In 1968 a unique strike by 187 female machinists at the Ford Dagenham plant changed the course of history for working women worldwide. The stand made by those women led to the advent of the equal pay act, an unprecedented piece of legislation that finally offered women the opportunity for some financial parity. Director Nigel Cole and producers Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen determined to create an account of those events that captured the spirit of the women involved and introduced them to a wider audience than a documentary or newspaper article would ever achieve. Made in Dagenham was born of that conviction. HeyUGuys sat down with the three and with the film’s co-stars Jaime Winstone and Rosamund Pike ahead of the October 1st release to learn more.
Stephen Woolley happened across the Made in Dagenham story by chance when he heard a BBC Radio 4 broadcast, The Reunion, in which the Dagenham strikers were brought back together to share their experiences. He was struck by the vivacity of the voices of the women and their infectious sense of humour about the struggle they had fought. Their wit and candour reminded him of the older women in his own family and he was inspired to take the project to producing partner Elizabeth the co-founder of Number 9 Films. She was sold the moment they met the women behind the strike but both had concerns that this should not be the story of one sole striker. The duo approached television writer Billy Ivory and worked steadily with him to develop a script, creating the fictional character of Rita as an amalgam of all the women they met in order to give one cohesive voice to the machinists’ combined experiences.
Calendar Girls director Nigel Cole was astonished that the story of the Dagenham women had never been told before. Even more astonished that he – who grew up five miles from the factory and had considered himself politically aware – had no idea of the extraordinary true life story unfolding on his very doorstep. Nigel, like Stephen and Elizabeth, wanted to celebrate the irreverence and excitement of these women. All three felt it was time their story was celebrated. That tangible sense of celebration – the bright colours, fashions and optimism – is reflected in Made in Dagenham’s appearance. We wondered how conscious a decision this was:
Nigel: That (celebration) was our intention, to take our cue from the women and the way the women told their own story when given the chance. I remember one of them saying, “I didn’t sleep for three weeks but I was never tired”. That sense of excitement with many of their stories about the hardship – to kind of balance those two.
One of the things I really loved was the way that Billy Ivory and Liz and Steve had come at the notion of bringing these three women together. There are three women from entirely different backgrounds and they find each other in the film. There is Rita, Sally Hawkins’s character of course, but there is Rosamund Pike’s character Lisa – the trophy wife of a Ford executive – with a very privileged middle class background and then there’s (MP) Barbara Castle from the very centre of power. So there are these three very different women who connect over this one issue and kind of end up helping each other. And I thought that was one of the very smart decisions that Bill made, it broadened it and brought out the importance of what they were doing you know? This was something that had repercussions for all women. All women got drawn into this. I love the way these three women came together.
HUG: There’s a very endearing fashion connection with the three – in particular through a Biba dress – but they share a lovely C&A story too! Where did the Biba dress story come from?
Stephen: Was that from the mind of Billy Ivory?
Elizabeth: That was from the mind of Billy Ivory but actually hats off to him and to Nigel because we were very worried about it. As always with women’s politic -, and it’s still something women get caught debating today – is being girly somehow undermining ourselves intellectually? Are we weakening our power base because we talk about make-up and hair and high heels?! It’s how do you hold on to that and still allow yourself to be taken seriously.
I mean we were really worried we thought – hang on, this is a moment where Barbara Castle is coming out and talking about equal pay – do we really have to have this exchange about dresses? I think the two of you were saying “it’s gonna work, it’s gonna work” and as producers we were just thinking okay we can just cut it out in the editing room! (Laughter) But hats off to you guys because it works, it flows, you were absolutely right it plays brilliantly. I think it captures so perfectly that thing, speaking now to the women at the table, which I do think is an issue for us, how are you feminine and girly while still being political and intelligent.
Stephen: The red dress got the biggest cheer when we showed in Toronto. When people realised why she went to the house and they see her walking through the crowd in the red dress. That’s huge.
Elizabeth: But also when you see one of the women, Jo Morris, who provided us with a lot of the research, who was very active at the time. She took a friend from the TUC to a screening and the friend said, “That’s ridiculous, she’s a factory girl, she would never have had a Biba dress and yet they’ve got her on the poster all dressed up…” – this was on the way into the screening and then of course the moment happened and she called out “Oh god that’s so brilliant, of course!”
Stephen: All of the women when they went back to work – went back to work. And back to their families. None of them became political pundits or TV stars or wrote books or did anything we might think you would do today if you changed history. I think the sense that they started as, and I hate the term ordinary women, because they clearly weren’t at all ordinary, but as workers and housewives and mothers and wives and they went back to that. The extraordinary lack of vanity and lack of them promoting their own cause to help themselves do better. I thought the little touches Billy put about the C&A jacket were about just that – they were women still.
