Storyteller of the forgotten underclass - Ken Loach
Published 16/10/2016 | 02:30
Politics has always featured strongly in Ken Loach's work, but it's such an important part of his new film that it might as well be a character in its own right. I, Daniel Blake, which opens here next week, stars Dave Johns as a Newcastle carpenter who's forced to reassess his life after he suffers a major heart attack.
Told by his doctors that he's too sick to work, and warned by social services that he can't get benefit until he starts looking for work, Daniel Blake finds himself caught in the middle of a Kafkaesque nightmare of soulless bureaucracy and red tape. He finds a welcome distraction when he meets Katie (the excellent Hayley Squires), a single mother-of-two from London who's been transplanted to the north-east by the vagaries of a labyrinthine welfare system.
She struggles to find her feet in this new environment, and is on the point of making a big mistake when Daniel comes to her rescue. In one unforgettable scene, Katie is visiting a food bank when she gets so overcome by hunger that she opens a tin of beans and starts surreptitiously eating them. It's heartbreaking, and a bold statement of Loach's staunchly socialist, old left politics.
Not that it was needed: since he first made his mark in the mid-1960s, Loach has specialised in telling the forgotten stories of ordinary people and railing against the arrogance and callousness of the Tory ruling class. He's done so independently, on tight budgets and in challenging circumstances, and at one point was forced to make TV ads to make ends meet.
But his dedication to a singular vision has been remarkable, and though he's just turned 80, age has not dimmed his political passion. Earlier this year, Loach made an hour-long promotional video for British Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, and has never concealed his loathing for Tony Blair and New Labour. He's an old school, far-left firebrand, a species one might have thought was extinct, but his best films have soared far above mere agitprop.
Fifty years ago next month, Loach made his breakthrough with an unforgettably powerful TV drama called Cathy Come Home. Born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, in 1936, Loach had initially learnt his craft in repertory theatre, but found a natural home on the BBC's Wednesday Play series, which ran from 1964 to 1970 and showcased the talents of a new breed of ideologically driven left-wing writers and film-makers.
Loach tackled capital punishment in Three Clear Sundays, and backstreet abortions in Up the Junction, but it was Cathy Come Home that stuck in everyone's mind. It examined the corrosive effects of a poverty trap, and starred Carol White as a desperate mother who can only watch and wail as a callous and indifferent state takes her children into care.
The original broadcast was watched by 12 million people and led to much debate and a public outcry: it also gave Loach the clout to begin making feature films. His first, Poor Cow (1967), again explored the hidden stories of Britain's underclass, in this case a young woman who faces an uncertain future after having a child with a violent criminal.
His next, the 1969 drama Kes, is now considered one of the greatest British films ever made, but its uncompromising agenda was not universally popular at the time. The story of a teenage Barnsley boy who escapes his troubled home life by bonding with a bird of prey, Kes became a word-of-mouth success in the UK but was met with general befuddlement in the United States, partly on account of Loach's insistence on working in an undiluted Yorkshire dialect.
His trademark working style was already in place: using untrained or unknown actors to tell unvarnished working-class stories that reflected real people's lives. His robust social realism wasn't for everyone, and through the 1970s and 80s, finance became harder and harder to find.
Between 1969 and 1979, he only managed to get two feature films made, and after the Save the Children Fund commissioned him to make a documentary about their work, they were so offended by its accusations of neo-colonialism that they tried to have the negative destroyed.
In 1977, when he was awarded an OBE for his work on Kes and Cathy Come Home, Loach turned it down. "It's not a club you want to join," he commented, "when you look at the villains who've got it. It's all the things I think are despicable: patronage, deferring to the monarchy and the name of the British Empire, which is a monument of exploitation and conquest". Tell us what you really think, Ken.
Not surprisingly, things got worse in the 1980s, when he fell foul of the rising tide of Thatcherism. "Everything was happening so fast at that point," Loach recalled when I interviewed him a couple of years back, "mass unemployment and the miners' strike, and all those things were tumbling on top of you.
