Versus : The Life and Films of Ken Loach : A Film Review

Directed by Louise Osmond. UK. Documentary. Duration 1hr 33mins. Cert. TBC.

Alone amongst equals.

Miraculously Ken Loach is still making films and still on his game as he puts it, with outstanding critical, professional acclaim.  Amongst the people seen in this fulsome and truthful summation of his career as a pioneer firstly and as a filmaker who has surprising sidelines and adjuncts to his milieu, are actors whose the acute observations sometimes make strikingly insightful input, among them Gabriel Byrne whose Royal Court part in Perdition by Jim Allen in collaboration with Loach, was castigated by the mainstream press. It was also derided as propaganda and dangerous as political theatre given its exposure of the Hungarian Zionists who in exchange for extradition to Palestine sent  thousands to their horrible deaths at the hands of the Nazis.  Gabriel Byrne played the legal counsel exposing the truth.  He intimates the size of the bravado, brinkmanship, eloquence, erudite calling Ken Loach’s craft or art summons up in him.  A visceral description is given by Byrne of the head to head Loach had with Royal Court director; seen here and admitting two failings, he has been an otherwise fortuitous director with many sound works behind him, Max Stafford-Clark.                                   

Groundbreaking work.

From his BBC work which produced the celebrated ‘Wednesday Plays’ Up The Junction (1965), Cathy Come Home (1966) England’s World Cup winning year, In Two Minds (1967) and The Big Flame (1969), through to the feature films of the 1990s, Hidden Agenda (1990), Riff-Raff (1991), Raining Stones (1993), Ladybird, Ladybird (1994), Land and Freedom (1995), Carla’s Song (1996) and My Name Is Joe (1998).  The film making the greatest impact emerged with Kes.  A Kestrel for a Knave (1969) as it was known in production (a theatrical affectation). It was only shown in a few cinemas in the north initially and became an instant hit. The plight of the boy along with the flight of the bird epitomised the working class route to the factories set for the children in secondary modern and comprehensive schools. The metaphor a bit loose given the kestrel is captive also.  

Before the attention deficit disorders, the autistic spectrum or dyslexia diagnosis along with the poor dietary programmes and environmental pollution of cities such as Sheffield were this film is set the lack of options career wise was extremely limited and more so than today given the move back to the paying for third level education and limits being programmed into curriculums negating a lot of the humanities and refreshing the sciences along with the new technologies out of reach of many in sub standard schools and local conditions which are beset with social tensions and a workplace of youth exploration, zero hours contracts and rubber band economics in a country printing its way through austerity of its own making.  

Kes shows the central boy, again an exploitative approach to casting – Loach’s tendency to cast unknowns adhere to his reliance on the individual carrying the narrative – ‘Showing you yourself is politics’ – no defences – exploiting the vulnerability actors/players harmonising paradoxically with the Harold Wilson pact of Government – that of Labour delivering ‘men’ to the occupations and factories.  Certainly it became a leading way to enter a story becoming part of the story itself illustrating familiar settings and life situations as the polemic.  In films of Ken Loach’s shown abroad he was received, and still is, with idolatry as a master of drama realism and agent provocateur who matches the dislike of the United Kingdom’s sovereign upper classes, recognised the working class struggles and ultimate sacrifices made in the war and post war settlements, including probably Israel, held high as parallel life struggles.  Those countries more recently loosene from Fascism but intensely preoccupied with new forms of Fascism and ‘cultural/religious’ clashes right and left. Sadly the global picture is left empty in relation to Israel, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico and the drug traffic finding itself on English, European homes.  It is a bit of a hippy approach on the soft radical left.  No dealings on colour or race are really covered.  The sexulisation, not radicalization of young women for Isis type recruitment or the misunderstood Islamic core fundamental truths in everyday life’s are lost agendas. 

All is Political.

Versus is a multitude of counterpoints.  Chiefly it is the political one. Capital v Labour.  Throughout his career, and we begin with the background of his Nuneaton, Midlands upbringing as mere observer of his families routine dependence on Manufacturing; there is footage within a large factory visited twice in the film, showing the ranks of machining in orderly rows but row after row in a vast factory as we go right to left seemingly unending expressing the servitude, the monotony, the grim conditions normal in those times.  Where now robots perform gymnastic manouvres for workers to accompany them these are similar regimented time based trades and occupations with one object in mind.  To achieve dividends and profit from man and women’s labour.  It’s also Genius v Loathsome and is self categorising.  Ken Loach describes his family visits to Blackpool and the ribald lewdness of the seaside fare in the theatres and them staying in the posh end, the northside. The film in fact begins with the esplanade, tower and carousel images familiar and now more Britains got Talent than revue and vaudeville offerings. The football team of Staney Matthews has even gone soft in the hands of the Royston  dynasty and are on the skids.            

Non-Lapsearian Socialist

It continues. Britain is on the skids in its blindness to the rip off being carried out since the films of the era of the miners strikes.  Even this year the Hillsborough Inquiry is able to link the police forces involvement in mass population manipulation and unmitigated brutality at the behest of the Thatcher government.  Ken Loach calls this period pivotal.  There is no doubt it was.  It began a breakdown in manufacturing and mass unemployment.  It began the greed cycle which is commonplace today. 

Depicting this was to Ken Loach a means of showing the general misguided public the manouvres of the Trade Union bosses, the leadership of a proletariat Labour Party and the upsurge of the worst kind of conspiratorial governance Margaret Thatcher who in thrall to Monarchy and Sovereignty never put a gilded foot wrong in solidifying the monarchal hold on all the worst forms of self interested societal class oppression imaginable.  Save Orwell and Nineteen Eighty Four.

