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Britain’s Socialist Cinema Master

Ken Loach

Ken Loach sits down with Tribune to discuss his career, the opportunities for political cinema today, and why artists should unmask exploitation and highlight ordinary peoples’ struggles against injustice.

Ken Loach on the set of The Old Oak, the director’s final film

(Photo by Joss Barratt / Sixteen Films)

Interview by
Karl Hansen

After several previous abortive attempts at ‘retirement’, Ken Loach announced earlier this year that he would be retiring from cinema. The 87-year-old’s latest release, The Old Oak — said to be his last — brings to a close a career spanning seven decades and dozens of films, documentaries, and television dramas.

In 1966, Loach’s breakthrough came with the release of Cathy Come Home, a TV drama depicting a young couple’s descent into poverty and homelessness. It was watched by an audience of 12 million (a quarter of the British population), catapulted homelessness onto the national agenda, and inspired the creation of the charities Crisis and Shelter. His career would continue as it began, with an unwavering focus on the lives of ordinary people and the political forces that shaped them.

Moving to the big screen, 1969’s Kes — a heart-wrenching story of a young boy and his pet kestrel amid the stifling oppression of the stratified education system — is widely regarded as one of the greatest British films of all time. These trademark humane portrayals of working-class life and a commitment to unmasking injustice would come to define Loach’s social realism as an unmistakable style in world cinema.

In the latter part of his career, rather than softening or becoming reflective, Loach’s focus on challenging injustice only sharpened — often drawing the ire of the political establishment. The Wind that Shakes the Barley, about the Irish fight for freedom after the First World War, would earn the director his first Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006.

In an impactful flourish to finish up his career, I, Daniel Blake’s peerless exposure of the British welfare system’s austere cruelty won him his second Palme in 2016, while the rawness of Sorry We Missed You — which concerned a man from the North East trapped in a spiral of debt and brutally casualised work — was also met with widespread acclaim.

These themes are returned to with a specific angle in his final film, The Old Oak. At once a rare story about the fate of Syrian refugees forced to settle in a Durham ex-mining town and the deprivations of the long-standing residents who receive them, the film is a delicate and sensitive portrayal of the common divisions and bigotry fostered by the dreadful social conditions and lack of dignity which sustains such ideas; it is also a moving portrayal of commonality between struggling peoples, and how differences can be easily overcome.

To discuss The Old Oak and his wider body of work, Loach sat down with Tribune’s Karl Hansen to discuss his career, the opportunities for political cinema today, and the responsibility of artists to display what is wrong — and inspire people to challenge such injustice.


There are far fewer politically conscious films in the mainstream now than at any point during your career. Why do you think that is?


It’s the law of the market. The free market reduces competition. It always has. Little companies are taken out by bigger companies driven by commerce and profit-making rather than creating films with their own individual voice.

Hollywood and streaming services work to a formula that dominates the industry and is responsible for the overwhelming majority of films that are made. We don’t have an indigenous film industry except around the fringes and independent British films, but it’s very hard to make them and even harder to get a presence in the cinema. And so many talented people are making political films that are seen mainly at film festivals.


You began your career making films for the BBC when you were in your mid-twenties. How important was that work, and would young directors have the same opportunities today?


Television was essential for my generation. When we began at the BBC, there wasn’t the micromanagement you get now. That meant that the writer’s vision, aided by the director and the producer, was the one that was carried through, not the vision of the executive producer or whoever. And that led to a lot of original work. Some of it wasn’t very good, but there was the possibility of extending the range, whereas, at the moment, the range gets narrower and narrower.

Those opportunities don’t exist today. There is a lot of support for first-time directors by public bodies, which is fine, but in terms of mainstream work, it’s quite difficult. The industry wants people with experience because they’ve got to deliver the formula. My fear is that a lot of people coming out of film school try to join the industry for a few years and then drift away because the options are limited.


You made Cathy Come Home for the BBC when there were only two TV channels. Does the fragmented way we consume media today mean it’s more difficult for films to have the same impact?


When we did films like Cathy, there were actually two and a half channels — BBC Two was just starting out. Half the nation would watch it at the same time and they would talk about it the next day. Now, the audience is much more fragmented, so it doesn’t have that immediate impact.

