The true state of every nation is the state of common life.
Samuel Johnson, 1775
It’s easy to admire and respect Ken Loach’s work, both in television and film, and also to dismiss it as bound by political ideas that have little relevance in today’s world. Talk about class, and questions about which side you are on in a class struggle, can seem almost grotesquely outdated in a society in which the emphasis is increasingly upon personal identity, choice and individual freedoms. Yet Loach continues to speak in terms that many, if not most, have consigned to the dustbin of history. He thinks that the ‘future lies in common ownership and democratic control, and freedom from the exploitation of the market’ (unless otherwise noted, quotations are from The South Bank Show: A Profile of Ken Loach, 1993), and in his 2013 The Spirit of ’45 provided an impassioned history lesson on behalf of the welfare state.
It’s a lesson that needs to be learned, he insists, as the after-effects of the ‘tidal wave’ of ‘attacks’ on the welfare state by Thatcherism in the United Kingdom continue to make their inroads into cherished institutions, including the much-loved National Health Service (NHS). It’s a lesson that is the subtext of Loach’s films, which, in their often brutal realism, remind the viewer that the bromides of the market and mass media don’t assuage want and despair, don’t make up for unemployment and homelessness. Loach’s films offer a devastating critique of what happens to men and women in the transaction of their everyday lives when many of the underlying assumptions necessary for the health of any group are under attack, or have already broken down, including the very idea of something existing beyond the individual: society, that thing which we recall Margaret Thatcher declaring to be non-existent.
Loach was a grammar-school lad, as he puts it. According to Tony Garnett, his long-time friend and producer, the young Loach ‘looked like a bank clerk…well mannered… He doesn’t seem to be a danger to anyone [but] there he is, the most left-wing subversive director this country has ever had’ (Louise Osmond, Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach, 2016). Loach began as a trainee director for the BBC and was soon one of a handful of directors working on the Wednesday Play, a groundbreaking series that ran from 1964 until 1970. The earliest plays had been shot in the studio, but Loach took his actors outside, shooting action on hand-held cameras on location. He wanted the camera to act as a sympathetic observer watching the action, outside it.
Among the plays he directed was Cathy Come Home, in 1966; like the other stand-alone dramas he directed for the series, it showed working-class lives. The plays were a revelation and a kind of revolution: working-class lives had seldom been the topic of BBC plays. Cathy Come Home revealed the extent of homelessness in London to its audience of twelve million people, then one quarter of the population, through the story of a young family losing one home after another through unemployment and bad luck. Cathy goes from pillar to post looking for somewhere to stay and, exceeding her time limit in a dormitory-like shelter, is finally turned out with her two small children. She is reduced to settling on a bench in the ticketing hall of a mainline railway station. Social workers literally tear the children from her arms. The film’s narrative is disrupted now and then, Brechtian style, by voice-overs in which Cathy narrates her story. Cathy’s isn’t the only disrupting voice. The other is male and matter-of-fact and intones in received standard pronunciation the numbers of homeless people in London and the regions, the insufficiency of shelters, and the failure of councils to build affordable homes as Cathy is thrown out of her slum home and looks hopelessly for a room.
On the evening of transmission the BBC’s switchboard shut down, overwhelmed by the sheer number of calls from people offering help. Little actual change occurred as a result of the program, to the disappointment of Loach and Garnett, who were seen by politicians of ‘various hues’ who congratulated them on a ‘valuable contribution’ to ‘understanding the problem’. The extent to which the ‘establishment can absorb cries of anguish and protest’ was ‘salutary and politicising’, Loach says. Among Loach’s nine other Wednesday Plays, all shot outside the studio, were Up the Junction (1965), Three Clear Sundays (1965) and The Big Flame (1969), taking abortion-law reform, capital punishment and striking dock workers as themes.
Loach’s feature film Kes (1969), ranked seventh on the British Film Institute’s list of 100 best British films of the twentieth century—a list that begins with Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) and ends with Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields (1984)—opens onto a dimly lit room with a rumpled double bed full-screen. A figure gropes around for an alarm clock. Billy, who is in his final year at school—he is fifteen—urges his spiteful half-brother, Jud, who works in the local mine, out of the bed they share. Later that day Billy roams the countryside around his hometown, Barnsley. It’s one of the places in which George Orwell lived, on and off, while writing The Road to Wigan Pier. Its desolate urban areas are spotted with remnants of the woodland and upland moor that surround the town. Billy’s a bird fancier and has seen a kestrel in flight nearby. Trying to borrow a book about training hawks and kestrels from the local library, he is turned away, so, wanting to get on with the job in hand, Billy visits a second-hand bookshop, and slips a suitable book inside his jacket.
