From the outside in
HERE’S A FUNNY thing about Ken Loach. If you viewed his quotes in isolation – as the basis for a play, perhaps – you could easily imagine them being delivered through a megaphone by a bearded firebrand. The film-maker remains no less ardent in his socialism than he was when starting out in the mid-1960s.
“Cinema is a victim of market forces,” he says. “The studios have damaged it and pushed everyone out. Cinema is an industry. So, why should it different to cars, fast food or whatever? That’s the reality.”
He really gets into his stride when discussing The Great Satan. “I really don’t like American culture,” he says. “There are great things about America. But I can’t stand the Hollywood model.”
He does not, however, come across as a bellowing guerrilla. Now 75, Ken, whose charming The Angels’ Share is released this week, continues to speak in a sweet, reasonable voice. He comes across as wearily disappointed rather than properly furious.
The political landscape remains bleak for men of Loach’s inclinations. When, after a spell in Oxford, the working-class boy moved into theatre and television, the post-war consensus was still in place. Pulling on his sad face, he fondly remembers an era when collective ownership was still regarded as a legitimate enthusiasm.
The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 put an end to all that. “Unemployment brought about a poverty of spirit as well as a financial poverty,” he says. “Everything became about deals – Alan Sugar on the television and all that.”
And yet. Ken Loach has prospered in the post-Thatcher era. He first came to prominence with the (for once the cliché is appropriate) ground-breaking TV drama Cathy Come Home in 1966. That tale of homelessness was followed a year later by Poor Cow, his first theatrical feature, and then, in 1969, by the transcendent, flawless Kes. The future should have been bright. Kes, the story of a working-class boy and his kestrel, regularly sits towards the top of polls conducted to find the best ever British film.
Sadly, the industry then more or less shut down. “Yes, it was nothing but Danish Dentist on the Job and other comedies that didn’t travel,” he says.
Mostly confined to TV, he made only a handful of films in the 1970s and 1980s. Then, in 1990, as Mrs Thatcher faced defenestration, he returned with the searing Northern-Irish drama Hidden Agenda. Since then, his warm, politically charged class of naturalism has graced cinemas on a near-yearly basis. He won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Last Sunday The Angels’ Share surprised tipsters by taking the Prix de Jury (essentially third prize) at this year’s event.
“I live in the West Country and we got this call at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning,” he says. “We got to Nice Airport and it was pouring with rain by then. By 25 to seven, I was stuck on the road with no coat. We had to run along the front pulling bags behind us. And eight minutes later, I was making my way to the auditorium in a black jacket. They really like to wind up the drama.”
Cannes has been very good to Ken Loach. It is interesting to note that no other director has received so many nominations for the Palme d’Or. Should we be surprised? His films are, after all, very much rooted in their English or Scottish locations.
“Maybe that’s part of it,” he says. “If they do seem to enjoy them, then that’s maybe because they are specific. Generalised films that exist in a mid-Atlantic world always seem phoney. But also the Europeans do have a more rounded sense of cinema-going. In Britain, it really is about Hollywood.”
Over the past 15 years, since teaming up with Scottish writer Paul Laverty, Loach, raised in the English midlands, has focused much of his attention on the working-class people of Scotland. The Angels’ Share deals with a group of unemployed lads who hatch a scheme to steal a small portion of a recently uncovered barrel of hugely valuable malt whisky.
The film does feature the predicted social commentary. But, as it progresses, it transforms into a hugely good-hearted romp. One can’t help but think of Ealing Comedy and of that studio’s Whisky Galore in particular. It is surely the lightest film that Loach has yet made.
“We actually thought it was quite a serious film,” he says. “Because it’s based on the fact that there’s this one million young people who will never have work. They will never have that security. What does that do to their self-respect? We thought that, rather than turn that story into a tragedy, we would turn it into an adventure, a romp.”
The marketing wonks have, with depressing inevitability, elected to mention The Full Monty in some of their commercials. The picture is unlikely to be quite that successful. But it will surely play well to mainstream audiences. At its heart, there is a twisty moral quandary that adds to the fun. Laverty and Loach follow a troubled young father as he tries to escape a life of crime. But doesn’t his big redemptive act – the whisky heist – mark another descent into lawlessness?
“No, not really. What they take is something that has a notional value of lots of thousands of pounds. But it’s bought by someone who doesn’t even know what it tastes like. It’s a bit like bankers and their bonuses. They take money out of nothing. That’s what happens to malt whisky. People buy these expensive bottles, which they don’t drink, as a way of showing their alpha-male status.”
If The Angels’ Share does do the business, there is a danger that Ken’s status as a quiet rebel might further be challenged. I’ll whisper it quietly. I don’t much imagine that he likes the idea. But Ken Loach is surely closing in on national treasure status.
“I don’t think there is any danger of that,” he says with a bristle.
Really? He has defined a style. Along with Mike Leigh, he is often listed as among the best British film-makers of his generation. Even the French love him. “I don’t know if I’m regarded at all,” he says. “Curiously, quite a lot of the Sunday papers wrote about Cannes without mentioning us at all. So what? I think writers or film-makers or whatever should be outsiders. A journalist should be an outsider. You need to have a critical eye.”
I assume that he has never been tempted by Hollywood. The odd producer must, surely, have waved an adaptation of some best-selling book in his face. Hey, if things had gone differently, he might have become Sir Ridley Scott. “Every now and then somebody offers something,” he laughs. “If I’d gone, I’d have gone in the 1970s after we’d done a couple of films. There was an offer from a studio, but we had a young family and I never was interested in American cinema.”
Never? He must surely tolerate the odd picture by Howard Hawks or John Ford. These are crucial building blocks of the medium. “No, not really,” he says. The ideology does not appeal to me. It’s all to do with the lone gunman who will sort things out. It’s about individualism and conspicuous wealth.”
One hopes that even right-wing lunatics will recognise Loach’s extraordinary integrity. Influenced by the emotional truth of the Italian neo-realists, he has remained stubbornly true to that pared-down aesthetic. Schooled in a class of post-war Marxism that rejects the cruel ecology of market forces, he remains intolerant of capitalism and – in the form of the United States – its most conspicuous creation.
He will never become Lord Loach of Nuneaton. Offers from the Palace must, however, have come his way. After all, several of his contemporaries – notably Scott and Alan Parker – now shoulder knighthoods.
“Yes, there was an OBE offered in the 1970s,” he says. “But I think you’d betray what you stand for to take something that’s in the name of the British Empire. It’s not really an institution to be proud of. Is it?”
So, the National Treasure Authority can keep its distance? Do I have that right?
“They draw you in. I would never want to be drawn in. Look, if you get embraced by the establishment, the point of that embrace is always castration.”
If they haven’t got his man parts by now, I’m pretty sure they never will. Resist the embrace, Ken.
* The Angels’ Share opens today and is reviewed on page 13