Ken Loach: 'It's a privilege to be able to make films'

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The British stalwart tells Dave Calhoun why he set out to bring the Iraq war to Liverpool in his new film

There’s a sombre scene early in Ken Loach’s new drama, ‘Route Irish’. It’s the funeral of Frankie, an ex-soldier who died while working as a private contractor in Iraq. His sharp-suited boss steps into the pulpit in a Liverpool church and delivers a calm, measured speech about Frankie and the sadness of his awful loss in the field of war. The man’s professional delivery, sitting somewhere between a lawyer and a vicar, is familiar. Of course: he sounds like Tony Blair.

‘That’s the man we modelled it on,’ says Loach, talking in hushed tones in his Wardour Street office. He’s tired. He’s been promoting his film in France and trying to prepare a new one set in a Scottish whisky distillery that he’ll shoot in May. ‘It’s all come at the same time, it’s no good for the brain,’ he whispers. Anyway, he prefers to leave most of the noise to his films and the odd appearance in the media, haranguing the likes of Michael Heseltine, as he did on ‘Newsnight’ last October. Take a look on YouTube and you can see Loach berating Heseltine for defending the ‘undeserving rich’, while in return the Tory peer accuses the filmmaker of peddling ‘crypto-communist claptrap’.

At 74, Loach still knows how to spark a debate. Two weeks after his clash with Heseltine, he delivered a speech to an audience at the London Film Festival about a lack of creativity in the British screen industries. The next morning, his complaints were all over the papers and he was repeating his arguments on BBC radio. But he knows it’s hard to win over new audiences. It’s unlikely Heseltine would like ‘Route Irish’. In fact, the former Tory minister would fall into Loach’s category of people who think they know this film before they see it. ‘If people see the word “Iraq” and know anything about me and Paul [Laverty, the film’s writer], they’ll think it’s a rave against Blair and Bush. They’ll feel they’ve seen it.’

Route Irish’ might not be Loach’s most successful film – some elements of the story are hard to swallow – but it does strive for a new perspective on the Iraq War. Loach tells of Fergus (Mark Womack), a Liverpudlian ex-soldier and former private contractor whose best friend dies in Iraq while working for a private firm. Suffering from post-traumatic stress himself, Fergus sets out on his own investigation, which leads to such perversities as someone being waterboarded in north-west England and a car bomb going off in the car park of a suburban hotel. The aim of Laverty and Loach is to stress the horror of war by bringing it home.

‘War happens in foreign countries a long way away,’ explains Loach. ‘Most of us can’t imagine it, even with the help of television. It happens to people whose language we don’t speak and it’s remote and so less moving. We thought: Let’s show it happening here. ‘Also, there have already been Iraq-set films about the war and there are already a number of clichés. One is that the real trauma belongs to American soldiers. That’s impertinent. What about the million Iraqis killed as a result of the war?’

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The most suprising element of ‘Route Irish’ is the character of Fergus. He’s wealthy because of money earned in Iraq. He lives in a flash but faceless apartment, dresses well, drives a nice car – but he’s a shell of a man. He destroys the stereotype of the returning soldier coming home to a partner’s warm arms, just as the death of his friend couldn’t be further from a hero’s end.

‘If you privatise war, you hide it,’ Loach offers. ‘There’s no Wootton Bassett for these guys. There’s no coffin draped in a Union Jack. Paul met the sister of a contractor who died and came back in a box off the back of a plane. Our aim with this film was to have a conventional mystery – how did this man die? – and, as one thing leads to another, you discover the strategic aims of the private contracting companies.’

Talk turns to a new Loach on the block. His 41-year-old son, Jim, is releasing his first film, ‘Oranges and Sunshine’ next month. It’s very much ‘of the father’: it’s a compassionate, true story of a Nottingham social worker, played by Emily Watson, who in the 1980s began investigating cases of British children in care being sent to Australia in the 1950s and ’60s. These children were often told that their real parents were dead and placed in abusive institutions.

Loach looks a bit embarrassed when I suggest that ‘Oranges and Sunshine’ shows the influence of his own work. ‘I don’t know about that,’ he mumbles. ‘He’s brilliant,’ he says of his son. ‘He’s been working in television for much longer than I did, a good ten years. He’s had stacks of experience. I’m pleased for him. You leave the film with a real sense of warmth, you’re very involved with the people on screen.’

And what about Loach senior? At 74, with more than 40 years of filmmaking behind him, is he still full of determination to make films? ‘As we sit here, yes, but you never know,’ he considers. ‘I don’t know how many more are left in the locker really. I keep battling on. ‘It’s the early starts that screw you as you get older. Getting up is the problem. But I’m lucky to keep going. I hope people will tell me when it’s time to stop – if I haven’t stopped already. It’s a privilege to be able to do it.’



Read our review of 'Route Irish' here

Author: Dave Calhoun



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