Ken Loach: Still angry after all these years

It's four decades since director Ken Loach's tough portrayal of homelessness, 'Cathy Come Home', revolutionised the way social problems were tackled on TV – and he's not given up trying to change the world. Andy McSmith hears why
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Meeting Ken Loach is a shock. His reputation is fearsome, yet his manner is almost diffident. He works out of a sparse, two-room office above a spicy chicken café in Soho. He dresses plainly, speaks very quietly and listens carefully. Actually, he has to listen carefully, because, at the age of 71, he has a touch of deafness. His staff tease him about him without mercy. Yet this elderly man, who is hard of hearing and would not look out of place in a northern working men's club, has lost none of his lifelong talent for provoking outrage. He may not look or act like anyone's idea of a famous film director but he has been at the top of an ego-heavy profession for more than 40 years.

Loach rose to fame in 1966 as the young director of the seminal television play, Cathy Come Home – a cry of rage against homelessness. It was watched by 12 million people and added rocket fuel to the launch of the charity, Shelter, that month.

On Channel 4 tonight, there will be another disturbing Loach drama showing people with nowhere decent to live. The title, It's A Free World, is ironic. The play, written by Loach's long-term collaborator Paul Laverty, is an exposé of how the free market operates for East European migrants and illegal immigrants trying to survive in the sludge at the bottom of the job market.

It shows that, while Loach's politics have not altered in four decades, his choice of subjects has moved with the times, to a subject that is now in the news almost daily. Since 2002, more than 2.5 million foreign workers, nearly a third of them Poles, have applied for national insurance numbers in Britain. Last week, the Chief Constable of Cambridge, Julie Spence, warned that the numbers were putting a strain on her officers.

Loach's reply is not, of course, that the incomers should be sent home but that they should have exactly the same employment rights as British employees, so they cannot be used by employers to push down wages and working conditions. Unlike any other film Loach has directed, this story is not visualised through the eyes of the exploited. The main character, Angie – played by a relative newcomer, Kierston Wareing – runs a recruitment agency. The drama opens with her being sacked from her previous job after throwing drink in the face of the boss who tries to grope her. Anyone unfamiliar with Loach's socialism might sit back expecting a conventional feminist drama about a put-upon single mother proving her mettle in a male world. But, although he likes tough women characters, feminism is not Loach's top tune. "Through the 1980s, it was the soft option to take up this cause, particularly on Channel 4. They were very good at it." he says.

Actually, as the story unfolds, Angie's determination to succeed makes her more and more hard-bitten, callous and, finally, downright dishonest. It is the first time Loach has delved this far into the mindset of someone who makes money exploiting those who are worse off.

"What we wanted to do was take the audience on a journey, seeing the process through Angie's eyes," he says. "She starts as a woman who is sexually harassed at work and unfairly dismissed, so you are on her side. She's a funny, smart, feisty, sexy woman who is great company and good fun. She is very likeable. Well, I hope she is.

"Then you follow the logic of what she has done within the environment in which she is working. The Sun had a big story in the last few days about immigrants taking our taxes and benefits. One line they used was that we have become a haven for scroungers from eastern Europe. Well, what a contemptible thing to write. But that's the context in which Angie is working. In those lights, she is doing what society approves of. I hope, at the end, you think that is abhorrent and you can't tolerate it."

Born in Nuneaton, the son of a self-educated electrician, Loach consolidated his reputation in the 1960s and 1970s through a series of realistic, left-wing television dramas such as The Price Of Coal, about a mining accident in Yorkshire, and the six-part Days Of Hope, set in the 1920s. He also directed documentaries and films for cinema. His first successful foray into the cinema in 1969 was Kes the story of a boy from a mining village whose unhappy life is redeemed by his kestrel. His most recent film, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, released in 2006, provoked a now famous outburst from one commentator who likened Loach to a Nazi. The film described an episode during the Irish War of Independence in which the role of the British Army fell somewhere short of glorious. Simon Heffer, writing in The Daily Telegraph was enraged when this "poisonous" work by a "bigoted Marxist" won the Palme d'Or prize at Cannes. "No, I haven't seen it," Heffer admitted, "any more than I need to read Mein Kampf to know what a louse Hitler was."

