Ken Loach and Dave Johns talk I, Daniel Blake ahead of Leeds Playhouse conversation for 1001 Stories
The former bricklayer turned actor had been in stand-up for years and only auditioned for I, Daniel Blake - winner of the Palme d’Or, the Cannes Film Festival’s highest prize - because he wanted to meet Loach.
On April 26, the pair will sit down together at Leeds Playhouse for an ‘In Conversation’ even exploring the Kes director’s decades of filmmaking as part of 1001 Stories, a collaborative festival celebrating older people.
Judging by their camaraderie over a video call with The Yorkshire Post, it will offer up much of what has come to be expected of his work - mirth and ire in equal measure.
I, Daniel Blake, realsed in 2016, explored the life of a widower who has to stop working because of illness and a poor, young mother uprooted from London to Newcastle. Paul Laverty’s script portrays the Tories’ welfare system as a dehumanising and punitive nightmare for people whose best intentions are frustrated by its hostile bureaucracy.
Loach describes “the situation for Daniel Blakes now as opposed to when we made the film” as “much, much worse”. While, politically, his anger lies not just with the Conservatives but with the current Labour leadership, he says: “The poverty is worse. The hunger is worse. People are desperate.”
One scene in the film shows struggling mother Katie, played by Hayley Squires, become so famished that she opens a tin of beans and starts eating them with her hands in a corner of the food bank - a story which Johns says was based on reality.
The Whitley Bay man also won acclaim for his portrayal of Daniel.
Loach, now in his mid-80s, says: “People who are good comics are invariably very good at what people would call straight acting, where you don't have to get a laugh every line. Because to be a good comic, you want to make a really good connection with your audience. There’s got to be a baseline of truth.”
He loves to work with comics, he says, doing improvisations “because they can time a line, there's an instinctive sense of eloquence - maybe a strange word to use - but of how language balances, how sentences balance, so that when they make the lines their own, they flow, there's a natural rhythm...”
Johns adds: “I remember going on the first day (of filming) and thinking: ‘Oh my God, what have I done here?’ And I remember you (Ken) giving me my note, and you said to me: ‘All you have to do is listen and be truthful and it’ll look right on screen’. And I take that in every single film I’ve done now.”
He has since gone on to perform in films such as Fisherman’s Friends and has now reworked Laverty’s script of I, Daniel Blake for a theatre version which starts at Northern Stage in Newcastle on May 25.
The adaptation will feature elements inspired by the political campaign group Led By Donkeys, and more about the state of social housing - the sell-off and lack of which Johns believes to be the biggest issue of the day.
He says: “Katie's in a lot of the predicaments she’s in because she can't find anywhere to live, and I can't believe that we are talking like this in 2023. When you think of Cathy Come Home (Loach’s television play exploring the effects of homelessness) in the 60s, and we're still in the same position. And it's because it's ‘if you don't get on in this life, it's your own fault’, ‘it's not anything to do with the system and what is set against you, it's just that you're not trying hard enough’. We can’t all be massive achievers, you know? We all can't run our own business, but we all can hope to have a decent place to live.”
The use of food banks has also been a major theme.
“The way Ken works is you get little bits of the script as you go along, and it's shot in sequence,” says Johns, now 67. “I’d never heard of a food bank until I turned up on set that day. I mean, I didn't know food banks existed, and that was in 2015. And so it was an equal shock to me when I arrived at the food bank and saw the queue.
"We've gone up to the food banks now to do some research for the play and I was so shocked to hear that there's more food banks than there is McDonald's. It's not just people who are claiming benefits, you've got people who are on zero-hours contracts who, because of the cost of living rise, are struggling to to feed themselves, heat their homes,” says Johns.
The play, though, just like the film, will have plenty of humour.
He says: “I always feel sorry when people say to me: ‘Oh that person hasn’t got any sense of humour’. I think, how do they live?”
Ironically, despite the film’s bleak subject matter, it changed Johns’ own life, and he will perform his show I, Filum Star / I, Stand Up, about his journey from Byker to the Cannes Film Festival, at Leeds Playhouse on April 29.
“Me and Hayley went over there like innocents,” he says, and recollects the moment famous actor Donald Sutherland approached them.
"When he got about a few yards away from us he went: ‘Dave!’ And I just went: ‘Donald!’ As if we were old pals, you know? It was crazy.”
For tickets to the Leeds events on April 26 and 29, visit leedsplayhouse.org.uk/event/1001-stories/