People think they know what to expect from a Ken Loach type of film. It’s about working class struggle, collectively or as individuals. It’s political. It uses non-professional actors, alongside professional ones. It will be naturalistic and eschew studio filming or flashy effects. The welcome BBC documentary ‘Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach’ reminds us there is more to Loach.
Loach is now in his late 70s and making films has taken much struggle; at times it looked like he would never get to make another movie, documentary or TV drama. The documentary tells Loach’s story through archive footage and interviews with Loach and others.
Loach did not set out to be a film director. From a working-class background in Nuneaton he went to grammar school and then Oxford University. As a teenager he was a Tory, like his family were. But his time at Oxford politicised him. Loach abandoned his law studies to become a jobbing actor. Eventually he got onto a BBC course for training new TV directors, going on to strike up a working partnership with screenwriter Jim Allen.
Together they produced gritty and memorable TV plays for the BBC in the mid 60s. The plays ‘Up The Junction’ and especially ‘Cathy Come Home’ had a massive impact, bringing the issues of backstreet abortion and the housing crisis into the front rooms of millions. In the same period Loach made Kes, probably his best and most enduring film. Billy Caspar’s defiant V sign has become an iconic image in Yorkshire.
In the 70s and 80s Loach continued making TV dramas and documentaries. Some reflected the militant rank-and-file trade union movement of the time. ‘The Lump’, ‘The Big Flame’ and ‘Days Of Hope’ are still powerful works, made explicitly to be cultural volleys in a wider class war. However a dying British film industry meant Loach had little opportunity to make feature films.
Loach’s uncompromising commitment to political film making got him into increasing trouble with the BBC. A three-part documentary on the trade unions was shelved by producers under pressure from the union leaders who were criticised in it by the rank-and-file members. Other projects were stalled. The documentary also showed some of the problems with Loach’s politics.
Loach signed up to direct a Jim Allen stage play called ‘Perdition’ which accused Zionists of active collaboration and support for the holocaust. The play was historically libellous and bore the political stamp of the Stalinised Trotskyism that Jim Allen developed during his time in Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League/Workers’ Revolutionary Party. Ken Loach himself was inducted into the Trotskyist milleu and became a fellow traveller (though never member) of the short-lived Workers Socialist Leaguge, a split from the SLL/WRP.
The play understandably attracted much controversy and was pulled. Loach is still sore about this and shows an unwillingness to critically examine some of the left-wing common sense on issues like Israel and Palestine. His films have also sometimes reflected a need to spell out the “correct” political conclusions ahead of truthfully representing the messiness, doubts and contradictions that make up lived struggles. Even before the ‘Perdition’ affair Loach was effectively blacklisted by the BBC. With no work coming in to pay the mortgage he ended up directing adverts. As his family admit these were dark times for Loach, which saw the tragic death of a young son. What got him through, rather surprisingly, was watching glossy MGM musicals.
Loach made a remarkable critical and commercial comeback through directing feature films. Starting with ‘Hidden Agenda’ in 1990 and ‘Riff Raff’ in 1991 the director found a new audience both at home and abroad. But to my mind the weakest part of this documentary is coverage of the last 25 years of Loach’s career — it is glossed over in a few minutes. This most recent period has seen a wide range of films. There have been historical dramas like ‘Land and Freedom’ and ‘The wind that shakes the Barley’. There have been films about workers struggles like ‘The Navigators’ and ‘Bread and Roses’. There has been the gritty realism of ‘Sweet Sixteen’ and ‘My Name Is Joe’. And there have been lighter films, more playful in tone like ‘Looking For Eric’ and ‘The Angels Share’.
Not all have worked but these films are original and brave and often very good indeed. The most recent Ken Loach film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is about a middle aged man going through the privations and humiliations of poverty in a Britain of food banks and benefit sanctions. This documentary was a worthy tribute to a man whose art has for 50 years aimed, and more often then not succeeded, in telling compelling, poetic stories of working-class lives and working-class struggle.