Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach

Albert Deck seeks inspiration from the new documentary about socialist filmmaker Ken Loach.

Sometimes I find that I like the idea of Loach’s films more than I do the experience of watching them. Ladybird Ladybird, and Family Life being examples of this raw film-watching experience. There are no easy answers, no redemption for the characters in much of his work. Staring at the screen during another bleak fade out, I am faced with the realisation that something has to change to stop the cycles of repression, injustice, and deprivation I have just witnessed.

Source: BFI
Source: BFI

The growing sense of awe I have for Ken Loach started when I met him, ever so briefly, at a performance of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in Peckham some years ago. Though he was there to talk about the book he admires, he very kindly took the time to answer my impertinent questions about how to get my own project made into a film. And there is much to admire here in Louise Osmond’s comprehensive documentary. Above all it brings the man at the centre of these great films into focus.

Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I was aware of a handful of his films and documentaries, but the breadth and intensity of the work presented here is astounding. Loach’s films stood out from the moment he joined the BBC as a young director. As we learn from the documentary, the BBC bosses patronisingly sought working class talent to fill the schedules of their new channel, BBC2. What they hadn’t banked on was that this mild mannered grammar school boy from a Conservative voting, Daily Express reading Nuneaton family would be drawn into the opposing side of the class war.

We learn that his radicalisation came about through a close working relationship with the producer of his early films, Tony Garnett. Also a grammar school boy from the Midlands, he had been orphaned at the age of five, and shared Loach’s taste for producing dramas with the dispossessed at their centre. The BBC years were spent casting around for screenplays that told the real life stories of the then unrepresented British working class.

He sought out scripts by the likes of David Mercer, Nell Dunn (interviewed here), and Barry Hines. Their screenplays all made their way to the screen under Loach’s direction. Cathy Come Home, Up the Junction, and Kes entered the cannon of influential British films in the sixties but this was only the beginning of the story.

Source: BFI

Jim Allen, described by one of the contributors as being politically engaged and, unlike Ken Loach, “as rough as a bear’s arse”, joined the team soon after. As Osmond’s documentary shows, the scene was set for a confrontation between a group of radical filmmakers and the might of the broadcasting establishment. Garnett provided the crystal clear insight into the class struggle they were involved in, and smoothed the ruffled feathers of the BBC bigwigs. Loach gave the projects their intense humanity, intelligence and artistic direction, while Jim Allen gave a credible voice to extraordinary ordinary people in his screenplays. All this is neatly told in the Versus documentary, as archive footage and interviews from the period punctuate and underline new interview footage that Versus have shot of Loach, Garnett, and the rest.

It was during this period at the BBC that Loach learned his craft as a director, and sharpened his keen sense of what makes a great story, for he has never been a mere propagandist, and powerful narrative is at the heart of what he does. This is the first of Loach’s maxims: the story comes first – it must be worth telling and the characters must be valid. We get some insight into the way he developed his own working method, letting a dramatic scene run in a public place without extras in Cathy come home, for example, so that it was truly believable – Loach’s second maxim: how do I film this so that I really believe it?

Ken Loach’s refusal to compromise his political ideals eventually drove his career into the ground — or more accurately, as Loach himself puts it, “The regime at the BBC made it plain that we weren’t welcome. [In] the British film industry there was certainly no place for the kind of films we wanted to do.”

And this is where lesser mortals would end their determination to change the world: broken, making adverts for the very corporations they despise, or moving to California, as Tony Garnett did. If there is a gap in the biography this is where it lies for me. I would like to know more about how he found his way back to sparkling form and bankability in 1990 with Hidden Agenda, though I suspect the answer is that he just kept knocking at the door.

As with all documentaries about great directors, we have his best known actors lining up to talk about their experiences: Gabriel Byrne, Cillian Murphy, and Ricky Tomlinson enthuse about working for the man (no prizes for guessing which one uses the words “bear’s arse”). Hayley Squires, who leads in I, Daniel Blake describes the way Loach creates a safe environment for his actors. Not surprisingly, there is no footage to show these moments of “going beyond that [the actor’s technique] into who they really are” because these are private moments between director and actor, but the beautifully vulnerable performances Loach teases from the actors are there for all to see on the screen.

Still from I, Daniel Blake
Still from Loach’s next film I, Daniel Blake

This exploration of Loach’s directing method is nicely done by the documentary maker. The actors give candid reminiscences, not always portraying Loach in a positive light. Darker episodes in Loach’s directing career are explored. This sortie into warts and all territory by Osmond counterpoints the eulogies, saves the film from inappropriate syrup, and gives us a fuller picture of the man. Loach’s own films, after all, don’t attempt to soften the edges of his characters, or hide their flaws. The Kenneth Loach presented here is a gentleman but there is steel under the surface, as he pushes his actors towards the performance he needs to really tell the story.

When David Bradley, who plays Billy in Kes, explains that he was given less than 24 hours to learn his central speech, he believes this was done to achieve a rough spontaneous quality. Loach instead tells us it was rather that he didn’t want the speech too well-learned because, in Ken’s words “the point of the scene is not to tell the audience how to train a kestrel. The point of the scene is for a boy who can never string two words together to become eloquent.”

In this respect particularly, Osmond’s documentary joins up the dots about the way that Ken Loach works his magic in pre-production and on set. Family members are interviewed and gently tease about Loach’s early efforts to make it as an actor. He was, for instance, understudy to Kenneth Williams in the West End review One Over the Eight but his wife describes Loach as the kind of actor he wouldn’t himself employ. Whatever the merits of his own acting abilities, Loach understands what is at stake for the performer and deeply respects his actors’ craft – their ability to make themselves vulnerable and “just be” on camera. His approach to the craft of acting, laid out clearly in this documentary, explains the way his “non-actors” often outshine the professionals in his films.

The film we see in pre-production during the shooting of the Versus documentary is I, Daniel Blake. While is great to learn that Ken Loach has since won his second Palme d’Or this movie, it is sobering to think that, with still no UK release date set (at the time of writing this article), we may have to travel to France or Italy to see it any time soon. I’m not waiting for that. In the grip of a serious Ken Loach DVD retrospective, I am returning to my own film-making project with renewed vigour and some very practical advice on how to make it happen.

Versus: Life & Films of Ken Loach is now available on DVD.


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