In the beginning Ken Loach introduced to film making in the form of Television plays a new dynamic.  With sideways reflection to the fashions, Beat Generation, liberal sexual attitudes, he began to look for a social discourse relevant and reflecting the working classes whose life’s were removed from the beat generations life except by becoming consumers of it.  The churches, governments, educational establishments were mostly unchanging and Ken Loach found a way out of it through having his Tory upbringing, grammar school toes, an Oxford education.  He entered film making through collaboration with the BBC and Tony Garnett whose skills dovetailed politically and intuitively to allow them to create external drama in a BBC manifestly embedded in period, studio based drama.  Z Cars was then radical. 

Camera as a Person

Into the frame came Up the Junction which became the Television equivalent of Saturday night and Sunday morning.  The realism was achieved by Ken Loach using lesser known or basically first time actors who would work chronologically.  There then followed the groundbreaking realism of the cathartic Cathy Come Home. This is a film showing the worst cruelty suffered by a single mother having her children taken away and homelessness.  Of the situation Loach later said.

Shelter’s done some terrific work. It’s been an excellent resource for research and has obviously helped a lot of families find homes and that’s a very positive thing. What’s inadequate is the idea that homelessness is a problem that should be solved by a charity. It boils down to a structural problem within society. Who owns the land? Who owns the building industry? How does housing relate to unemployment? How do we decide what we produce, where we produce it, under what conditions? And housing fits into that. You can’t abstract housing from the economic pattern. So it is a political issue; the film just didn’t examine it at that level.

Extensively the film missed the real culprits whose profiteering on property, who owned land, who built homes and made a business complete around the financing of it was key and central.  Instead the scandal was of its desperate consequences and was seen in terms of society at loggerheads within the system not because of it.  Loach himself recognised this though it doesn’t get a mention in the film.  Other films made the same mistake though his Marxism became more evident.  No film shown; and the film tells you why, sent out clear signals that BOTH Labour and the Conservatives were intent on dismantling the unions in furtherance of a post war revival which only happened for a chosen few ‘in the end’.  Wilsons mantra was bad enough for England, Wales and Scotland but it was completely evasive of the industrial hotbed of Northern Ireland with its unique and fairly robust industries.  It was soon to see a Wilson collapse like no other as the Labour Party disowned its own kind in Northern Ireland for a pocket full of Backing Britain.

It happens to this day; working chronologically, with the Canne Palme D’or winning I, Daniel Clarke representing a fifty something man enroute to a new job and how that shapes out.  It reacts to the Cameron era of welfare being the place for those not able to fit the labour market constructed for a corporate world.
Ken Loach has in the past tried to interpret history and is given a bye-ball in his naive The Wind that shakes the Barley. Cillian Murphy is at pains to point out it redirected him in acting as he was again confronted as others had been of acting in the chronology of the piece.  Not observed were any wider aspects of separate wars and it is a monotheistic piece without the theism. The same can be said for Brothers and Sisters.  Several things crop up in this film which put Ken Loach in the John Peel (R1) school of liberal radicalism which he admits or chortles about.  The pandering often to a logic which betrays the cause while self serving and exploitative it is conflicting with the authoritive set of accusatory words chosen for Max Stafford-Clark undeserved by any fellow artist and his intermittent – how can you be intermittent? – inflexible set of principles except by being an unreasonable bullish human being.  Call it as it is called at one point – intractionism – but it does not meet reasonable criteria for professional backstabbing.  Cowardice is a word used by Loach in a petty point scoring way at one juncture.

Contempt is his prerogative and a mainstay bolstered by resilience omnipotence and a saintly guarded outlook which conceals an inherent cruelty self admitted occasionally.  The scene in favourite film of his Kes, when the boys are taken to the headmasters office for corporal punishment is a gross abuse. There are similar points of dise toon to be found by the reality being cruel in itself.  Perhaps I, Daniel Clarke shed some more light on the contradictions this director throws up.

Conclusion ###3

This film gives (Is Michael Goves name a typo and was he meant to be called Michael Gives and he just doesn’t get it? – just an aside) a great insight through fellow directors, writers, actors, family and producers of the very important contribution Ken Loach has made to the art of film making with his own politically insights.  He is furiously against all forms of Fascism, is deeply rooted in the psyche of damaged Britain and provides, continue to provide the elemental depth of reasoning neither patronising or compromising.  The underlying strength of this film is the copious account of the making, the process behind many of the more familiar films in his cannon. The works which showed the audacity of thought and the collaborative, driven desire to enable people to have a voice through the medium of Television and Film in a Nation which had Governments of different hue pander to the mass media.  The state controls are  examined throughout his films and the history is recent and of great significance both as a record and a means of expressing the ideas which shape and shaped the United Kingdom – the one seeking its own destiny as the referendum comes.  Some topics, immigration, Muslim Faith, the power of the Church of England and Sovereignty are barely evident but primarily this viewpoint relies on the people enabling do and enabling the creation of the films we are taken through.  It is a very productive process which has resulted in some odd conclusions that are identified in the summary of context as I put them above.  It is a necessary view but one which leaves you with many questions and a lot of cynisism largely through the colossal subjects they manage to confront.
John Graham

1 June 2016


To be screened at QFT BELFAST from 3 June to the 9 June 2016 with a Sunday pay what you can viewing at QFT at 4.40pm. This is in conjunction with screeningsacross the UK and Ireland.