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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


  Made in Dagenham
  Directed by Nigel Cole (2010)


Sixties sitcom The Rag Trade reflected a period in British labour history of a primitive accumulation of trades union struggle. Countless lightning sectional walkouts through the decade would eventually lead to the mass national strikes of the early 1970s and the fall of the Heath Government.

Miriam Karlin played a militant shop steward who led a group of women workers with a seminal catchphrase, blared out at then top of her factory hooter voice: “Everybody out!”

By 1968 the catchphrase had become a cliché, and in Made in Dagenham Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) seems conscious of that as she climbs up onto her bench to deliver the phrase sotto voce, like an am dram Lady Bracknell trying to squeeze some vestige of life out of  “a handbag?”.

It’s a moment of sharp observation among many in this film telling the story of the women machinists at the Ford Dagenham plant who defied sexist stereotyping, a ruthless management and backstabbing union leadership in a magnificent strike for equal pay.

The first half of the film, at least, is carefully stitched with truthful detail. It shows how new leaders, like Rita, step forward, with reluctant modesty, when the stakes are raised. It shows the raw, hot democracy of a show of hands, so much more real than a cold, stale ballot that I almost voted as well.

Bob Hoskins is surprisingly good as Rita’s experienced socialist mentor, all wide-eyed and childlike with glee as his ideas take human, fighting shape. Kenneth Cranham is a smug, shifty union convenor who butters up the negotiating team with lunch at a Berni Inn, Black Forest gateau and all. “Snazzy,” says a momentarily impressed Rita.

A broader political context is painted in a swift brushstroke as TV news of anti-Vietnam war protests is flipped to the other (there were only two then) channel to find a bolshy Sooty and Sweep taking on Harry Corbett, even glove puppets expressing the spirit of the age.

Made in Dagenham gets a little bogged down, as strikes often do, as it goes into the second half. The certainties of the early days are shaken by doubts, by hardship, by temptation and by death.

There’s distraction, too, in the shape of the boss’s wife (Rosamund Pike), who demonstrates an unlikely solidarity with her fellow women, although she possibly gets away with it by pointing up a key theme of the film: when Marx said “men make history” he got it half-wrong, because women make it too.

Miranda Richardson is brilliant as a spikey Barbara Castle (so much better than John Sessions trying not to do an impression of Harold Wilson), brokering the women’s victory and throwing an Equal Pay Act, two years down the line, into the bargain.

One of the tricky questions even the greatest strikes have to face is when they can say they have won, trades union victories always being partial.

The Dagenham machinists were triumphant with 93% of what they wanted. Meanwhile, women are still waiting for genuinely equal pay.

With unions and strikes again taking the stage Made in Dagenham is an educational, as well as an inspiring, experience. Let’s hope plenty of people see it.

October 04, 2010.

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