Ken Loach

The grand old man of hard-Left cinema is treated as a national treasure. But his bigoted propaganda is stuck in the 1960s

Film Overrated

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “bigot” as an “obstinate and intolerant adherent of a creed or view”. On the British political landscape today, the greatest obstinacy and the most unthinking intolerance comes from the Left, or at least that part of it which pats itself on the back for retaining its “principles” just as it continues to turn its face away from wave upon wave of disastrous failure, and the wholesale discrediting of the very tenets of its belief system. 

Some of the more colourful of its number even go on to become supposedly beloved popular figures. Tony Benn has made a latter-day career out of it. Likewise, the film director Ken Loach, 73 years old and still churning them out (his latest, Looking for Eric, was released last month) has reached some sort of hallowed position within what we might laughingly call the creative community. He is wheeled in to talk about the miners’ strike on BBC2’s Newsnight. The French cognoscenti adore him. For those for whom his 1969 movie Kes remains a childhood classic, a sort of cinematic Catcher in the Rye, the Warwickshire-born Loach is probably already a national treasure.

The Respect Party-supporting director is certainly obstinate. He continues undaunted in his quest to make the British “confront their imperialist past”. Quite how intolerant he is was illustrated just last month, when he managed to exert enough pressure on the Edinburgh International Film Festival for it to return to the Israeli Embassy a £300 grant, which had been intended to enable Tel Aviv University graduate Tali Shalom Ezer to travel to Scotland for a screening of her film, Surrogate. 

It didn’t matter that the film in question was a romance set in a sex-therapy clinic, which made no reference to war or politics, nor that it recently won the award for best film at an international women’s film festival in Israel. For Loach, the fact that Shalom Ezer was an Israeli was apparently enough. He urged filmgoers to boycott the festival after pro-Palestinian activists protested against the giving of the grant. He has not commented further on the matter and presumably remains totally untroubled by what was a blatant attempt to censor the work of a fellow filmmaker. His intervention was condemned by some critics, but the Festival organisers went along with it, citing in a statement the fact that Loach spoke “on behalf of the film community”.

That’s some accolade, although one wonders where it leaves Sir Ridley Scott, Mike Leigh or even Lord Attenborough. However the truth is, they would probably go along with the organisers’ veneration for Loach. For you see, Ken remains true to himself. He doesn’t compromise, and in the eyes of the impressionable artistic world, there can be no greater compliment, even for those who might shy away from his particular brand of unyielding, unrelenting dogma — that is, if they even understand it.

Loach has made many films and TV dramas set in widely different milieux, but in the end, from Cathy Come Home in 1966 to his 2006 Cannes winner The Wind That Shakes the Barley, they are essentially there to serve the same, hard-Left story. This is certainly not to say that they are all bad films. He may be humourless and bereft of a light touch, but there is no doubting that Loach is a skilled director of the realist school who draws sometimes excellent performances from his often unknown actors. Still used as an example of what commercial television can achieve at its best, Cathy Come Home — the story of how an impoverished young family is ripped asunder by uncaring social services — was genuinely innovative for its time. It also had real consequences: it was a factor in the creation of Shelter, the charity for the homeless. 

The problem is that while times and circumstances change, Loach stays the same. In its portrayal of a single mother’s treatment by social workers, 1994’s Ladybird Ladybird ploughed a similar furrow to Cathy Come Home, but failed to resonate in anything like the same way, probably because the rights and wrongs of the benefit system, and the question of personal responsibility, had become far more complex and contentious issues 30 years later for an audience brought up with welfare and aware of its abuses. For even sympathetic viewers, the feeling lingered after the credits that, just maybe, the central character should take some of the blame for what had happened to her. For Loach, however, time had stood still; there was no question about who the baddies were. 

Far more egregious in this respect was The Wind that Shakes the Barley, a pro-IRA film which portrayed the British more or less as music-hall villains and Irish Catholics as desperate, trodden-upon-saints. Again well-made and acted, it is nevertheless a piece of propaganda, which worked best for those who either knew nothing about the conflict, or for the National Film Theatre crowd who went along hoping to have all their prejudices confirmed. And that might well be Loach’s tragedy in the end: he’s doomed to be loved by a big part of the bourgeoisie. 

Few working-class people have even heard of him. Like Woody Allen, Ken Loach has his audience and, like Woody’s, they stay with him while the rest of the world moves on.