British film celebrates women's equal pay rights in Europe

Sally Hawkins as Rita in "Made in Dagenham" a new movie which tells the story of a pivotal equal pay strike in Britain
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics (Photo: Susie Allnutt)

British director Nigel Cole is best known in the U.S. for "Calendar Girls" about a group of church ladies who posed nude to raise money for charity.

Cole's latest film, called "Made in Dagenham" opens this week in Minneapolis. It's also about women with a cause. It's the story of a strike in the 1960s that was pivotal in the equal pay movement in Europe.

The Ford Motor plant in Dagenham in England was the largest factory in Europe in the 1960s. Nigel Cole said the U.S.-owned plant employed 50,000 men.

"And in a little corner of it, there were 187 women," he said. "They were the only women employed on the factory floor, and they sewed the car seats, they sewed the material together to make the car seats."

Hawkins and Cole
Sally Hawkins and director Nigel Cole on the set of "Made in Dagenham."
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics (Photo: Susie Allnutt)

It was complicated work, and in the summer of 1968 undignified. Cole said the buildings had no air conditioning and the country was in the midst of a record heat wave.

"And so they were given these nylon work coats to wear, but they would just sweat and so they would just take them off, and they would work in their underwear," Cole said. "So in the opening scenes in the movie you see all these women come into this hot factory and kind of strip off."

The trouble really began when Ford re-categorized the women's jobs as unskilled. This meant lower wages when compared to most of the men at the plant.

"And neither the management nor their own union took them seriously and ignored their complaint," Cole said. "And gradually they realized the reason they were being ignored was because they were women."

Cole tells the story of what happened then in "Made in Dagenham." Rita, a union organizer played by Sally Hawkins, finds herself sitting across the negotiating table from top Ford executives. When they try to dismiss her concerns, she dumps a pile of seat vinyl on the table.

"We have to take all these different pieces and work out how they go together," she said, "Coz there ain't no template is there? And we have to take them and sew them all freehand into the finished article. Same with the door trim and God knows what else. That is no unskilled work which is how you've regarded us."

While "Made in Dagenham" is based on the humorous stories of the women involved in the strike, the tensions of the action come through
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics (Photo: Susie Allnutt)

When management dragged its feet, Rita and the women, with some trepidation, did something they'd never done before: they walked out.

"Everybody out," Rita says with a tremor in her voice. The women stand and walk out the factory door.

Nigel Cole said he was attracted to the Dagenham story because despite its historic importance it's little known in Britain. He spent time with many of the women involved, who are now in their 80s.

"They really made us laugh," Cole said. "They told their own stories in such a funny and humorous way, and that kind of inspired us that we could make a movie that was very inspirational but kind of really uplifted you and really inspired the audience, but at the same time was very funny."

Gradually they realized the reason they were being ignored was because they were women.

"Made in Dagenham" has many of the sensibilities of "The Full Monty," another film about the British working class experience.

It captures the camaraderie of the women, but also the tensions. Eventually their strike shuts down the entire plant, and many of the women's husbands are unhappy to be laid off.

"Welcome to the real world, Rita. This is being on strike. You run out of cash and you end up shouting at each other," her husband shouts after their new refrigerator is repossessed because they haven't met the payments.

"What happened to you?" demands Rita.

"Oh, shut up," says her husband.

"Don't you tell me to shut up," she shouts back as he slams the door in her face.

The strike attracted the attention of Parliament and led to the first equal pay agreement in Europe. Cole said despite their success the women quickly returned to their daily lives and faded into the background.

"One of the things we were really keen to do with the film was really to throw them a party, to celebrate their victory," he said. "We saw the film almost as a kind of victory parade."

At the center of the party is Sally Hawkins who Cole said is the most impressive actor with whom he's ever worked. He said she brims with raw talent.

"And yet like all great artists, in addition to being a natural she works incredibly hard at it," he said.

Cole acknowledges with that with "Calendar Girls" and "Amazing Grace," a story about a woman who tries to save her stately home by starting a pot farm, and now "Made in Dagenham," he is attracted to telling female stories. He said they are more interesting than movies about men, and given Hollywood's fascination with car chases and explosions, he knows there are a lot of moviegoers feeling left out.

"It's very nice feeling to know you are making films for an audience who are starved of good material," he said.

Which may be another victory celebrated by "Made in Dagenham."

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