I am ashamed to say that I was entirely unfamiliar with the true life story behind Made in Dagenham.  Though the 1968 strike by female machinists at the Dagenham Ford plant went on to change history it appears to have made little significant impact upon our history books.  Veteran producers Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen intend to change that.  In conjunction with Calendar Girls director Nigel Cole and writer Billy Ivory, the pair breathed dramatic life into the extraordinary tale of the 187 women who took on their corporate paymasters and changed the future for working women worldwide.

Dagenham lies deep at the industrial heart of Essex and at one time it was our Motor City.  A bubble away from Swinging Sixties London where ‘50s values still dominated and women stood by their men not up for themselves.  The status quo altered when the machinists at Ford’s flagship UK plant objected, loudly, to their downgrade in status to “unskilled” workers.  Having cheerfully and pragmatically tolerated the leaking roof, stifling heat and high volume demands the demeaning new titles came as the final straw and the women decided to appeal to their union for support in making a change.

It was not an unreasonable expectation that the union would fight their corner.  These, after all, were the same workers who had watched male colleagues take to the picket lines time and again when their rights were challenged.  They would come to discover, however, that Ford expected their women to be seen and not heard – to produce but not protest.  And Ford would come to discover that Essex girls always get what they want!

A favourite pair of scenes for me came early in the film when Head of Industrial Relations Peter Hopkins takes reluctant spokeswoman Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) and worry-worn shop steward Connie (Geraldine James) to a meeting at Head Office.  He decides to proffer a treat to the obedient little ladies by stopping off for a traditional expenses jolly at a Bernie Inn.  Overwhelmed by the heady glamour of the place (Blue Nun on the table!) Rita frets that she is underdressed for such an occasion.  Later that day it is Peter who is wrong footed when Rita, tired of the men discussing what’s right for her girls across the top of her head, wrestles her voice back at the meeting and demands that the women’s cause be heard nowMade in Dagenham’s gentle impact is most apparent in moments like these which turn expectations smartly on their head.  It challenges stereotypes of class boundaries and simply refuses to know its place.

A stern letter of rebuke provokes the united women to declare an all-out stoppage until an equal pay settlement is reached.  They only want what is fair – surely they will be vindicated.  It swiftly becomes apparent that Ford have no intention of doing what is right by the ‘Revlon Revolutionaries’ (they fear the girls are Communists!) an inspired Rita leads the girls in their battle for recognition – a journey that takes them all the way to Westminster.  Along the way they face derision, betrayal and familial tension as they determine to be heard.  When product stocks run dry, and cut backs and redundancies hit hard, both the union and the men at the plant turn their backs on the workers’ cause.  Meanwhile Rita’s personal journey leads her far from her tea-on-the-table existence and into unfamiliar society.  An unexpected friendship inspires her to challenge her preconceptions of her own abilities and a unique battle uniform helps her take her fight to the very top!

Made in Dagenham filled in the blanks in my knowledge with such affection for its colourful characters that the history came alive for me.  I thought it was a lovely celebration of the achievement of these incredible women.  The burgeoning friendship between Rita and executive wife Lisa Hopkins (Rosamund Pike) – well told and poignant – was another high point.  However the story taken as a whole was rather too plot-by-numbers for my taste and, for me, this is ultimately where the film fell down.  It did inform but its chirpy manner, though stopping short of patronising, eventually rather grated on my nerves.  I embrace the idea that we can tell these stories without drowning an audience under a wave of statistics and po-faced political rhetoric, but a little more substance wouldn’t have gone amiss.  This is a matter of personal taste though and I must confess here that I’m not a fan of British dramedy in general – The Full Monty, Kinky Boots and Calendar Girls all left me utterly unmoved.

There was tragedy alongside the triumph but once again it trod the formulaic Calendar Girls path.  Battle-scarred, belittling and incompetent husbands do not an original drama make.  It would have been nice to see more of Secretary of State Barbara Castle at work behind the scenes of Number 10.  Miranda Richardson obviously had great affection for the fiery redhead and played her with tongue-in-cheek relish.  Bob Hoskins too was good value, imbuing union rep and rabble-rouser Albert with twinkling charm.  Sally Hawkins’ Rita O’Grady was more of an awkward fit.  The Happy-Go-Lucky star was a bit too happy-go-lucky under the trying circumstances and the twang of her Dagenham accent quickly became an irritant.

Made in Dagenham is a likeable and perfectly competent film.  It delivers exactly what its trailer promises and does justice to the comparatively untold story.  It won’t set the cinematic world aflame and is unlikely to change yours but it is worth a watch nevertheless.  I suspect this, like its semi-naked predecessor, will go on to do great things on DVD.  One to watch with your Mum on a Sunday afternoon followed by a sweet sherry and a nice piece of cake – HRT patches optional!

Made in Dagenham opens across the UK on October 1st