Made in Dagenham

We Want Sex was the first choice of title for the new film Made in Dagenham.  To find out why – read the following:

Recent British films depicting working-class people in the throes of industrial action or staggering through the fall-out of industrial collapse have fallen roughly into two camps – those bitterly truthful, prioritising sharp political accuracy over populist appeal like the brilliant (but to some too worthy) The Navigators (2001) by Ken Loach ; or the fiercely defiant but pluckily chirpy  like The Full Monty, Brassed Off or Billy Elliot.

The latter selection of highly successful and popular films, though focussing on different but all starkly extreme moments in British industrial life, as well as having great stories, performances and mainstream appeal, all contain the implicit or explicit suggestion that sanity, survival and perhaps compensation can be achieved through the power of art. Art, or an art-form is placed as a means to either express or assuage the excoriating pain being suffered.

So male erotic dance triumphs in The Full Monty, music relays angry injustice in Brassed Off and of course ballet and tap forge an escape or a kind of salvation in Billy Elliot.  These films all have tremendous merit, not least for seeking to portray such working class contemporary struggle in the first place and for seeking to do that for the widest audience possible.  But viewing them as a group (let’s say within a genre) it is hard not to sense that the respective producers had a nervousness about the actuality of the context and of particularly spelling out too boldly the political content of the stories they were dealing with; possibly for fear of scarcer box office returns. It is interesting to note, however, that the theatre musical of Billy Elliot (possibly freed from film industry restraints) puts the Miners’ Strike more emphatically centre stage, restoring some of the bite apparently excised from the film relating to the realities of the struggle in 1984/85.

I therefore had some forebodings about what the makers of the new film, Made in Dagenham, would ‘make’ of the Ford machinists’ strike of 1968 which led to the Equal Pay Act and ultimately the revolution for women in the workplace. I viewed the online production stills (true to period, good looking actors) watched a couple of internet clips (good accents, good acting, plucky women workers) and my heart slightly sank. So conditioned was I by what had gone before, I entered the cinema bracing myself for the scene where the women line up and do a plucky cod-Supremes number (Stop in the Name of Love to call the strike?) or a woman takes off her bra in the boardroom in a protest, exploding the pants of the fusty capitalists (feminism reduced to burlesque?).  But NO, this was categorically not the case. No art-form shunted in to coat the political punch; no dilution of the struggle into light entertainment (hey guys, you’ve all lost your jobs but there’s hope under the spotlight, with Simon Cowell in the wings).

Made in Dagenham has brilliantly broken the mould. It combines the clear, explicit and nuanced politics of the best of Ken Loach with the heart-grabbing attractions of any mainstream popular film you care to name. The brilliant scene where Sally Hawkin’s modest and unpractised union rep spells out why the job she does is skilled is a metaphor for the whole movie.  Politics isn’t hard to understand – it’s our lives, stupid! I cannot think of a previous British film with a mainstream aesthetic that has had the guts before to put the ordinary workers’ point of view so wholeheartedly at its centre. But this is no simplistic idealised narrative. Going on strike, as the women find, makes you very unpopular, not least with the very people you’d thought would support you – the Union leadership and your fellow (male) workers. Nothing is a cinch, nothing too easily won and Sally Hawkins brilliantly portrays the thorny predicament of the figurehead of the struggle beginning to doubt her own single-mindedness and how much it’s costing not just her family but the entire town (and possibly the UK’s) working community.

This is truly a film for our times because any industrial action is always met with the knee-jerk media reaction that the strikers are mere greedy troublemakers and have no doubt about it, there will be industrial action after the government announce the extent of the forthcoming cuts. This film, however, offers another narrative. In particular, because it has the benefits of hindsight, it gives lie to that familiar bleat of capitalists that conceding anything (equal pay, minimum wage) to workers will bring about the collapse of industry. A Britain now without equal pay for women is unthinkable (that’s not to say the Act is universally applied – shamefully Sunderland Council still tried to defend itself in a case only last year involving a large contingent of female workers).

Made in Dagenham shows a true story in a truthful, thoroughly engaging way. There is not one bum note in any of the performances – from Kenneth Cranham’s sleazily compromised Union official, to Rosamund Pike’s surprisingly moving posh wife, to Jaime Winstone’s wannabe model – everybody has a committed credibility without ever being worthy or cloying and Sally Hawkins (with a startling look of the young Rita Tushingham) plays a richly layered blinder in the central role.  Huge hats off to the writer Billy Ivory who has written a bright, funny, completely un-patronising and clever script. And a big, big thank you to producers Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen for the guts to get right inside the truth of this big, big story that started in a little place.

This could be a landmark not just for British film but be a turning point in a new cultural relationship where it is understood that good, mainstream and populist art can serve the real politics of people’s everyday lives rather than proposing itself as a substitute and where working class people can be presented as rounded, admirable (if flawed) human beings rather than villains (thank you Guy Ritchie) or clowns (the shameful regurgitation of Shameless). Why was it called We Want Sex? The answer lies in a scene in the film, which you’ll have to go and see to find out.

Made in Dagenham is out in the UK from 1st October 2010. Go and see it!

PS – somebody should make The Barbara Castle story, another tale with tang!


About Carol McGuigan

writer, performer, wonderer As a writer I am represented by Euan Thorneycroft at A.M. Heath As a performer by Janet Plater there's also a brief but currently out of date biog about my writing on the Literature North East site
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