We Are The Lions, Mr Manager

Willisden, London. 1977 Mrs Jayaben Desai leader of Asian women's strike at the Grunwick film processing factory.

We Are The Lions, Mr. Manager! - Lighthouse, Poole. Thursday 16th November, 2017.

Another superb piece of political drama from the peerless Townsend Theatre Productions. It tells the true story of Jayaben Desai, the fearless and inspirational Asian worker who led the 1970s revolt of oppressed and underpaid staff at the Grunwick Film Processing plant. 

The title refers to the flashpoint for the dispute when a manager told Desai and her mainly female African Asian colleagues to “stop chattering like monkeys in a zoo.” Rising to her full 4ft 10 inches Desai faced him down.

She replied that Grunwick was indeed a zoo and waerned it contauned many animals including lions that could bite his head off. “We are the lions, Mr Manager,” she yelled before walking out and garnering support from many of her exploited workmates.

Desai would spend two years, from 1976 to 1978, on the picket line facing attacks from management, right wing pressure groups and the Metropolitan Police’s feared Special Patrol Group. 

But the line held as miners and postal workers pitched in to support the beleagured strikers .  Unfortunately it also became a cause celebre for hard left militants with hundreds of activists, anarchists and thugs fighting bloody battles with the police. 

This proved an embarrassment to both Jim Callaghan’s decidedfly moderate Labour Government and the TUC. The workers battle was lost but Grunwick was a dispute that put racism and inequality in the workplace under a spotlight. It changed attitudes and at least paved the way for slightly more enlightened industrial relations.

The Grunwick story is difficult to dramatise in anything approaching an even-handed away but Neil Gore, who wrote and co-stars in this hard-hitting drama, negotiates his way deftly through uncomfortable truths on both sides of the political divide.

Medavi Patel is superb as the tenacious and clever strike leader. She articulates perfectly Desai’s determination to fight on despite her reluctance and distaste for the situation. Patel also turns in a brief but hilarious performance as unbendable Grunwick boss George Ward.

Neil Gore plays a variety of roles including bullying Grunwick manager Malcolm Alden, Brent Trades Council mover and shaker Jack Dromey (later the husband of Harriet Harman) and right-wing strike buster John Gourier. He also sings and plays a selection of suitably engaging songs.  

The whole remarkable story, directed by company founder Louise Townsend, is told with passion and clarity but enough gentle humour to offset any sense of bitterness. 

Jeremy Miles

© Jeremy Miles 2022