“I like working-class people, whose basic know-how I admire and envy.” Thus wrote Luis Buñuel in outlining a few longstanding loves and hates for his memoir My Last Breath. Buñuel, clearly, was no dirty realist, yet this respect for the rugged handiness of the proletariat shone through his work – and nobody ever accused him of slumming it.
Ken Loach would surely stand in solidarity with Buñuel’s sentiment, since for five decades he has been cinema’s foremost advocate of the dignity of labourers, a mission he has defined as “giving a voice to a class.” A master of mise en scène and an intuitive handler of actors, Loach is plainly among the most influential directors alive today.
Yet he wears his honours lightly. No one who has spent any time with Loach has failed to note his essential decency: the tendency to flinch in the face of praise, the steadfast deference to co-workers. Even in sitting down to discuss a pair of eight-disc DVD sets released under the banner of ‘The Ken Loach Collection’, he wants it known that “the people in the office worked very hard to get the rights organised.” As to the cumulative worth of each door-stopping volume, he remarks only that “they’re nice to have as a reminder.”
The proverbial Martian might struggle then to understand why Loach still irks so many commentators. But it’s really a matter of ideological rigour. Loach belongs, mildly but squarely, to that clan of the left (codename: Trotskyist) that maintains a Marxist ‘analysis’ but wants no part of Actually Existing Socialism, much less the crimes of Stalin. Land and Freedom (1995), a drama of schism during the Spanish Civil War, is a brilliant history play, and the director says forthrightly that he and screenwriter Jim Allen were always absorbed by “the struggle on the left between, on the one hand, social democrats and Stalinists, and revolutionaries on the other.” Yet Buñuel, to name but one, would have questioned the ‘analysis’ that led Loach and Allen to impute unimpeachable integrity in that struggle to the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM).
Whatever one feels about the fine debating points, Loach’s engagement and dedication are such that he surely can’t be charged with posturing or hypocrisy. But people do persist. Broadsheet journalists have for years hung around his sets in the hope of catching him in an inauthentic pose. In 1997 the Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead talked her way onto the location of The Flickering Flame, Loach’s documentary about striking Liverpool dockers, and reported that she thought the director ill-at-ease among real-life proletarians, a view she seemed to feel was supported by the fact that Loach wore a leather jacket.
Loach doesn’t let such challenges pass: he told Graham Fuller, editor of Loach on Loach, that he thought Aitkenhead’s piece “despicable”. Producer Tony Garnett, Loach’s comrade in such major works as Kes (1969) and Days of Hope (1975), takes an impish view of why some can be startled by Loach’s bark and bite: “[Ken] has that deceptively quiet, flux-defendant manner that people get taken in by.” When I ask Loach what he reckons to Garnett’s assessment, he only shrugs: “Tony and I both took the piss out of each other with great glee, so I’m prepared to accept everything he throws.” I try another angle: would he grant the view that he is one who speaks softly but carries a big stick? “A bit like [Ole Gunnar] Solksjaer, you mean?” Loach replies with a smile. “The baby-faced assassin?”
This nod to Manchester United’s lately retired Norwegian super-sub is typical of how football crops up in Loach’s conversation. But he is no satellite fan of the People’s Game, remaining a staunch supporter of non-league Bath City FC. His humour has a smack of the terraces too, and those who still imagine Loach’s films to be dour need to know they are really incredibly funny. (In a documentary that accompanies Volume One of the DVD set, My Name Is Joe star Peter Mullan recalls his delight on learning that Kieslowski was an ardent admirer of Loach because he found his films hilarious.)
In common with Riff-Raff (1991) and The Navigators (2001), Loach’s latest picture It’s a Free World received its UK premiere on Channel 4 television – following a night of preview screenings in conjunction with BFI Southbank. Loach is content to take an occasional break from the small, thinly advertised theatrical releases his films tend to receive in the UK (what he calls a “self-fulfilling prophecy” in terms of their box office). He knows at least that he has more features to his name than he feared would be the case back in the 1980s, when he struggled to find work. Instead, his cinematic oeuvre grows more formidable with each passing year. The following discussion deals with the evidence for same as provided by some of the titles in 'The Ken Loach Collection’.
Richard T. Kelly: ‘Cathy Come Home’ (1966) is the single glimpse these box-sets offer of your work during the ‘Wednesday Play’/‘Play for Today’ era at the BBC. Was that project as meaningful to you as history now remembers it?
Ken Loach: For me it was a huge breakthrough. The whole project was about making contemporary fiction for television, to be shown at primetime, with no concessions to the seriousness of the subject matter – but also, stylistically, to make it popular and available, very much the theatre of the people. So every few weeks you’d be working on a new piece, with brilliant writers who were asking all the big questions. And people like Jimmy MacTaggart, Tony Garnett, Roger Smith and Ken Trodd were the engine-room, because they found those writers.
