FILM / The Parallax view of the cinema: His latest awards from the Berlin Festival confirm that Ken Loach is now the major force in European cinema he always promised to be. By Kevin Jackson

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The Independent Culture
Ten days before the start of the 1994 Berlin Film Festival, Ken Loach was being rather diffident about the chances for his latest production, a 'gruelling love story' entitled Ladybird, Ladybird. 'I don't think we shall do anything really. It's quite a small film and we're up against some heavyweight numbers.' Flash forward to Berlin last weekend, and cue the cheerful irony: Ladybird, Ladybird duly bags the International Critics' Prize, while its female lead, a newcomer by the name of Crissy Rock, takes the Best Actress award.

It might be tempting to represent this festival coup for Loach in some approximation of Rocky style, as the unexpected triumph of the plucky little outsider over the big hitters. And yet, for the last couple of years, Loach and his films have been winning major European awards with almost monotonous regularity. Just last month, Raining Stones received the French Critics' Circle prize for Best Foreign Film and the Belgian Critics' Best Film award; Raining Stones also won the Jury Prize at Cannes, as did Loach's 1990 film Hidden Agenda; while Riff Raff received the European Film of the Year Felix award and the Prix Italia.

On the other hand, it might equally be tempting to hype up the incongruity of all this continental acclaim, and suggest that Loach's slew of awards from across the channel amounts to yet another case of a British talent being honoured everywhere save in his own country. And yet Loach's recent films have also been exceptionally well received here - Raining Stones, for example, won in the Best Film and Best Screenplay (for Jim Allen) categories of the Evening Standard awards in January.

In reality, and indeed in the manner of Loach's narrative techniques, the true stories behind these awards are less melodramatic than the plots that propel most Hollywood vehicles, but no less absorbing. One story is that of the unexpected revival in a career that had begun brilliantly, with the likes of Cathy Come Home for the BBC and Kes for the cinema, but had gone off the boil during the 1980s, when Loach was finding it hard to pay his phone bills, let alone make features.

'In some ways it was my own fault; I just wasn't coming up with the right ideas for the time. Political events were happening so fast in the early Eighties that I was trying to work in documentaries - a piece of fiction can take up to three years to complete. I spent two years making a series about why the trade unions hadn't responded to the Thatcherite attack, called Questions of Leadership, which was banned by the IBA. But there were other obstacles which may sound trivial but which can make an enormous difference to a freelance. The main thing was just not having a base. For 20 years you're walking around Soho with a briefcase wondering how you can make a phone call.'

Another story began when Loach found that much-needed base in Parallax Films, allying with the director Les Blair - whose Bad Behaviour took the Peter Sellers Comedy Award at the Standard event - and the producers Sally Hibbin, Rebecca O'Brien and Sarah Curtis. Parallax was originally founded 13 years ago - 'We started with Channel 4, in effect,' says Sally Hibbin. 'We were a group of film-makers who wanted to make films that were fairly radical in content. The name Parallax comes from the technical term. If two objects are in parallax' - she lines two fingers up at eye level to demonstrate - 'and you shift your head slightly, you get a different point of view. So we made films for the GLC, CND and so on - organisations whose promotional material was all very worthy, but didn't have good production values.'

Like Loach, however, Parallax had also sailed into the doldrums by the mid-Eighties, after the fall of the GLC. But in the last few years, from about the time Hibbin started work with Loach on Riff Raff, the company has revitalised itself, and quietly developed into one of the most productive and artistically successful forces in British cinema. (New York critics compared Blair's Bad Behaviour favourably with Woody Allen.) Commercial success is another matter, for all that Raining Stones reached No 3 at the Paris box-office, and was in the Top 10 for several weeks: 'We're declared to be non-profit-making, which shouldn't be too hard to achieve. I think we can do that quite easily,' Loach quips dryly. 'But having a company does mean that whatever few bob you do make you can put back into developing projects.'

If all goes smoothly, Parallax will soon be starting production on three out of the eight films they presently have in development. Loach will be directing his most ambitious film to date, a pounds 2.7m drama about the Spanish Civil War scripted by his frequent collaborator Jim Allen (and as yet untitled: 'We were going to call it Land and Freedom, but that sounded rather portentous'). Sarah Curtis, who produced Bad Behaviour, will be producing a period comedy by the writer / director Chris Monger, set in Wales and boasting the decidedly non-portentous, if cumbersome, title The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain; and Sally Hibbin will be the producer both on Loach's film and on i-d, a debut feature by the writer-director team of Vincent O'Connell and Phil Davis, about football hooliganism.

Everyone at Parallax seems to have been taken aback at the flush of hits: 'We'd normally expect about one in four of our projects to get made,' says Hibbin, 'and suddenly we're in a position where everything seems to be getting made.' 'What's been particularly surprising to me,' Loach adds, 'is that we've tried to be rooted in very precise observation of what's happening in Britain, and you don't always expect the films to make sense elsewhere.'

On the other hand, many of the European film- makers Loach most admired when he was starting out as a director - De Sica, Rossellini, Milos Forman - were also engaged in observation of their national circumstances, and that emphasis never harmed their international reputations. Moreover, if American backers have been baffled or dismayed by Loach's indifference to the practice of selling a movie on its stars, Europeans are only too happy to be involved with un film de Ken Loach. 'I think we have far more in common culturally with Europe than we do with America, so if we are going to carve out some sort of space for British cinema it has to be done with European money and with European culture,' says Hibbin. 'It's rather nice that a film about the Spanish Civil War, which is the last time that everyone in Europe got together and fought for an ideal, is now being funded by money from all across Europe.'

Other Berlin Film Festival Awards: Best Film: 'In the Name of the Father'; Best Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski for 'Three Colours White'; Special Jury Prize: Tomas Gutierrez Alea for 'Strawberry and Chocolate'; Best Actor: Tom Hanks for 'Philadelphia'

(Photograph omitted)