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24 April 2008updated 24 Sep 2015 11:16am

Strikes on film

As part of our focus on the labour movement and May Day, Daniel Trilling looks at the way movies hav

By Daniel Trilling

Given the amount of big money involved in film, you’d think that the story of on-screen strikes has been one of wealthy producers trying to demonise non-compliant workers. But from the cheery, singing factory girls led by Doris Day in The Pajama Game (1954) onwards, this hasn’t been the case. In Britain, the 1960 melodrama The Angry Silence is probably the only significant example of a wholly anti-strike film: it stars Richard Attenborough as a factory worker who stands up to the violent intimidation of colleagues who refuse to join a wildcat walk-out.

Rather, mainstream film-makers have preferred to show blameless workers (who, after all, would have been their audience) being duped into striking by slippery union leaders, such as Peter Sellers’s character in the Ealing comedy I’m All Right Jack (1959). While the film portrayed management in an equally unfavourable light, it paid little attention to the idea that ordinary workers might have genuine grievances which needed to be addressed.

Independent directors have shown greater concern for workers’ needs, even if their story has been one of betrayal by the ruling elites. As you’d expect, Ken Loach has been prolific on this subject, most notably with Days of Hope (1975), which shows how union members were undermined by their leaders, as well as Ramsay Macdonald’s Labour party, before and during the general strike of 1926.

Even into the 1980s, however, film-makers were still optimistic about the power of organised labour. Lezli-An Barrett’s Business as Usual (1987), starred Glenda Jackson as a Liverpool clothes shop manager who fights the sexual harrassment of her staff by forming a union. But as the defeats of the Thatcher years took hold, the portrayal of the working class on film became either pessimistic – the Trainspotting generation, in effect – or nostalgic. Brassed Off (1996) and Billy Elliot (2000), were both set in mining communities broken by the 1984 strike, where the only signs of hope came from forgetting about the workers’ struggle and turning to music – a brass band in the case of the former, and ballet in the case of the latter. Even Loach, in 2000’s Bread and Roses, had to turn his gaze abroad (to Los Angeles) and focus on the poorest workers (immigrant Latina hotel cleaners) to find any stirrings of dissent.

But, with a new wave of strikes sweeping Britain, could we be about to see them return to our cinema screens? Will the coastguard strike of 2008 will one day become legendary enough to inspire a film like Eisenstein’s 1924 Soviet classic, Strike? Or will Gordon Brown sell out the workers à la Macdonald and provoke a new wave of Loaches? Keep watching.

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