Coming hot on the heels of his Palme d’Or triumph I, Daniel Blake, Louise Osmond’s biographical documentary of Ken Loach Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach couldn’t have been more timely and it is a fitting if suitably modest and workmanlike survey of the radical left wing filmmaker and his impressive body of work from almost fifty years of filmmaking. An impressive array of colleagues, actors and producers, as well as family members and friends line up to give an account of a man who friend and producer Tony Garnett calls “The most subversive left wing filmmaker England has ever had” while at the same time commenting on his conservatism, his love of 18th century architecture and how “he’d be at home at a vicar’s tea party.”
This innate conservatism can be traced to his early years. Coming from an aspirant middle class background, Loach was Oxford educated and began work in television just as the medium was beginning to push at its own constraints. With a series of Wednesday Plays, Loach and his then producer Garnett tackled head-on taboo social topics such as abortion, poverty and, with stunning effectiveness, homelessness in the ground-breaking apotheosis of TV drama Cathy Come Home. With its combination of documentary-style cinema vérité and naturalistic acting, the drama was a revelation watched by a quarter of the adult population and prompting questions in the Houses of Parliament. The happy coincidence of the formation of Shelter in the weeks after the broadcast gave the new found charity a welcome boost and such was the effect on the public that actress Carol White was frequently offered money on the street by well-wishers unable to distinguish her from the character she played. Moving to the big screen, Kes, an adaptation of Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel for a Knave, became an unlikely hit. The young unknown David Bradley played Billy, the young boy who finds some relief to his grim up North existence in his friendship with a wild bird, and tells a story that is a telling illustration of Loach’s mixture of compassion and ruthlessness. When the boys were caned by the headmaster, Loach had them really caned, without warning. The look of sudden pain on their faces cries out for the end of corporal punishment, but the filmmaker doesn’t flinch from inflicting it himself, if it is for the greater good of the film.
The success of the film however was something of a false start as going into the Thatcherite Eighties, Loach increasingly found himself on the wrong side not only of the political establishment but also the arts establishment which were beholden to a largely Tory press and funding bodies. A series of documentaries increasingly got him into hot water, with shows commissioned only to be later shelved and personal tragedy also struck, movingly recounted here. When Loach tried to put on the play Perdition, written by long-time comrade Jim Allen, telling of a deal between Nazis and Hungarian Zionists, Loach was pilloried and the play ultimately withdrawn. Speaking of the affair, Loach reveals some of the steel hidden under his gentle-seeming exterior: “It wasn’t a mistake. It was cowardice. Cowardice isn’t a mistake: it’s a moral choice.” Reduced to directing McDonalds commercials to make the mortgage payments, Loach suffers a decade long silence before, with the help of Cannes, he re-emerges with Hidden Agenda and a whole series of brilliant, angry, politically articulate films. From the sharp social comedy of Riff Raff to the epic period pieces of Land and Freedom and his first Palme d’Or winner The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Loach has produced one of the most impressive bodies of work of any British filmmaker of the last thirty years.
The following generation, represented here with the long retired Alan Parker, bolted to Hollywood and have made glossy films literally thousands of miles from the reality of Loach’s Britain. Interspersed with the retrospective, we also see Loach as he prepares and films his latest triumphant entry I, Daniel Blake. It is a triumph that has passed largely ignored by the Cameron government. Or the ‘bastards’, as Loach might quietly but precisely put it.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty