Ken Loach: "Last film? I wish I'd never said that"
Ken Loach airs his views on Ireland, retirement and the Queen to Paul Whitington
When you think about it, Ken Loach has done this country some service. While domestic film-makers have tended to avoid investigating our violent, complex past, Loach has explored Irish history recent and distant in three powerful and sometimes controversial movies.
Hidden Agenda (1990) lifted the lid on Britain's alleged shoot-to-kill policy in the North, The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) movingly evoked the tragedy of the Civil War, and now comes Jimmy's Hall, a quieter, smaller film that unearths an old injustice from the early years of this state. Made with his long-term writing partner Paul Laverty, Jimmy's Hall is set in rural Sligo in the early 1930s and is inspired by the true story of left-wing activist James Gralton.
A communist and War of Independence veteran, Gralton returned to Sligo after a long stint in America and turned a hall on his land into a cultural and debating centre for locals. This earned him powerful enemies, and in Loach's film he's hounded out of the country by Free State agents and the local priest.
Jimmy's Hall shines a light on a fascinating time in Irish history, when revolutionary zeal was overtaken by the smothering forces of conservatism. Could it be seen as a sort of tangential sequel to The Wind That Shakes the Barley?
"It's a microcosm," Ken Loach tells me when I meet he and Paul Laverty in Dublin, "rather than a film that tells the whole sweeping narrative, but what interested us was the way the story shows how organisations that start out with a radical, progressive position gradually become entrenched and conservative. It happened with the Russian Communist Party, the British Labour Party, and with the IRA in this case."
"It was fascinating for us," Paul Laverty adds, "to explore what happened ten years on from Barley. James Connolly always said what's the point if we just change the accents of the powerful. The film is set just at the moment when de Valera took power, and there was all this talk of support for the poor farmer, and the working man. But you see how very quickly he tugged the forelock to conservative forces and the Catholic Church. That's all in the background of the film, but this is a true story that took place around a tiny tin hall."
Jimmy's Hall was shot in County Sligo and featured the usual Loach blend of seasoned actors and amateurs. Barry Ward plays Jimmy Gralton, Jim Norton – Bishop Len Brennan from Father Ted – is the interfering parish priest, and first-time actress Aileen Henry plays Jimmy's quiet but indomitable mother.
"Aileen is a wonderful woman," Loach says, "really a joy to be with. She was someone who's spent all her life on a farm, but was also a trade union shop steward when she was working, so she really understood the conflict with the priest, and what Jimmy stood for."
It was a tough shoot, filmed entirely on location with a large cast of extras, and last month an exhausted Ken Loach, who's now 77, hinted that Jimmy's Hall might be his last feature film. Not so, it seems. "I wish I'd never said that," he groans.
"I can understand why he said it though," Laverty adds. "When Ken shoots he's involved with every single person on the set, from casting to shooting and dealing with all the extras. He gets through an amazing amount of work."
"It is a bit of a mountain to climb sometimes," Loach admits, "every day you're faced with Ben Bulben and you've got to get up there! But the support of the crew on Jimmy's Hall was amazing, they're great professionals and good friends, so we have a laugh." So he will be doing more films then? "Yes, just maybe not quite as big as this next time."
Born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1936, Ken Loach learnt his craft in repertory theatre and on television. His groundbreaking 1966 TV drama Cathy Come Home tackled poverty and unemployment, and established him as an up-and-coming talent. He fulfilled his promise with his breakthrough feature Kes, in 1970, the story of a disturbed boy and his friendship with a kestrel, which is now considered one of the greatest British films ever made.
A committed socialist, his films have always carried strong political undertones, but in the 1980s he fell foul of the rising tide of Thatcherism. "Things were happening so fast at that point," he remembers, "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 like Hidden Agenda, Raining Stones and Ladybird, won Ken critical praise at home and a series of awards at Cannes. But he hasn't forgotten those hard years in the 80s, and after Margaret Thatcher's death last year, 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 smiles. This bizarre decision to mount a sendoff overseen by the state – she must have been revolving in her coffin."
Perhaps the most admirable thing about Ken 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 paean to the glories of the postwar British Labour government, The Spirit of '45.
While he sees no chance of his ever being declared a 'national treasure', the prospect fills him with dread. "That's how they neutralise people, isn't it," he says. "They tried it with Tony Benn." He's not entirely convinced by the new entente cordiale between Ireland and Britain, either.
"I did a radio interview here yesterday," he tells me, "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.
"Omagh is still presented as the biggest loss of life in the Troubles, in fact 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."
There's life in the old firebrand yet.
Jimmy's Hall is released nationwide on May 30th.
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent