INTERVIEW / Pariah with no regrets: Ken Loach: His subjects are grim, his characters unlucky. Brian Cathcart found Britain's Cannes hero still convinced that the personal is political

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THERE is a moment in Raining Stones when the central character, Bob, brings home an old van he has just bought for pounds 260. Bob needs money to buy his daughter a white dress for her first communion, and he believes that with the van he will find work. As he lifts the little girl up to play in the driving seat, he tells his wife bravely: 'This is us, kid. We're on our way up now.'

Bob is kidding himself. He and his family are on their way down, caught in a vortex of debt, bad luck and injustice. One by one the blows fall, until they are brought weeping to the brink of despair. Raining Stones, which last week won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, is unmistakably the work of Ken Loach, British cinema's master of misery.

If you cringe with Mike Leigh (another winner at Cannes), you suffer with Loach, the director who dwells on the grimmest issues in the grimmest settings. Poverty, exploitation, unemployment and political wrongdoing are his subjects, and bleak realism his device. A little honest humour is permitted, but strictly no romance, no escape.

Sitting on a stool in a Soho cafe near his office, thoughtfully pushing a spoon around in his cup of coffee, he doesn't seem a particularly forbidding or morose figure. He is spare, smallish and soft-spoken, and the mention of Bob brings a smile of affection to his lips.

'He's an optimist. When he wakes up he can always see a way forward. I have met a lot of people like that who are forever ducking and diving and trying to see a way through. They get around one obstacle and then another one presents itself. I find that eternal optimism quite touching.'

But life is against Bob. 'He might get over a little temporary hump, but the overall long-term path he's on is downwards. Like so many people.'

In fact, just like Reg, the luckless husband in Cathy Come Home, the BBC play that made Loach a household name in 1966. Reg was another optimist struggling to make a life for his family and doomed to stumble from disaster to disaster. Loach acknowledges that there are strong echoes of Cathy in the new film, although a gulf of style and history separates them. When Raining Stones was screened at Cannes an emotional audience gave it a standing ovation. The prize that followed was the fourth Loach has received there in 14 years, a fair measure of his standing in Continental Europe. Yet in Britain he remains magnificently unfashionable. He may have helped to shape the attitudes of a generation, worked on Z Cars and Play for Today and made Up The Junction, Poor Cow, Kes and Family Life as well as Cathy Come Home, he may be an inspiration to other British directors such as Alan Parker and Stephen Frears, but for years he has struggled to finance his films and often had difficulty getting them screened. His experience is proof that it is not easy to make people look at things they do not want to see.

IT MAY be hard to believe, but Ken Loach's first job was as an understudy in a comedy revue starring Kenneth Williams, entitled One over the Eight. Before that he had appeared in a university skit with Dudley Moore. Politics did not come his way until he was nearly 30.

He was born in 1936. With the care of a man who likes to get his class distinctions exactly right, he explains that his father was an electrician in a Coventry factory, who late in life became a foreman and finally rose to a more senior position. 'Fundamentally,' he says, 'he worked for wages for almost all his life.'

Loach went to a Nuneaton grammar school ('not a system I would defend, but for those lucky enough to get in it was very pleasant'), spent two years as a typist in the RAF and then studied law at Oxford. Finding a taste for the theatre and realising he was 'a very inadequate actor', he went on to get a job as an assistant director in Northampton Rep.

It was at the BBC that politics entered his life, and work. Starting as a trainee, he quickly found himself directing episodes of 'the most progressive series on television', Z Cars. 'They were showing the police as hard-living, pressurised, sometimes prejudiced individuals, when the previous image was of the avuncular George Dixon.'

From there he joined the growing team of good writers and directors at Play for Today and The Wednesday Play, and became a radical. 'Our intention was that the plays should have the same sort of impact as World in Action was having. We followed the news and we wanted to be seen as like the news, so that people didn't say, 'We've had the facts, now we'll have the fantasy'.'

Cathy Come Home, shot in vivid documentary style, was not only like the news, it was news. People had no idea that a well-intentioned, law-abiding family could be driven to destruction in such a way. In an age when one television programme still seemed capable of reaching the entire nation, it prompted an anguished debate about homelessness and the welfare system, and helped establish the success of Shelter, just then being created.

Loach moved into films, with Poor Cow, the tale of a young mother on the fringe of the criminal world, and Kes, about a bullied schoolboy who forms a bond with a hawk. But critical success was not matched by commercial returns; the lean years were beginning. 'The worst thing about being a freelance film director,' he remembers, 'is that you're scrambling around Soho with a briefcase, looking for somewhere to make phone calls. That was my position for 10 years.'

The 1980s were worse. In the new political climate, he found himself unable to get his work screened. Among others, his political documentaries about the trade unions were banned. He was becoming a pariah.

HE HAS no regrets. He believed the unions threw away the chance to take on the Conservatives. 'Each section was allowed to go over the top on their own and any linked resistance was actively discouraged and dis-organised by the trade union leaders,' he says.

But in a democracy, is challenging the government really the business of the unions? 'It depends whether you think we've got a proper democracy. If all political parties are committed to the role of the free market, the politicians act as, I don't know, as traffic policemen; they stand outside the ring and let the real decisions be slugged out by entrepreneurs. That doesn't seem to me a proper democracy.'

Loach is a long-standing Labour Party member - 'At the very least it's a party that is open to argument' - and likes to haggle over resolutions at branch meetings. He can hardly be keen on many present policies, but he resists being labelled as an extremist. The one politician he quoted with approval was Tony Benn.

By the late 1980s, needing to pay his mortgage, he had been reduced to making beer commercials for Saatchi and Saatchi. It was Channel 4 that rescued him, although he didn't exactly make it easy for it. Hidden Agenda was, as he sees it, a study of the corrupting effect on Britain of its 'colonial' presence in Northern Ireland. Made for Channel 4, it went unscreened for three years in this country despite winning a prize at Cannes. There followed the modest success of Riff-Raff, about corrupt employment practices on a London building site, and now Raining Stones, yet to be released but deserving to do still better.

But why, after 27 years, is he still making the same sort of film? Any other director - Stephen Frears is one - would have branched out, moved on. 'I just find the human situation, the stories and the emotions and the humour of it, endlessly absorbing. The way families exist and relationships develop and emotions refract through these situations is always interesting, isn't it? It's always right before your eyes wherever you go. Plainly it's the stuff of drama.'

And the stuff of politics. With Loach the two are still inseparable, and Raining Stones was made with a clear political purpose. 'When there are 50 people waiting to take your job if you leave it, the Left is weak. The tiny part that people in our trade can play is to try and generate a feeling of confidence by making people feel important. We can put them on the screen in a sympathetic way, in a way which makes them likeable and significant, and not - and this is important - simply as downtrodden victims for whom we have to pass the hat around.

'Bob isn't defeated in his spirit. The film is about people hanging on to their dignity and self-respect, not losing them.'

After all these years, surely he would like to escape, just a little? What if somebody gave him the budget to make a Robin Hood or a Prisoner of Zenda? 'They wouldn't,' he says, dismissively. 'Anyway, for that sort of film you never ask people where they are from, how they earn their living, what their weekly budget is, what their social context is. Those are the interesting questions.'

Even if he had his choice of subject? He hesitates, mentions Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers as an epic film he admires, and then at last admits that he is hoping to do something a bit more expensive and exotic next year. It will be about the Spanish Civil War.

(Photograph omitted)