Overrated: Ken Loach

The socialist filmmaker has usually been more popular with critics and film prize juries than with the public

David Herman

Ken Loach:
There are serious problems with his work, his politics and his reputation (Illustration by Michael Daley)

Ken Loach has directed almost 30 TV dramas and 26 films over the past 50 years, most notably Cathy Come Home and Kes in the 1960s and, more recently, I, Daniel Blake. He has been hailed as one of Britain’s leading postwar directors and received numerous awards: the Cannes Special Jury Prize (twice), the Palme d’Or at Cannes (twice) and the Honorary Golden Bear at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival. His films are often moving accounts of homelessness, mental illness and poverty in contemporary Britain. They usually depict the clash between ordinary people facing terrible problems and uncaring authorities, whether housing officers, school teachers or social security officials. Their indifference is contrasted with the humanity of Loach’s working men and women, battling with poverty and terrible working conditions. He has also made films about left-wing causes abroad: the violence of the Contras in Nicaragua (Carla’s Song) and the Spanish Civil War (Land and Freedom).

Loach has never pretended to be even-handed. He has always been a passionate political activist. In 1985 he made a documentary about the poetry and music that emerged from the miners’ strike, Which Side Are You On? There has never been any doubt which side Loach has been on, at home or abroad.

All this is fine, in many ways admirable. There is no denying Loach’s achievements, his productivity or his burning sense of social justice. However, there are serious problems with his work, his politics and his reputation. His use of documentary material in drama-documentaries prompted Grace Wyndham Goldie to accuse him in the 1960s of sidestepping the BBC’s rules about political partisanship. In the 1980s his documentary A Question of Leadership, attacking the trade union leadership for allegedly betraying the rank and file, was criticised by the Independent Broadcasting Authority for its anti-government stance.

His film about Ireland, The Wind That Shakes the Barley,  championed the IRA. A friend of the hero, Damien, is executed by the British Black and Tans, and his girlfriend’s farmhouse is burnt to the ground. The film ends with Damien being shot by a firing squad. Should a British filmmaker offer a more complex or even-handed treatment of Ireland? Not Loach.

It was this issue of even-handedness that led to another controversy over Which Side Are You On?, originally commissioned by Melvyn Bragg, himself a lifelong Labour supporter, for The South Bank Show. LWT cancelled it because the programme Loach delivered was considered too politically partisan for an arts programme.

More troubling is the story of the play Perdition. Written by his long-time collaborator, Jim Allen (Loach calls him “a wonderful socialist”), the play was to be directed at the Royal Court by Loach but was cancelled because of accusations of bias and anti-Semitism. It was based on a libel action concerning the alleged collaboration between the wartime Zionist leadership in Hungary and the Nazis. Loach passionately defended the play and later wrote to the Guardian that “the charge of anti-Semitism” against Allen’s play was “the time-honoured way to deflect anti-Zionist arguments”. 

Loach has been an obsessive critic of Israel and has called for an “absolute boycott of all the cultural happenings supported by the Israeli state”. He told an interviewer last year: “Israel is breaking international law, the Geneva Conventions, stealing land that belongs to another people and making the lives of the Palestinians intolerable.”

A passionate supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, he has been accused of being evasive about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. The Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland quoted Loach as saying, “It’s funny these stories suddenly appeared when Jeremy Corbyn became leader, isn’t it?” Writing on the Jewish Voice for Labour website, Loach called this “cynical journalism”. A year later, his response looks even worse.   

And yet despite all this, the more left-wing and partisan his films are, the more prizes he wins.  This tells us more about those who give out European film awards than it does about the quality of Loach’s work. It is simply inconceivable that a conservative film-maker would have received the same kind of acclaim. Loach has supported the poor and the oppressed, but these were always fashionable causes in British television in the 1960s and ‘70s and have become increasingly popular among European film juries.

The telling gap, though, is between the numbers who go to see Loach’s films and the number of prizes he wins. The Wind That Shakes the Barley, his biggest box office success to date, grossed barely £5 million in the UK, I, Daniel Blake little more than £3 million. In the US the figures are even worse. This tells a larger story about left-wing cultural figures. They are hugely popular among critics and prize juries, less so among viewers. Perhaps we should ask the heretical question: does the public rate Ken Loach more accurately than critics and prize juries?

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