We were also used to concentrating for longer. The effect of the digital world has been to fragment people’s attention span, so everything is reduced to sound bites and clips. Following a complex story with different characters and how the relationships between them develop — I think it’s harder for people when their diet is not that.


Rather than becoming louder to compete for attention in a fragmented media environment, your films have become quieter and more stylistically understated. Was that a conscious response?


Absolutely, yes. When I began, it was the other way around, actually. For television dramas, you moved from one set in the studio to another, shot it continuously, and it was mixed in the control room — it was like a recorded play. It was staid, predictable, and stultifying. And we struggled against that, using our youthful cheek to break the rules.

We would use music, handheld shots, [and] jump cuts, and chase the action, learning a trick or two from the French New Wave. It had that kind of energy and something of a handheld documentary about it. It was fast cut, fast-paced, and that’s how we began.

Then I worked with a wonderful cameraman called Chris Menges. We both had a fondness for the Czech New Wave in the ’60s: they were humane and classically made films and really quite observational. Chris and I talked about what they were doing, and Chris said the most important thing is what’s in front of the camera, not the camera doing tricks. And so, after that, we began to work towards an observational style, where the camera is a person in the room or is the person in the back of a car.

We refined that style over the years, and the last three films have been really quite austere by comparison to some of the earlier ones. I think the more rigorously you can construct an aesthetic around that, the more believable the film becomes, because it imposes a lens that more or less corresponds to the human eye.


I find that the stripped-back style encourages a more empathetic way of engaging with the characters.


I hope so. I think that discipline clarifies. It simplifies, it draws people in. It reflects into everything: camera, editing, lighting, and sound.

Chris and I looked at the way the Czech films were lit. He’d learned that working with a Czech cameraman, Miroslav Ondříček. We had this sense that what was in front of the camera had to be authentic, it had to be true, it had to be credible. You have to get to know and empathise with people, and you can’t do that if the camera is chasing around all the time. With editing, you cut when your eye would move, not in anticipation of someone who’s going to speak, because you don’t know they’re going to speak.

There should be an internal logic about every aspect of filmmaking that refers back to [the thought]: ‘I’m just a person observing this, but I’m not neutral. I want to understand. I want to empathise, and I want to share the experience of the people I’m watching.’


Your films explore issues such as the gig economy, workplace safety, and the welfare system, which can seem quite dry. What’s the key to turning these into entertainment?


By working with a good writer. I’m very lucky to have worked with Paul Laverty for thirty years now. We are a partnership, and we talk pretty well every day. Topics emerge as things of mutual interest and concern, and generate anger or whatever. Out of that, Paul will write a couple of characters or a situation, and we’ll talk about it, and then out of that, he’ll write a story, and we’re into it.

Directing and writing are different skills, different jobs. Most directors can’t write a postcard — that’s maybe an exaggeration, but I think there’s a kind of heresy now that in order to be a filmmaker, which is a term I don’t like, you have to do both, and that’s very destructive because a writer’s talents are something you can’t learn. You can learn the technique of writing in different ways, but the raw talent of putting dialogue on a page that lives, you can’t teach that.

When you find someone who not only has that, but also sees the world in the same way, makes the same basic analysis of the world — that it’s based on the fundamental struggle between class interests that are in conflict, the fundamental issues of opposition to all forms of imperialism, and so on — then you’ve hit the jackpot, and I was lucky enough to find that.


A common theme in your films is the dignity and decency of ordinary people in the face of systems that dehumanise us. I was curious: do you consider yourself to be an optimistic director?


Well, you’ve got to be a realist. But the main thing is to try to find optimism in realism. What’s interesting is that films will often show working-class people as victims in need of support, but very rarely do you see their strength, their collective strength, and the politics on which it is based. I can’t remember the last time I saw not only collective action but the political analysis on which it’s based, which is the class struggle and the irreconcilable conflict at the heart of society. You don’t see that because the ruling class doesn’t want to allow it.

I think that’s what we try to show. Obviously, you can’t do it in every film, or else every film would end with your fist in the air, and that’s rather shallow work. But the essence of the strength of the working class with the potential to make the fundamental changes to revolutionise society — that you don’t often hear. And I think that’s something we’ve tried to indicate when it’s part of the story. As I say, you can’t parachute it in as propaganda. It’s got to be embedded in the story in which the strength of the working class organised on a political programme reflects a political analysis. Then we’re in business.


