From his first feature Saving Grace to his success with Calendar Girls, director Nigel Cole has cornered the market on presenting strong women overcoming difficult odds.
With his new movie Made in Dagenham, he tells the true story of how 187 female factory workers in Britain went on strike in 1968 for equal pay, which took them from the factory floor of the Ford Motor Company to an historic meeting with Barbara Castle, Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity at the Houses of Parliament.
This is a very empowering film for women. What is it that attracts you to these subjects?
I don’t know. I think about it a lot, I don’t really have an answer. I think I like to do different films to everybody else, and if you make films about women automatically you’re different, because there are so few of them. I do know this, I think shooting car chases and gun fights looks really boring to me, I don’t feel like I want to do that.
What happens to me is I choose the best scripts and I always look for scripts that have comedy, humor and warmth. They also have emotional beats, and I have to have both. I can never do a straight comedy, it would be boring for me, and I think I’d get to flippant if I just did a straight drama, so I look for both and I choose scripts I feel have these qualities. Then halfway through the process I wake up and go, ‘Hang on, it’s about women again!’ I don’t set out to find women’s stories, but I think that I’m clearly fascinated by women and enjoy their company.
Was there a particular women in your life who inspired you?
I was very inspired by my own mother. She was an intelligent woman who was bored and ignored and patronized as a housewife and mother, and when I was about nine she took herself back to school, qualified as a Doctor of Psychology and went to work. And I watched her transform from being a frustrated, depressed woman to someone who was very fulfilled. Clearly that must have had a big impact on me. So I’ve always identified with stories about women finding themselves.
Had you heard of the story?
I didn’t know the story, I grew up about five miles north of Dagenham in Essex, there were kids in my school whose fathers worked at the factory, so I was aware of the factory. Very few people in England know the story. I think there’s are a few Trade Union historians who knew it. And the great gift of making a movie about it was that not only was it a great story but the sense of being the guy that tells it first was really cool to me.
What impressed you most about the real women of Dagenham?
That they hadn’t sought any glory or fame because of what they did, and they’d gone back to their jobs, their families and their ordinary lives after it was all over and disappeared. And I think others may have sought fame and I think in these modern media times they would be promoting a breakfast cereal!
I think it said a lot about why they did this, that they didn’t do it for their own glory, they did it because they were just annoyed that they were being mistreated. I loved the way that they had no vanity about this, that they were in it for the cause.
Sally’s character of Rita is a compilation of the girls – so there wasn’t one person in real life who led the strike?
We fictionalized much of the personal stories that you see in the film for several reasons. Inevitably you have to do that anyway, because you’ve got to combine it into 90 minutes and people’s lives are messy and complicated. You have to constantly get down to the core of it, so you have to take some liberties with their stories.
In terms of Rita, I wanted that character to represent all the women. She is our representative and she sums up all the women and what was important to say about these women, they weren’t involve in politics, they weren’t involved in union politics, they didn’t wake up one morning and go, ‘You know what? I want to fight for equal pay.’ They had a dispute, they took it to the next level, and before they knew it they were meeting the Secretary of State for Employment, Barbara Castle, in the Houses of Parliament. It took them all by surprise, and when you meet them today and talk about it, they say, ‘We had no idea that we were doing this until after we did it.’
Why hasn’t this story remained famous throughout the years?
Why it’s been so ignored, I don’t know. I think women’s role in history is often ignored. It may have something to do with the fact that men often write the history down. There was also a lot going on in 1968 and they got pushed to the sidelines.
Two weeks ago I was at the Rome Film Festival, and we took two of the surviving women who are in their eighties, neither who had left Britain before. After the screening I invited them up on stage and they got a fifteen minute standing ovation from the 1,500 people in the audience. It was a very emotional moment and they were crying, Miranda Richardson was crying, because it actually felt like the moment that they waited 42 years for. Finally they were getting the respect and the applause they deserved, and it had taken 42 years to get around to it.