Bullied at school by most of his teachers, whose teaching methods seem to depend upon humiliation and sadism of one kind or another, he is thought of as pretty hopeless, and thinks of himself as someone who can never duck trouble. He drifts and daydreams, gets into fights, falls asleep in school assembly, and is rewarded by being forced to play soccer in borrowed kit outrageously too large for him. The scenes of the football match are among the most memorable of any of Loach’s. Brian Glover’s wonderful performance as the sadistic teacher is still referred to when those who didn’t like PE at school remember how truly awful their own PE teachers were.
Meanwhile, Billy has been training the kestrel, taken from the nest. His day revolves around the bird, a female he calls Kes, and he eventually achieves the height of training when, flying free, she returns on his call. This seems redemptive: he has mastered a very difficult and demanding task. Clearly he is intelligent and patient, and capable of working alone under difficult circumstances. Won’t this lead to a breakthrough, to the recognition of his capacities that will bring him some praise at last? Well, that would be a different film.
There is no ending to any of Loach’s films that isn’t the clear outcome of the drama itself; there’s no magical or feel-good thinking to reassure viewers that, actually, all is right with the world. At an interview with an employment officer, during which he is offered the possibility of an apprenticeship, Billy behaves as he does at school: he doesn’t pay attention, he doesn’t ask questions—he’s really not interested. Nothing in his life has led him to imagine what the offers of employment might mean, or how they might enhance his life chances. As much as he doesn’t want to go down the mine, it seems almost certain that he will. At home, Jud has left a note asking Billy to put money on a couple of horses. Billy takes bad advice at the betting shop and, believing that Jud’s bet is not a winning one, blows the money on fish and chips. By this time we fear the worst: the horses win. Jud then kills Kes.
Amid a cast of mostly unknown and unprofessional actors, Kes and the boy who trained her, played by David Bradley (now known as Dai Bradley), remain in the memory of many who saw the film on first release, some forty years ago. The marvel of the northern English voices, the awfulness of the school and in particular the loathsome PE teacher make up part of its lasting impressions, but more importantly it is the realism of the film and its characters that is remembered. By the time he came to make Kes, Loach’s technique was well under way. Beginning with the story and script, he then undertakes a series of auditions. He’s looking for people who have experienced in their own lives the kinds of issues that his filmed characters will have. ‘The most precious thing you’ve got’, he says, ‘is the actor’s instinct’. He takes his actors through the story so that they may ‘put themselves in that position’ and ‘really experience it’ as the film is shot. His films are shot in sequence, the actors only reading the script for the day’s shooting at most a day in advance, sometimes only when they arrive on set. The result is an immediacy of emotion and naturalism of dialogue and delivery that often suggests improvisation, though, as Loach says, the dialogue is mostly scripted.
Kes is a very English film. Billy resonates with Thomas Hardy’s Jude, and other similar working-class characters whose intelligence and fortitude fail to provide them with the reward that readers and audience so much want for them. Just as Hardy wrote in condemnation of the attitudes of mind and politics in Victorian England, Loach’s film shows how powerfully and tragically similar attitudes and politics persist.
In the 1980s, in response to the changes created by Thatcherism, Loach made a series of documentaries, many of which were banned. His four documentaries for Channel Four entitled Questions of Leadership, about the role of union leadership and its response to the Thatcher government, have never been shown. They argued that union bosses betrayed the workers. His documentary on the miners’ strike, Which Side Are You On?, which I remember watching with growing disbelief and dismay on a tiny television in a rented house in Cambridge in 1985, was finally shown on Channel Four; it had been commissioned by Melvyn Bragg for arts program The South Bank Show, but it was not aired since it was thought to give too partial a view of a controversial subject. As well as songs and poems arising from the miners’ strike, it showed footage of police chasing protestors and, in one instance, beating a man with a truncheon when he was already on the ground. That, too, is difficult to forget.
