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At Age 83, Ken Loach Is Still Dangerous

After years in the wilderness, first with Thatcherism, then with New Labour, both the Left and British director Ken Loach are just hitting their prime.

British film director Ken Loach gestures during a photocall for the film "Sorry We Missed You" at the 72nd edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, on May 17, 2019. (Photo by LOIC VENANCE / AFP via Getty Images)

Ken Loach is sitting next to me in Brighton, in a dark corner of a quiet, wood-paneled pub, sipping on orange juice. He’s looking fairly glum when he tells me how disappointed he is with the media. “The distractions and the smears against Labour, that’s a big problem,” he says. “The Guardian is at the forefront of these attacks. And it’s the most dangerous because it is read by people on the Left.”

That paper’s columnist Jonathan Freedland attacked Loach for having defended Corbyn from false accusations of antisemitism, accusing Loach of “lending a spurious legitimacy to Holocaust denial.” After Loach asked for a right to reply, the Guardian sat on it, then claimed it was too late to publish. But when I ask Loach how he feels about the Labour Party itself, reborn under Corbyn’s leadership, it’s another story altogether. “Hopeful,” he says, with a quiet smile.

After decades in the wilderness, and despite clouds on the horizon, it seems Loach — much like Corbyn himself — is finally enjoying his moment in the sun.

In 2016, one of the British director’s most famous works, the TV play Cathy Come Home, turned fifty. A series of events, including lectures, panel discussions, and plays, were commissioned to mark the anniversary, but also to consider how its themes — homelessness, destitution, state abandonment — remained problems within British society. Homelessness had surged under the austerity regime instituted by the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition, and New Labour’s slow record of building homes, combined with its relaxed attitude toward those profiting from the housing market, only helped the crisis grow.

“[We] had a sense that there was something truly shocking happening, and that increased when we went around with Jeremy [Corbyn] and found the conditions that homeless people were living in,” Loach said in a 2006 retrospective. “The accommodation was truly appalling. Institutional rooms that were divided by cardboard in which a whole family would be parked. We just got the sense of deep poverty. Once we were aware of that then we were aware that we had a story that we had to tell.”

But whether the public would be just as shocked was answered by Loach’s own work — his 2016 film on a newly unemployed carpenter forced to use food banks, I, Daniel Blake, divided opinion. Many agreed the film was hard-hitting, tough to stomach, and an accurate depiction of life at the sharp end of benefit sanctions and Tory austerity. But those on the Right, the staunchest government cheerleaders, were critical, railing against a film they considered mawkish and unbelievable.

“We had this feeling we were onto something because it was a story that was not in the public domain,” Loach tells me, pausing briefly. “And yet hundreds of thousands of people knew it. And no one could fail to be touched by it. Being able to connect to people through the cinema, which is a really powerful medium, we just had a sense we were onto something.”

Camilla Long, a film critic who is descended from aristocracy, said the film never quite rang true. Toby Young, the disgraced journalist and son of the late House of Lords member Michael Young, agreed that it was “hard to believe.” The criticisms were backed up by Iain Duncan Smith, the former Work and Pensions secretary responsible for some of the hardship depicted in I, Daniel Blake.

The difference in reception between the two periods was stark — when Cathy Come Home was released in 1966, the public and politicians alike were moved by a filmmaker putting a human face to a known social plight. Cathy’s eviction and the suffering of her children convinced many of the need for action.

The reception to I, Daniel Blake, however, showed that those in power were now extremists unfazed by the suffering their policies caused. After the film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Loach and producer Rebecca O’Brien said they could easily have chosen a more harrowing narrative, and there were plenty available, but after spending days in food banks listening to stories, they chose to focus on a situation that could happen to anyone.

Whereas Cathy’s eviction is extreme, Daniel Blake becomes trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare while trying to access benefits. Loach’s longtime writing partner, Paul Laverty, tells me, “They all ignored it till they won the Palme d’Or, and then there was the whole spear of attacks, many against Ken, claiming this man doesn’t love his own country. They criticized it, but they couldn’t say we’d been incorrect at all.”

Loach, aged 30, pictured in Barnes, December 1966. His television play Cathy Come Home aired on BBC1 one month prior, revolutionizing the scope of social and political content permitted on British television. It was watched by 12 million people at the time — a quarter of the British population. (Photo by George Greenwell/Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Sorry We Missed You, Loach’s latest film, released this autumn, focuses on a couple, both precariously employed — the wife as a care worker, her husband as a delivery driver — and how small mishaps plunge them from just about managing to financial ruin. “It shows the tail end of ultimate privatization,” says Laverty. “When people are atomized, fragmented, when they’re by themselves, people swallow it. It is a great giant conjuring trick, you know, because it sweeps all responsibility onto the driver.”

