Bob Hoskins’ latest star turn... in Dagenham

BOB Hoskins burst onto our screens in 1978 in Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven and went on to star in a string of screen hits including The Long Good Friday (1980), Mona Lisa (1986), Brazil (1985), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Mermaids (1990), Unleashed (2005) and A Christmas Carol (2009).

The Belsize Park actor’s latest film is Made In Dagenham. He plays Albert, a sympathetic union man at the Ford plant in 1968, who helps a group of women fight for equal status and pay.

Sally Hawkins stars at fast-talking, no nonsense mother-of-two Rita O’Grady, the leader of a group of 187 car seat machinists who go on strike when their jobs get downgraded to “unskilled”.

A 24-hour walkout turns into an all-out stoppage and an initial call for being reclassed semi-skilled into a fight for equal pay. But when 5,000 of the plant’s 55,000 male workers are laid off because the supply of car seats runs out, they come under pressure from the male-dominated union and their menfolk, many of whom work in the factory – to call off their action.

Miranda Richardson plays the secretary of state for work and productivity Barbara Castle, who takes up the women’s cause and helps negotiate a better deal with Ford bosses.

The case led to introduction of the Equal Pay Act in 1970 and director Nigel Cole, who previously helmed a stellar ensemble of British actresses in Calendar Girls, says that what started off as a small local dispute over pay and conditions sparked a national debate.

“It’s hard to believe how huge it was. The strike grew and grew and, because they weren’t producing the car seats, it got to the point where Ford couldn’t make cars anymore. Thousands of men were laid off and it became a huge national crisis.

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“Initially, they had the men’s support, they were amused by the whole thing. But, as it got more serious and the men got laid off, some turned against the women. They felt they should just stand aside and let the men get on with their jobs.”

Jaime Winstone, Geraldine James and Andrea Riseboro play Rita’s fellow protesters, while Rosamund Pike is the middle-class wife of Rupert Graves’ factory boss who defies her husband to back the women.

The movie was shot in a disused Hoover factory in Wales and featured many former workers as extras. Although Rita’s character is an amalgam of several real women, the broad facts of this little-known chapter of British history are true.

Producer Stephen Woolley was inspired by Radio 4 programme The Reunion, which brings together groups of people involved in something special in the past.

“These women had worked in appalling conditions in this factory. But, because they were a very small percentage of the workforce, Ford kept ignoring their requests – until they finally decided to fight back. What struck me was how innocent and unpoliticised they were. All they wanted was a fair deal. It was common sense rather than any kind of axe to grind. They didn’t have a clue to the enormity of what they were doing. They could just see all these men, up and down the country, striking for far less reason than they had.”

Hoskins says his character is a “totally dedicated union man” with just one fault. “When he gets nervous, he giggles. In the middle of some of the biggest meetings of his life, he gets a fit of the giggles.” It was a character trait invented by Hoskins because he felt this man needed a weakness.

“Albert had a lot of strengths – he was determined to see things through and was completely on the side of the women, his mother worked to death on very low wages so he is very respectful to them – but to show that strength he had to show some weakness.”

Like Albert, Hoskins has always felt that “to pay women half of what they would pay a man for doing the same job is not only out of order; it’s taking the piss.”

“Funnily enough, in 1968 I read on the fifth page of a newspaper, a tiny little article about the women at Ford’s going on strike over equal pay. I thought, ‘Well, that should be front page news, surely?’ But it wasn’t and it remained with me: that these women had to go on strike for equal pay. It’s a diabolical liberty that someone doesn’t get the same pay as everyone else.”

Forty years on, when the script turned up, Hoskins immediately thought: ‘Oh yeah, I’m doing this.’

“I remember it was only when the men were put off and the factory was shut down that it became a story, not the fact that the women who sewed the seats were the ones that brought the company to its knees. Nobody knew about the women really. The actual policy of why they were on strike, for equal pay, never really came up. It’s just about people earning a living and getting a fair fee for a job. Big firms have been earning billions out of this kind of thing for years by paying women lower wages.”

He adds: “In 1970, Barbara Castle brought in a law that it was illegal to give women less pay than men. Well, it’s illegal but they’re still doing it, so what the hell is going on? By the way, I thought Miranda [Richardson] was wonderful as Barbara Castle in the film, she has got her down to a tee. I thought Barbara Castle was very sexy! And I thought that Rosamund Pike’s character was interesting because she showed that it’s not just a working-class issue, it’s a question of justice and of fair play.”

When filming on a female-dominated set, Hoskins had to run the gauntlet himself.

“It was wonderful being one of only very few men on set, I tell you. The Welsh girls [who play many of the shop-floor workers] were lovely, but I used to go home with a black and blue bum every night. They used to pinch my arse like crazy!”

Asked if he has any favourite roles in his long career, Hoskins says he rarely watches anything he’s done.

“When you come out of a film, you’ve got to flush it right out, get rid of it word for word, because you’re going onto another project. You can’t be lumbered with a load of stuff you’ve already done. I do the film and what happens to it afterwards is down to the film-makers really. Honestly, I’ve sat down and watched a film before and I didn’t realise I was in it! I can’t remember the name of the film but I remember thinking, ‘Where did they get this bloke from? He’s terrible.’ And it turned out to be me! We do all think we’re much better looking than we are, really. It’s lucky you don’t have to see yourself on screen.”

So is there a movie he wishes he could erase form his CV?

“Super Mario Brothers. I hated doing that – it had a husband and wife team directing it called Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton. That was where arrogance was mistaken for talent. Eventually their own agent turned up and asked them to leave the set! They were just incredibly arrogant and terrible.”

What of the roles he turned down that he now regrets?

“If there’s a role I’ve turned down and someone else does it, I usually think they did a much better job than I would have done. I was offered Blue Velvet, the Dennis Hopper part, and there’s no way I could have topped Dennis Hopper. He was brilliant.”

As for his future roles, he’s going to reprise the role of Smee he initially played in the 1991 film Hook. “I’m playing one of the pirates again, in a thing about Neverland. I’m really looking forward to that.”

Bridget Galton