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Celebrating Ken Loach

For over six decades, Ken Loach – who turns 87 today – has made powerful, committed work that unmasks exploitation and highlights ordinary peoples’ struggles against injustice.

Ken Loach attends 'Sorry We Missed You' photocall during 67th San Sebastian International Film Festival. (Photo by Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images)

What else is there to be said about Ken Loach? Plenty, it turns out. As British Cinema’s go-to socialist turns 87, having recently announced that his latest film, The Old Oak, is likely to be his last, Loach’s filmography is a gift that continues to give. Six decades deep, his has been a career of permutations and variations, a persistent and valiant long-term project defiantly committed to validating certain voices and viewpoints within a system equally dedicated to marginalising if not outright eradicating them.  

If Loach’s vision takes the form of riffs on a theme, the theme is—indelibly, inescapably—capitalism, and its effects on ordinary people. By virtue of his own longevity, Loach has captured the slow-burn violence of capital (and the revolutionary moments that have ruptured it), its tedious powers of disguise and self-reinvention, its constant and inevitable propulsion towards xenophobia, racism and fascism. Just as global capitalism has compelled the British state to continually outdo itself when it comes to trialling ever-new means of mass immiseration and stretching to increasingly comical lengths to normalise broadscale misery, Loach and his collaborators have personified a certain kind of double-down doggedness, a kind of multi-pronged, rinse-and-repeat mode of survival and confrontation. 

There are the narrative tropes, yes. The angry, troubled men whose toils and temperaments are framed as if to serve the singular function of illustrating that being really does determine consciousness. There are the redemptive arcs, the awkward transnational romances, and in recent years the ‘deserving poor’ stereotypes; all scaffolds from which to mount searching, moving depictions of human hope amidst systemic indifference and political disillusionment. Such depictions are often aided by transcendental, career-best performances. I’m thinking here of Robert Carlyle in Riff-Raff (1991), of Bruce Jones in Raining Stones (1993), of Peter Mullan in My Name Is Joe (1998), of Martin Compston in Sweet Sixteen (2002), of Chrissy Rock in Ladybird, Ladybird (1994)—the latter two, remarkably, being screen debuts. 

But there are the formal techniques too. Loach’s tendency, for example, in early works especially, to film from afar with a flattening, documentarian lens—framing performers such as David Bradley, playing Billy Casper in Kes (1969), against Barnsley’s since-demolished Barrow Colliery in such a way that the relationship between protagonist and backdrop appears properly lived-in, felt, genuine. Or those never-not-exciting sequences in which Loach films a politically crucial debate unfolding between two groups of people, in shot-reverse shot mode, in razor-sharp period features such as Land and Freedom (1993) and The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)—a technique borrowed from his own earlier docudramas, which gives time and space to a politics that feels sincerely dialectical, of consequence, abundant with the spontaneity and collective action that make history. 

The Cinema of Socialism

Repeating oneself—as this critic once wrote in reference to the similarly persistent dramatist John McGrath—is a socialist’s prerogative; if you’ve learned one lesson under prevailing economic horrors, you’ve learned them all. In this sense, Loach’s practice can be viewed as a form of activism, uncompromising in its attempt to translate complex issues into chewable if not always palatable dramatic snapshots.

These challenges have brought the director into conflict with commissioners, funders and censors throughout his career. Such antagonists include the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, the British Board of Film Classification, the Central Office of Information, and the Save the Children Fund. The latter, having commissioned Loach, via London Weekend Television, to make a documentary on its own work in Kenya in 1971, withdrew the resulting film from circulation until 2011 due to its depiction of what the biographer of Loach’s producer Tony Garnett described as the charity’s ‘neo-colonial attitude towards indigenous cultures’. This is to say nothing of the mainstream media’s pernicious attacks on Loach—most significantly, perhaps, when The Wind That Shakes the Barley won the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, which provoked the ire of Murdoch-backed journalists and even Michael Gove, then Education Secretary, who collectively denounced the film as poisonous, pro-IRA propaganda. (Tellingly, Loach, has had to rely increasingly on overseas investment to get his films made.) 

