In 1970, group of feminist protestors (they were patronisingly called Women’s Libbers then) interrupted the Miss World beauty contest, which was being broadcast live on BBC-TV. It may or may not have been a particularly significant event in the history of the progress of the Civil Rights movement, which means that this reconstruction of the news item – in effect, the story of that year’s pageant (which was interesting in itself, even without the disruption) and the story of the protest in parallel – has to deal with the fact that it isn’t exactly Suffragette or Selma. Indeed, besides its social history remit it fits as neatly into the run of inside showbiz BBC-TV films of recent years, which have covered subjects like the creation of Doctor Who, John Lennon’s legal woes and the backstage story of Steptoe & Son … with nicely gossipy turns from Greg Kinnear and Lesley Manville as Bob and Dolores Hope (Hope’s act was interrupted and his wife wasn’t unhappy about it) and Rhys Ifans and Keeley Hawes as Eric and Julia Morley (the producers of the contest).
At fifty years’ distance, there are all sorts of ironies in the outcome of this event: after the big night, protesters Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) and Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) got on with busy, useful, very British lives (as an academic and a midwife) while the various successes of (light-skinned) black contestants Jennifer Hosten/Miss Grenada (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Pearl Jansen/Miss Africa South (Loreece Harrison) over blondes from Sweden (Clara Rosager) and the USA (Suki Waterhouse) suggested other struggles ongoing in worlds beyond an Islington commune even if we suspect the Morleys were cannily playing a progressive card to distract from how outdated their meal ticket was starting to look. A glance at Wikipedia shows that the result was as controversial as the protest – and the film mentions that the Prime Minister of Grenada was one of the judges. What annoys Sally most is that the contest is treated as ‘family entertainment’, influencing her long-suffering Mum (Phyllis Logan) and her own daughter, while Jo just seems to be up for anything illegal and larkish, to the point of alienating many on her own side.
Screenwriters Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe and director Philippa Lowthorpe salt the story with telling moments: when Sally is interviewed by an all-male panel as she applies to university the academics scribble beauty contest-like marks out of ten for her appearance; Morley’s response to anti-apartheid campaigner Peter Hain is swiftly to rejig the rules of the contest to allow two contestants from South Africa (‘get me a decent-looking black girl’). The protesters insist that they’re against the contest not the women – and they time the disruption to make Bob Hope look bad rather than upset any of the nervous misses onstage – and the climax is a contrived, but well-written/played chat in the ladies between the just-arrested ringleader and the just-crowned beauty queen. Inescapably, from the distance of fifty years, the film admires its heroines from both sides of the argument in unsurprisingly similar ways – Knightley and Buckley (let’s face it – two very beautiful actors) are kitted out in 1970 feminist chic gear that draws the eye more than the outmoded gowns and swimwear modeled by the misses.
Some of the details are striking – that replica guns were brandished by protesters even after the Angry Brigade pre-empted the action by blowing up a BBC van outside the venue now seems horrendously ill-judged (and must have been a high-risk strategy even then) — but there are a few annoying lapses in period vernacular (in 1970, the term ‘it’s not rocket science’ hadn’t yet displaced ‘it’s not brain surgery’). With Lily Newmark, Ruby Bentall and Alexa Davies as protesters, John Heffernan in the traditional role of feminist icon’s doormat boyfriend, and lookalikes for broadacsters Robin Day and Michael Aspel and beauty qeens Eva Reuber-Staier (who toured Vietnam with Hope) and Valli Kemp (who was in Dr Phibes Rises Again).