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Dagenham Ford strike: Creating a legacy on the stage and screen

PUBLISHED: 12:00 07 June 2018

Adrian der Gregorian playing Eddie O'Grady and Gemma Arterton playing Rita O'Grady in Made in Dagenham Picture: Philip Toscano/PA

Adrian der Gregorian playing Eddie O'Grady and Gemma Arterton playing Rita O'Grady in Made in Dagenham Picture: Philip Toscano/PA

PA Archive/PA Images

If there was any danger about the legacy of the Ford Dagenham strikers being forgotten, a film dramatisation released in 2010 put an end to that.

Made in Dagenham at the Adelphi Theatre Picture: Philip Toscano/PAMade in Dagenham at the Adelphi Theatre Picture: Philip Toscano/PA

Starring Sally Hawkins as the fictional ringleader Rita O’Grady, Made in Dagenham aimed to revisit the struggle the factory’s female workers faced in their battle for equality.

Four years later, a stage musical version opened in the West End, and although it closed after six months due to poor sales a new production was staged at the nearby Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch in 2016.

But although the adaptations tried to keep a local feel to them - the film’s soundtrack was written by Barking native Billy Bragg and performed by Dagenham’s Sandie Shaw - there was a feeling among those who worked at Ford around the time of the strikes that the dramatisation did not keep to the truth.

The film was billed as ‘based on a true story’ - which indicates some degree of artistic licence - but one of the key differences was that change was shown to happen because of one strike, rather than the two that actually took place.

Former Ford Dagenham workers Vera Sime, Gwen Davis, Sheila Douglass and Eileen Pullen attending the opening night of Made In Dagenham at the Adelphi Theatre Picture: Ian West/PA WireFormer Ford Dagenham workers Vera Sime, Gwen Davis, Sheila Douglass and Eileen Pullen attending the opening night of Made In Dagenham at the Adelphi Theatre Picture: Ian West/PA Wire

“People don’t remember the 1984 strike because it hasn’t been commercialised,” Ford employee Jim McDermott told the Post in 2014, at the time the West End play launched.

“With greatest respect to whoever wrote Made in Dagenham, they’ve made a complete hash of it.

“The real story happened 26 years later – the second strike was far more important and did a lot more for women.”

Both the 1968 and the 1984 strikes saw sewing machinists pick up their placards in a bid to be recognised for their skills.

Made in Dagenham at the Queen's Theatre Picture: Queen's TheatreMade in Dagenham at the Queen's Theatre Picture: Queen's Theatre

And while the first strike led to the Equal Pay Act being passed in 1970, women working at Ford were still paid as ‘unskilled’ workers despite the training they needed to complete in order to do their job.

During the 1984 strikes, women walked out for seven weeks in a bid to get machinists recognised as ‘skilled’ workers.

Some of those who took part in the later strike have criticised the film for missing that part of history out.

“It cost another strike to sort out what we wanted,” said Pamela Brown, who worked at the plant for 22 years.

Original strikers Eileen Pullen and Gwen Davies with the Made in Dagenham cast Picture: Queen's TheatreOriginal strikers Eileen Pullen and Gwen Davies with the Made in Dagenham cast Picture: Queen's Theatre

“That all got lost along the way, though.”

Fellow striker Dora Challingsworth added: “We actually got what the 1968 women were fighting for but we got no credit for it.

“The musical should have focused on the later strikes – it’s nothing like the true story.”

Some of those who took part in the 1968 strike have welcomed the immortalisation of their story, though.

Gwen Davis, worked at Ford from 1961 until 1989 and attended the West End premiere, said: “The musical was very lifelike.

“It was really poignant. I had tears in my eyes.”

But she explained: “The film exaggerated a lot.

“We never used to work in our bras.”

Sheila Douglass, who began working in the factory aged 21 and was among the 187 machinists to go on strike, added: “We had some good times in there, especially on a Friday afternoon when we started drinking.

“The play was more uplifting than the film and that made it more watchable.

“That’s how I want it to be remembered.”

But despite being somewhat liberal with the truth, the film and stage adaptations are key to getting the strikers’ message across to a generation too young to remember the walkouts taking place.

That’s according to Gemma Arterton, who played Rita O’Grady in the West End show, who said: “The story is so vital and still relevant.

“The film made me cry and I thought [doing the play] could reach out to more people.

“What I love is that these girls were just factory girls who changed politics forever.

“It goes to show anyone can do anything.”

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