In 1967, Ken Loach made a film about the Liverpool dock strike. This autumn, the director was back on Merseyside filming striking dockers. But this time things were very different, on both sides of the camera. Decca Aitkenhead reports

Decca Aitkenhead
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:36

On A grimy Merseyside morning, there is little in the view from Transport House to inspire the panoramically minded. The cameras set up at the window are pointing inwards, on 20 or so people gathered in a room. Most are at ease, quick to crack a joke, shedding coats and settling down to sit in judgement. A smaller group looks nervous; a slight, dishevelled man is humping tables about, while a woman hands out tea and biscuits, smile fixed.

Chairs and tea assembled, the video is switched on, and Ken Loach and his crew film these Liverpool dockers and their families, as they watch the documentary he has made of their strike.

Loach was last in Liverpool filming dockers almost 30 years ago, for The Big Flame, a drama based on the 1967 dock strike. Back then, 9,000 dockers were out for six weeks - action which ended the antiquated system of casual labour, and heralded the National Dock Labour Scheme. Workers' power, it would seem, brimmed with possibility. Today, the last 400 registered dockers in Liverpool have been out for 15 months, sacked over a dispute, but demanding their jobs back. The families are about to spend their second Christmas on unofficial strike.

The decline of the Mersey docker is as poignant a chapter as any in British social history -the unravelling of maritime primacy, industrial brawn and solidarity, down to a windswept huddle of ageing dockers at port gates, watching scab labour sweep past in Ford Escorts. If the men lose their battle for reinstatement, this chapter will effectively be closed, and its dockers consigned to an industrial history already littered with miners, shipbuilders and other post-Thatcher casualties.

To the modern labour movement, Mersey pickets and their placards are an embarrassment; to the Labour party, anathema. But to Ken Loach, they are the stuff of dreams. The tale has everything - the nobility of labour, the betrayals of union leadership, the fabric of a working-class culture worn bare on short-term personal contracts, all set against the grainy backdrop of dockside gantries and Scouse defiance. By last summer, Loach was approaching broadcasters to fund a documentary; by the autumn, he was in Liverpool, filming The Flickering Flame for BBC2's Modern Times series. On this November morning in Transport House, he was showing the main characters a rough cut; next week, the finished piece will be broadcast.

Like an artist revealing a portrait to the sitter, Loach appeared apprehensive. Other documentary-makers would have been more so. One could have expected an uneasy scene that morning - militant dockers sitting down to watch their own obituary. The story lends itself all too easily to a lament for a dying breed's last gasp, but what they saw instead was a rallying call to arms. These men are fighting a lonely battle for jobs filled by others over a year ago. And yet The Flickering Flame, for Ken Loach, is no dying ember, but a glimmer of hope.

Glimmers of hope have - at times - been in pretty short supply for Loach himself. The son of a Midlands electrician, he read law at Oxford before arriving at the BBC in 1962, where he cut his teeth directing episodes of Z-Cars, before finding fame, of a sort, with Cathy Come Home (1966), a haunting account of homelessness which suggested new possibilities for television. Feature films on similarly gritty themes followed - notably Poor Cow (1967), about a mother's grim struggle to bring up her child, and Kes (1969), the high point of Loach's early career, about a working- class boy who finds only partial escape from his depressing home-life when he adopts a baby falcon. Soon the term "social realism" was firmly lodged alongside his name.

But despite these early successes, Loach failed to find a consistent audience for his work. And by the Eighties, he was, as he has often said, left wandering round Soho with a briefcase, making calls from public payphones. The political landscape was changing at a bewildering pace, outstripping the tempo of film-making; Loach's response was to turn to documentaries - these took less time, but met with even less success. Questions of Leadership, an indictment of the unions' limp response to Thatcherism, was banned by the IBA, while Hidden Agenda, a study of Britain's role in Northern Ireland, went unscreened for three years. By the latter part of the decade, he found himself forced into making commercials to pay the bills.

Rehabilitation came in the form of Parallax, an independent production company, which teamed up with Loach to produce some of the most acclaimed British films of the Nineties. Riff-Raff, Raining Stones and Ladybird, Ladybird, despite concentrating on typically downbeat themes, not only won international awards, but earned respectable commercial success, restoring the director's reputation for difficult but marketable work.

