but got the second one spot on. In terms of the popular influence of films like this, I get the feeling that the message would be workers have the right to strike but only those whose case is of a black-and-white simplicity. The rest will no doubt be holding the country to ransom etc.

    I was a little uncomfortable about the way the Second World War was referenced, especially in relation to the character who commits suicide as a result of his experiences in the War. Perfectly plausible but the film seemed to be using not the progressive anti-fascist aspect of the War but the nationalistic one and that was called into play to show the women’s determination to win. (Almost Churchilian, but Churchill was a bitter class-warrior who would have sent in the troups against these women if he had still been around).

    And I wasn’t convinced by the Cambridge-educated upper-middle-class housewife who befriends the main strike leader (played by Sally Hawkins) and only happens to be married to one of the top Ford managers and who chums up with the Sally Hawkins character, even to the extent of lending her her Biba dress when she goes to meet Barbara Castle. OK the point is made about oppression not being wholly a working class affair but this device I found a little crude and simplistic – notwithstanding the (admittedly skilful) trope Nick identified as she is sent off to the kitchen.

    I don’t want to give the impression that some humourless agitprop Godardian approach is the only way to deal with this subject. Ken Loach has shown (in the under-rated Bread and Roses) that it’s possible to combine realism, melodrama and humour to explore the theme of women workers fighting for their rights. It’s just that feel-good can be a little too easy and superficial.

    I started off by saying I was ambivalent about the film, not that I was dismissing it as worthless. On the plus side, a film that was clearly on the side of a group of workers taking all-out industrial action has to be supported in the current climate and it did attempt – albeit clumsily – to explore the emotional problems, especially between between couples, caused by the fact that money is not coming in to the household, and the way it challenges traditional gender roles. I wasn’t immune to the feel-good factor even when the little voice in my head was more sceptical. I saw the film in the local art cinema and it was clear (even in the quiet, late afternoon session) that it had pulled in a wider audience than usual and the audience seemed to enjoy the film and clearly empathised with the strikers. It would be nice to think that this empathy will be extended to those who will inevitably be involved in strike action against the savage cuts currently being planned.


    • venicelion

      Crikey Des. This is a mainstream Nigel Cole film, not ‘gritty’ social realism! I haven’t seen it yet but I suspect that everything you say is valid. I just wanted to pick up on your last point and to support Nigel Cole on one one point. His first hit was Saving Grace in which Brenda Blethyn is a widow inveigled into growing dope in Cornwall. I thought it was a good old-fashioned comedy that didn’t get the coverage it deserved (it was also very unusual in being funded by BSkyB). I also enjoyed at least the first half of Calendar Girls – a story from a pretty village only a few miles away from us. The last part in which they go to America was just silly. (I think the stage adaptation came some time after the film.) My point is that both films were attractive to the older female audience which is poorly served by mainstream cinema. Made in Dagenham looks to possibly offer something to that audience, although from what I’ve read so far it seems to have rather missed the point by making the women workers younger. If I remember rightly, Victoria Wood tried to buy the rights to Calendar Girls but lost out to Disney. She would have done a better job I think and perhaps she might have found the true heart of Made in Dagenham, not in a political way but in a way that properly saluted the efforts of the original women?

      btw, I completely agree with you on how Churchill’s vicious actions against working people have been airbrushed out of contemporary versions of labour history.


  2. nicklacey

    Good points Des and I should have mentioned the absence of the a caption, at the end, stating that women are still not being paid the equal of men. A missed opportunity.


