Preview: We Are The Lions, Mr Manager!

The Grunwick strike was a landmark industrial dispute but the human stories little known. Now one woman’s account is being told, through an actor with close links to the story

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On 20 August 1976 Jayaben Desai was at work in a film-processing factory when her manager chastised her and her colleagues for “chattering like monkeys”.

“What you are running here is a zoo,” retorted the four-foot-ten mother of two. “In a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr Manager!”

Desai’s rebellion, a reaction to the low pay and bullying tactics the workforce of largely women of South Asian origin endured, kickstarted the Grunwick strike, which lasted two years. The fight for fair treatment by the “strikers in saris’’ was supported by thousands of trade unionists and campaigners, and more than 20,000 people joined them at the picket lines. One of the most important industrial disputes in British history, it changed the way trade unions thought about race and new immigrant communities coming to Britain in the 1970s.

“I didn’t know Jayaben directly but my family knew her, and a member of our family married Jayaben’s son,” says Medhavi Patel, who’s playing Desai in a new Townsend Productions play, We Are The Lions, Mr Manager!

“I couldn’t believe that nobody had told me about this powerful woman who is a part of our distant family circle. Indian families don’t always pass down these amazing stories. We have all the stories about Gandhi and about powerful men, but what about the women who played a part in modern culture? We don’t explore and celebrate them enough.

Main image: Madhavi Patel plays Jayaben Desai (above), who led a two-year strike by mainly South Asian women

“It’s something to be proud of but also it was probably quite difficult for her to exist within her community – no doubt there were people who were telling her that it wasn’t a good idea. But she was ahead of her time and determined to achieve justice.”

Written by Neil Gore and supported by the trade union Unite, the play tells the story of the dispute through song, poetry, movement and dance, using Townsend Production’s trademark cast of two, playing multiple roles.

“We aim to focus on the lives and contributions of inspirational and vital figures from our social history, often forgotten,” says Gore. “Jayaben Desai tirelessly fought on behalf of immigrant workers against exploitative employment practice, fearlessly faced all the elements of establishment authority, alerted many in the trade union movement to the issues of vulnerability of immigrant workers, and highlighted the fight to maintain basic trade union rights.”

For Patel the part is more personal – her first chance to play a fellow Gujarati women: a “huge and proud moment” for her. “There are so many hidden role models within Indian culture. There are so many doing amazing things but you don’t hear about them. Jayaben’s story is one that deserves to be told again and again. Although she passed away a few years ago I would love to make her and her family proud.”

We Are The Lions, Mr Manager! is touring, visiting Seven Art Space, Leeds (19 Oct) and the Working Class Movement Library, Salford (20-21 Oct). It tours until April 2018, with stops in Oldham, Liverpool, East Riding, Rotherham, Harrogate, Sheffield, Doncaster, Hull and Barnsley in the north (

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