Ken Loach: 'Most people don’t wallow in their poverty. Most people just get by'
For five decades Ken Loach has been a champion of the disposessed: ‘It’s the moments of hope that make you catch your breath,’ he says
Ken Loach: “The only glimmer of hope is the new leadership of the Labour Party, which is why the establishment have attacked Corbyn so viciously.” Photograph: Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images
Ken Loach tears up as he recalls a scene in Which Side Are You On?, his 1984 film about the songs and poetry of the miner’s strike, in which a woman from the northeast decries the “Iron Lady” and raises her fist in the air.
“That always gets me,” says Loach (80). “You have to be observational. You have to evaluate what you are doing. But it’s the moments of hope that make you catch your breath. You have to have to feel the struggle in that hope. Most people don’t wallow in their poverty. Most people just get by, but with a brave face. That’s so touching.”
We meet in central Manchester: the film-maker has just arrived from Newcastle, where many of the nonprofessional actors who populate I, Daniel Blake enjoyed a red carpet premiere the previous evening. It was a particularly special occasion, he notes, for those who work within the benefits sector: “Many of them are leaving,” he says. “They simply can’t tolerate what they are being asked to do.”
The last time we met, Loach had just completed the historical Irish drama Jimmy’s Hall, and he seemed quite certain that he would not be undertaking a feature film of that size again.
“With Jimmy’s Hall, I was away from home for a long time. My missus got a bit fed up with me being away for so long. And I thought, well, maybe this is the right time to stop it. I’m not getting any younger. But then I still work with [screenwriter] Paul Laverty. And one story kept coming up over and over again – the cruelty of the benefits and sanctions system. And I thought: why not have a go?”
The result is I, Daniel Blake, a superb, stirring drama that rightly took the Palme d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival.
If the details weren’t drawn from life, one would be tempted to call the film Kafkaesque: following a serious heart attack, carpenter Daniel (Dave Johns) is advised by his doctor to take a break from work. But when the widower applies for employment and support allowance, his answers prove unsatisfactory for the bureaucracy, who bounce him on to apply for jobseeker’s allowance.
Daniel’s struggle against a minefield of red tape and mumbo-jumbo is made a little easier by his friendship with Katie (Hayley Squires), a young single mother who has moved with her two children from London to Newcastle. they are now hundreds of miles from family and friends, but it was that or stay cooped up in one room in a homeless persons’ hostel.
“We could have made it much more extreme,” says Loach. “We kept hearing extraordinary stories. Many stories of suicide. One aspect of the austerity cuts is the devastating effect on disabled people. They have been hit six times harder. These are people who need our help, not our dismissal. They just get kicked in the death. Paul and I thought we needed a central character who isn’t an obvious victim. A man with a trade. A man who is thoughtful and capable.”
Following a string of lighter comedies (Looking for Eric, The Angel’s Share) and historical dramas (The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Jimmy’s Hall), I, Daniel Blake feels like Loach’s most urgent film since Cathy Come Home way back in 1966. The BBC drama famously prompted debate in parliament and changed attitudes toward homelessness.
“I think that’s right,” nods Loach. “This is a story that needs to be at the centre of our political discussion. It’s not some charitable sideline.”
Half a century
Some 50 years punctuated by dozens of Loach projects have elapsed between Cathy and Daniel’s respective crises. But the softly spoken film-maker has lost none of his appetite for giant-slaying.
“The abdication of the Labour Party – their endorsement of austerity measures with just a few minor quibbles – led to people seeing no major differences between the parties,” he says. “So they feel alienated and cynical about politics. There is no leadership or voice on real issues. And, of course, the popular press are pumping out right-wing propaganda every day.
“Alienated, neglected people made for a breeding ground for the far right and fascism. They respond to simple answers like kick out the immigrants.”
Still, Loach remains hopeful. The era of Brexit and Trump is also the time of Syriza, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.
“The only glimmer of hope is the new leadership of the Labour Party, which is why the establishment have attacked Corbyn so viciously. Because he does actually represent a different politics. The politics of public investment. That’s the first step. Remove the private contractors from the NHS. Make them efficient again. Employ people directly instead of tendering to multinationals. Remove business from transport.
“What has been interesting about the Labour contest is that it has laid bare the fundamental divide between a right wing that want to do what the Tories do but with a prettier face, and a left wing who want to effect real change.”
That same tension has been felt in Loach’s work as long ago as 1981, when A Question of Leadership, his documentary portrait of the steelworkers’ strike, was pulled from the broadcasting schedules. This was one of many brushes with censorship, but even now,he would not think about sweetening the messages of his most hard-hitting works.
“Well, there was no way to change the central premise of A Question of Leadership, which was that Labour and the trade unions colluded with Thatcher carrying through what she wanted to carry through. The Labour leadership didn’t want to have to deal with a strong trade union movement when they got back into power. The union leaders had sold their own members jobs out.
“That’s the limitation of social democrat politics. The boss has got to make a profit. There was no other way of saying it.”
He laughs. “And in the end, they didn’t let it be said at all.”
Loach is full of praise for Louise Osmond, who directed Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach last year. Still, he found the other side of the camera somewhat uncomfortable.
“I have no quarrel with the film at all. But I did wish the people who have contributed to the films got a bit more time. The actors, the editor, the sound recordists, all contributed as much as I did. I hated taking the credit for all of it.”
I, Daniel Blake is on general release.
LOACH ON POST-BREXIT IRELAND
“It’s not for me to say. But I’ve done three films in Ireland now. And every time I’ve been there it has become more and more apparent that it is one country. Brexit should put a united Ireland back on the agenda. I mean, come on! Who needs a Border in the middle of such a tiny island?”