  3. Rona

    The film does leave you wanting a 4 part BBC4 documentary series on post-war industrial relations – especially as now, in the UK, the unions are back on the agenda in the guise of manufactured panic from the British right wing press about ‘Red Ed’. Whether they are back in any stronger form than lurking bogeymen for the Daily Mail etc remains to be seen, but it makes this an interesting cultural moment for something like Made in Dagenham to step into. Celebrating a success against the corporate machine – and, importantly, catching a current mood since this is a particularly American form of domination that is being resisted – does make this a film that is as interesting for when and why. Therefore, I can forgive its flaws. It seems to share that fairytale element that is present in films such as The Full Monty or Brassed Off. I’ve read Peter Bradshaw’s review which sees the narrative foreground these film’s successes as momentary, against the wider problems that it is clear would remain for the characters once the credits rolled. Made in Dagenham stops deceptively at an apparently completed moment of success and so might seem different – but I think the comments above say something interesting about what the film is trying to do. The end-credit caption stating women are still not paid the same makes it a different film for the audience when we leave the cinema. Simply, there’s your happy ending but, by the way, the wrong isn’t righted yet. WIthout trying to be ironic or deliberately self-reflexive – the film simply embraces all the conventions of the kind of Brit-fairytale drama it’s in – but it does raise the whole issue in a fairly enjoyable piece of mainstream-orientated entertainment. And generated a few articles, at least, raising the issue again in the press. However, maybe you’d have to question how far it’s managed to appeal. Anecdotally, in the cinema I saw it in shortly after its release – all 8 of us were clearly old enough to laugh in recognition at John Sessions’ great turn as Harold Wilson.

    On films in the cinema with a cast of strong, female protagonists – lack thereof – start I won’t. I’m afraid there is such a real discrepancy persisting that women audiences do have to embrace films such as Calendar Girls, even if they are clearly not particularly representative of or made for all women. They are audience-driven films first and foremost, not resistant to heavy critique of style and not even beginning to fill the gap – sometimes adding to the existing stereotypes of what women want. But the hopes of seeing women-made films such as the recently released The Arbor with its intriguing approach to telling a real, socially-aware narrative (about the playwright Andrea Dunbar) are thin outside large cities, and perhaps even outside South West/London. This means I have to applaud Made in Dagenham for squaring that circle of having those protagonists and achieving wide distribution – and whilst I did generally enjoy it, that’s depressing. I have also to defend Calendar Girls though – I saw it in the North West with the kind of audience referred to in Venicilion’s response – and there were gales of laughter from a mainly female group who recognised the joke and liked it. (Not unlike the difference I also experienced in seeing The Full Monty in Manchester and then in Leicester Square!) Sorry if I just played the ‘regional = warm authenticity’ card…

    Moving swiftly on, I do see how the sentimentality of Dagenham can leave you wanting some Godardian intellectual rigour and ‘clean’ lines to strip out what cloys. And yes, ‘fuck’ seems a complete anachronism – you felt could have worked just as well with less violent language. There was an article along those lines in yesterday’s Daily Mail, so it’s definitely time to stop on this comment.


    • venicelion

      I did work in a (small) factory/workshop in 1968 and I suspect that the swearword of choice for the (older) women I worked with was ‘bugger’, which in the North West of England was a term of mild abuse or even endearment. Shy retiring flowers these women weren’t.


  4. keith1942

    I shared some of the reservations about this film. I thought the plot was often corny and tended to recycle cliches. The cast are pretty good, and its heart is in the right place. But I think films can offer more than heart. For a start, Jean-Luc Godard is often romantic and his films can be very, very funny.
    What struck me was the witting [or perhaps unwitting] parallels to October 2010. Fairness is a frequent comment in the film. And the US boss tries to blackmail the Government with the overseas threat. Meanwhile, the Union leaders tend not only to conservative positions but appear myopic about actual class struggle.
    I saw it with a senior citizen audience, who clearly enjoyed it. So it has its virtues. However, I thought it could have retained those with more political content.


    • venicelion

      I looked at your blog on the film and it seems offensive in regard to a number of actors who have turned in credible performances. You are at liberty to critique the film but I don’t agree with those comments.

      Similarly, there are plenty of things that the Film Council did wrong – but also plenty of good things it has done. Like many critics you don’t understand how public funding has been used to support all of film culture, not just film production. The loss of Film Council funding will affect the cinemas where your film might be shown, the education programmes that might help to develop the audiences for your film, the film festivals and training programmes you might attend. Allying yourselves with the plonker who thinks that the Tories will be good for UK film culture is foolish. If you look carefully at the history of the British film industry and at the health of the exhibition sector I think that you will find that there were usually Labour governments in power when things were going well. The Tories would let the whole shebang be bought by Hollywood given half a chance.


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