Thursday 14 November 2019

'The real stories are worse - they’d be unbearable in a film' - Ken Loach collaborator Paul Laverty on Sorry We Missed You

 

Sorry We Missed You
Sorry We Missed You
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

'I try not to think about it too much," Paul Laverty tells me modestly, but his long association with Ken Loach is among the most remarkable writer/director partnerships in cinema history. Over the past 23 years, they've created 14 unflinching social realist films that have shaken up the British establishment and won numerous international awards including two Palme d'Ors.

Their latest, Sorry We Missed You, wrestles with the thorny issues of unregulated employment and zero-hours contracts. Ricky (Kris Hitchen) thinks his luck has finally changed when he gets a job as a driver with a parcel delivery company. He'll have to buy his own van, but his boss explains that Ricky's now self-employed, and will earn a very decent income if he's prepared to work hard enough.

But with this supposed opportunity comes long hours, no time off and constant pressure to perform. All of which makes life intolerably tough for Ricky at home. His wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood) is a dedicated carer for the elderly who's also saddled with a zero-hours arrangement: with both of them working like dogs, their two kids are left to fend for themselves, and their teenage son is going off the rails.

It's a hard watch, but a brilliant film, and a forensic indictment of the consequences of laissez-faire capitalism that's pretty hard to argue with. "When we were doing I, Daniel Blake," Paul explains, "we went to the food banks, and we were taken aback by the number of people we met who were among the working poor. There used to be contracts for jobs like a delivery man that guaranteed you a fairly decent life, but all that's broken now, the unions are gone, and I don't know what it's like here, but in the UK, three out of four children in poverty have working parents.

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"So all of that fed into our story on this film, as well as this new language of the contracts, where they say to you, you're no longer an employee, you're a warrior of the road, you're an enterprise man, a driver franchisee. It's a massive conjuring trick, because what they do is just transfer all the risk on to you, and people are just pushed to their ultimate limits.

"And it's the same with the carer contracts. What Abby has to deal with in the film is pretty grim, but the real stories we heard are worse, old people starving to death and so on, they'd just be unbearable in a film, you couldn't do it.

"So that's the kind of pressure this couple is under, and remember this is a good family, and so the film asks the big question, what is the point of working if you can't look after your children? And the thing is it's not an accident that Ricky and Abby ended up like that."

At one point in Sorry We Missed You we see a photo of Ricky and Abby standing outside a house they'd just bought together, smiling brightly into what they fondly imagine is a happy future. But the year they bought is 2008, and like many others they would lose everything and end up renting rundown flats.

"I don't know if you'll remember," Laverty explains, "but back in the 1980s, [British government minister] Nicholas Ridley had a plan with [Margaret] Thatcher to smash the trade unions, smash public ownership, privatise everything, and bit by bit, they've succeeded. Now this is the endgame, where trade unions are so neutered that employers can do what they want."

As you may by now have gathered, Laverty is a dyed-in-the-wool socialist, and though he was not impressed with the British Labour Party under Tony Blair and co, he seems to like the cut of Jeremy Corbyn's jib. "I mean, I'm not a member of the Labour Party, but I think that some of Corbyn's ideas would make a massive difference. You have new ways of ownership, and why can't we do it through technology, where the money is not going back to Uber or Google, but back into the community, take control, have public housing.

Thorny issues: screenwriter Paul Laverty’s grandfather hid weapons for the IRA during the Anglo-Irish War
Thorny issues: screenwriter Paul Laverty’s grandfather hid weapons for the IRA during the Anglo-Irish War

"Let's build an economy that serves human needs, looks after our elderly and so on, because I mean in the north of England now they're closing libraries, they're closing swimming pools, pubs, churches, city centres are getting decimated.

"We've just come back from France, and people there are being screwed as well, so these issues transcend Brexit, but my real fear is that if [Boris] Johnson gets back in again, what you'll see is a Singapore-type economy and it'll get even worse, they'll be competing with Ireland to genuflect most before the corporations." Ouch, but fair enough.

From Carla's Song and My Name is Joe to Sweet Sixteen and I, Daniel Blake, Paul Laverty and Ken Loach's combined cinematic output has been formidable, but there's one film that stands above all others as far as this country is concerned. The Wind that Shakes the Barley provided a moving and powerful account of the Anglo-Irish War and Britain's cruel and brutal conduct of it, and led to much controversy after it won the Palme d'Or.

"We've got great memories about everything on that film, the cast, crew, all the people we collaborated with, the brilliant researcher down in Cork, Donal O'Driscoll." Laverty also had a personal connection with the subject. "My own grandfather was apparently hiding weapons for the IRA at that time in Mayo, and I heard the family stories down the years. I knew everything would be seriously contested, so we went to the museums, read the poems, listened to the songs, talked to the children of people in flying columns.

"It was when The Wind that Shakes the Barley won the Palme d'Or that they all went f***ing mad. [UK cabinet office minister] Michael Gove - he hadn't even seen the film, and he said it was a big lie and the paraphrase was that the Republicans always had a peaceful way out and they chose violence. And I mean you know the history better than me." He smiles.

"And now the whole border thing has come back to haunt them. It makes me think of that great line from The Great Gatsby, they're just so careless with people's lives. They don't give a sh*t, you know, and Johnson would sell his mother for a bit of power."

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