Ken Loach’s spirit and direction has lost none of its revolutionary spark
The veteran director’s latest work is a paean to the 1945 UK Labour government, and rumours that this film will be his last have been greatly exaggerated
The voice of a post-war generation: director Ken Loach. Photograph: Tullio M Puglia/Getty Images
Ken Loach has made an excellent documentary about the changes wrought in the aftermath of the 1945 British general election. As everyone used to know, that poll saw Winston Churchill – the man who had just led the nation through its “finest hour” – soundly defeated, and Clement Atlee, a humble, but determined Putney boy, installed as the Labour Party’s second (and still most admired) prime minister.
It’s an extraordinary story. Undaunted by debt and exhaustion, the new government managed, in just five years, to transform the nation into something a little like a socialist democracy. The National Health Service was established. Public utilities were nationalised. A sort of uneasy consensus then set in.
The Tories returned to power in the 1950s, but made no serious efforts to reverse Labour’s most significant innovations. It looked as if some version of the 1945 accommodation would last forever. But Margaret Thatcher had other ideas.
“This idea had been bouncing around my head for some time,” Loach says. “I was asked if I would do an archive documentary. I think it’s apposite now. We are now in the midst of a great depression and a recession – as we were at the end of the 1930s. There is a large amount of anger at the cuts and at the destruction of the NHS. You wonder, as the remnants of a civilised society are destroyed, whether people might consider an alternative.”
Emergence in the 1960s
You won’t need to be told where Loach stands on the 1945 government. Since his emergence in the 1960s with the angry TV play Cathy Come Home , Loach has been an inexhaustible evangelist for left-wing causes. Films such as Kes , The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Raining Stones burn with righteous fury at injustice. Sure enough, The Spirit of ’45 yields no ground to the capitalists and the blacklegs. The only serious criticisms levelled at the post-war government concern insufficiently vigorous application of socialist theory.
Largely taken up with the testimony of ordinary working people, the film allows in no dissenting voices. Forget thesis, antithesis and synthesis. This is thesis, thesis and more thesis.
“We thought about that,” he says in his soft midlands burr. “But that would be silly. It’s not a current-affairs programme. It’s people describing the collective wish of those who came through the war and their mood for change. It’s not a general history of the period. It’s about how that need to make a better world expressed itself. I think that’s a large enough point to make in itself.”
Loach could be seen as a product of that post-war revolution. Born in 1936, the son of an electrician, he attended grammar school in Nuneaton in Warwickshire and eventually made his way to Oxford.
At university, he appeared in revues before drifting towards the BBC and, heavily influenced by the Italian neo-realists, devising his own school of raw, rugged naturalism.