Working across television, shorts, documentaries, narrative features and even Labour party broadcasts—long before Starmer’s Labour expelled him, in 2021—Loach has been a regular thorn in the establishment’s side due to an acute and longstanding sense of the topical. His early teleplays and docudramas for the BBC’s Wednesday Play anthology series centre on issues such as capital punishment (3 Clear Sundays, 1965), abortion (Up the Junction, 1965) and homelessness (Cathy Come Home, 1966), all from a working-class perspective at a time when public debate around such issues were at or nearing a peak.

Even when Loach has actually repeated himself, it’s felt politically essential. That his film Family Life and teleplay The Rank and File, both released in 1971, so closely resemble his own 1967 and 1969 teleplays In Two Minds and The Big Flame, respectively, implies an understanding on Loach’s part of the enduring necessity to look and look again at the same old problems—as if to do so will eventually yield new ways of thinking, new ways of attuning audiences to ongoing challenges. (While In Two Minds and Family Life centre on the medical mistreatment of mental illness, The Big Flame and The Rank and File both dramatise strike actions, and share Loach, playwright Jim Allen and cast members among their credits.)  

Reflecting capital’s dual character—its domestic divisions, its colonial demands—Loach has proven himself to be as inexhaustible as the system he so obviously opposes. To any leftist dirty enough to also like films, there’s at least one scene across Loach’s work for just about every unjust scenario and galling predicament that you might dare to dream of—or, yes, live through. (When the Queen died last year, my first thought was of The Price of Coal, Loach’s brilliant 1977 two-parter for telly, written by Kes author Barry Hines and made for the Silver Jubilee in the same year Loach rejected an OBE, which depicts a mining tragedy in a close-knit community against the backdrop of a royal visit.) 

In other words, because they are to varying degrees about capitalism, Loach’s films are to varying degrees about everything. Taken in its totality, this is a project able to articulate the ways in which capital itself is as responsible for the fate of an otherwise throwaway interracial romance (Ae Fond Kiss, 2004) as much as for Pinochet’s US-backed coup d’etat in 1973 Chile (as covered in Loach’s invigoratingly incendiary contribution to the 2002 anthology film 11’09″01 September 11).  

More often than not, the schema and conventions at play in Loach’s films are characterised by and rooted in historical, geographical and cultural specifics. Even if this Gateshead-born and -raised critic cringed at Loach’s more recent collaborations with writer Paul Laverty— I, Daniel Blake (2015) and Sorry We Missed You (2019), both shot in and around Newcastle Upon Tyne and about the doomed travails of a benefits claimant and a delivery driver respectively— there seems in retrospect to have been a conscious decision on the makers’ part to meet the heightened starkness of neoliberalism with a wilfully simplified form of storytelling, a strategically deliberate avoidance of dramatic complication, which turns out to have been historically and culturally specific after all; the creative equivalent, to my mind, of trying to outflank Tories by adopting their policies. If I could just about forgive the dodgily uneven Geordie accents in these films, I did ask, in reference to the self-described ‘big nasty bastard’ boss who makes gig-economy delivery driver Ricky’s life hell in Sorry We Missed You: isn’t it that capitalism thrives despite people’s best intentions rather than because of their worst? 

At its best, though, Loach’s work fizzes with belly-twisting, throat-choking emotional power as it lends dramatic form to the abundant collisions and exceptional contradictions that make everyday existence under capitalism so crushing for so many. That I have been moved to tears when watching even Loach’s more schematic films is testament to the moments that live and endure in them. Commonly, such moments involve financially besieged, perennially stressed protagonists being reduced to tears, defeated by unexpected gestures of human kindness. For both the characters and for me, these moments are instinctive, non-monetisable disruptions to capital’s flow, capital’s dominance, capital’s eternally extractive function. They are, that is, crystal-clear assertions of a better, less unpleasant world: a world in which patience, warmth, connection and solidarity might prevail.