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PORTSIDE  August 2011, Week 5

PORTSIDE August 2011, Week 5

Subject:

Ken Loach: 'the ruling class are cracking the whip'

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Ken Loach: 'the ruling class are cracking the whip'

    The leftwing film director talks about the
    riots, his early work on television and the
    documentary he made for Save the Children 40
    years ago that is about to be screened for the
    first time

By Kira Cochrane
Guardian (UK)
August 28, 2011

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/aug/28/ken-loach-class-riots-interview?INTCMP=SRCH

About halfway through our interview, I call Ken Loach a
sadist. The mild-mannered, faintly mole-like film
director blinks hard, chuckles, and carries on. We are
discussing a key aspect of his film-making: the element
of surprise. Loach has spent his career depicting
ordinary people, telling working-class stories as
truthfully as possible, and he works distinctively -
filming each scene in order, often using non-
professional actors, encouraging improvisation.

They don't tend to see a full script in advance, and
move through his films as confused as the audience
about what lurks around the next corner. I ask Loach
which surprise was most memorable, and he laughs
incongruously through a few examples. He talks about an
incident when an actor walked through a door, on-set,
to discover his co-star in a bath, her wrists
apparently slashed. "Surprise is the hardest thing to
act," says Loach, "and his response was just very
true." On another occasion an actor only found out
during the filming of a battle scene that her character
was to be shot and killed. She was not especially
pleased.

Most surprisingly of all, Crissy Rock, the lead in
Ladybird, Ladybird (1994) - a brilliant, devastating
gut-wrencher of a film - was convinced she was starring
in a happy, upbeat, redemptive story. "She thought it
would turn out to be about a couple successfully
raising children together," says Loach, smiling. It is
actually about a woman's kids being taken, one by one,
by the social services. In the scene where they come
for the final child, Rock "couldn't believe it," says
Loach. "She was just wrecked."

It's at this point I laugh and call Loach a sadist. But
it's probably more accurate to call him uncompromising,
with both his actors and his leftwing politics. Loach
turned 75 in June, and next month the BFI is showing a
retrospective that will take viewers from his early
television work - including the harsh, effective, 1966
exposé of homelessness Cathy Come Home - to his most
recent film, Route Irish, about the experiences of
private security contractors in Iraq. I ask which of
his films he's most proud of, and he can't choose.
"There's quite a few I cocked up, but that's another
matter."

His documentary The Save the Children Film, part-funded
by the charity, is being shown for the first time; made
in 1969 for TV, it was never broadcast. The film was
commissioned for the charity's 50th anniversary, and
it's easy to imagine what they might have been
expecting: a gauzy portrait, light on analysis, strong
on praise.

Loach took a different tack. The documentary looks at
the potential problems of aid, the ways those in a
position to be charitable are often patronising and
paternalistic. He took his cameras to a school run by
Save the Children in Kenya, for homeless boys from
Nairobi, for instance, that was set up along the lines
of a British public school; the children are shown
blowing bugles, marching, reading books including The
Inimitable Jeeves and Tom Brown's Schooldays. A group
of young Kenyan activists appear in the film, one of
whom notes he can't think of another school in the
world where the mother tongue isn't allowed.

The documentary moves beyond the charity's work to show
British expatriates in Kenya; one stompingly posh woman
remarks they have "a wildly gay time" there, and she
feels that "even in their poverty, [the Kenyan people]
are basically happy". Raising their living standards
might just upset things, she adds. The film is full of
issues that remain pressing: the limits of
philanthropy, the patronage relationships fostered by
aid, the subtle and not-so-subtle problems of
colonialism. It ends with the comment that we "must
change the property relationships of society, and then
we change man. That's the only real solution, and all
the rest is propaganda."

The documentary was made for LWT and only one-third
funded by the charity, so Loach thought he and his crew
could "take an independent view, and the TV company
would support us. But they didn't." There are moments
when he seems to have the naivety that derives from an
inflexible moral backbone. "When the people that ran
the Save the Children Fund said they would sue us, the
television company wrote off their investment, and
didn't back us at all."

It isn't the only one of his documentaries to have been
pulled; Questions of Leadership, a TV series critiquing
the response of the trade union top brass to
Thatcherism, made in the early 1980s, was never shown -
apparently for political reasons. I ask whether it
upsets him when his films are censored or withdrawn,
and he says: "It makes you angry, not on your own
behalf, but on behalf of the people whose voices
weren't allowed to be heard. When you had trade unions,
ordinary people, rank and file, never been on
television, never been interviewed, and they're not
allowed to be heard, that's scandalous. And you see it
over and over again. I mean, we heard very little from
the kids in the riots. You hear some people being
inarticulate in a hood, but very few people were
actually allowed to speak."

