Christina Patterson: Why strikes are a better idea in 'feel-good' films than in life

The Saturday Column
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Glutton though I am for a terrible rom-com, there is, I find, nothing quite like a "feel-good" billing to trigger stirrings of Larkinesque misery.

This autumn's offering, Made in Dagenham, has all the ingredients. There's the kind of friendly-looking English cast (Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson, Geraldine James) that implies that nobody's going to be getting above themselves. There's a feisty heroine (called, in the fine tradition of working-class characters on an upward social trajectory, Rita) played by the woman who also played the unbearably irritating primary school teacher in Happy-Go-Lucky. And there's a flock of female workers who look more like Hollywood starlets than machinists in a near-collapsing factory in Dagenham.

There's also a villain (a moustachioed and misogynistic trade union official), a disaffected, but marvellously photogenic husband, and a blond beauty (the very gorgeous Rosamund Pike) who rises above her middle-class mores, and marriage, to lend secret solidarity, and a Biba dress, to the cause of justice and truth. There is, in other words, absolutely everything you might want for a Calendar-Girls-meets-The-Full-Monty-pick-me-up, including the director of Calendar Girls, and (according to the real factory workers) some gratuitous stripping to authentic-looking Sixties underwear on the factory floor.

What there isn't a great deal of is nuance. Rita is the classic middle-class fantasy of the working-class heroine: the pretty little thing (and my God, she's tiny) who has a kind word for everyone, adores her handsome hubby and kids, toils away at home and work, and becomes a reluctant, but, of course, brilliant, spokesperson for the cause she and her sparky sisters are fighting. Barbara Castle, who eventually meets the women, is served by two cartoonish political aides whose faces, when talking to their female boss, are frozen in permanent sneers. And the pissed-off husband is converted in a moment from wounded masculinity to happy-to-play-second-fiddle champion of feminism.

But none of this matters too much, partly because the myriad manipulations implicit in this cocktail of cock-eyed cockney optimism are so expertly done, and partly because, like so many of its characters, the film has a heart of gold. It has a heart of gold because the cause it sets out to dramatise, the strike of women machinists at the Ford plant in 1968, which led to the Equal Pay Act of 1970, was so unequivocally just. You don't need a walrus-faced union official, or an evil American Ford apparatchik (even if it is, excitingly, Toby from The West Wing) to make you cheer the women on. You just need the cast-iron certainty that men and women should be paid the same amount of money for doing the same kind of work. Which, more than 40 years after the strike that catapulted the women into history, is, thank the Lord, pretty much taken as read.

If a "feel-good" film is partly about confirming your beliefs, and maybe serving them up in a nice dish with a pretty garnish, then Made in Dagenham certainly hits the spot. After the credits have rolled, however, and the smiling glamour girls swapped for photos of the real machinists (some of whom looked a bit more in the Karen Matthews model of working-class womanhood than the waiting-to-be-snapped-up-by-Vogue model that forms part of the story line), more complicated feelings follow. Among them are the fact that the gender pay gap is still around 20 per cent, that women, over a full working life, earn £330,000 less than men, and, perhaps most shockingly of all, that a female cabinet minister is still about as much of a novelty in 2010 as it was in 1968. But among them, too, is the dread engendered by the word "strike".

Anyone who remembers the 1970s will be aware that not all strikes arise from such a noble cause as the one called by those plucky Essex machinists. There was a time when you could harldy breathe without some militant unionist taking umbrage and calling "the lads" out for a mass stoppage until the sun, the moon and the stars were "on the table". Even in the past year, men and women on much cushier packages than on almost any other airline have thought it an excellent idea to wreck the holidays of hundreds of thousands of people, and Tube workers who earn significantly more than most British people have chosen to make commuters' lives a misery. A few years ago, my own union was even asking for donations for striking firefighters requesting pay rises of 40 per cent. Forty per cent!

There's a moment in Made in Dagenham when Harold Wilson is told by Ford management that, if the strike continues, it might take all its business abroad. As it happens, it didn't, but these are the realities of industry and of the risks that striking workers run. At a time when the economy is in a truly dire state – infinitely worse than in 1968 – and when, whatever the unions say, heavy cuts are inevitable, and public-sector pensions, for reasons to do with maths and demography, simply unsustainable, and in a global marketplace where labour is cheap, we're going to need a more sophisticated approach to industrial relations than the knee-jerk threat of universal strikes. Sure, the unions can help to elect a Miliboy. They can even, briefly, hold a country to ransom. But let's not mistake either for the real whiff of power.

What journalists can teach India about time

I feel very sorry for India, and very sorry for the construction workers who have been trying to wreak miracles in near-impossible circumstances, and very sorry for the athletes whose "health and safety" concerns for once seem justified, since collapsing roofs and bridges are clearly the kind of additional frisson one doesn't really need when participating in the already quite nerve-racking enterprise of top-notch sport. And I feel sorry that a country that's making massive efforts to be an economic global player has faced such humiliation over the hiccups to the Commonwealth Games. But may I just say one word? Deadline.

We journalists may not be good for much, but we do, at least, understand that there is this thing called time, which, whatever you do, will carry on ticking away, and even if you feel knackered, or hungover, or barely able to summon the linguistic skills to send a text message, you cannot, when the printing presses are set to roll, simply announce that the dog ate your column. It might mean that what you produce is mortifyingly awful, but it will mean that you don't cling on to this bafflingly ubiquitous view that a deadline is negotiable.

Poor India. It's hard to think of an embarrassment to match it. Except, perhaps, the World Athletics Championships in 2005 which had to be moved because the stadium wasn't ready. The culprit? The Pope's envoy's favourite Third World country: England.

Bring me sunshine (and Vince Cable)

Whole treatises could, no doubt, be written about the relationship between the British psyche and the British weather (and much of English poetry kind of has): its tendency, for example, to stiffen the national upper lip, stifle passion and foster a sensibility that hovers somewhere between "you can't expect too much" and "mustn't grumble". It's the Vince Cable of the meteorological world, offering a predominant mode of mild misery, which suggests that loins should be duly girded, and hopes gently dampened.

On Wednesday, however, when Cable presented his "happy face" to the Lib Dem conference, with heart-stirring attacks on capitalism's fattest cats, and strong hints that working with Tory toffs was about as pleasant as a camping holiday in Scotland, the sun burst through the clouds and the nation (or at least the bits of it that saw it) experienced a sudden burst of joy. Walking along the South Bank, and watching people drinking in the sunshine with their glasses of rosé, I thought that there's one very big thing to be said for a climate that's basically bloody awful: its infinite capacity to surprise.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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