RK: The legend has it that Garnett and yourself figured out how to buck BBC bureaucracy and make 16mm films rather than studio-bound plays on tape.
KL: Up the Junction (1965) was the critical one. I became aware, as others did, that the electronic form of making drama was really like theatre in a TV studio, little sets with cameras poking in. But every production was allowed four days’ filming on location, which in the BBC’s eyes was so you could show people leaving a place, getting into a car and arriving somewhere else. Well, in our four days on Up the Junction we managed to shoot half of what was a 72-minute film. Then in the studio we did it almost entirely in individual shots, not vision-mixed. The bureaucrats went mad and said, ‘This won’t cut on tape.” But they’d already spent a lot of money on the programme and couldn’t just let it go up in smoke. The studio work was always recorded on 16mm as back-up: a thin, grey image, but an image nonetheless. So we said: “Let’s cut the whole thing on 16mm, like a film.” And because they had no choice, they agreed, kicking and screaming and abusing us. Then on Cathy Come Home we were allowed three weeks’ shooting and a day in the studio.
RK: ‘Cathy’ has classic status now and famously led to the founding of the Shelter charity for the homeless. Yet Garnett and yourself have sometimes seemed like the sole sceptics as to the film’s real worth.
KL: It represented where we were at the time. We’d only been at the BBC for two-and-a-half years – we were young and raw, in terms both of work and of political awareness. To us it was a great scandal that families were split up and children couldn’t see their fathers just because they fell through the social-services safety net and hadn’t got anywhere to live. After the film the rules were changed so fathers would be housed with their families. But in reflecting on it, you think, “Well, maybe there are economic structures that cause homelessness, and that’s what you have to examine rather than just doing a journalistic exposé.”
RK: On ‘Cathy’ had you already established your preference for distributing script pages piecemeal to the actors throughout the shoot?
KL: We shot Cathy in sequence and I don’t think we showed the actors the ending. I began at the BBC working on Z Cars, and the system was that you had a read-through with the cast on the first day of rehearsals – and the read-throughs were always very good. Then I would exercise my directorial talents for the next ten days, and destroy everything the actors were doing. So one of the things I learned was don’t have a read-through. And as a director, don’t say obvious things, say as little as possible – because what actors do instinctively is always better than what they do as a result of working it out in their heads.
RK: At what point did you decide that you preferred your crew to avert their eyes from the actors while you were rolling?
KL: Certainly by the time we did Kes. Again, it becomes the natural thing to do. You’re trying to create something intense and private and emotional and you want to allow the actors space to relate to each other. If the crew are just standing around staring at them with their arms folded, you spoil it.
RK: You quite often compose a group scene from a distance with a long lens. Is that also a desire to give the actors more space?
KL: Partly, but it’s also an aesthetic choice. It’s imagining the camera as a pair of eyes that are observing and reflecting on what’s happening, being touched or amused by it. The norm for a scene between three or four people is shot-reverse-shot – constantly breaking it up, the camera jumping all over the room. And I find that invasive and false, because that pair of eyes couldn’t be there in the middle of everybody.
RK: There seems to be a consensus among critics and audiences that ‘Kes’ is your ‘best’ film, or at least your best-loved. If that judgement were to prove final, would it cause you any regret?
KL: Well, no regret for Barry Hines or David Bradley, who was terrific. But it’s not the kind of thing you lose sleep over. I think what captured people’s imaginations was a combination of David’s performance and Barry’s metaphor of the bird soaring while the boy is going to stay behind. We never talked about it while we were filming, but that metaphor is so simple and eloquent. We did another of Barry’s scripts some years later, Looks and Smiles (1981): the writing is just as good and Chris Menges shot it very well but it didn’t have that metaphor.
RK: One gem these box-sets bring to light is ‘The Gamekeeper’, which you made for ITV in 1980, adapted by Hines from his novel and shot in part by Menges.
KL: It’s one of my favourites, I suppose because nobody ever saw it and it was a real joy to make.
RK: Phil Askham plays an ex-steelworker turned estate gamekeeper called George whose mates see him as a bit of a class traitor. But the film is very funny, thanks in large part to Askham’s performance.
KL: Phil was a mate of Barry’s and at the time he was repairing cash-registers for supermarkets. He was very good: a completely dry sense of humour, very typical of South Yorkshire – people relentlessly taking the piss out of each other without so much as a smile crossing their faces.
RK: One of the great scenes is when George makes a show of bringing a succulent pork pie into his local pub, only to have the landlord divvy it up among his mates. Askham looks genuinely crestfallen when he sees the size of his slice.