Loach's films are often either a call to arms (a
reminder of the rotten, vicious circumstances many
people face) or portraits of specific political
movements. The Wind That Shakes the Barley was about
the Irish war of independence, Bread and Roses was
about a group of office cleaners in Los Angeles
campaigning for just wages, Land and Freedom was about
a young, unemployed Liverpudlian man, a member of the
Communist party, who heads to Spain to fight in a
militia against Franco.

Land and Freedom has all the obvious elements of a
great film: a passionate protagonist, beautiful
heroine, a romantic relationship, battle scenes. And
yet its most gripping moments involve an extensive
conversation between a communist militia and the people
of a Spanish town about the merits of collectivism.
Should the town's land be carved up and shared among
the people? Should some remain private? All of it? When
I ask whether Loach would describe his politics as
socialist, he says it's a difficult word, because it's
much devalued, and you can't "make sense of it without
Marx - but if you say you're a Marxist, then the
rightwing press just uses it as a brick to hang around
your neck." He is the rare film-maker who brings
questions of political structure flamingly alive.

Loach is a quiet, gentle man - that streak of sadism
aside - who seems entirely without vanity; he comes
across like the most caring teacher in school. We talk
more about the riots, and the subsequent heavy-
handedness of the courts. "They'll shoot people for
stealing sheep next, won't they?" he says. "But, in a
way, whenever something dramatic happens, you know that
everybody retreats to their comfort zone - so the
Tories retreat to cutting benefits, pulling people out
of their houses, savage prison sentences. They want
that anyway. So whatever happens is an excuse for them
to do what they want to do."

I mention the two young men put away for four years
each, after trying to provoke rioting through their
Facebook pages. Loach notes, with a shrug, that their
cases will probably go to appeal, then adds: "It's the
ruling class cracking the whip, isn't it? It's
disgusting. We've got to organise. In the words of the
old American trade unionist Joe Hill: don't mourn,
organise."

He continues, apologising occasionally for "lecturing"
me. "I think the underlying factors regarding the riots
are plain for anyone with eyes to see . It seems to me
any economic structure that could give young people a
future has been destroyed. Traditionally young people
would be drawn into the world of work, and into groups
of adults who would send the boys for a lefthanded
screwdriver, or a pot of elbow grease, and so they'd be
sent up in that way, but they would also learn about
responsibilities, and learn a trade, and be defined by
their skills. Well, they destroyed that. Thatcher
destroyed that. She consciously destroyed the
workforces in places like the railways, for example,
and the mines, and the steelworks . so that transition
from adolescence to adulthood was destroyed,
consciously, and knowingly.

"I don't recall the nihilism among kids now, 40 or 50
years ago," he says. "Now there is no place for kids,
period. So I think despite the material advances, we're
worse off." We also don't seem to have a political
class that understands, on any level, what it's like to
face unemployment. "No, the Bullingdon boys have never
had to confront that," says Loach. "The Bullingdon boys
will wreck restaurants and ." he pauses. "Just throw
some money at it?" I say. "Yes, or their parents will
throw money at it."

I ask whether he aims to provoke political change with
his films, and he says he hopes they make people "see
things in a different way. That they see there were
possibilities for change in Spain, for instance, and
one of the things that destroyed it was sectarianism on
the left. That you can organise trade unions, we do
have strength, things can be different, and here are
stories from the past that show it."

It's difficult to imagine young people risking their
lives for leftwing ideals now as they once did in Spain
though, isn't it? Loach disagrees. "You get the
international volunteers who go and put themselves in
Gaza . Those are the sort of people who would have gone
to Spain. People will resist, and they will fight back,
and they do feel solidarity."

Does he think there's a chance of a revolutionary
moment in the UK, after the financial crisis, the MPs'
expenses scandal, the phone hacking revelations, and
the exposure of the cosiness between the police and the
Murdoch empire? "It just needs leadership," he says.
"It's like a head of steam. The steam won't drive
anything unless there's an engine, and somebody to
stoke it, and to drive the wheels around." The moment
in recent history, he thinks, when a proper movement
could have been launched, was at the march against the
Iraq war in 2003.

