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Made in Dagenham

Jeremy Clarke

Directed by Nigel Cole
Certificate 15, 113 mins


The name Dagenham is synonymous with the Ford plant which produced cars (or car parts) for 70-odd years between 1931 and 2002. In 1968, an episode occurred which was to have unexpectedly far-reaching consequences in UK employment law: 187 women machinists went on strike after being regraded as unskilled workers, unaware that their cause would eventually lead to the 1970 Equal Pay Act.

In the film, the women have a shop steward in the form of Connie (Geraldine James) who liaises with the union rep Albert (Bob Hoskins). However, the demands of caring for her husband - shell-shocked from World War Two - leads to divided loyalties for Connie. Into the breach steps feisty Rita O'Grady (Sally Hawkins), who without any political axe to grind simply wants to see her colleagues get paid as well as their male counterparts. (Rita's fictional character amalgamates a number of real-life machinists.) The management's Industrial Relations man Peter Hopkins (Rupert Graves) comes down on her hard, but Rita finds unexpected support from his wife Lisa (Rosamund Pike), a fellow mum complaining about the same bullying teacher at the local school.

As the strike brings the factory to its knees - no seat covers means no cars - the sympathy of the machinists' menfolk is put to the test. Against the advice of senior union rep Monty Taylor (Kenneth Cranham), Rita makes an impassioned speech in favour of equal women's pay to the National Conference in Eastbourne. Ultimately, she leads a delegation of her fellow workers to meet the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), a rare woman in politics.

The film is extremely well cast. Hawkins has appeared in several misjudged projects following her rightly acclaimed turn in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky; here, happily, she's perfect as the enthusiastic, down-to-earth and unstoppable Rita. Nevertheless, she's upstaged by Richardson's smart and savvy Barbara Castle, a lone woman who, even while making history just as significantly as the Dagenham strikers by her effective incursion into the male political bastion, cheerfully warms to the discovery that one of Rita's fellow delegates is also a fellow whisky drinker.

The management wife Lisa provides a fascinating subplot, the clever and educated woman being reduced to a put-up and shut-up chattel in a world run exclusively by men. For Lisa, a Cambridge history degree is no help. Cemetery Junction covered similar ground. It seems those who lived through the dismantling of such attitudes in the UK have now reached the age when they have the power to make films about it and are sufficiently distant from that time as to comment on it in their art.

Equal pay having been a UK legal requirement for nearly four decades, it's hard to remember that there was a time when the very idea was unthinkable. In addition to being hugely entertaining, this film is a salutary reminder that sometimes the conventional wisdom about some assumption so obviously true that it's never, ever even questioned can, quite simply, be wrong.

Jeremy Clarke