Keira Knightley’s new film, created by Rebecca Frayn

Keira Knightley stars in a new film released in March, about the disruption of the 1970 Miss World contest by Women’s Lib protesters. I spoke to the film’s creator Rebecca Frayn, who lives in Chiswick.

1970. Hot pants and bell-bottomed trousers. Glam Rock and glitter. Edward Heath became prime minister. There were widespread protests in America against the Vietnam war. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian hijacked four passenger planes. Terrorist groups with odd names like the Angry Brigade and the Weathermen pursued their singular agendas. Mick Jagger was fined £200 for the possession of cannabis. Paul McCartney left the Beatles. Jimi Hendrix, the Doors and Joan Baez performed at the Isle of Wight Festival and the first Glastonbury Festival was held. Protest and youth counterculture dominated the headlines.

Central to that heady mix was the fight for women’s rights. The Women’s Liberation Movement was new and making waves. In New York some 50,000 women took part in the Women’s Strike for Equality, which demanded abortion on demand, free childcare and equal opportunity in the workplace. In London, Women’s Lib protesters disrupted the Miss World contest, hosted by Bob Hope at the Albert Hall, throwing flour bombs, squirting water pistols and shouting ‘moo’ in protest at the ‘cattle market’.

Images: Lesley Manville and Greg Kinnear; Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Misbehaviour 

I vaguely remember it. Five women were arrested, and made a mockery of the proceedings at Bow Street Magistrates Court, calling the magistrate ‘daddy’. There’s little record of it now and the protest might have passed into history as no more than a feminist footnote, had writer and film maker Rebecca Frayn not pounced on the story and decided to write a screenplay. Rebecca has a track record of making films about women, (Annie Leibovitz, Leni Riefenstahl, Norah Ephron, Aung San Suu Kyi and the BBC 2 documentary Tory Wives). She also knows a thing or two about campaigning, having set up the We CAN environmental movement, which lobbied the government to take action on climate change in the run up to the 2010 Copenhagen Conference.

Photograph: Rebecca Frayn by James Willcocks

“Golliwog moment”

In 1970 Rebecca was still a child. “For me it was what I call a ‘golliwog moment’” she tells me, where something everyone was familiar with, which was completely normal and unremarkable, was suddenly seen in a different light. “As a young woman you had a sense that something was amiss and oppressive, and you didn’t know what it was”.

She grew up watching Miss World, as did millions of people around the world, as family viewing on primetime television. The women paraded in swimsuits as their breasts and hips were evaluated, and turned in a long line across the stage as the camera panned across their backsides. How was that ok? How was that ever considered acceptable? There’s a great line in the film (penned by co-writer Gaby Chiappe) in which the main protagonist, Sally Alexander, is at home with her mother and takes exception to her encouraging her own daughter to twirl around like a beauty queen. “You used to love playing Miss World when you were a little girl” says the mother. “Yes and we also liked eating our own snot” retorts Sally.

Image: Jessie Buckley and Keira Knightley as Jo Ann Robinson and Sally Alexander just before it all kicks off

Like me, Rebecca was dimly aware of the disruption of the Miss World contest at the time, but it was listening to The Reunion on Radio 4, which brought the five women who were arrested back together to reminisce, which made her realise the potential for a feature film.

The dramatic possibilities of the flour bombs and water pistols were a given, but she was also attracted by the women’s wit and anarchic exuberance. “They had a great sense of mischief and humour” she says. They defended themselves in court, calling Bob Hope and Miss World organiser Eric Morley as witnesses, and when they declined to appear, calling a policeman to take the stand to ask him questions like ‘who washes your socks?’ and ‘who irons your shirts?’ to ‘put Patriarchy in the dock’.

There’s also a clash of civil rights issues, as this was the first Miss World won by a Black contestant (Miss Grenada). In the film version, the Miss World organisers have brought in four Black judges to answer allegations of racism, and to introduce a Black and a White contestant to represent South Africa, as they were under pressure from the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

Even so she found it hard to raise any interest for her script. It was Pathé who took it up, who also made Pride and Made in Dagenham. They evidently have a thing for grass roots struggles, social realism with a dollop of earthy British wit.

“Six months later the women’s marches happened and the Me Too movement took off.” The film company realised they were onto something. Shining a light on a moment where a civil rights movement found the spotlight was suddenly topical.

“Things shifted” says Rebecca. “The project took on an energy. It was easier to get Keira Knightley.”

Keira Knightley plays Sally Alexander, the intellectual leader of the group, who still teaches history at University College, London. Her character explains the serious rationale behind the protest: “This competition makes us compete with each other and makes the world narrower for all of us in the end”.

While Keira Knightley is the headline Hollywood A lister, she is also backed up by a brilliant cast. Jessie Buckley plays another of the protesters, Jo Ann Robinson, who was more of a firebrand: “They’re turning oppression into a spectacle. Let’s make a spectacle of our own”.

Phyllis Logan is Sally’s mother; Keeley Hawes plays Julia Morley, (who is still running beauty pageants in far off countries where they’re still acceptable, and who refused to meet Rebecca when she was doing her research). Rhys Ifans plays her partner, the late Eric Morley, and Greg Kinnear plays Bob Hope (who can still be seen somewhere on Youtube dodging flour bombs in the real event, says Rebecca).

Images of Misbehaviour courtesy of Pathé Films

The film has been made by an all-female team – written by Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe, produced by Suzanne Mackie and Sarah-Jane Wheale and directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, the only female director to have won a Bafta.

Misbehaviour will be in cinemas from 13 March.