The film deliberately chose to look at the world of work, and especially at the gig economy. After the success of I, Daniel Blake, which showed how poverty and inequality remain problems for people in and out of work, Sorry We Missed You shows how technology is making work itself more difficult and less secure while saving companies money. The language used by the Amazon-style delivery company, such as “onboarding” and “owner-driver-franchisee,” as well as new surveillance technology, dehumanizes the characters. And there is little room for illness, mishaps, family emergencies, or even to recover after being the victim of a violent crime when enmeshed in this precarious working environment.

Loach focuses predominantly on feature films now, but his fifty-five-year career has also spanned television and documentary. Despite studying law at Oxford University, he got his break working on the BBC’s The Wednesday Play series alongside Tony Garnett, another frequent collaborator born, like Loach, in 1936. “We weren’t micromanaged,” Loach tells me, “But we worked for an iconoclast, Jimmy MacTaggart, who enjoyed provoking the establishment. But we were given the airwaves, at a peak time on a Wednesday after the nine o’clock news. We wanted people to use the same critical eye they use for the news. That was a turning point and has informed everything I’ve done ever since.”

Garnett and Loach’s work on The Wednesday Play and Play for Today continued throughout the sixties, with the pair working on several dramatizations of novels by the late author Barry Hines, focusing on the social and economic struggles of lives in Northern England. Of these films, Kes (1969) remains the most enduring, appealing to the isolation of many older children and teenagers while being openly political and unabashed about the human waste and cruelty that economic desolation inflicts upon an area.

Loach with actor David Bradley on the school football playing field during the filming of Kes (1969). Like Cathy Come Home, Kes left viewers with an emotionally shattering ending that, today, has helped keep it on numerous lists of the greatest British films ever made. (Photo by Sheppard/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Kes is a story about a working-class boy escaping the drudgery of life by taking up falconry with a small kestrel he finds in a nest. As he trains the bird and their relationship grows, the boy begins to come out of his shell. The gentleness of spirit, his relationship with the bird, and the tragedy of the ending still resonate with viewers decades later.

But while Loach got his start on the BBC and remembers the MacTaggart era fondly, he harbors no illusions about the current state of the institution: “It is an arm of the state, running the place like the police, like the monarch. And you see every now and then the mask slips for the BBC. You saw it in the miners’ strike, you saw it again in the Panorama [documentary] against Corbyn on antisemitism, which was plainly, plainly misinformation, and was so unbalanced it broke the BBC Charter.”

November 1966: Actress Carol White starring in the title role of Ken Loach’s BBC film Cathy Come Home. Despite the massive public outcry and the creation of various charities, it wasn’t until the passage of “The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977” more than ten years later that housing policy in Britain was significantly reformed. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Loach’s political activism began at the same time as his BBC career: “I first joined the Labour Party in 1964 to support Harold Wilson’s government, delivered leaflets around Hammersmith [in West London], and it took about a year for me to start seeing through him, then me and all my friends joined the antiestablishment left.” But Loach says some periods feel simultaneously more hopeful and crisis-ridden while encouraging more creative protest and output than others, citing the height of Thatcherism, the 1960s, and today as such periods: “I think in moments of crisis, people feel moved to write, to create, to write songs. The miners’ strike was a classic example of that. There were creative writing groups set up in pit villages, something we haven’t seen for decades. But there’s a reconnection with youth, a need to express your anger or your despair. And I think there’s a growing movement. I think that there’s a sense of real outrage. Of course, the great trick the establishment always plays is to find some displacement activity. I mean, the great horror with this was in the 1930s, but in the 2010s, the displacement activity shifts your anger at your own situation from the real cause of the situation to the migrants, and any different people. The establishment somehow funnels your resentment into them.” He is particularly animated on this subject, waving his arms to underline his points.

Beyond anything else, Loach trusts his audience. He never dumbs down his source material, believing viewers will find the conditions of London laborers, the struggles of trade unionists, or the political motivations of British volunteers in a foreign battle against fascism interesting: in part because these experiences are rarely shown, but also because human empathy is of a greater depth than many producers and budget controllers admit.

In Land and Freedom, his 1995 film on the Spanish Civil War, he delves into the sectarian infighting that beset many groups fighting Franco’s forces. His 1981 documentary, A Question of Leadership, interviewed members of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation at length about their fourteen-week strike, and many of his films, including Riff-Raff (1991), deal explicitly with labor rights. “There were two decades that were particularly tough for cinema. In the 1970s, there were very few films made in Britain. The worst decade was the 1980s, a decade of the ascendancy of the far right,” Loach tells Derek Malcolm in an interview. “I really didn’t make a cinema film, because people weren’t looking for my films. Many TV films on industrial relations were commissioned, scheduled, then pulled for political reasons, because they showed the police beating people, for example. When the ruling class feel threatened, then the barriers come down.”

