DESPITE reports to the contrary, Ken Loach didn’t come out of self-imposed retirement to take on David Cameron.
“I hadn’t really intended to stop,” the legendary director says of the idea that he only got back behind the camera after the Conservatives’ claimed an overall majority at last year’s general election.
“It was a few words said in a moment of weakness on the film before which was quite demanding. But then you get through it and find there are still a lot of stories to tell.”
For half a century Loach has trained his lens on the social issues Britain doesn’t like to talk about. His latest film I, Daniel Blake focuses on the struggles of a Newcastle carpenter recovering from a heart attack who finds himself at the mercy of an unyielding state machine that could have clanked its way straight from the pages of 1984.
Loach says he and writer Paul Laverty were driven by a Cameron narrative of welfare scroungers swallowing up vast chunks of the nation’s wealth, as well as the stories of hardship they kept reading that were blamed on the Government’s controversial work capability assessments, which ended the benefit payments of those who were now passed fit for work.
The film can be viewed as a 21st century companion piece to one of Loach’s earliest and most famous films, Cathy Come Home, showing what can happen to decent people when society’s safety net is unceremoniously yanked away. Subtle as a sledgehammer but deeply affecting nonetheless, in May it claimed the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Needless to say, the veteran director, who recently turned 80, isn’t buying the notion of “compassionate Conservatism” espoused by David Cameron and echoed by his successor Theresa May. Listening to May talk of social justice outside Downing Street, he says, reminded him of Margaret Thatcher quoting Francis of Assisi.
“You have to laugh, don’t you?” Loach asks rhetorically, going on to denounce May’s role in the scandal at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, which has seen allegations of the sexual abuse of women detainees.
“She agreed to continue the outsourcing of the work to a private company and refused to make any investigation. Theresa May is a Tory down the middle. People come second to profit.”
The son of an electrician from a small Midlands town, Loach went to the local grammar school – “a typical Tory measure, the idea that you keep the majority down and you let a few escape” – and after two years of National Service studied Law at Oxford University.
After university he briefly pursued an acting career before turning to directing, joining Northampton Repertory Theatre as an assistant director in 1961 and then moving to the BBC as a trainee television director in 1963.
He graduated from episodes of Z Cars to the influential Wednesday Play slot, for which he directed ground-breaking social-issue dramas Up The Junction and Cathy Come Home, dealing respectively with abortion and homelessness.
He had joined the Labour Party a couple of years earlier and dropped leaflets through letterboxes for Harold Wilson, but by the mid-1990s his patience with New Labour finally snapped and he cancelled his membership.
“I had suffered the treachery of Kinnock and Hattersley and that gang, and they led to Blair who of course was an absolute disaster for everyone in the country, particularly ordinary people,” he says now.
“There came a point when all they wanted was my Visa card number so they could take money. At that point I said, your politics are so corrupt and your determination to destroy the democracy of the party is so intense that I’m going to leave, and I did.”
Having spent the summer promoting I, Daniel Blake at Europe’s film festivals, Loach is on his way to York to help bolster support for beleaguered Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
One gets a palpable sense that the Kes director has been waiting several decades for this moment, that he is desperate to ensure that the chance to return to the old school Labour values Corbyn claims to represent doesn’t go begging.
Loach reserves particular scorn for the behaviour of the bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party, which has seen a succession of MPs quit the shadow cabinet and now force a fresh leadership election.
“They don’t represent the mass of the party now, that’s quite clear,” he says. “They’re a self-perpetuating little clique who came to prominence under Blair and Brown and can’t stand the idea that those ideas of privatisation, illegal foreign wars, increasing inequality, great homelessness because they didn’t build the homes, a failure economically, a failure on every front, those politics have been swept away.
“With all this hostile propaganda of course people are going to feel there are problems (within the Labour Party). It’s impossible to poll well if the prominent people in the party are attacking him.
“I mean, you wouldn’t expect a football team to score many goals if half the team left before the whistle was blown and most of the others crept off one at a time halfway through the first half.”
Where some see an unelectable rabble, Loach believes Corbyn’s programme of policies – “starting with the NHS, the private contractors would go, transport would be taken back into public ownership, the collective good would be put ahead of private greed” – offers genuine hope.
“I think that’s absolutely the kind of society people would like to live in, as we did after the Second World War before Margaret Thatcher came in and tore it all up,” he says.
Going back to I, Daniel Blake, he speaks of a “conscious cruelty” he claims was evident in the way benefit sanctions have been imposed, along with a bureaucratic nightmare that leaves people unable to escape “when each avenue that you go down, another door shuts in your face”.
“I think that’s the experience for hundreds of thousands of people,” he says. “Then there’s the fact that food banks have become part of the scene andare not even commented on. If you think about it, the idea that people won’t eat unless a charity gives them a tin of food, that’s horrific in this age. And it’s not just old people on the street, this is families. A large number of people in every town and city.”
A recent news story caught his eye that reinforced his sense that time to change things is fast running out. It said that Britain has just 100 harvests left in its soil due to intensive overfarming.
“That makes you think, doesn’t it?” he says. “We need to have a politics that is based on the common good so we’ve actually got a world for our kids to live in. This is a fork in the road.”
Call to rekindle Spirit of ‘45
Ken Loach will be at the City Screen Picturehouse in York tomorrow evening for a screening of his 2013 documentary Spirit of ‘45 and a question and answer session.
The documentary uses film from Britain’s regional and national archives, alongside sound recordings and contemporary interviews to recall that moment at the end of the Second World War when the country was ready to pull together and rebuild bombed-out Britain.
It argues that such unity was lost over the course of subsequent decades and must now be rekindled in order to create a fairer Britain.
Loach’s most recent film I, Daniel Blake, which won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival is due to be released in UK cinemas this October.