Whether this renaissance can be attributed to a shift in popular political sympathies following Thatcher's decade, or to the more prosaic benefits of actually having a base from which to operate, is a matter for speculation. What is notable is that, for his last two films, Loach has had to turn to the past, and to look abroad, for his inspiration. Land and Freedom was set in the Spanish Civil War; Carla's Song, screened at the London Film Festival last month, was set in Nicaragua in the Eighties. Loach may now have the resources, and his personal currency is up, but the question arises: what remains of the kind of working-class life which Loach has so effectively used as his subject matter?

So when Merseyside dockers go out on strike, and turn up at TUC conferences shouting about solidarity, Ken Loach's eyes light up. The dockers were, naturally enough, only too happy to co-operate. Modern Times may have a history of exposing the less attractive side of unsuspecting subjects, but the men had nothing to fear from Loach. If their belief that the battle can be won is dogged, for Loach it is an article of faith. "These dockers," he proclaims, "have got the economy of the country in their hands."

The director cuts a painfully frail figure, edging through Liverpool from one location to the next in a mustard-coloured Fiat Punto. Bespectacled and birdlike, fingers twitching out of the ends of not-quite-fitting tweed, he looks like the cold could kill him. His manner is as anxious as the dockers' is self-assured, and his assistants hover like doting nurses in a home for infirm aristocrats. It is hard to believe this man is capable of the passion and the rage which power his films. In The Flickering Flame, that rage is clearly levelled at the indifference of the dockers' union leaders.

"Everybody tells them, `No, you are weak, someone else can do your job.' But if all the international dockers got together, they'd win this dispute in a week. This is what we have lost sight of - and this is what the documentary is about."

As with all industrial disputes, the real story is more complex than Loach's message might suggest. One of the reasons why the media tends to steer clear of such tales - to the indignation of those on strike - is the mire of minutiae, which makes for fairly heavy viewing. The Liverpool dock strike is no exception.

It began in September 1995, when five men from a cargo area were summarily sacked for refusing to work overtime. The workforce of 80 downed tools, and set up a picket line the following morning at the neighbouring Royal Seaforth dock, where the majority of dockers - some 300 or so - were employed.

"We are Liverpool people and dock workers. We believe in solidarity. We do not cross a picket line," is one shop steward's simple account of what happened next. P45s were duly dispatched in taxis to their homes across the city. The men have been picketing the gates, dawn and dusk, ever since.

The dispute can only be understood in the context of dock workers' history. Until 1967, a system of casual labour was operated, where registered dockers gathered in pens each morning, waiting to be picked for work. If the hand did not come down on a docker's shoulder (and the men, it is said, would rest coins there to tempt it), he would be back in the pen after lunch, hoping for an afternoon shift.

In a dim Toxteth pub, elderly ex-dockers - great, greying hulks of men - describe their working lives to Loach. With that peculiar narrative gift of Merseyside, they require little prompting.

"You never knew what you might take home. If you went for a loan, and told the bank you was a docker, you could forget it."

"Every day, back and forward to the pens, just hoping your face would fit."

"There was no washing facilities. There was no toilets in the cold, 'cause they all froze up."

It was against these conditions that they fought in 1967. The creation of the National Dock Labour Scheme, which guaranteed the men a regular income, union representation, pensions and security, was, from today's perspective, an extraordinary victory, and one the Liverpool dockers were loath to surrender. When Thatcher abolished the scheme in 1989, and casual labour trickled back to other ports around the country, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company was alone in continuing to recognise the authority of the Transport and General Workers' Union.

But relations soured. Suspicions among the men that the company was edging back towards casual labour were rife. To dockers who remembered the pre- 1967 days, and recalled their fathers, too, coming home from the pens, this is what the struggle is about. Not the particulars of a shift system, or overtime rates, but the fundamental notion that men should work together as a community and, as such, be accorded recognition.

"What's gone out the window is the camaraderie, the community, the all- togetherness," mutters one of the men in the pub. "We used to say, `Forget the money.' It's not a job, it's a part of our life. It's a culture. We made it that way. We were always fighting the conditions, but we were happy. If you were in trouble, I was there with you. When we were on the docks, we backed the journalists when they went out, we backed the printers, the miners, the seamen. Now there are so-called trade-union members driving past that picket on the dock.

