The Ecumenical Jury at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival honoured British director Ken Loach for his more than 40 years work in television and cinema. ‘The whole of Ken Loach’s work shows that he is on the side of human beings who suffer but struggle; who have every reason to despair but still hope; who believe that solidarity and caring for each other are values capable of opening ways of hope.’ The citation indicates why his films have received a large number of prizes and commendations from juries at different international festivals.
Ken Loach was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, in 1937. He went to the town’s King Edward Grammar School, did National Service and then studied law at St Peter’s College, Oxford. He began his career as an actor with a repertory company in Birmingham before joining the BBC in 1963 as a trainee television director.
Loach’s early directorial work was on episodes of the police series Z Cars, but he first attracted serious attention working with story-editor turned producer Tony Garnett on a bleak portrayal of working-class life in Clapham, South London. ‘Up the Junction’ (1965) was broadcast in the innovative ‘Wednesday Play’ slot. It depicted three young women, alternating between humour and grim drama. Its most famous sequence – daring for the time – showed a back alley abortion.
Loach and Garnett went on to make Cathy Come Home (1966), a powerful study of the effects of homelessness and bureaucracy on family life. Its final scene, in which social services take away Cathy’s children, remains harrowing. The film sparked off a public debate that led directly to the development of Shelter, a charity for the homeless still operating today. It also confirmed Loach’s commitment to social justice through political action:
‘We went to the housing minister, Anthony Greenwood, and he said that it was a very important film about understanding homelessness and we said “What are you going to do about it?” And he said, “Well, it enables us to understand the plight of these people”, and talked in that vein and it became clear that actually nothing was going to change. So it was that kind of experience that made us feel, well, you just have to look to the left of social democracy to actually make these changes’ (Hattenstone, 1998).
Garnett and Loach formed their own independent production company, Kestrel Films, to make Kes (1969), the dark and moving story of a Yorkshire lad who trains a kestrel to escape his surroundings. Abandoning the handheld camera, jump cuts and abrupt sound cues characteristic of BBC films, Loach adopted the natural, yet controlled visual style evident in his later films.
At the end of the 1970s, Tony Garnett left to pursue a career in Hollywood. In the UK the 1980s saw the rise to power of Margaret Thatcher and the conservative policies that eroded social services and broke the back of union power. Loach’s response was to focus on documentaries that critiqued the political nightmare. In 1983 the BBC declined to broadcast Questions of Leadership, a documentary on the miners’ strike, because of its ‘lack of balance’. The South Bank Show, under Melvyn Bragg, commissioned a film about folk music arising from the same strike, Which Side Are You On? (1984). But when Loach included footage of police brutality, Bragg refused to show it.
The 1990s brought renewed success, supported by Channel 4, and several awards at international film festivals. A political thriller about the corrupting effect of the British presence in Ireland, Hidden Agenda (1990) preceded union controversies in Riff Raff (1991) and Bread and Roses (2000), family problems in Raining Stones (1993) and Ladybird, Ladybird (1994), political struggles in Land and Freedom (1995) and Carla’s Song (1996), and drugs and alcoholism in My Name Is Joe (1998) and Sweet Sixteen (2002).
Ken Loach turned next to the theme of immigration and its cultural consequences in a divided Britain. The Ecumenical Jury at Berlin 2004 gave its award to Ae Fond Kiss, a love story between a young Muslim of Pakistani descent and an Irish Catholic school-teacher living in Glasgow. The title comes from a poem by Robert Burns:
- ‘Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
- Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
- Deep in heart-wrung tears I'll pledge thee,
- Warring sighs and groans I'll wage thee!’
The film tells of Casim, a Pakistani man due to celebrate an arranged marriage, who falls instead for a local Glaswegian teacher and goes to live with her. The family is devastated because Casim’s father, the owner of a grocery shop, is building a comfortable annexe for him and his new wife. Casim’s sister, who has accepted an arranged marriage, now finds her intended husband’s family withdrawing in horror. The idea of a Muslim going off with a Christian is abhorrent and everyone suffers. Then, according to one commentator:
‘To keep things even and politically correct, Loach and his writer Paul Laverty have the teacher thrown out of her Catholic school by a parish priest who objects to her living in sin, especially with a Pakistani who is not of the faith; and we are left with the feeling that the triumph of true love as the film ends may not be the true finish of the story. Ae Fond Kiss is excellently acted and directed with real sympathy for both its Pakistani and British characters – the Pakistanis are seen not as fundamentalists but simply as a Muslim family unable to cross the cultural barrier. But one does wonder how many parish priests would act as this one does’ (Malcolm, 2004).
Ken Loach’s credo is that the political can be changed through social actions that value human dignity. His most successful films explore those aspects of life where the personal meets the political. Loach typically dramatises this conflict by presenting a single protagonist with a simple but overriding goal: in Cathy Come Home, Cathy fights to keep her family together once they become homeless; in Kes, Billy adopts and trains a kestrel as a positive counter to his failing family and school; in Riff Raff, Stevie abandons his criminal past and takes an assumed name to get work on a building site; in Raining Stones Bob struggles for the money he needs to buy his daughter a communion dress; and in Sweet Sixteen Liam sells drugs only to earn enough money to rent a flat for his mother after her release from prison.
Nevertheless, Loach has been criticised for ‘observing’ too much, rather than getting genuinely involved; for the kind of documentary approach that dwells on the grim realities in which people live; and for relying on melodrama as a means of articulating impossible choices, misjudgements, coincidences, and a rather simplistic sense of cause and effect.
‘But what separates Loach’s work from conventional melodrama is the way it discourages too strong an emotional identification with the characters while insisting on the economic and social underpinnings of their actions. In this way the impossible dilemmas and choices are seen to derive less from personal traits or moral shortcomings than from economic circumstances’ (Hill, 1998: 20).
Another commentator thinks that Loach’s image of the working class today is narrow and anachronistic, pointing to the absence of real figures of capitalist authority, the apparent exclusion of black characters, a lack of interest in the problems facing women workers, and a fixation on locating the working class in the very north of Britain:
‘I admire his determination to make challenging movies about the working class. My point is that his image of that class is now so limited that it undermines both the vitality of his movies and their political relevance’ (Light, 1999: 68).
Internationally acclaimed, Ken Loach’s films provoke strong responses in audiences and politicians alike. Maybe that’s why the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes paid homage not just to his artistry, but to his tenacity and humanity – qualities that set him apart.
- Hattenstone, Simon (1998). ‘Interview: Ken Loach’. 28 October. See http://www.geocities.com/mishaca/interviews/loach.html
- Hill, John (1998). ‘Every fuckin’ choice stinks’, in Sight and Sound, November.
- Light, Bob (1999). Letter in Sight and Sound. January.
- Malcolm, Derek (2004). ‘Young Turks’, in The Guardian, 18 February.
- Feature films directed by Ken Loach
- Poor Cow (1967)
- Kes (1969)
- Family Life (1971)
- Black Jack (1979)
- Looks and Smiles (1981)
- Fatherland (1986)
- Singing the Blues in Red (1988)
- Hidden Agenda (1990)
- Riff Raff (1991)
- Raining Stones (1993)
- Ladybird, Ladybird (1994)
- Land and Freedom (1995)
- Carla’s Song (1996)
- My Name Is Joe (1998)
- Bread and Roses (2000)
- The Navigators (2001)
- Sweet Sixteen (2002)
- Ae Fond Kiss (2004)