It has not always been the Tory right who were most offended by Loach's work, however. The nadir of his career, which almost ended his connection with British television, came early in the Thatcher era, when he attempted to make a four-part documentary, Questions Of Leadership. He interviewed trade union activists eager to take on the Government but suspected that their own leaders and the Labour Party did not have the stomach for a fight. The project suffered what Loach calls "death by a thousand cuts" before being dropped, unshown. He named the people behind the ban. Most are dead and therefore cannot give their side of the story but the interesting point, politically, is that they were all luminaries of the Labour Party, such as the union leaders Terry Duffy and Frank Chapple, the newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell and the former Attorney-General, Sam Silkin.

Loach was himself a Labour member back then. "Although, obviously, I hated everything that Kinnock and the rest of them stood for, there was still a left in the Labour Party in those years. Obviously, I was constantly debating whether I should actually be in it or not. And then they decided they were going to switch their method of collecting subscriptions – from someone who came round who you spoke to, to taking your Visa number without any human contact. I said to them 'no, you're not having my Visa number. I won't subsidise you any longer'." More recently, he took the unusual step of standing as a candidate for George Galloway's Respect Party in the European elections, though he knew "there was never any danger of me being elected".

The serious old Marxist film director and the exhibitionist politician do not sound like a natural combination, and Loach does not rush to defend the two notorious episodes in Galloway's life – his homage to Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, and his cat impersonation on Celebrity Big Brother. Instead, he says: "Fair play to him. He is the only Labour MP who has left the party over the question of Iraq, and he is the first left of Labour MP to get into the House of Commons for many, many years. And he has been absolutely principled on the war and on privatisation. He deserves to be remembered for that."

After the trough of the 1980s, Loach made a comeback with films like the Spanish civil war epic Land And Freedom (1995), Carla's Song (1996) – about the impact of the Nicaraguan war – and Sweet Sixteen (2002), in which a teenager is drawn into a life of crime. His last television drama before tonight's play was The Navigators (2001), about rail privatisation.

It may be six years since Loach qualified for a bus pass but he has no intention of hanging up his cloth cap. He plans to make a documentary and another film with Laverty but refuses to discuss either for fear that it might jeopardise the projects. Whatever the subject matter, you can be sure both will be true to Loach's uncompromising socialism. With four decades at the top of his profession, Ken Loach is still very angry after all these years.

Life through a lens: the gritty vision of Ken Loach

Cathy Come Home (1966)

Perhaps the most celebrated one-off drama shown by the BBC in its 'Wednesday Play' slot during the 1960s. It attracted 12 million viewers and was an enormous boost to the homeless charity Shelter, launched 10 days later.

Poor Cow (1967)

Loach's cinematic debut tells the story of an 18 year old who runs away from home to marry a thief, has his child, is abused and ends up working as a prostitute. It stars Terence Stamp. Malcolm McDowell is credited in the cast list but he is not seen on screen.

Kes (1969)

The film of a novel by Barry Hines, who wrote the screenplay, tells the story of a Barnsley lad who is doing badly at school and hates the prospect of becoming a miner. He finds solace by befriending and training a kestrel.

Days Of Hope (1975)

Four feature-length television plays charting the experiences of a mining family between the First World War the General Strike of 1926, written by a former miner, Jim Allen. The former Blairite Cabinet minister, Alan Milburn, once worked in a radical bookshop named after the series.

The Price Of Coal (1977)

Two linked dramas, written by Barry Hines, featuring the same characters. The first is a comedy, about a visit by Prince Charles to a Yorkshire coal pit. The second is a tragedy about a mine disaster.

Land And Freedom (1995)

Loach's award-winning film about a jobless Liverpudlian who fights in the Spanish Civil War.

Carla's Song (1996)

The story of a Glasgow bus driver (Robert Carlyle) and a Nicaraguan woman living in exile.

The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006)

Loach's controversial account of the Irish War of Independence in the 1920s won the Palme d'Or.

It's a Free World (2007)

An unscrupulous female employment agency owner uses cheap labour from eastern Europe.