From the TUC

Great achievements on film: Spirit of ’45 & Made in Dagenham

11 Mar 2013, By

Spirit of 45: still from the film

This weekend, I watched two films, one which I should have seen already, the other not yet on general release. Made in Dagenham, the first, was a story I knew vaguely, and to be honest, more from what I’d heard since the film came out than from when the actual events happened (honest, I was seven, and on the other side of London!) The other was Ken Loach’s new film, Spirit of ’45, which will be launched next weekend, and which deals with the legacy of the Attlee government.

In many ways they are very different films – one fictionalised, the other documentary – one full of people familiar as actors, the other with quite a few activists I know personally – and one made by the BBC, the other Channel 4! But they both describe enormous steps forward, whether towards equal pay for the women sewing machinists at Ford’s (actually only achieved in 1984 as a result of an ECJ judgment), and the other the 1945 Labour Government.

Made in Dagenham is of course by far the more rollicking ride of a film. So many of the actors are experienced in comedy (John Sessions as Wilson – that’s got to be worth a trivia point) that laughs are frequent, but tears are never far away. And the demands of drama in covering a complex dispute in a short time mean that many things are glossed over.

Spirit of ’45 covers more ground, using newsreel footage and interviews both with people who experienced the changes introduced by the post-war Attlee Government, and younger commentators (ok, they’re the ones I mostly know – although not entirely, and the eye witnesses were my parents’ generation.) The film manages many things, such as providing heart-wrenching testimony about the poverty and degradation of the ’20s and ’30s: always more real when recalled by those who lived it.

The second third of the film, though, astounds most, because it is so difficult to recall how much governments can actually do. The nationalisation of coal, rail, docks, gas and electricity, the creation of the NHS and homes – at last – fit for heroes. It was an enormous agenda, and done against the backdrop of an economy brought to its knees by a six-year long world war.

Then the mood gets grim, as the film records the way the Thatcher Government sold off those nationalised industries, or closed them down in the case of mining. It isn’t a rosy-tinted view of the achievements of ’45 – indeed it identifies even Nye Bevan’s stateist approach to the NHS as problematic.

If I have a criticism of the film, it’s that a couple of the interviewees stray from the reportage of the film, refighting old battles inside the left or over-intellectualising. It’s slightly contradictory to suggest, as one speaker does, that the problem is that Labour has been taken over by the middle classes, interspersed with footage of Labour’s most left-wing Prime Minister, Old Haileyburyan Clem Attlee. But most of the ‘witnesses’ – no less left-wing for this – let their stories and their experiences make the case for change (RMT’s Alex Gordon, for instance, calmly and forensically skewers the idea that a privatised railway works better than the nationalised one did.)

And fundamentally, that is both the message and the challenge of the film. The ’45 Labour Government, given a landslide majority by the people, changed history. We can do it again, but hopefully without the experience of such ghastly poverty (however bad it is now, the 20s and 30s were yet worse) and the example of how well centralised planning coped with the demands of total war.

Now, I watched both films at my computer, and I would urge you not to. The lesson of the problems created by top-down nationalisations in Spirit of ’45 is that these films should be experienced collectively so that you can discuss what you’ve seen with others afterwards (and not just blog about them!) So, check out where Spirit of ’45 is showing locally, or contact the distributors to show it yourselves.