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Strike: The Birth of Solidarity (1981)

Strike: The Birth of Solidarity is a one-off drama-documentary.  It was produced by Granada Television and first broadcast in December 1981, and then repeated on 17 May 1982 (ITV).

With special thanks to the director and producer of this programme, Leslie Woodhead, for his invaluable help and research material, which have informed the following account.


As its narrator explains, Strike: The Birth of Solidarity is a drama-documentary about 'a strike which became a revolution called Solidarity' in Poland.  The programme is set in summer 1980, at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, and combines footage of real events with scenes based on other real events and performed by actors.  Strike's writer, Boleslaw Sulik, and director/producer, Leslie Woodhead (who also provides the narration), decided to make a drama-documentary rather than a conventional documentary when their research about Solidarity, a ground-breaking trade union and revolutionary political movement, revealed that 'a full account of what happened inside the Lenin shipyard during seventeen extraordinary days in August 1980 had not yet been given (as Woodhead commented in a booklet produced to accompany the programme). 

In other words, reports by the world's media had missed significant aspects of the momentous struggles in Poland, and so the creation of Solidarity could only be brought to the screen with the aid of dramatic reconstructions of key moments.  Strike's origins in recent events are clear from the outset: the programme begins with amateur footage of a protest held at the Lenin shipyard in 1979.  The memories of shipyard workers who were killed in a clash with police during a previous strike, nine years earlier, are being honoured by the protesters.  As the narrator emphasises, 'these people, followed by millions across Poland, will mount an unprecedented challenge to the Soviet order in Eastern Europe, igniting the most serious European crisis since World War Two.'

More amateur footage draws the audience's attention to the leading figures behind that unprecedented challenge.  Among them are ex-shipyard electrician Lech Walesa and Alina Pienkowska (who is played by Zoe in Strike's dramatic reconstructions), a nurse in the shipyard's hospital and a founding member of the Free Trades Union group.  They are the real people whose experiences are explored in the programme's day-by-day account of the 1980 strike.

The strike has been triggered by the dismissal of Anna Walentynowicz, who had worked as a welder and crane operator at the shipyard for thirty years.  She was dismissed as a result of her involvement with the campaign for independent trades unions.  As the narrator emphasises, Anna's sacking, in early August 1980, has struck a chord with the feeling of 'deep national frustration' that existed in Poland at the time, which made 'every strike a potential uprising'.  Before the morning shift begins on 14 August, a handful of workers set the wheels in motion at the shipyard by putting up posters outlining the aims for the strike, and then spreading the word among their colleagues.  (The workers speak in northern English accents which, as The Times remarked in its review, startle the audience 'into imagining the challenge in a British context'.)

Meanwhile, Alina secretly meets Anna at the hospital, as they wait anxiously and excitedly for the strike to get underway.  Alina is hoping to liaise with dissidents from Warsaw's Workers' Defence Committee, which has links to the foreign media.

The arrival of strong-willed, outspoken Lech (who, like Anna, was dismissed from the shipyards as a result of involvement in radical politics) strengthens the workers' resolve.  He boosts the crowd's morale by emphasising how important everyone's involvement in the day's actions will be, and a strike committee is duly formed.  As the committee's negotiations begin with the shipyard's management team, Lech outlines the workers' demands, including the reinstatement of both Anna and himself.  Moreover, they are seeking fairer rates of pay, an independent trade union and the erection of a monument in honour of those killed in 1970.  With so much at stake, the atmosphere in the negotiating room is fraught.

Progress is slow, and the victories of Lech, Anna, Alina and the others - which include being granted permission to build the monument and the promise of higher wages - are hard-won.  With much still to discuss, the strike becomes a sit-in.  By the next day, neighbouring shipyards and public tranport workers have come out on strike too, in support of the thousands of workers at the Lenin shipyard.  Its management team declares the strike over, now that some of the workers' demands have been met; but with support growing for the cause elsewhere, Lech and the others realise that much more can be done.  The strike is no longer about conditions at the Lenin shipyard alone, but rather about the state of the country as a whole.

With the managers' message that the strike is at an end echoing across the shipyard, and the threat of disciplinary action for anyone who continues to cause disruption, Alina must act quickly to prevent the workers from dispersing.  'Shut the gates!' she shouts, running in and out of the confused crowd.  'If you go home now, you will wake up in your beds tomorrow with the biggest hangover of your lives,' the brave nurse emphasises, adding that 'you will have the chance here to change things for the better.'

Now begins what Lech describes as 'a solidarity strike', in which the various groups on strike jointly draw up a broad set of demands, ranging from the acceptance of independent trades unions to freedom of speech in the press and the freeing of political prisoners.  What began as a strike at a shipyard is gathering momentum in the form of a revolutionary, national political movement and capturing the attention of the international press.

By 23 August, the government has agreed to negotiate with the joint strike committee, which is supported by a team of expert advisers.  In the words of Strike's narrator: 'the unimaginable has finally come to pass'.  After many exhausting discussions, the workers have made considerable headway, including being granted a self-governing trades union and the right to strike, although the mood remains strained.  Some dissidents involved with the strike feel that they have not been properly consulted and doubt the government's words.

