SALLY Hawkins may hog the posters for Made In Dagenham, the upcoming film about female strikers at Ford’s London car plant in the Sixties, but Miranda Richardson steals it effortlessly as Barbara Castle. The 52-year-old actress portrays the former Labour Cabinet minister who helped the strikers in their quest for equal pay with a beguiling mixture of steely intelligence, wiliness and, well, sex appeal.
“I’m not going to say she behaved like a man in a man’s world; she was a powerhouse but absolutely feminine,” Richardson explains of the flame-haired Labour politician, who died in 2002, aged 91, having ushered in the Equal Pay Act, among myriad achievements.
The lively and inspiring British film charts the David and Goliath battle between a handful of sewing machinists at Ford’s Dagenham car plant, then its largest in Europe, and the company bosses and sexist trade unionists who opposed their campaign for equal pay in 1968 (after they were re-classified as “unskilled” workers).
Castle, then Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity in Harold Wilson’s government, proved a vital ally, ultimately forcing Ford to increase its pay to 92 per cent of its male employees.
“She was in a very difficult position but I think it was, if not a complete triumph, then on the way to a triumph,” says Richardson, whose chameleon talents have seen her twice nominated for an Oscar (for Damage and Tom & Viv).
On one occasion Castle is shown gazing down on the strikers from her office window, catching sight of an unfurling banner with the half-revealed slogan “We Want Sex...”. Castle murmurs to herself “I know what you mean.” Not a reflection, presumably, found in her diaries.
“No, but she was very alive as a person,” says the actress who read up on the politician and “found her completely thrilling and very moving”.
You won’t find her talk in such fond terms about another trailblazing female politician, Lady Thatcher. “I’ve heard it said that Barbara paved the way for Thatcher to take control but I don’t want to go into that too much because that’s a legacy she wouldn’t want.” By Richardson’s reckoning, Thatcher left her femininity on the doorstep of Number 10, whatever the late Alan Clark and others might think.
“I know for a lot of people she was the perfect woman but what does that say about them?” she splutters. “I don’t know!”
I suddenly think Richardson would be rather good casting as Lady Thatcher in the planned biopic being made by Pathe and Film Four – she has the froideur and could probably nail the voice – but the part has gone to Meryl Streep who, Richardson lamented last year, “doesn’t leave a lot of roles for the rest of us”.
For one of our best actresses Richardson seems underused on the big screen of late, a fact not helped by the diminishing opportunities for mature actresses, as bemoaned earlier this year by Juliet Stevenson, Lesley Manville and Gemma Jones in a newspaper interview.
Richardson understands the problem – “it’s a perennial issue” – but doesn’t want to whinge.
“I have to say my heart sinks every time it comes up because the more you moan about it, the less people want to hear about it. I don’t know what the answer is but we just have to get on with it. You can always make something better and more interesting because of what you bring to it.”
Yet the truth of the fact clearly riles. “It is true you have to be the age of a Wimbledon tennis star to get noticed and it is true that people sit around tables and throw pictures (of women) around and go ‘This one? This one?’, and they’re talking in terms of viability and worth. So it still goes on.” The issue of pay discrimination between the sexes is another bugbear: Hollywood could do with its own Barbara Castle, it seems, to put things right. “Most of the time, if you look closely, the women are not being paid as much as the male stars which shows a lack of faith in the draw women stars have but I haven’t made a recent study of it.”
Although Richardson has given numerous award-winning performances she arguably hasn’t yet landed the seminal movie part that might define her in the public consciousness (like Helen Mirren in The Queen, say, or Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, a part Richardson famously turned down).
On the small screen, of course, she has courtesy of her shrieky, head-chopping Queenie in Blackadder, a character beloved and referenced more than 20 years later.
Indeed, Helena Bonham Carter’s recent performance as the Queen Of Hearts in Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland appeared to be a homage/blatant rip-off (Richardson hasn’t seen the film).
“I enjoyed myself hugely in Blackadder,” remembers the actress, who took the part for some light relief after her breakthough role as the condemned Ruth Ellis in 1985’s Dance With A Stranger. “None of us could have known how successful it would be and I’m very grateful. If it cheers people up I’m thrilled.”
Now she has returned to the small screen for a new US TV drama, Rubicon, a conspiracy thriller from the makers of the acclaimed Mad Men, to be broadcast here by BBC Four.
Filmed over several months in New York, the project took Richardson reluctantly away from her west London home which she shares with two dogs, German pointers, and a couple of cats (an animal and nature lover she’s an ambassador for the World Wildlife Fund).
The pets, she reveals “have roaming rights all over the house and often spend the night on the bed with me”. Rather charmingly she kept in touch with them via Skype. “I would arrange for them to be put in front of a computer with a camera and microphone,” she says but she is not in a hurry to repeat the separation.
“Being away for any length of time is not really how I live my life” she explains, although she’ll have another stint apart next January when she heads to South Africa to film A Place Of Only Sky, a true story set in Uganda about a nun (Richardson) who rescued child soldiers from The Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Like Barbara Castle, it’s another real-life character, but this time Richardson won’t have to steal the movie. She’ll own it.