Ken Loach interview

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Dave Calhoun talks to Ken Loach about some of the films missing from the new DVD collection and the story they tell of the struggles and censorship he faced in the 1980s

Next week sees the release on DVD of the first major collection of Ken Loach’s films. In another feature, Loach offers comment on all 16 films in the box-set, from ‘Cathy Come Home’ to last year’s ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’, but look again at that list of films and you’ll see a gap between ‘The Gamekeeper’ in 1980 and ‘Hidden Agenda’ in 1990. What was Loach doing for an entire decade? It was a time when he abandoned drama, preferring instead to make documentaries on the front line of British politics. It was a decision that put him in conflict with
the broadcasting establishment as his work was pilloried or banned.

‘Year after year in the ’80s, the rug was pulled from under our feet,’ Loach recalls. ‘It happened time and time again.’

These days, Loach’s work of that period can only be seen on old VHS tapes or by raiding the archives of television companies, although his own production company hopes to release some on DVD in the future. Let’s hope so. The 1980s was a key period for a filmmaker of the left such as Loach: Thatcher was in power, industry was being dismantled, unemployment was soaring and of course there was the miners’ strike. During most of the decade, though, Loach found it impossible to make films for cinema – which contributed to his decision to make documentaries for television. It wasn’t an easy option: two of his films, ‘What Side Are You On?’ and the four-part series, ‘Questions of Leadership’ were banned by the same institutions which commissioned them.

‘I was trying to make documentaries,’ Loach says of that time, sitting in his two-room office on Wardour Street. ‘After “The Gamekeeper” I made one other film called “Looks and Smiles”, but making British films was very difficult. There wasn’t a tradition of British cinema.

‘Alongside that, it was the time of Thatcher’s election victory and that massive assault on working people and trade unions, big set-piece strikes, mass unemployment, anti-trade union legislation. It was the pivotal moment in terms of our post-war history, and trying to make a feature film that tackled it in a tangential way seemed a very inadequate response. So I tried to make various documentaries that really tackled it head-on and I just got slaughtered. They were refused airtime by Channel Four, by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) and by Central Television.’

The most serious crisis arose around ‘Questions of Leadership’ in 1983 for which Loach and his team filmed interviews with a series of workers, union leaders and other interested parties to further the film’s argument that the major unions were not truly democratic. Using first-person testimony, Loach presents instances such as the NHS dispute of 1982 and the steel strike of 1979 when he claims that unions sold their members down the river. It’s a theme that’s of special interest 24 years later considering the transformation of the Labour Party and the dimunition of the power of the unions. It’s also a theme that’s consistent with many of Loach’s works: consider the fate of the builders in ‘Riff-Raff’ (1990) or the railway workers in ‘The Navigators’ (2001).

The style of filmmaking in ‘Questions of Leadership’ is simple and direct; it’s the range of testimony from the shop floor that distinguishes the films, which aren’t without humour either: the second part of the series opens with a montage of former union leaders, such as Joe Gormley, president of the National Union of Miners from 1971 to 1982, who we see giving a speech in rolled-up shirt-sleeves before the image switches to him dressed in ceremonial robes as Baron Gormley – and all to the Gilbert and Sullivan song, ‘Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!’

‘The further away you get from it, the more bizarre it gets,’ Loach says as he considers the ban on the film. ‘It’s just rank-and-file trade unionists saying what their experiences are and when they get the chance, tackling their leaders on the issues. And to think that that would be banned! It's extraordinary.’

He explains that the series was scheduled to air in September 1983 but that the targets of the films – union leaders such as Terry Duffy and Frank Chapple – were also ‘political allies’ of those high up at the IBA and Central TV. ‘They all had the motivation to stop them and the contacts. It was very interesting because it was when the liberal establishment gets found out. They’re liberal until someone actually confronts them from the left rather than from the right, and then they are ruthless.’

A year later, Loach ran into similar trouble when he was commissioned by Melvyn Bragg to make a ‘South Bank Show’ on the poetry and songs that were emerging from the miners’ strike. Called ‘Which Side Are You On?’, this 53-minute documentary is a stirring report from the heart of the struggle – although Bragg decided that the film was too political and refused to show it under the ‘South Bank Show’ banner. To his credit, Bragg claims that he only disowned the programme after ensuring that Channel Four would air it instead – and they did.

‘He’s always quite defensive about that,’ Loach says of Bragg. ‘He was very fair, but it was a shocking story.’

Loach’s troubles didn’t stop there. In 1987, Loach and his collaborator, the writer Jim Allen (‘Raining Stones’, ‘Land and Freedom’), were commissioned by the Royal Court to write and stage a play on a largely unknown episode in twentieth-century history.

‘It was an anti-Zionist piece based on undisputed facts about what was happening in Hungary at the end of the Second World War, where half a million Jews were rounded up and put on trains to go to camps and be exterminated. In some instances, the instructions to go on the trains were passed through the Zionist leadership. The deal was that a train, or trains, of a few hundred or few thousand – the numbers are not certain – were allowed to leave to go to Palestine. That was the deal. It is horrific.

‘But the theatre pulled it. Max Stafford-Clark cancelled it 36 hours before it was due to open because of pressure from God-knows-where. To be banned from the Royal Court, this so-called radical writers’ theatre!’

By the end of the 1980s, Loach was making commercials for television, for companies such as Tennent’s Lager. Was he deflated? ‘It just makes you angry,’ he says, the annoyance still clear in his voice. ‘That’s in the end why I ended up doing a few commercials. It was either that or I had to leave the business really. I’d got to the position where I couldn’t direct traffic really.’

The Ken Loach DVD collection is out on Sept 3 and there’s a mini retrospective of his work at BFI Southbank from Sept 14-16, following a preview of his new film, ‘It’s A Free World’ on Sept 13 (plus Q&A).

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