"The boys have got to win this one. We fought for our sons and grandsons. They're fighting for theirs. If they don't win, everything we ever won is wiped out."

In smoky talking heads, this is the history and the sentiment Loach captures in The Flickering Flame. The strike is in truth a forlorn and neglected struggle, but signifies for him the crucible of the modern labour movement, and the film goes on to report the men's efforts to build a new solidarity - with their wives, foreign dockers, even dreadlocked eco-warriors.

We see footage of international conferences, hear foreign dockers pledge their support, hear from Green Party spokes-men at rallies calling for an end to sectarianism on the Left. We learn of donations flooding in, and meet the Women of the Waterfront, a group of women who, like the miners' wives in the Eighties, have found an impressive voice in this strike. On the other hand, we also hear Bill Morris, leader of the T&G, refuse to comment, and the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company decline to be interviewed.

Towards the end of The Big Flame, one of the key characters says of the 1967 strike: "We've got to shift it from the industrial to the political. The Mersey docker will have lit a bonfire that will be seen by the workers for miles." In 1996, Ken Loach still seems to believe that the bonfire can be rekindled.

Why does an ex-grammar-school boy from Nuneaton with an Oxford law degree believe this? The origins of Ken Loach's commitment to working-class struggles have never been quite clear, but that commitment has informed all his work, and continues to sustain him in what, to this Bennite, are bleak political times. The dockers may feel they need him "to get our message across", but perhaps Loach's need for them is even greater.

Fresh off the train from their Soho offices, the director and his crew cut an instructive figure in Liverpool. Loach's manner, a cross between Woody Allen and a starling, is carefully hesitant. When the families sitting down to watch his film fall, quite naturally, into rows of men and women, his request that they move "so as not to look chauvinist" is apologetic. Working with actors, he has earned a reputation for a certain cruelty. With the "real people" he so admires, he faces an interesting dilemma.

Documentary-making is a tricky business at the best of times. You barge in with your cameras, schedules and mobile phones, and try to capture your subjects as if you are not there. Loach bears an added burden - as a great man of the people, some kind of rapport seems required. Yet here he is, dressed like an absent-minded don, in a room full of people whose experiences must be as alien to him as they are affirming. Every comment a docker offers on the film receives the same response: "Good point!"

Anything which redresses the uncomfortable imbalance between a successful director and families struggling to clothe their kids is seized upon with relief. When one cracks a modest joke, the crew fall on it like Americans marvelling at native African art. Scouse humour - isn't it just something! It is important that docker's wife Doreen McNally is dressed flawlessly, as it is that Loach's young assistant be in jeans.

There can be no doubting the sincerity of Loach's admiration for the working class. And, as the crew lugs equipment around, you feel grateful that a less sympathetic or sensitive team is not crashing about Transport House. But one suspects that, like many radicals with limitless regard for working people en masse, when faced with individuals up close, Loach lacks a common warmth. Later, in the car, the photographer mentions that he bumped into a friend of Loach. "Oh, really?" is all he can muster.

And for all the social realism of his dramas, this documentary will seem to most more like an act of political idealism. Only in Liverpool could ageing, sacked men believe that a company will re-employ them in positions already taken by others. Only Loach could make a film which suggests that the support of foreign dockers may bring the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company to its knees. But then again, only the stony-hearted could be unmoved by this faith.

"He's going to help us, you see," says one of the shop stewards, as the video comes to an end. "He's going to send a message to other workers that if you get off your knees and fight, you can change things. The roots of the docks are so deep, they go down to the bowels of the Mersey. They don't pull up so easy, and this isn't my job to sell. I'm just a custodian of it - I've got two sons, and if, when they say to me, `What did you do about it?' I'm not able to say that we fought and we won, what is left? McDonald's jobs."

For Loach, "the fundamental pattern never changes. You start with the struggle against the employer, and then the union leadership who don't support you, and you end up fighting with the police." This was the theme of The Big Flame, and The Flickering Flame tells the same tale. The tragedy - for both Loach and the dockers - is that so much else has changed.

n `Modern Times: The Flickering Flame', Wed 18 Dec, 9pm BBC2.

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