How we met: Ken Loahc and Jim Allen

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Ken Loach was born in the Midlands in 1936. He worked as an actor and director before joining the BBC in 1963. He has been making films and documentaries ever since, including Cathy Come Home, Kes and Land and Freedom. His latest film, My Name is Joe, is on general release now. He has four children and lives in Bath with his wife. Jim Allen, 72, was born in Manchester. He left school at the age of 13, and worked as a docker, miner and seaman before becoming a labour organiser. In 1965, he started writing for Coronation Street. His work with Ken Loach includes Days of Hope, The Spongers and Raining Stones. A widower with five children, he still lives in the outskirts of Manchester

JIM ALLEN: We met when Tony Garnett, the producer, introduced us to one another in 1967. I'd already seen and admired Cathy Come Home. We just gelled: we had the same politics. I'd worked in the Liverpool docks, and we discussed doing a film about it - that's when the working relationship started. The Big Flame came out in about 1968 or 69.

My first impression of Ken was of a very private person, very different to me, but I thought we could work well together. He was quiet, and had different social habits: I drank, he didn't. He was very sharp, very intelligent, but the main thing was that we shared the same kind of radical, socialist vision. So when I wrote about the Docks, there was no conflict, only agreement.

I had just done a big film called The Lump, and there was a kind of mutual admiration for what we were trying to do. We respected each other. He lived in London, I lived in Manchester, but after the film we stayed in touch. The next big thing was Days of Hope, a series of four films which I wrote and Ken directed.

It was a good, solid, working relationship. We created sparks. There were disagreements but they were always creative ones. I would write draft after draft, and then go down to the BBC in London and meet Tony [Garnett] and Ken. We would hammer through drafts, going through changes. It was meetings, meetings, meetings, but always very much two-way.

Ken is a hands-on director and would be involved every step of the way. He would mould and build the work. We slaved over the scripts until they were exactly right. I often felt very strongly about a scene, but it was helpful that changes were made in the right atmosphere. Ours was rather like a good sibling relationship.

We would settle on actors and locations, and then I would more or less leave Ken to it. I'd go down sometimes to see what was going on, but I always knew he was good at what he did. He's sympathetic, very sharp and very intelligent. At times, a writer can't see the woods for the trees; Ken can come in and look at a script and see all the weaknesses, but remain sensitive and compassionate as he explains them. And he's always available to talk about a script, day and night.

Before we start filming, everything is so prepared that there are never any shocks or surprises. We've always talked everything through thoroughly. Ken's a very easy man to get along with. He's absolutely strong and certain of what he wants, but there's no stamping of feet or any of that crap. We both just try to do the best we can. If a piece of writing isn't going the way he expects, he will tell me. Now I can anticipate which way he's going to go with his decisions, almost like a sixth sense, which makes a professional relationship much easier. He's also very loyal, and will stick by you.

We are more often in touch when we're working together. He lives in Bath and I'm in Manchester, but every now and then he'll come up here for a day. And we'll talk on the phone quite a lot. It's not a question of who makes the call - we just get on with it.

We have both won awards - for example, Raining Stones won the Cannes Jury Prize. But awards are just baubles. They're supposed to give you added strength, a little publicity, but neither of us gives a shit about that. The problem for Ken and I has always been raising money, because the scripts, cast and location all depend on the budget. Budget determines content - with, for example, Land and Freedom, I was having to cut, cut, cut because we simply didn't have the investment. We waste more time chasing the money than we do writing scripts.

The biggest problem Ken and I have is getting our films shown. Raining Stones hasn't ever been shown in Manchester apart from in one small arthouse cinema. We're lucky if our films are shown in more than 30 theatres in the whole country. It's a bit difficult, trying to get an audience when the films just aren't being shown.

KEN LOACH: I guess we met in about 1966 through Tony Garnett at the BBC. That was a time when a whole new set of writers, with a whole new agenda, were around. Jim was key to that.

A lot of my way of looking at the world I got from Jim. He was very important in the redevelopment of a whole group of people. He was steadfast in his polar position. His understanding of politics was very strong and clear. Most of us were 10 years younger than Jim, and most had been to university. Suddenly, here was this man whose writing was very strong and sinewy: it was real life, and the characters burst off the page. Of the writers around at the time, Jim stood head-and-shoulders above the rest, simply in terms of raw talent and in his understanding of class politics.

It's always been mainly a working relationship, because we live at opposite ends of the country. I learnt a lot through Jim and from reading his work, as well as through the places he took us to: the Liverpool docks when we were filming The Big Flame. After that, it was one film after another - by the mid-Seventies we'd made six together.

Jim was a rock to work with because everything had a validity. I think he was quite suspicious of what we would do to his writing - at the time I wanted to inject a spontaneity into whatever it is people do in front of the camera, and it's difficult to balance that with remaining faithful to the script. In the early days, there was an apprehension on his part that we would be careless with his writing. I remember when we did the last film of Days of Hope. All the issues from the four films converged, like a coda to the ensemble. The night before we were due to start filming it still wasn't all written. Jim kept putting things in and taking them out. I said, "Jim, we can't include all of this in the film," and he would say, "But we've got to defend ourselves against the Stalinists."

So I think in the early days, before he knew that I wasn't going to distort the central core of what he was writing about, he was apprehensive. I would encourage actors to at least think they had made it up. There was one occasion when Jim sat in front of the actors with a script, and of course they were paralysed by that - the writer following them with his hand on the script. I finally managed to persuade him he didn't need to do that.

He's an immensely funny, very dry, man, and his political position is one we have learnt a lot from. People nowadays don't have that sense of class politics. Jim learnt his politics through being a builder or dock- worker: he learnt at the coal face, both literally and metaphorically. Politics was the cement in the friendship. With Jim it would have to be that way, because Jim is political to his fingertips. He sees everything in political terms. If you disagreed with him politically, you couldn't be a long-term friend.

I admire the fact that he's stuck to his task. He never moved to London and became part of the set. He stayed where his home is. That steadfastness is very good. He's very human, and sometimes takes offence where none is intended. Perhaps because he's always lived in Manchester and never been a part of the media world, he's always suspicious of others. He does have a sense that people down south are trying to rip him off. He feels that things are being done to his disadvantage, even if they're not. That has meant that some of his friendships haven't lasted as long as they could have. I think people are intimidated by him, because he's very uncompromising and he says what he thinks. But he's one of the strongest, straightest men I know.

He makes me laugh: he's always got some story about his physical ailments. I once phoned him up after he had fallen down and bruised his hip. He said he was fed up of eating peas: he'd defrosted so many packets on the bruise.

When Jim used to come to London, as soon as he arrived he'd be checking the timetable for the next train home. Usually, our social meetings are based around filming, but if I'm up his way I'll pop over and see him. He still does political meetings and he's a very good speaker.

Another bond is football. Jim is an armchair Manchester United fan, although now bloody Murdoch is there he might be a little less enthusiastic. I support Bath City, which he's very disparaging about. !

Comments