Ken Loach: Cinema's own Red Ken

The factory worker's son from Nuneaton has crowned a 40-year career by winning the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Cahal Milmo on a director who wears his heart on his celluloid
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The Independent Culture

There is a scene in Ken Loach's latest film, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, in which two brothers fighting for the IRA discuss the overwhelming numerical superiority of the British Army. One says to the other: "So what are you going to do? Take on the British Empire with a hurley stick - stun the bastards one by one?" It is a fitting line from a director who was yesterday celebrating the highest accolade yet for 40 years of concussing audiences with grim portrayals of the iniquities of empire, political power and poverty.

One by one, the factory worker's son from Nuneaton has spent his career turning out films and documentaries which he himself admits come from the "gritty realism" end of the box-office spectrum. From Cathy Come Home, Loach's 1966 pioneering portrayal of homelessness, to My Name Is Joe, about a Glaswegian alcoholic, the 69-year-old director has waged a long battle against what he considers the complacency of mainstream - and mostly American - cinema.

It was therefore unsurprising that when the left-wing firebrand - a mild, bespectacled figure - stood before a glittering audience of the film world's great and good on Saturday night to receive the Palme d'Or at Cannes, he seized the opportunity to whack the Establishment with his own cinematic hurley stick.

Gripping his prize for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which takes its title from an Irish folk song, Loach said: "Our film is about a little step, a very little step, in the British confronting their imperialist history, and if we tell the truth about the past, maybe we [can] tell the truth about the present."

It was the eighth time that Loach had been nominated for the Cannes Film Festival's top award but the first time he had won it, beating 19 other contenders in a shortlist dominated by films about war.

Cinephiles pointed out yesterday that the most high-profile award of Loach's career (he has never been nominated for an Oscar or won a Bafta) came from a festival on mainland Europe, where his work has often been more lauded than at home or on the other side of the Atlantic.

The nine-strong celebrity jury, including Samuel L Jackson, Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Roth, were unanimous in their decision about the film, which tells the tale of two brothers who join the IRA in the fight against the brutal militia of the Black and Tans in 1920. Bonham Carter said: "It was absolutely shattering. It hit us all profoundly. It was one of five films about war and it was a fantastic education about the Irish problem. There was a tremendous humanity."

It is not an uncommon reaction to a film by Loach, who regularly has to put up with his work being mistaken for that of fellow British master of realism, Mike Leigh. Strangers approach Loach to congratulate him on making Abigail's Party (while apparently Leigh grins politely when thanked for making Kes).

All of which makes the sight of Loach at Cannes, walking along the Croisette amid the cast of The Da Vinci Code or being photographed on a beach scattered with pneumatic blondes, if not downright incongruous, then at least an elegant contrast.

As if to prove the point, the grandfather who operates from a cramped office in London's Soho and could only make his £4.5m movie with the help of £500,000 Lottery grant, used his acceptance speech to outline his philosophy that cinema must mirror current events, such as the invasion of Iraq, no matter how unpalatable. He said: "The wars we have seen, the occupations that we see throughout the world - people cannot finally turn away from that. And the fact that this is reflected in cinema is very important for the health of cinema. It's very exciting to be able to deal with this in films, and not just be a complement to the popcorn. I think the trend is very exciting. It puts cinema at the centre of our lives really."

Which is precisely where Loach believes it should be, with all the tender humour and grimy suffering he can physically muster. From the exploitation of the Latino population by rich Los Angeleans (Bread and Roses, 2000), to the economic struggle of working-class British families (Raining Stones, 1993), to the hitherto unnoticed plight of homeless runaways (Cathy Come Home), the director has developed a modus operandi for telling the stories of those he believes have no voice. As one prominent producer put it: "Most directors make films they think people will want to see. Ken makes films that he thinks people should see and damn the consequences."

Critics argue, with some justification, that there is a pedagogical element to Loach's films that can be wearing for those not as engrossed in the subject matter as the director.

Anthony Quinn, film critic of The Independent, comments: "Loach is a film-maker whose success one is pleased for without necessarily feeling a passionate admiration of his work. His cinema of parable and polemic can sometimes be heavy going, and certain ventures outside Britain have been terribly misjudged. If you've not sat through the 20-minute debate about collectivism in Land and Freedom (1995) then you don't really know what it means to feel time drag."

