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CINEMA Soft-hued struggle Made in Dagenham


trial action by women at the Ford motor plant in east London that added crucial momentum to Barbara Castle’s attempts to introduce the Equal Pay Act deserves a big, raucous cheer. Made in Dagenham is that film: it’s bright, breezy, full of energy and talented actors. Still, it should be more. On the credit side there is Sally Hawkins, whose expressive face is the kind that close-ups were invented for, playing Rita. This young mother finds herself negotiating with male unionists and man- agement for a more equal deal for the female skilled machinists who stitch the car seats. (In 1968 they were paid less than male unskilled cleaners.) When the initial excitement of a walkout turns into a sustained stoppage, the men’s incomes start to be affected and the women feel the pressure. All of this is closely watched from Westminster and Whitehall by the ele- gant Employment Secretary, Mrs Castle (briskly channelled by Miranda Richardson) and her muttering Prime Minister, Harold Wilson (John Sessions). Hawkins and Geraldine James as an older colleague convey the struggle of emotions as the women’s resistance gains momentum. Bob Hoskins is reliably twinkling as the sym- pathetic shop steward while Kenneth Cranham provides the sour face of the union

A RADIO Solo runs

Front Row BBC RADIO 4

part from a mid-programme saunter round a Manchester art gallery displaying an “indoor forest”, the edition of Front Row on 23 September offered two decent-sized interviews, each conducted by the estimable John Wilson. The first found our man backstage at


London’s Duchess Theatre with Michael Gambon an hour before the press-night open- ing of Krapp’s Last Tape. Gambon, relaxed to the point of mumbling, was amiably off- hand. Had he reached a point in his career where he could choose his roles, Wilson enquired. “No, I’m getting too old.” There was a whole lot more of this. What did he think of his present engagement? “God, this is a strange play,” Gambon, who had only lately become acquainted with the text, returned. Did he understand it, or merely

film about working lives is to be applauded. A film about the 1968 indus-

pay was only endorsed at the Trades Union Congress conference against the advice of the general council with

establishment. The best scenes are those that furnish detail: working conditions so hot, the women must strip to their underwear, or so decrepit that they must put up umbrellas when it rains; the coded negotiations between vested interests, whether trade unionists and management or American corporation and British government. But this film tries so hard to attain that accolade of “feel-good” picture that it aches. The women’s characters are supposed to be composites of the real activists but in some cases they are little more than types – the for- ward but cheery one, the flighty one and so on – parading in miniskirts to 1960s hits. Harold Wilson is portrayed for the purpose of this story as more of a music-hall turn than a Machiavellian intelligence. Barbara Castle gets a banal line for a cheap laugh that would have made the real Employment Secretary hiss.

It undersells the story by playing down the less palatable aspects: to overshadow, for example, the fact that the ambition of equal

interpret it? Gambon suggested that he had constructed a series of mental points, but that his rendition of Krapp was based on making the character’s persona his own: “That’s how I work.” Had he ever met Samuel Beckett? “I walked up the stairs behind him once at the National.” It turned out that both playwright and actor were admiring the figure of Ms Billie Whitelaw, who preceded them. At the top of the staircase, Beckett turned and winked. All this was highly entertaining, but not quite as entertaining as Wilson’s subsequent sit-down with the musician, Robert Wyatt, which was my real reason for listening. Wheelchair-bound since he tumbled drunk- enly out of a fourth-floor window back in 1973, the former Soft Machine drummer’s reinvention of himself as a solo artist has been well documented over the years. Wilson, here to explore Wyatt’s forthcoming

album For the Ghosts Within, had a compar- atively fresh agenda to pursue. He was particularly interested in Wyatt’s dismissal of irony and the idea that what he sang he meant: “I haven’t got time for making fun of things.”

Listening to Wyatt’s version of the old Louis

a dash-to-the-airport style emotional recon- ciliation and romantic clinch. The film ends with a caption that suggests the introduction of the 1970 Equal Pay Act was the end of his- tory. In fact, it was another six years before the legislation was implemented, giving time for employers to regrade and redefine jobs to evade it: the UK still has one of the widest gender pay gaps in Europe; the Ford work- force in Britain is now a third of what it was in the 1950s. Images of the real Dagenham women in the closing credits suggests they were an older, tougher group than the attractive actresses on screen. That’s entertainment, sure, but unlike Calendar Girls – an earlier film based on real events by the same director, Nigel Cole – the point of this story is its historical reso- nance. It’s hard not to yearn for a touch of Ken Loach whose Bread and Roses (2000) dealt with Hispanic women in the United States struggling for unionisation. Feeling real can be more satisfying than “feel-good”. Francine Stock

Armstrong standard, “What a Wonderful World”, accompanied by saxophone and violin, one saw exactly what he meant. The plaintive falsetto has deepened a bit over the decades, prompting Wilson to ask: did he regard his voice as an instrument? Recalling his youthful obsession with jazz, Wyatt declared that he was “just looking for the best notes to play”. Wyatt’s self-deprecation and his self- containment are legendary, but a vulnerable side revealed itself in a fear of live concerts. He admitted to being terrified by the sight of an audience. Was there a link between physical confine- ment and the “freedom” offered by music, Wilson wondered. Wyatt appeared to think that individual psychology was impenetrable. His wife, the painter Alfreda Benge, reckoned that he was in denial, “but it works for me”. Rarely has an artist seemed less victimised by physical trauma. “It hasn’t made that much difference,” he observed of his 37-year inability to walk. “I used to spend most of my life sitting around in cafes, smoking fags and drinking wine. Nothing’s changed much.” To Wyatt, all this may well have been routine, but the result was profoundly moving. D.J. Taylor

2 October 2010 | THE TABLET | 31

Made in Dagenham: sisters against brothers. Centre, Sally Hawkins as Rita

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