"You wanted to intervene, and the idea of doing a feature film which would take three years to come to fruition, it seemed detached from what was actually going on.
"I got bewildered by it in one sense, in that I didn't find projects that would really match the situation. So several documentaries I made got banned, I did a theatre piece called Perdition about Zionism, and that got banned. It got to the stage where I couldn't direct traffic never mind movies."
That all changed in the early 1990s, when a string of brilliant films, including Hidden Agenda (1990), Raining Stones (1993), Ladybird, Ladybird (1994) and Land and Freedom (1995), won Ken critical praise at home and a series of awards at the Cannes Film Festival, where he remains a much-loved favourite.
In fact, the last two decades or so have been a golden period of creatively and recognition for Loach, who's now internationally revered as one of Britain's greatest and most fearless film-makers.
But he never forgot those hard years in the 1980s, and after Margaret Thatcher's death in 2013, Loach made the helpful suggestion that the late prime minister's state funeral should be privatised and awarded to the highest bidder.
"Well, it was a bit ironic, wasn't it," he told me. "This bizarre decision to mount a send-off overseen by the state - she must have been revolving in her coffin."
Perhaps the most admirable thing about Loach is how doggedly he's stuck to his principles down the years, and refused the temptation to compromise. He's an unreconstructed socialist, as he proved in his brilliant but hopelessly partisan 2013 documentary Spirit of '45, which sung the praises of Clement Attlee's post-war British Labour government.
He's made some very interesting films about this country over the years as well (see below), and is not entirely convinced by the new entente cordiale between Ireland and Britain.
"I did a radio interview in Ireland," he told me during one of our interviews, "and I was asked what did I think of Michael D Higgins going to see the queen, and wasn't I in favour of all this progress?
"And my answer was that the problem with this new friendship is that it's based on a lie, and that lie has to be acknowledged - that the British state has caused the problems that Irish people have faced, and that the violence has not been done by the Irish to the British, it's the other way around."
He has a problem, too, with the fact that the Omagh bombing has consistently been presented as the biggest loss of life during the Troubles.
"In fact," he told me, "it was the Dublin and Monaghan bombs, those bombs have been written out of our story, and this is a false friendship because it's based on lies.
"Until that's acknowledged, well I think Michael Higgins should have given two fingers to the queen."
No wonder the British establishment has always had it in for him.
It could - and has - been argued that if Loach hadn't been quite so preoccupied with social justice, the class system and inequality, he might have made better movies.
But while at times the political subtexts of his films are so overbearing they practically become the texts - his latest feature being a perfect case in point - I'm not sure I agree.
Because if you remove the socialism and social realism from Loach's work, I'm not quite sure what you'd be left with. It's part of what makes him unique.
Loach and Ireland
When you think about it, Ken Loach (inset) has done this country some service. Because, while domestic film-makers have tended to avoid investigating our complex, violent past, Loach has explored Irish history in three powerful and controversial movies. His 1990 film Hidden Agenda lifted the lid on Britain's alleged shoot-to-kill policy in the North, and starred Frances McDormand as a human-rights campaigner who stumbles across evidence of it. It won the Jury Prize at Cannes, but outraged the Conservative establishment, with one Tory MP describing it as "the IRA entry at Cannes".
Another, earlier embodiment of the IRA was dramatised in The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), which starred Cillian Murphy as a young doctor in 1920s Cork who's about to emigrate when he's pulled into the battle between a local flying column and the Black and Tans. It was powerful stuff, and won Loach his first Palme d'Or. And the director and his writer Paul Laverty returned to Ireland in 2014 with Jimmy's Hall, a thoughtful and provocative drama set in 1932, when a Leitrim communist is driven out of his community by zealous churchmen and a complicit state. So much for the revolution, Loach seemed to be saying.