You can see that with The Old Oak, which deals with how material grievances can find expression in xenophobia and prejudice, as well as how solidarity can confront and overcome it.


It was to show how racism can arise and gain purchase among people who are not hardcore racists. The characters are in a situation where they have no viable future. They’re in a community where the shops are closing, all the public facilities are gone, the infrastructure is gone, and schools have gone to the neighbouring village. It’s a desperate, abandoned place. And people just get bitter and angry, and then they’re susceptible to the propaganda. God knows there’s enough of it with people like Suella Braverman and the Tory Party as a whole. They’re talking about invasions, swarms, and the rest.

Claire Rodgerson, who plays Laura, the young activist, works as that in real life, working for an organisation combatting the ideas of the far right among young people. She is really brilliant and terrific in the film.

But there’s another tradition in the village, which is the tradition from the miners’ union, that came to the fore during the ’84 strike, of solidarity and supporting each other: the food kitchens many of the women set up in each village so that miners didn’t starve, and travelling abroad to raise funds and to tell other mining communities and other trade unions about their struggle, looking for support.

People grew enormously during the strike. It was a terrible time and they didn’t win, but it was a time of real education for a lot of working-class people. The tradition of solidarity was built into the industry because your life depended on the man working next to you. So that tradition is also there among the older people and some of the young ones who pick it up. It’s those two tendencies within that community that I think illuminate each other.

Still from The Old Oak (Sixteen Films)

Earlier this year, you received a standing ovation at the Locarno Film Festival before returning to Britain, where you were subject to confrontational, hectoring interviews. Why does the international press seem to engage more seriously with your work?


My support for Jeremy Corbyn prompted it. But there have been attacks all the way through the different films we’ve done. When we did The Wind that Shakes the Barley, one headline asked: ‘Why Does This Man Hate His Country?’ A Tory MP wrote that I was a worse propagandist than Leni Riefenstahl. Simon Heffer in The Telegraph was on top form. He said, ‘I haven’t seen the film and I don’t want to see it, because I don’t need to read Mein Kampf to know what a louse Hitler was.’ And this was in a respected — well, respected by some — broadsheet newspaper. Of course, everyone on the Left gets abused, particularly if you have an independent view on foreign policy.

The international response to The Old Oak has been amazing. The difference is that the Europeans have a different, broader concept of cinema. There are different traditions — like Italian neorealism, which was very radical, and the French New Wave — that aren’t so formulaic as the American industry. There are many different traditions, all to be cherished.

European cinema is much broader, and they’re more accustomed to seeing films that break the mould of the restricted American idea of what films are. They’re much more open to the kind of things we do. We’ve been lucky. If it weren’t for France, Italy, and other countries, we wouldn’t have had a career. With The Wind that Shakes the Barley, when we were lucky enough to win the Palme d’Or, there were forty prints at one time in Britain, so it was on at forty cinemas when it opened. In France, it was over 400. And that’s the difference: in the preparedness to engage with the kind of films we’ve tried to make.


Do artists have a responsibility to be political?


Pursuing any kind of artistic endeavour involves looking at the world, evaluating it, and recreating it in the work you do. If you look outwards, that leads to a judgement about the way the world is, and, unless you’re completely blank, that leads to opinions. Alongside that, we are citizens first and foremost. You don’t get a free pass for civic responsibility if you happen to be in the lucky position I’ve been in.

It is a pity that there’s a generation now who grew up under Thatcher when political engagement was no longer seen as a good thing. In the ’60s, commitment in art was seen as a very positive idea. It was encouraged. French directors brought the Cannes Film Festival to a halt in ’68 in solidarity with the students and workers fighting for political change. I mean, imagine directors doing that now.

You have to get organised; you have to be kindred spirits. Whereas now, the Thatcher generation sees it as individuals, just individuals, everyone fighting each other. That changing consciousness was one of the triumphs of Thatcher, endorsed by Blair and now endorsed again by Starmer. So there is a need to rediscover the sense that political commitment is a part of film, because film is a very public medium. If you stay silent, you’re approving the rotten system.