Elizabeth: I think you’ve touched on another scene that really makes me cry – when Rosamund Pike’s character comes to the door and says, “Do you know who I am, do you really know who I am? I have a first class degree.” That really gets me because you know facade – the lies and the truth – like that term Super Woman which was often applied to people who had a nanny and a housekeeper and a really nice house and a driver. And you think, what about those women who live on the 15th floor of a tower block with three kids and the lift broken? Those for me were the super women. In fact Super Women is good…
Stephen: Hmmm Super Women…
Nigel: Super Women of Dagenham!
When Rosamund Pike was first approached to take the role of Lisa the screenplay was entitled We Love Sex (a reference to a moment later in the movie not a commentary on the women themselves!). It is a testament to her sense of mischief that she was intrigued rather than put off – though she did add there was a very polite cover letter atop the script! The strikingly beautiful English actress apologised to the room for her exhausted appearance – she had had suffered a sleepless night, consumed by thoughts of Darren Aronofsky’s “utterly haunting” Black Swans after falling in love with the film in Toronto. In fact she looked alarmingly immaculate, golden tanned and poised, in black leather trousers and a black lace biker jacket.
Like Stephen, Nigel and Elizabeth, she had been in Toronto promoting Made in Dagenham however Rosamund enjoyed a more understated role in proceedings since Lisa was a smaller, supporting role. This was a mercy for her because the huge popularity of the novel Barney’s Version in Canada – the other feature she was there promoting – meant she had been rather overwhelmed by press attention. As the star of that film she had no one to hide behind so enjoyed the cover the ensemble cast of Made in Dagenham provided. She was tickled to discover that the novel Barney’s Version had been a huge sensation in Italy too, a fact that had renewed her love and respect for Italians! She co-stars with Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman and was looking forward to a forthcoming promotional tour with Paul – who she proclaimed another huge foodie like herself.
Rosamund has enjoyed great success both at home and away with recent hits Surrogates and An Education attracting both box office and critical success. The actress decided to take on the role of Lisa because she was drawn to the idea that upper class Lisa is in unfamiliar territory when you strays into Rita’s working class world. Something she didn’t feel she had seen played out in cinema where the story is so often told in reverse. We asked her to speak about the integral role she plays in Rita’s journey:
Rosamund: I just loved her. I always think, “What would this film be like if Lisa wasn’t in it?” and it would be a very different film. Because I think she elevates it out of just being a working class struggle. It is uniting of women from all different backgrounds…
It really flags up the thing about what gets you further – is it education or is it balls you know?! She’s educated up to a point and wants to change history but in the end she has to hand over to the uneducated girl who has actually got the chutzpah to go out and do it. Education only takes you so far because if good breeding holds you back (laughs) because you’re too frightened to speak out!
Jaime Winstone (Sandra) fell for the breezy, easy read, quality of the story – something she looks for in a good script. The petite young star arrived in high spirits sporting Sandra’s trademark winged eyeshadow and a funky floral prom dress. She was also amused rather than afraid of the We Want Sex title page on the script but found greater significance among the pages when she realised quite how close to home the machinist’s stories came. Both her Grandmothers had been machinists in their younger days, one working for Burberry in the North and one in Southern factories including the Dagenham plant in which Sandra’s story takes place. Although Jaime loved the bright ’60s fashions and glamorous period photo shoot Sandra’s story line offered, it was thoughts of these “amazingly hard women” in her own life that truly captivated her. The idea that they had worked in such tough conditions and still run homes and raised families blew her mind. She embraced the opportunity to honour such a past.
Another Made in Dagenham highlight for her came when Dad Ray saw the film and complimented her on her “good work”. A comment she took as his very highest respect and praise. Jaime’s character Sandra looks up to Rita as someone to admire and to emulate. We wondered who in the industry Jaime, who is trying to launch her first project as producer and star, looks to for inspiration:
Jaime: In terms of film industry there’s Sam Taylor-Wood who’s directing and kind of making her own mark and The Hurt Locker’s Kathryn Bigelow – if we’re going to talk about the feminine side of the industry – she did something that was quite against the grain in making a film that was quite testosterone fuelled and yet managed to breach that. That’s pretty inspirational yeah and Alison Owen (Tamara Drewe, The Other Boleyn Girl) who’s an amazing producer and gets things done and is a BIG inspiration to me. People like that are just strong women and in the industry. It’s never been like “We are women and we will make films!” they’re just good at what they do. It’s very inspirational to me.
Inspirational woman inspired Made in Dagenham so it is perhaps fitting that everyone involved in the production took that message to their hearts. You may seek your own inspiration in the film when it is released across the UK on October 1st.