Not just a factory-made feelgood film

Made in Dagenham eschews the fashionable disdain for the working classes to remind us how equality is really won.

Neil Davenport

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It didn’t bode well. With the strapline ‘From the makers of Calendar Girls‘, Nigel Cole’s new film Made in Dagenham sounded like it might be another of those lightweight feelgood movies that British cinema routinely serves up (think Four Weddings And a Funeral and Bridget Jones’s Diary).

Such feelgood fare usually presents a hopelessly anachronistic vision of British society, with a dashed-off ending in which the guy gets the girl to a soundtrack littered with clichéd soul staples. Made in Dagenham, contrary to first impressions, rose above all that.

Sure, Cole is no Ingmar Bergman and the polished Made in Dagenham does occasionally descend into silliness. But at least it avoids most of the traps that other British cinema portrayals of working-class communities have fallen into. The film, about the 1968 strike at the Ford car plant in Dagenham in Essex, England, avoids repeating the sentimental tosh of Brassed Off, the offensive subtext of Billy Elliott, and the sneering disdain of Cemetery Junction.

Made in Dagenham tells the story of the female workers at Ford Dagenham who walked out in protest against sexual discrimination. The dispute eventually led to the introduction of the Equal Pay Act of 1970 – a powerful reminder, as the new, interfering Equality Act is passed, that true equality is traditionally fought for rather than handed down from on high. The film centres on the gradual politicisation of the fictional Rita O’Grady, played by the luminous Sally Hawkins. Nigel Cole is rather blessed to have her in the lead role; it’s doubtful whether the film would have received quite so much liberal press without her star billing. With her Golden Globe-winning performance in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky in 2008, Hawkins proved herself to be the brightest and best young British actress available. Here, she gives another brilliant performance, conveying Rita’s mix of caution and newfound confidence as the industrial dispute unfolds.

There are some polite attempts to include a bit of raucous production-line banter and mischief, but generally the film doesn’t manage to conjure up the authentic grit and grimness of factory life. It’s not helped by the fact that some of the factory girls appear to have been assembled by the picture editors of Nuts and Zoo.

Yet refreshingly, there is no over-cooked melodrama here and it is Rita’s suppressed anger at class and gender injustice, always bubbling below the surface, which provides the film’s energy and anchor. The film also goes out of its way to show Rita’s husband Eddie (Daniel Mays) in a positive light, recognising that, despite prejudices to the contrary, backward attitudes towards women were not generally part of the skilled working classes’ values.

Class solidarity and matrimonial care are the guide-ropes between the wives and husbands, although the film doesn’t shy away from exploring the tensions and strife that a long-term strike can cause in relationships. The divisive character of the labour market means that some of the men do react badly when their material interests are put under threat by Ford’s reaction to the female workers’ strike.

The main protagonists in Made in Dagenham are portrayed with compassion. At times, it feels like a conscious reaction against the warped, poisonous attitudes towards ordinary people that were prevalent during the New Labour era. For instance, in a scene that seems like an obvious kick in the balls to the ‘parental determinism’ fad, a schoolteacher explains to gobsmacked Rita the necessity of caning pupils from the local factory estate because ‘their parents lack the necessary attitude and ability’ to help their children succeed. Sound familiar?

Aside from some misfires, Cole and scriptwriter Billy Ivory manage to fulfil mainstream film requirements while at the same time weaving in details about domestic and workplace politics. Thankfully, Made in Dagenham doesn’t let its populist brief get in the way of true-to-life details. And far from being sentimental about old-fashioned British labourism, it frequently points out the limitations and weaknesses of labour politics. For instance, the union bosses are portrayed as self-serving male chauvinists with no real interest in defending their members’ rights. The feeble union leaders were as much of a barrier to better pay for the female workers as the hardnosed Ford managers.

All of this makes Made in Dagenham surprisingly convincing and credible. Even an old Trotsky saying – that social progress can be measured by the position of women in society – is wheeled out at one point (although mentions of the Socialist Workers’ Party are a sloppy factual error – back in 1968, the SWP was still called the International Socialists).

Yes, Made in Dagenham is the kind of triumph-over-adversity story about good things finally coming to good people that is the staple of the feelgood genre. But at the same time, there’s a bittersweet undercurrent to the film: it’s also a lament over the lost world of the working classes and the demise of leaders born out of genuine struggles. The film expresses a yearning for the tough stoicism that once characterised British society.

This is the latest in a line of credible mainstream British films, following in the footsteps of The Damned United, An Education, Nowhere Boy and Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll. These films have seen off the rotten geezer/gangster flicks that clogged up domestic cinemas for over a decade. In their own small way, they’re asking audiences to question what’s wrong with and what’s missing from British society today. With a film like Made in Dagenham – ‘from the makers of Calendar Girls’, no less – the yearning for the certainties of old Britain has achieved mainstream recognition.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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