KL: I told Phil he was going to get half the pie, but then I said to Jackie Shinn, who plays the landlord, “Just leave him a few crumbs...” Jackie also played the pit manager in The Price of Coal (1977), which Barry wrote. He was a deputy at Brodsworth Colliery in South Yorkshire – now shut, of course – and did stand-up comedy in the evenings. What he did very well was crossness – and you always need somebody who gets cross so everybody else takes the piss out of them. Ricky Tomlinson is very good at that too.
RK: In casting these stand-ups alongside the straight actors or semi-professionals, do you ever worry that the comics will...
KL: ...run away with it? In a way you encourage that, because you can always cut. But I find the energy they generate is very creative. There’s always a one-liner coming in from somewhere that keeps everyone laughing. Then when they have to be serious, without exception they’re brilliant. It’s because their whole tradition of comedy is so close to real life – the comedy of poverty and hardship and work, of not having enough money to pay the rent, of getting given ridiculous things to do.
RK: ‘Riff-Raff’ is as funny as ‘The Gamekeeper’, but also angrier, less ironic, and ending in violence. Is it fair to say that your post-1980s films have had harder, bleaker resolutions than your pre-Thatcher work?
KL: I think things got a lot worse, the experience of working-class people became much, much harsher, and we wanted to reflect that. There were big industrial struggles in the 1970s but the struggles of the 1980s were more savage and the defeats far greater. I mean, the plight of Billy Casper in Kes is that he’ll get a job – it just won’t be a job that in any way reflects his potential. But the plight of Liam in Sweet Sixteen (2002) is that the notion of a secure job is fairyland.
RK: As of the mid-1990s you made a number of films that seemed like an ‘internationalisation’ of your concerns. Was that intentional?
KL: Each was a separate decision, but I certainly felt it would be good to widen the frame and not just make films about English working-class life. Land and Freedom was a project Jim and I talked about for a long time. I met Paul Laverty because he dropped me a line after he came back from Nicaragua with the idea for Carla’s Song (1996). But Bread and Roses (2000) was as hard a film as we’ve done because I found Los Angeles such a hostile culture, just a dispiriting place to be. It was horrible to have to get in your car just to go out for a cup of coffee.
RK: Are there key differences in how you work with Paul Laverty as opposed to, say, your previous long-term collaboration with Jim Allen?
KL: Jim was steeped in Labour history and the industrial struggles of the first two-thirds of the 20th century, and he articulated those things in a very idiosyncratic but dramatic way. He had a great ear for the language of working-class argument. Paul has that as well, but we’ve also tried to work at giving the characters more complex psychological roots and at making harder choices within the narrative, so the people you’re supporting do terrible things. Because people are very contradictory, and I think Paul is interested in that.
RK: The theme of betrayal has been a constant not just in the political/historical dramas, but in the films about families and workplaces. Why is it such a powerful draw?
KL: It’s about the effect of economic imperatives on people’s actions. I think people will instinctively support each other and show a mutual respect or generosity, but economic circumstances drive them in other directions. The General Strike in 1926 and Spain are classic examples. It’s true of most people who join the Labour Party too – they join to defend the working class but the consequence is that they attack it.
RK: Quite a few leading directors have hymned the experience of shooting digitally because then they can operate the camera themselves and so be closer to their actors in a smaller technical set-up. Does that appeal?
KL: Not remotely, because I think it completely undervalues the craft of operating. The cameraman constantly has a thousand choices, whether it’s a fractional adjustment of the frame, or to hold and let someone move within it, or to move with that person. And there’s no way you can do that and have an eye on the performance – which includes the actor who isn’t talking, or maybe isn’t even in the frame, because they’re generating the performance of the actor who is. I think people who operate themselves don’t think about the complexity of directing.
RK: Which directors working today do you most admire?
KL: I don’t go to the cinema as often as I should, really. I prefer the terraces, because you don’t know what the end’s going to be. Trouble is, you mention one... but I’d say Shane Meadows is interested in the same sorts of areas as I am. I’m obviously a friend of Mike Leigh’s, with similar interests, though we do very different sorts of films. I liked the film Amma Asante made called A Way of Life.
RK: Have you admired the work of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne?
KL: Yes, I’ve met them, I like them a lot, and their films are terrific – more austere than the stuff that Paul and I do, not so many smiles. But they’re very funny guys to talk to. It’s always the way: the people who do the most sombre films are the most fun to meet. They support Standard Liège, so we always have a good chuckle about the various misfortunes of our respective teams.
Richard T. Kelly
Sight & Sound, v17 n11 November 2007, pages 30-33