Actress Crissy Rock on the set of Ladybird, Ladybird circa 1994. This film saw Loach returning to familiar territory with the story of a woman’s fight with Social Services for the custody of her four children and how poverty can slowly ensnare those with the best of intentions. It won the 1994 Berlin Film Festival International Critics Award. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

While Loach and his fellow left-wingers were able to write relatively unrestrained for the BBC in the 1960s, Thatcherism changed things. One of Loach’s documentaries on the 1984 miners’ strike, Which Side Are You On?, was dropped by ITV for being too politically biased before finally being broadcast on Channel 4 after winning an Italian arts award. At the time, Loach wryly noted, “It is clear that only approved people can make comments about a struggle as decisive as the miners.”

Loach directed more features — most of which were well regarded — during a ’90s dominated by John Major and Tony Blair, but he struggled for both funding and a popular audience.

That all changed with his first Palme d’Or win for 2006’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley, a dramatic retelling of the Irish War of Independence and Civil War. It was one of the few major films to even depict the war. Even the cinematography — the rolling emerald fields and misty hills of Ireland — was more expressionistic and robust than in Loach’s rougher-looking earlier work.

Initially, there was little interest in showing the film in Britain, with only thirty copies ordered for screening compared to three hundred for France, but the publicity from the Palme d’Or win — and right-wing outrage — helped stir up interest. In a similar manner to his 1990 film on state collusion in the Northern Irish Troubles (Hidden Agenda), critics denounced it as anti-British, though the critic Simon Heffer was widely mocked for admitting, “No, I haven’t seen it, any more than I need to read Mein Kampf to know what a louse Hitler was.” Comparisons to Hitler by histrionic journalists did little to dent the film’s success, just as right-wing apoplexy around I, Daniel Blake later only helped increase attention toward the film.

In 2013, Loach’s documentary The Spirit of ’45, sewn together with minimal video clips from archival footage and extensive oral histories, garnered great interest. It explored the construction of the welfare state and the National Health Service (NHS), and how postwar governments built millions of homes and cleared city slums. Some complained it veered toward the maudlin and hyper-nostalgic, but the naturalism and light touch of the camerawork prevented such a fate.

“There was a particular mood in Britain after the horror of the war. When the war ended, the mood was, ‘We’re not going back to the 1930s, how do we solve it?’” Loach told the Guardian around the film’s release. “Houses were built to good standards for ordinary people, and there was a sense that we would work together. It’s not dissimilar to the mood now: there haven’t been big industrial struggles for a long time, but people are still suffering.”

The documentary caught a particular mood with young people desperate for alternatives, akin to how many younger Americans have been inspired by Bernie Sanders’s own calls for a return to New Deal politics. Loach at the time had been a member of the Respect Party, then the Left Unity project, and The Spirit of ’45 caught that zeitgeist. By the time I, Daniel Blake was released, Corbyn had won the Labour leadership, and the director had rejoined the party.

His last few films have been very well received, attracted a huge amount of critical and media attention, and seem perfectly attuned to the political landscape the United Kingdom currently operates in. But Loach is still concerned about the directions the country may choose, especially after the 2016 referendum and how it appears, he says, to be sucking all the political oxygen from the room. “That’s the great danger now, the danger of Brexit. All the problems that we’ve got now — this precarious working class, the poverty, the inequality, neglected regions like in the Northeast, the collapse of the health service, privatizing a lot of the functions of the NHS, the homeless crisis … People are angry and agitated and concerned about this. But everyone’s talking about Brexit.”

But the director isn’t pessimistic, he says. Meeting at the Labour Party Conference, Laverty and Loach are genuinely excited about the leadership of the party, the reception their film has had, and the prospect of a Corbyn government delivering desperately needed change. After years out of the limelight, first with Thatcherism, then with New Labour, both the Left and Ken Loach’s career seem in the ascendant again. Loach’s screenings at the conference this year are packed, and he is approached repeatedly when we’re together in the Brighton streets, recognized by party leaders and people on the fringes alike.

For all the cruelty of the Tories and the extreme right, Loach, his work, and the left of the Labour Party are finding an increasingly receptive and growing audience. People are attacking both him and Corbyn purely because of fear, Loach argues. “The Labour Party dominated by the right wing has been an accomplice in everything. And now we have possibly the first left leader in the history of the Labour Party. And he and John McDonnell, who must be seen as a partnership, if they can achieve their program and extend it, then we can begin to transform society and represent the interests of labor again, which Labour has never done before,” he tells me, his voice raised as he becomes more passionate.His tone sounds as positive as his words.

“This is a seismic event. And I think that’s why the establishment is so ferocious in its attack.”