The title of Louise Osmond’s brilliant 2016 documentary on the life and films of Loach, Versus, makes the point. What Loach is against shifts in its specificity and detail, but the heart of the matter is always political. His films are, as Loach puts it, ‘a report from the front lines’ (Versus) where the struggles between the working class and the establishment take place. From construction workers drawn to London from all over Britain by unemployment, taken on by shonky builders, un-unionised, working as ‘self-employed’ and living in squalid squats in Riff-Raff (1991) to the pity and brutality of guerrilla warfare in 1919 Ireland in his first Palme d’Or winner, The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), Loach’s films show what Dr Johnson called ‘the common life’, offering a health report on the state of the nation as a whole.
The reports that eventuate are more complex than a simple ‘versus’ suggests. In situations in which individuals struggle against homelessness, addictions of one kind or another, depression and sickness, unemployment, condescension and bigotry, Loach finds humour and kindness. Thatcherism’s ‘overwhelming’ attack on working people and the systemic political failure to deal with the outcomes of deindustrialisation, globalisation and concurrent cutbacks in welfare provision ‘knocked people over’ (Versus). In spite of it all, Loach’s people laugh, hug, look after one another and adopt the problems of strangers as their own. In one sense, then, the health of the nation seems to be reasonably good, at least sometimes. But these are spirits raised in defiance of situations of need and even despair, and surely there is reason to hope for, if not to expect, more than that?
Preceded by the strains of Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’, the titles of Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 (2013) show disembarking troops, scenes of children playing in slums, NHS hospital beds, kneeling women washing their doorsteps, men at work, and other men and women on horseback, with hounds at their feet, gathering for a hunt. The titles give way to a big band playing to a crowded dance hall. The film proceeds through interviews and voice-overs from nurses, miners, steelworkers, doctors and politicians, speaking of pre-war conditions and what the Labour government of 1945 did to address them, among them the five ‘giants’: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness, which were outlined by the Beveridge Report of 1942, Social Insurance and Allied Services. Those interviewed in the film—and most, if not all of the interviewees were active when the welfare state was inaugurated—argued that the lessons of the Second World War had created a general assumption that society’s problems required collective solutions.
One of those interviewed, a doctor who was working as a locum on the day that the NHS came into effect, 5 July 1948, told the story of a mother he had visited on 4 July, to treat a child with measles. When he returned, the mother asked him not to come in since she couldn’t afford another visit. Ah, he replied, from today you don’t have to pay. ‘I never forgot this’, he said, ‘never’. The film forces you to ask: is it just a question of memory, then, of a failure to understand what life was like before all the post-war changes swept into place in the late 1940s and early 1950s? Or is it that an ideologically driven assault on the welfare state has written its own, alternative history?
Above all else, Loach is a realist. He’s a realist film-maker, and he goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the pictures of ordinary lives that come to the screen via his work represent what can be known, if only we look. His latest film, and his second to win the Palme d’Or, is I, Daniel Blake (2016). It’s the story of a carpenter who has recently recovered from a heart attack, which has made him unfit for work. But he has to persuade a protocol-ridden Job Centre that he is entitled to unemployment benefit—that he is entitled to an entitlement, in other words. And he finds it difficult, if not impossible. He must submit to tests performed by a minor official, one not medically qualified, who has a list of questions that will show whether he is fit for work or not, and this in spite of what his doctor says. And in the end, considered fit for work although of course he isn’t, he must look for work, and do so via computer and an online CV. He knows nothing of computers—nor of CVs, come to that. He fails to meet the criteria for Jobseeker’s Allowance: he has a handwritten CV, and he has failed to log onto a computer to record his attempts to find work—which have, in fact, been many. He is sanctioned: he will get no money for a month.
He meets a young woman with two children at one of his visits to the Job Centre. Befriending her, he accompanies her to a food bank (how quickly we have come to accept their necessity). She is so desperately hungry that she opens a tin of beans and begins to wolf them down as she’s talking to him. She bursts into tears. She’s from London and after spending months in a shelter with her children has been moved to Newcastle for a council flat. Meanwhile her benefits have been frozen: she is almost literally penniless.
Yet in spite of all this, there’s humour, friendship, kindness. The film makes you cry, and it makes you laugh—a bit. In the words of a writer from Loach’s hometown, Nuneaton, ‘there is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life’. George Eliot knew it, and Ken Loach says, ‘If you say how the world is, that should be enough’. But the point is, surely, that it’s not enough, not nearly. What remains is politics: getting things done. Whether or not we have the stomach for it, only time will tell.