He's just a zealous guy
Ken Loach is not so much an angry man as an exasperated one, writes DONALD CLARKE, and Britain’s most talented troublemaker is speaking his mind once again with his latest film, ‘Route Irish’
INTERVIEWS WITH Ken Loach often begin with phrases like “Still angry after all these years”. Sure enough, poke him with a Tory-coloured stick and, after a deep breath, the unrepentant socialist can still work up an unstoppable head of red-tinged steam.
Hey, Ken, what do you make of the fact that Old Etonians are back in charge of the UK government? Huh? Huh? “Yes, it’s the old ruling class back in again,” he says. “They gave the grocer’s daughter a job because they wanted someone with kicking boots. With the cuts and privatisation they’re continuing their policy of making the working class pay – making labour cheap, opening up markets. It’s the harshest neoliberal policy.”
The language is robust. The sentiments are sincere. (Younger readers may need to be reminded that Margaret Thatcher’s dad was, indeed, a grocer.) But he does not come across as angry or bitter. Now 74 years old, and still possessed of a gentle Warwickshire accent, he delivers his opinions in a wry, calm voice that hints more at quiet exasperation than at fury.
It’s nearly half a century since Loach shook up British television with his groundbreaking production of Jeremy Sandford’s Cathy Come Home.A long lean period followed, but since 1990, when he elbowed his way back to the big screen with Hidden Agenda, Loach has solidified his position as the godfather of British political realism.
His latest film, Route Irish,is another artfully structured dissection of modern malaise. Written by Paul Laverty, a regular collaborator, the picture follows a former soldier as he tries to disentangle the circumstances surrounding the death of his friend, a private security contractor, on the titular road leading from Baghdad airport to that city’s centre. Though Route Irishworks as a thriller, its primary purpose is to address the privatisation of the Iraq conflict.
“It was, in some ways, the most complicated film we’ve done,” he says. “I was trying trying to address the truth of the Iraq adventure by making it about private companies of mercenaries. We want to show that the whole purpose of the war was to get a pro-western government in there to benefit big business. Once you get private companies in there running the war itself, you go full circle. You are then able to hide what’s going on.”
Is that because private companies are not required to reveal their actions in the way the state’s forces are supposed to? “Exactly!”
Despite what the poster might suggest – John Bishop, now a hugely successful comedian, brandishes a rifle on a dusty Arab pavement – the film is mostly set on the streets of Liverpool. It is, in fact, a very odd film. As in all Loach’s work, the actors deliver convincingly naturalistic performances, but the story goes through all the hairpins and chicanes you’d expect from a mainstream conspiracy drama.
“I am a little wary of the word thriller,” he says. “I suppose our main concern was to tell the story. In thrillers the characterisation can be sacrificed to increase the melodrama. We tried to tell it in a more disciplined way. We didn’t want to hype it up. And that might have been a gamble. But we didn’t want to take away from the characterisation.”
One of the defining aspects of Loach’s work is its devotion to fleshing out and expanding character. He learned those techniques working in television in the early 1960s. Before that he dabbled in acting and even spent time making people laugh in comic revues. How differently things might have turned out.
Raised in Nuneaton, the son of an electrician who rose to management level at the Herbert Machine Tool factory, Loach moved smoothly through grammar school before embarking on a law degree at St Peter’s College, Oxford. “They were different times,” he says. “I was from an ordinary background, but then we were able to get a grant and go to university. You got enough to live on. They are clawing all that back now. You can get a loan, of course. But a loan of a few thousand pounds can ruin a working-class family.”
When I suggest that he might have made a good radical barrister he replies: “You need a better memory than I’ve got.”
Happily, this was the era when Oxbridge graduates began sneaking into the entertainment business. Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore, co-conspirators in the Beyond the Fringe revue, were contemporaries of Loach at Oxford. After dabbling with comedy Loach wormed his way into directing television at the BBC. He did a few episodes of Z Cars, the gritty cop show. Then, in 1966, Cathy Come Homeemerged. A raw study of homelessness, the play (as such things were then still called) could without hyperbole be said to have changed the face of British television.
