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Ken Loach. Photo/Joss Barratt/Supplied

A real class act: An interview with political film-maker Ken Loach

Veteran British director Ken Loach’s latest tackles the ramifications of the gig economy on the working poor in a companion piece to his Cannes-winning I, Daniel Blake. 

When the Listener calls Ken Loach for a short conversation about his very long career, the UK election is still a few weeks away. The prolific film-maker, whose name has been synonymous with social realism and socialism for more than five decades and who has been a vocal supporter of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, is still sounding hopeful.

“There’s a lot at stake at the moment. It’s dangerous but full of possibilities. It’s a big fight.”

Asked if the Labour Party might use his talents, as it has in the past, he says no, not yet. “They’ll probably get somebody younger,” laughs the 83-year-old. “I mean, there are lots of different ways of working together to get a decent victory, really, which is, my god, what people need.”

As it turns out, Loach does contribute. He uses the cast from his new film, Sorry We Missed You, to appear in a short video, A Fork in the Road, which uses footage from both Sorry and its Cannes-winning companion-piece predecessor, I, Daniel Blake, to plead for a change of government.

 

The new film portrays a struggling Newcastle family of four. It’s set in some of the same streets as I, Daniel Blake, his story of beneficiaries facing austerity measures, and it packs as big an emotional punch.

While working on Daniel, Loach and regular scriptwriter Paul Laverty found working families relying on food banks. From that sprang the story of the Turners, a family caught up in the precariousness of the gig economy. The father, Ricky, takes on a van delivery franchise, which puts him in hock to the courier company that, although treating him as an independent contractor, fines him for not reaching performance targets. With the family car traded in on a van, agency home-carer wife Abbie must visit her clients by bus, while their two kids see their harried parents less and less.

It’s the second film that Loach, who lives in Bath, has made in Newcastle. As well as being a city with an industrial and union history as a resonant backdrop, it offers Loach a useful tool – Geordie.

“It’s a very special accent. It’s good for comedy. And it’s good for serious stuff. And it takes energy. I mean, some accents don’t take a lot of energy to speak. It takes energy to speak Geordie – that gives it a strength.”

The Turner family in scenes from Sorry We Missed You. Photo/Josh Barratt/Supplied

He’s touched upon franchising, in 2001’s The Navigators, and outsourcing work, in 2007’s It’s a Free World, in which a young unemployed woman sets up her own recruitment agency and becomes a ruthless exploiter of those on her books. But Ricky, says Loach, isn’t self-employed, he’s a victim of propaganda.

“It’s a good comparison you make, but this is a story of a man who’s in the process of being destroyed by, and being trapped in, a situation where the whole notion of being an entrepreneur is a complete fraud.”

With some occasional swerves into history and settings outside the UK, Loach has been making such kitchen-sink, state-of-the-working-class-nation dramas since his early days in television, including the 1966 landmark Kathy Come Home and his 1967 debut feature, Poor Cow. He’s won the Cannes Palme d’Or twice, for 2006 Irish Civil War drama The Wind that Shakes the Barley and, 10 years later, for I, Daniel Blake. Sorry We Missed You was in contention this year.

His best-known films have been modest hits at home and festival staples overseas, which brings with it the possible snag in Loach’s uncompromising career – he’s made films about the British working class for middle-class arthouse consumption.

The Turner family in scenes from Sorry We Missed You. Photo/Josh Barratt/Supplied

“Well, it’s anyone with an open mind,” he says, citing nearly 700 free community screenings for I, Daniel Blake in Britain and plans for the same with Sorry. The new film has already had free screenings for delivery drivers and other casual workers in Paris (the film is partly French-financed).

“So, it does reach out into those council estates, into the working-class areas where a lot of cinemas have shut down, and most towns and cities don’t have an arthouse cinema. We have made a big effort to get the film into the theatres and it gets a different response … the conversations are much better, because when you’re actually dealing with, ‘How do we look after old people? What’s it like to be a delivery driver?’, people tell their own stories. People aren’t rolling over and just accepting the worst that people can throw at them.”

Still, working at 83, it might be said that, with his work rate, Loach is rather exploiting himself. But, after more than two dozen features, he isn’t planning on retiring anytime soon. Anyway, he says, “film-makers have a soft life”.

“I’d sooner do this than be a delivery driver, and if you’ve got the opportunity and you can tell a story or two that you think might make a difference, why wouldn’t you?”

Sorry We Missed You. Photo/Josh Barratt/Supplied

He remains something of a left-wing institution and a public figure in the UK. His support for Palestine has often embroiled him in controversy, especially when it comes to Israel’s state support of its film-makers at festivals around the world. He’s also been outspoken against accusations of anti-Semitism in the UK Labour Party.

There’s not really time in a 20-minute interview to canvass his many positions on many things. He reportedly “reluctantly” voted to remain in the EU, though he stood for the European Parliament in 2004. But, no, he’s not happy with the institution tag.

“God, I think I resist that. You’ve got to make certain you’re always giving them two fingers; then they don’t want you as an institution.”

He does seem to be a regular talking head representing the left on BBC political panel shows, though.

”I try not to do too much of that because otherwise people know what you’re going to say in the films. If you’re in the public eye, even in a tiny way, there are times when you do have a responsibility to say things, because otherwise the whole public discourse is taken over by people who are in power. Not that we should have any grand ideas about self-importance, but, nevertheless, if you don’t speak out, who will?”

Sorry We Missed You is in cinemas now.

This article was first published in the January 4, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.