Such an earnest oeuvre is also at odds with Loach's first brush with showbiz. His first job was as an understudy in a cabaret show starring Kenneth Williams and he appeared on stage at university with Dudley Moore.

Born in 1936, Loach does not shy from underlining his working-class lineage. His father was an electrician at a factory in Coventry who took his son to the public library every Saturday to renew the two to three books he consumed per week. The young Kenneth was bright enough to gain entry to Nuneaton Grammar School, a manifestation of a system he despises but found nonetheless "very pleasant", before spending his two years' national service as an RAF typist. He then studied law at Oxford.

It was while he was at Oxford that Loach discovered his taste for the theatre and after realising his talents lay in directing rather than acting, he got a job as a trainee in the BBC's drama department in 1963. There he found himself at the heart of a group of writers and directors with a newfound desire to make journalistic dramas, starting with the police series Z Cars and culminating in the documentary-style filming of Cathy Come Home.

After a 20-year hiatus in the 1970s and 1980s, during which he was reduced to making beer adverts for Saatchi and Saatchi, Loach suddenly found himself back in vogue in the 1990s and produced a string of low-budget films which have not made him rich but at least won him plaudits. In the process, he has ditched Labour and Tony Blair ("he's destroyed the party") and lent his support to the Socialist Workers' Party.

But experience shows that efforts to paint Loach as a dour realist with a messianic zeal to raise the portrayal of proletarian toil to an art form often fall on stony ground. For a start, his films are more free-form than many would imagine. He does not tell his actors how their characters will develop, or indeed what happens in the end until the denouement is filmed itself.

In Kes, probably Loach's best-known film, which tells the tale of a boy who befriends a falcon, the actor playing the boy believed the bird used in the filming had been killed for the final scene in which he discovers its death. In fact, a dead kestrel had been substituted for the live bird.

Similarly in Raining Stones, the actress playing a mother visited by a pair of particularly unpleasant loan sharks was not told her wedding ring would be ripped off her hand as part payment for her character's debts.

Surprise and integrity are thus at the core of Loach's purpose in life - as well as having a poke at authority whenever the opportunity arises. When asked whether he considers The Wind That Shakes the Barley to be "anti-British", he said: "This isn't a film about the Brits bashing the Irish. You can argue that we have a responsibility to attack the mistakes and brutalities of our leaders, past and present. Far from being unpatriotic, it is a duty we cannot ignore."

In other words do not expect the words "directed by Ken Loach" to appear at a multiplex on the poster for a blockbuster romantic comedy any time soon.


The Wind That Shakes the Barley, (2006). Drama set in Ireland starring Cillian Murphy.

McLibel (2005).

Tickets (2005) Comedy drama.

Ae Fond Kiss (2004). Mixed-race drama set in Glasgow.

11/09/01 - September 11 (2002). UK segment.

Sweet Sixteen (2002). Drama starring Martin Compston.

The Navigators (2001) Five Yorkshiremen trying to survive after British Rail is bought out.

Bread and Roses (2000). Political drama.

My Name Is Joe (1998). Drama about an alcoholic.

The Flickering Flame (1997)

Carla's Song (1996). Drama starring Robert Carlyle.

Land and Freedom (1995). Set in the Spanish Civil War.

A Contemporary Case for Common Ownership (1995). Documentary

Ladybird Ladybird (1994). Drama about woman trying to keep her children.

Raining Stones (1993). Drama starring Ricky Tomlinson

Hidden Agenda (1990)

Riff-Raff (1990)

The View from the Woodpile (1989)

Fatherland (1986)

Which Side Are You On? (1984)

Looks and Smiles (1981)

Auditions (1980)

The Gamekeeper (1980)

Black Jack (1979)

Play for Today (1971-1977). Series of TV plays

Days of Hope (1975) TV drama

A Misfortune (1973) TV drama.

Family Life (1971)

The Save the Children Fund Film (1971). Never shown.

After A Lifetime (1971)

The Wednesday Play (1964-1970) TV series

Kes (1969). Won two Baftas.

The Golden Vision (1968)

Poor Cow (1967)

Wear A Very Big Hat (1965)

Diary of a Young Man (1964)

Z Cars (1962). Police drama