Directed by Nigel Cole
Written by William Ivory
Something in the air …
Here’s a challenge. A film about the politics of 1968, an area I’ve often written about in an era I was involved in. May 1968 was the month of riots in Paris, the Grosvenor Square anti-Vietnam war demos, sit-ins at British universities, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Tariq Ali, revolution in the air.
In less-publicized piece of political history, 187 women machinists at Ford’s Dagenham plant went on strike, first because they were downgraded from semi-skilled to unskilled workers, then it became a demand for equal pay for women. In the film, the leader, Rita O’Grady, had no trades union history, found her trades union equally as sexist as Ford management, but eloquently won the day, leading to the Equal Pay legislation of 1970. In fact, in spite of the “based on a true story” tag, Rita is a fictional character based on an amalgamation of real women. In industrial relations history, this was a major event, with far-reaching consequences, but history is written down not only by the winners, but also by the university-educated, which is why Grosvenor Square and the Sit-ins loom far larger in retrospectives of 1968. However 187 women shut down a factory with 55,000 workers, producing 3000 cars a day. Ford Motors was incensed. The women won the day.
On the surface, the subject matter looks dull fare for a comedy / human drama film, and the logistics of showing 1968 production lines, huge workforces and trades union congresses are daunting. I’m obsessive about spotting the anachronisms, and on first viewing I didn’t pick up any. One surprise was seeing all the workers at a car factory arriving at work on pushbikes. Certainly ten years later, they would have had their own cars having access to high discounts and, er, spare parts, as film of mid-70s strikes show. However, each lovingly-preserved 1968 car on a set costs money and they have lots of them already.
It’s all carried off by the script and performance, which is becoming my mantra this year, with a run of British films based on the quality of scriptwriting and performance, not on action or SFX or huge scenes. There’s just the right amount of human interest, just the right amount of pathos, and of comedy.I saw it in a small cinema where it ran for two weeks. The first week it was one third full, the second week two-thirds. The word-of-mouth was filling seats. The second-time, I was very aware of the constant murmurs of approval from the audience throughout as Rita and her co-workers dealt with management, union, the press and politicians in turn.
If there is any justice, Sally Hawkins feat in bringing Rita O’Grady so realistically to life deserves an Oscar. She won a Golden Globe in 2008 for her pathologically chirpy role in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go-Lucky. Daniel Mays as husband Eddie provides the support. The team of women are feisty and funny with Geraldine James as Connie providing the pathos. On a second viewing, the sentimentality of some scenes cloys, but I hadn’t noticed it first time.
The banner read “We Want Sex Equality”. Apparently there are photos of the real protests where equality inadvertently got folded over.
Bob Hoskins does … well, Bob Hoskins … as the sympathetic and encouraging shop steward, while the old union hacks are real, hand in glove with management, lapping up the steak and Blue Nun on expenses before meetings. When ELT teachers formed a union (as a subsiduary of a bigger union) in the 70s, I found myself an elected representative, and took a “training day” with the old style union guys. That was nearly ten years after the events in the film, but they were the most sexist and anti-democratic bunch of people I ever met. They found teachers, with 50% female reps, very hard to work out. The union / management negotiations are written brilliantly. Kenneth Cranham, as Monty, the old union hack, deserves a best supporting actor.
The Other Side: The American Ford boss (Richard Schiff) arrives to meet his British manager (Rupert Graves) and wife (Rosamund Pike).
Whether the thought of militant women shop stewards was such a huge surprise to their real 1968 counterparts is questionable. The sitcom The Rag Trade ran on British TV from 1961 to 1963, with Miriam Karlin as the shop steward in a clothing factory with the catchphrase “Everybody Out!” It was highly popular at the time. There are also similar jokes of harrassing lone males forced to enter the female workspace.
Miriam Karlin as the shop steward in “The Rag Trade” in 1961.
Rupert Graves is Peter Hopkins, the bewildered British manager. In a somewhat unlikely sub-plot his wife, Lisa (Rosamund Pike) becomes friendly with Rita. Their kids go to the same school (a grammar school by the look of it) and have the same issues with the bullying, patronizing teacher. The scene where Peter’s American boss, Robert Tooley (Richard Schiff) comes to dinner pulls the sexism through to home life as well as the factory, and is hilarious.
The second time I noticed a subtle parallel. The meetings with management take place in a glass-partitioned office. In the background, through the glass, we see the female secretary doing some humble task with a noticeboard. Then the meetings with the male union bosses take place in a similarly glass-partitioned office, and again, a female secretary is doing an equally humble task arranging the noticeboard in the background. Women have their place in both situations. Second place.
Real people are the problem in these films based on politics. Harold Wilson doesn’t look quite enough like him, but Miranda Richardson brings Barbara Castle completely to life (and does very well by Barbara Castle’s legacy and reputation).
The women meet Barbara Castle.
Tooley, representing Ford USA, threatens to pull Ford totally out of the UK. She has to refer a decision to Harold Wilson, but he’s on a plane, and with 1968 technology unreachable. She decides to take the risk and call Ford’s bluff. The women ask for 90% of male pay. Castle emerges with 92%.
One caveat; her incompetent, cringing male aids are something of a pantomime brokers’ men double act. They’re very funny, but a large step further into sitcom territory.
I found a lot of the reviews condescending, seeing it as cheerfully British semi-soap opera. I thought it far better than that. I did feel there was a lack of relation to the other events of Spring 1968. We see a couple of seconds of the Grosvenor Square protest flicker across a TV, that’s all. The argument would be that there was little fellow-feeling between striking students and Dagenham car workers. I was at Hull University during the sit in there, just as these events were unfolding, and the demonstrators received donations from bus workers, fishermen, milkmen and industrial trades unions. The privileged student demonstrators actually had little in common with striking industrial workers, but just for a few weeks, there was so much in the air, that both sides thought they did. That’s a rare thing.
The one anachronism I noted second time around is so trainspotterish, that I hesitate to mention it. When we see Connie’s run down bungalow, in the street next to the blocks of flats where Rita lives, we see the similarly run-down bungalow next door. In the drive is a dull brown Rover 2000. Yes, right. They were around in 1968. And these fast luxury cars lived long rusting lives in similarly modest surroundings throughout the late 70s and early 80s. The engines were willing, the walnut dashboards were laden with lots of dials and knobs, but the bodies were weak. It’s easy to think of it as the perfect car for the surroundings. The trouble is, it’s D registration, i.e. a 1966 model. In May 1968 that was a surgeon or senior bank manager’s car, the equivalent of a brand new BMW 5 series or Mercedes E-class outside a council house in 2010. Even in 1972 when a friend had a Rover 2000 of the same 1966 vintage, that was a pretty flash car.
See also: Joyce Glasser’s review in “Mature Times”