"At the end there should have been a hundred tables,
here's a pen, give us your name, we're anti-
privatisation, anti-war you know - it's Lenin's bread,
land and peace. If you sign up to that, you'll be
organised and it'll be democratic and there will be no
vain personalities trying to take it over, and we can
articulate a programme and a movement that might become
a party on that basis. There was a huge feeling across
the country. None of the politicians spoke for us. That
was the moment, but it was missed."

As a child growing up in the industrial town of
Nuneaton, his paternal grandfather a miner, his father
a foreman in a machine tool factory, Loach had little
interest in politics. His father read the Daily
Express, and was a working-class Tory, and Loach, an
only child ("not because they didn't want more
children, but because it wasn't possible for some
reason"), fell in love with the theatre. They lived 30
miles from Stratford-upon-Avon, "so once I got the bug,
aged about 12 or 13, I used to go there and see plays".
He fainted once, standing at the back watching Titus
Andronicus, starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.
"She has her tongue cut out, and she came on with
streams of red, and I'd had this long cycle ride, so I
fell over."

Loach went to the local grammar school, which took in
"60 boys each year, out of a town population of about
70,000. It was very lucky to go, because it was good,
but it was at the expense of hundreds of boys the same
age who, from the age of 11, would have no way into
higher education." If you didn't get into the grammar
school, your academic career would almost certainly
fade fast. Loach wanted to be a lawyer; I ask if this
was out of a striving for justice, and he laughs. "By
no means. I just fancied the frocks really. I was
really stage-struck, but I thought that going into the
theatre would be unrealistic."

After a couple of years of national service with the
RAF, he studied law at Oxford, and spent all his time
performing. "I didn't go to a lecture for over a year.
It was an absolute disgrace. I got an actor's degree -
I swotted for six weeks at the end." He and a friend
came close to starting a theatre afterwards, but when
their funding fell through, he ended up understudying a
comedian who was playing opposite Kenneth Williams. "I
was totally incompetent, so thank God I never had to go
on." Williams "was quite friendly", says Loach, "but if
he was not in a good frame of mind, he could destroy
you, and I was a young innocent abroad."

He emphasises that he was a poor actor ("I wouldn't
have employed me") and so became an assistant director
at Northampton Rep for a year, then in 1963 landed a
job as a trainee director at the BBC. "It was a huge
stroke of luck to be there, because the BBC was in
quite a liberal mood, with Hugh Carleton Greene as the
director general." Loach was soon influenced by the
political passion of those around him, and began
reading widely about leftwing ideas.

He started off directing Z Cars, and was then asked to
join the Wednesday Play; in his first year he directed
about six films, "original scripts, going out at peak
viewing, straight after the news, when there were only
two and a half channels. So everybody watched it. It
was an incredible opportunity." He worked with strong
writers, including Nell Dunn, Jeremy Sandford and David
Mercer; Jimmy O'Connor wrote a film about capital
punishment, Three Clear Sundays. "He himself had been
arrested and convicted of murder and sentenced to hang,
and was reprieved with days to go. He was a very good
writer."

Over four or five years, he made such classics as Up
the Junction, Cathy Come Home, and his first feature
film, Poor Cow, all stories of working-class life. He
and his peers gravitated to these stories for a number
of reasons. "One is that the drama is most intense
among people who have got little to lose," he says.
"They live life very vividly, and the stakes are very
high if you don't have a lot of money to cushion your
life. Also, because they're the front line of what we
came to call the class war. Either through being
workers without work, or through being exploited where
they were working. And I guess for a political reason,
because we felt, and I still think, that if there is to
be change, it will come from below. It won't come from
people who have a lot to lose, it will come from people
who will have everything to gain." He pauses, and
smiles. "They also have the best jokes."

Loach says that period at the BBC was "hugely
intoxicating" not just because of the enormous
audiences, but because the directors had to defend
their work, and politics. "Not only did you get
reviews, but if you had a play on, you'd go on a
programme called Late Night Line-Up, and there would be
a critic, and a discussion, and you'd be torn to
shreds, so you had to know your stuff. We always felt
we were in politics, even though we were doing drama. A
lot of directors now, I notice, when people take issue
with them, they say: 'Oh no, it's not political, we
didn't mean that, and they back off.' Well, we never
backed off, you know, and why would you?"
_____________

The BFI's Ken Loach retrospective launches at BFI
Southbank on 1 September with the premiere of The Save
the Children film and continues until 12 October. Ken
Loach at the BBC is available on DVD from 5 September.

    c 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its
    affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

___________________________________________

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