I’ve been really busy at work recently, but somehow I’ve managed to squeeze in a little late night film-watching. I managed to watch “Made in Dagenham” and “A Royal Affair” over the last few days. Neither were my choice actually, but both taught me something.
Made in Dagenham is a dramatisation of the Ford Motor Company’s UK strike in 1968. I was previously unaware of any such action, being as I was only 4 at the time, and the late 60’s and early 70’s were a time of general turmoil in the UK anyway. I do remember my parents having to light candles because of electricity strikes around that time, but I wasn’t aware of this specific strike. But it wasn’t just any old labour dispute…
The film weaves a fictional narrative around the true events of the strike. Basically a group of around 187 women were employed in Ford’s Dagenham plant to stitch together the seats for the Ford cars made at the plant. We’re lead to believe those included the Escort, Cortina and Anglia from contemporary shots of both the factory and adverts of the time. Incidentally I saw a Cortina from the era here in White Rock just the other weekend – parked outside Safeway!
Anyway, Ford had decided to try and cut wage costs by “regrading” the work the women did as unskilled rather than semi-skilled. This despite the fact that the ladies were expected to sew together the car seats from many parts with no guiding patterns or other instructions. Being “only women” their dispute was ignored… until the plant (employing 40-50,000 men) ran out of car seats. The entire plant closed and Ford-US sent in the big guns, threatening the then-Labour government that unless they sorted it out, they’d withdraw Ford (a major part of the UK’s manufacturing business then) from the the country. It was a dodgy time. Even the working men at Ford weren’t in support of the women… they were “the bread-winners” and saw the working women as just “earning pin-money” and actually jeopardising their access to the job market by closing the plant.
By now, the issue had become not merely a complaint about the re-grading of their work, but of the wider issue of equal pay for equal work. Something we take for granted (at least as a principle, if not still in practice 40+ years later). Barbara Castle (in the film portrayed by the superb Miranda Richardson – Blackadder’s Queenie), rather than bow to the arrogant men in Ford’s headquarters actually took up the mantle and two years later (nothing is fast in politics) the UK lead the world in equal pay legislation. It was no longer legal to give lower wages simply because the employee was female. Mrs Pankhurst probably cheered in her grave!
I have no idea how closely the film stuck to the events, and certainly claim no voracity to my retelling, but I did feel a bit of a glow to think that my mum’s generation of young women in the UK were the ones in the “Swinging 60’s” who started to fight for what is plainly right. The industrialised world quickly fell in line after the legislation was passed, and Ford’s global business kept right on trucking (wha’?) despite the minor hike in labour costs.
Some things are biologically skewed towards men or women, but getting paid different amounts for doing the same tasks at work is not one of them!
So film two was last night. I have a terrible, er, er, memory, and it was about 2/3 of the way through watching A Royal Affair that I realised I was already familiar with the story of Queen Caroline Mathilde of Denmark, having read “Sex with the Queen” by Eleanor Herman (Someone had told me it involved corgis).
The film’s in Danish, but there are only a couple of very brief, tasteful sex scenes, so you won’t miss much while you’re reading the subtitles.
The film tells the story of Caroline Mathilde, younger sister of Mad King George III – who you’ll recall couldn’t hold on to the American colonies when there were some uprisings by tax-evaders in the 1770’s… See, even then England would go to war over a cup of tea! Actually, it was Great Britain by then. England had finally stopped quibbling about the price of haggis with Scotland, and the right for men to wear skirts in 1707.
So anyway, Caroline got married off to King Christian of Denmark when she was 15, and finally went to live in Denmark. Yes – 15. See, we easily forget about how cultural norms changes over time and how what we would call paedophilia or child exploitation now was perfectly normal in the 18th century.
By all accounts Christian was as mad as a barrel full of monkeys and entirely a puppet in the hands of the clergy-run court. Denmark was falling far behind the rest of Europe during the explosion of science and thought in what we call “The Enlightenment”. Enter his physician, one Johann Friedrich Struensee. Caroline and he hit it off, though accounts vary as to whether he was exploiting her for his own political goals, or genuinely loved her. Either way, her second child was to him, though Christian, Caroline and Johann got on famously and gradually turned Denmark into a most enlightened country. They banned many archaic practices like torture of peasants, and censorship of “challenging ideas” – such as those of Voltaire – François-Marie Arouet to you . (He of the battery… oh and a few other philosophical ideas too!)
Eventually though, the wheels of politics turned and it all turned out less than pleasantly.
At the age of 16 though, the son of Christian and Caroline became King Frederik VI and reinstated many of the enlightened ideas. In fact he went further, and Denmark became the forward thinking state we know it to be today.
It was a bit of a long film. Definitely glad for the pause button to go and have cups of tea and subsequently deal with the consequences of doing so. Worth a watch though…