“We didn’t have any executives piling on us,” he says. “I was lucky that I had a great producer, Tony Garnett, who fought the corridor battles. But they left you alone then. Nowadays the executives all think they’ve got something worth saying. They hang around. Tony used to say if they’re still working after four o’clock they’re not doing their job.”
When did he realise that Cathy Come Homewas becoming something of a sensation? “I think we knew when we were making it that we were on to something,” he says. “We did it. It went out and suddenly homelessness was a major issue. Questions were asked in parliament. We got to see the housing minister. It really was in the national consciousness.”
Even greater success followed in 1969 with Kes, Loach’s second feature film. Based on a Barry Hines novel, the impossibly sad – though frequently very funny – story of a young Barnsley boy who befriends a kestrel became an imperishable classic. When polls are conducted of the best British films the top three places are invariable taken by Lawrence of Arabia, The Third Manand Loach’s singular piece. He must be both happy and daunted by the continuing acclaim.
“Yes, well of course it’s nice to be up there,” he says with a humble shrug. “I couldn’t say exactly why. I think it’s to do with Barry’s book. The central image of the bird is very powerful. The kestrel can take flight in a way that Billy never will. And that’s the image at the heart of it. Of course the characters are very universal as well.”
Loach fails to mention the film’s extraordinarily sensitive directorial touch. Though the British kitchen-sink movement had been moping along for close to a decade, no other English film maker delivered quite such a convincingly rooted piece of work.
He might reasonably have expected an avalanche of commissions to come his way. Sadly, by 1969 the British film industry was already well into its most serious period of aridity. For the following two decades Loach mostly worked in television. Still strident in his views, he saw the odd documentary banned and the occasional drama suppressed. It was not until 1990, when Hidden Agenda, a study of the RUC’s alleged shoot-to-kill policy, received the Jury Prize at Cannes that Loach found himself back at the centre of the industry.
“I did work in the 1970s, but the 1980s were really much worse for us. Hidden Agendagot us back on track. Then we followed that up with a successful comedy with Riff Raff.Yes, it did feel like a breakthrough.”
Since then Loach has delivered a stream of gritty, nuanced features: My Name Is Joe, Sweet Sixteen, Ae Fond Kiss. For all the troubles afflicting European cinema there seems to be a place for a talented troublemaker.
In 2006 he finally won one of the big prizes. The Wind that Shakes the Barley, a story of the fight for Irish independence and the subsequent Civil War, picked up the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The film was also a huge hit in Ireland.
Some years ago this newspaper asked Irish politicians to name their favourite films. Virtually every one – Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour, unattached – had seen The Wind that Shakes the Barleyand believed it supported their position, despite the fact the picture is a lament for the betrayed socialist ideals that inspired so many of the rebels.
“Yes, that was extraordinary,” he says. “Well, if they’d really listened to it they would have found that it was quite hostile to almost all of them. One or two did try and come in on the bandwagon and claim the film supported them when it didn’t. That was really quite funny. I can’t name names, because I’d get them wrong. But there was an incident with an ex-prime minister.”
Ah, yes. Three years later, when Loach was launching Looking for Eric, a wry comedy co-starring Eric Cantona, a prominent Manchester United supporter made some unwanted noise at the film’s Irish premiere. Bertie Ahern and his brother Maurice approached Cantona on the red carpet and presented him with a Dublin football jersey.
“It made us irritated that this was just a political operator trying to hijack someone who was famous and well respected for his own ends. It just demeans him, really, and his brother,” Loach told The Irish Timesat the time. “Yes, he turned up and hijacked Eric, who had no idea who he was. It was just a bit naughty. It was very naughty in fact,” Loach says now. He’s laughing as he speaks.
No, you couldn’t really call Ken Loach an angry man. But he remains happy to speak his mind. It’s hardly surprising the Hollywood machine has never gobbled him up.
“I was never interested in that,” he says. “I guess I could have gone in the early 1970s. But that wasn’t for me. Now I’m too bizarre. I’m too much in another world.”