During this turbulent but remarkable period, Solidarity begins to take shape, emerging as a powerful force in the movement to separate Poland from the Soviet Union, despite extremely challenging circumstances.  As Strike reaches its conclusion, the programme turns once more to the real-life counterparts of the characters portayed in the dramatic reconstructions, revealing that their struggles have continued, despite their achievements.  When the drama-documentary was broadcast, Lech and thousands of others associated with Solidarity were under arrest, following a Polish military takeover.  The crisis was ongoing, and no resolution was in sight.


Lech Walesa ... Ian Holm
Anna Walentynowicz ... Frances Cox
Andrzej Gwiazda ... Jonathan Adams
Bogdan Lis ... Tommy Boyle
Klemens Gniech ... Jon Laurimore
Jurek Borowczak ... Robert Glenister
Ludwik Prondzynski ... Paul Butterworth
Bogdan Felski ... Jon Conway
Piotr Maliszewski ... Simon Molloy
Alina Pienkowska ... ZoŽ Wanamaker
Bogdan Borusewicz ... Eamon Boland
Tadeusz Szczudlowski ... Allan O'Keefe
Ireneusz Lesniak ... Pete Postlethwaite
Josef Wojcik ... Ben Howard
Mieczylaw Jagielski ... David Graham
Dembowski ... John Batty
Wisniewski ... Peter Ivatts
Joseph Przybylski ... Peter Lorenzelli
Father Jankowski ... Graham Weston
Tadeusz Mazowiecki ... Bill McGuirk
Bronislaw Gieremek ... Jay Heaton
Jadwiga Stanizskis ... Barbara Ewing
Zbigniew Szczypinski ... John Abineri
Mazurkiewicz ... Tom Harrison
Ewa Ossowska ... Debbie Bowers
Zolislaw Zlotkowski ... Johnny Leeze
Konrad Bielinski ... Ian Bleasdale
Ewa Milewicz ... Elizabeth Mickery
Silesian ... David Calder
Zbigniew Zielinski ... Harry Goodier
Lech Badkowski ... Frank Elliott
Henryka Kryzwonos ... Poppy Lane
Prof. Jackowiak ... Bernard Atha
Prof. Rajkiewicz ... Len Norton
Prof. Pajestka ... Roger Grainger
Dissident (woman from Wroclaw) ... Rachel Laurence


Writer: Boleslaw Sulik
Director/Producer/Narrator: Leslie Woodhead
Camera: Mike Whittaker
Sound: Phil Smith
Film Editor: Edward Mansell
Casting Director: Doreen Jones
Production Designer: Roy Stonehouse
Production Manager: Roy Jackson
Production Assistant: Sue Pritchard
Costume: Doreen Whiteoak
Make-up: Julie Jackson
Graphics: John Leech


ZoŽ's performance as the determined, bright Alina Pienkowska made a lasting impression on Strike's director/producer, Leslie Woodhead.  He recalls 'how Zoe was already a star [by the time she made the programme], and how she lit up her scenes as a fearless young radical'.

Both Woodhead and Strike's writer, Boleslaw Sulik, went to great lengths to ensure that their drama-documentary provided as accurate a depiction as possible of the emergence of Solidarity.  Strike is informed by first-hand research in Poland, more than a hundred hours of tapes made by the shipyard workers as a record of the negotiations, and interviews with all of Solidarity's leading figures.  Anna Walentynowicz, who was so closely involved with the strike, assisted Woodhead and Sulik as a consultant on the programme, and can be seen at the beginning watching footage of herself and the other key figures.  In addition, Roy Stonehouse's sets were designed to replicate parts of the Lenin shipyard.

This close attention to detail guided the actors' preparation for Strike.  As Sulik commented at the time, in the booklet produced to accompany the programme: 'A week's discussion before the filming, followed during the shoot by briefings from Leslie Woodhead and my added comments provided sufficient background for the actors to sharpen their perceptions.'

Strike was filmed in Liverpool and Manchester, from September to October 1981.  When Lech Walesa and thousands of other people associated with Solidarity were arrested in December 1981, the programme's broadcast (which had been planned for February 1982) was brought forward, highlighting the mounting political tensions in Poland.  Strike was shown again in May the following year: a clear indication that the impact of Solidarity was still being strongly felt.

Strike was a product of the drama-documentary unit that had been established at Granada, in 1977, with the aim of bringing to public attention places and events about which it was difficult to report using conventional documentary techniques.  Reflecting her commitment to socially and politically-aware drama, Zoe appeared in another drama-documentary made by Granada: Enemies of the State (1983), which also examines political struggles in Eastern Europe.

Granada was so pleased with Strike that, in 1982, it nominated the programme for an International Emmy Award in the documentary category.

Solidarity eventually numbered around ten million members, and attracted media interest from around the world.  Today, it is widely regarded as having played a crucial role in the fall of communism.  In addition, Lech Walesa is now well known as a human-rights activist and, during the early 1990s, served as President of Poland.

Press coverage

The Times was impressed by 'the force, clarity and overpowering seriousness' displayed by Strike.  'Scrupulously cast, they never seemed like actors,' the newspaper observed about ZoŽ and her colleagues in the programme, adding that ZoŽ's character seemed 'real and familiar'.


Unfortunately, Strike: The Birth of Solidarity is not available on DVD or in any other format.

Related links

Leslie Woodhead's official website: Strike: The Birth of Solidarity video clip (the clip is about half-way down the page; please note that ZoŽ does not appear in it)

Gdansk-life.com: 'The Story of the Solidarity Movement'

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