It shows my age when I confess to remembering 1970’s controversial and eventful Miss World pageant. Admittedly I was only 12 going on 18 but, like all teenage girls – not to mention most women at that time – and as the film shows, we were all mesmerised by this extraordinarily successful creation of Eric and Julia Morley, who were household names.
My especial memory as a child of Africa is that it was the first time that a black woman won – stunning Miss Grenada air hostess Jennifer Hosten (played with glamour and grace by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and another, Miss Africa South, Pearl Jansen (Loreese Harrison), came second. Miss America wasn’t even a finalist. I was thrilled: my antiapartheid politics definitely came first over any feminist ones.
I do not remember the story behind those headlines, which Misbehaviour tells in a very British way. It avoids being a feminist #metoo rant but gently reveals that the gaggle of women’s liberation activists who protested in the Albert Hall, threw flour over Bob Hope, stink bombs and tomatoes at the stage brought both early fame to Womens Lib movement and much media coverage which, later that year, led to the Equal Pay Act.
Today’s activists may take issue with the view of the all-female team of director Philippa Lowthorpe and writers Rebecca Frayne and Gaby Chiappe, but things were very different in the 1970s. Womens groups meet in student flats in down-at-heel Islington, where they churn out posters with ancient Gestetners, and refuse to communicate with the male-dominated press, with the exception of a young Peter Hain. He is banned from the event for questioning the competition’s whiteness – but it does result in there being two South African contestants – one white and one black.
Two women are thrown together: Sally Alexander (a very plain-looking Keira Knightly) and Jo Robinson, played by the ubiquitous Jessie Buckley. They are from very different backgrounds, the former a history PHD student whose thesis on women in the labour movement is considered too ‘niche’ and Buckley, who is northern working-class. They overcome their differences sufficiently to take on the daunting big idea to disrupt the ‘patriarchy’, personified by the grotesque pageant, where women’s vital statistics are read out and they are paraded sporting wrist tags not unlike cattle at auction.
Rhys Ifans and Keeley Hawes are marvellous as the sleezy Eric and fragrant Julia (they even resemble them closely) he seemingly always on the brink of disaster chivvying the girls from hotel to rehearsal, she chasing the money. The contradiction between the sleaze and the veneer is nowhere so well-drawn as the scene in the Commonwealth Club where the Grenadian Prime Minister Eric Gairy is invited on to the judging panel in return for Caribbean broadcasting revenues. Is it more than a coincidence that his ‘girl’ won?
There are some nice niche roles for home talent: Greg Kinnear is a petulant and lascivious Bob Hope, with Lesley Manville as his disapproving wife, furious that he has agreed to host the show again after a past misdemeanour with a contestant. Then there’s Phyllis Logan as Sally’s middle-class mother, who epitomizes housewives of that time, secretly encouraging Sally’s girls to celebrate Miss World, being a fan herself, while objecting to being blamed for being a ‘sellout’ by not having a career.
Despite telling a well-documented story, the film takes a nuanced look at the contestants themselves: the protesters said they were never against the competitors but the pagenat itself. By focusing on the aspirations of the two black contestants who won and came second respectively we realise that, for them, this was much more than about being a piece of meat on a conveyor belt: it gave black women an opportunity to compete on an equal playing field as white girls and, moreover, win. The real hashtag story here is perhaps more about #blacklivesmatter than #metoo.