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Made in Dagenham director interviewed: ‘We wanted to inspire people who are struggling today’

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Director, Nigel Cole, spoke to Yuri Prasad about Made in Dagenham his new film about a crucial strike for equal pay in 1968 at Ford
Issue 2220
A scene from Made in Dagenham
A scene from Made in Dagenham

What made you want to tell the story of a strike?

The idea of a group of women workers becoming political and taking control of events is always going to make good drama.

There’s a strong tradition in British comedy-drama of the ordinary person or community that stands up against the powerful.

The Ford car plant in Dagenham was enormous and it dominated the whole of the surrounding area.

I saw in the story of the strike an opportunity to make a film in that genre.

How did you hear about the story?

The film’s producer, Stephen Woolley, overheard a radio programme that reunited some of the strikers. Their infectious humour and excitement for what they had done during the strike really captivated him.

He was so taken by it that he decided there and then to try and make the film.

When Stephen told me the story I was amazed that I’d never heard about it—after all, I’d grown up down the road in Essex.

There are tricky parts of the story that are hard to capture, like the way the dispute starts over grading but only becomes about equal pay when the women find out that the reason they are wrongly graded as “unskilled” is because they are women.

The strikers who helped us with the film were particularly pleased that we captured that element of the strike.

Your films often centre on the lives of women. Why is that?

I like making films about women. I think they make for more interesting characters than men. Men have difficulties with emotions—look at Clint Eastwood, he’s made an entire career out of not expressing any.

Many films that feature men and male culture are dominated by violence, and I’m just not interested in exploring that.

Was it difficult to get the backing to make a film about a strike?

It’s true that strikes do not have a good reputation in the industry—they are seen as negative and rather grim. We had to work very hard to overcome that. But because I had made the commercially successful film Calendar Girls, some people could see potential and started to think, maybe we could sell it.

Once we got BBC Films and the UK Film Council on board it started to look like a pucker, blue-chip project. Now Sony have bought the film and are planning a massive US release—perhaps they’ll have to subtitle it!

As a male director, did you find it difficult making a film about a struggle for women’s liberation?

I had some qualms, of course. But as a director, you often feel that—whether you are making a film about Cornish fisherman or London gangsters. You are always learning about people and their lives, and using that to tell a story.

The film is a comedy, but the subject matter is serious. Does that matter?

We could have made a very different film about the creation of the Equal Pay Act in 1970, and a long and bitter industrial dispute, that was far more complex.

That might have been more interesting for some people, but we wanted to make a film that had a mass audience, not one that only showed in art house cinemas.

We wanted to make a film that would inspire people who are struggling today, and by making it feel like a Brit-comedy we felt we could add to the inspirational quality of the film.

I hope that people come out of the film thinking, maybe we don’t need to be pushed around, maybe we can stand up for ourselves. There is something that film and drama can do particularly well—push a simple message that says, why don’t you have a go?

Do you hope that Made In Dagenham will open the doors to other films about hidden history in Britain?

Working class life is depicted in film, but often in a very negative way. Of course, it’s hard to make a film about poor people that doesn’t feature their problems. But I think inspirational films are important.

These women, and their husbands, who all worked at Ford, endured terrible conditions but they had what they considered to be good lives.

They lived on estates that were a big improvement from where they had grown up in London’s East End.

The film we’ve made is not about being ground down by poverty—it’s about fighting injustice—and I hope more people make films about that.

Made In Dagenham is released nationwide on 1 October. For more on the background to the dispute and interviews with women who took part, see the October issue of Socialist Review.

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