Interview: Ken Loach

JIM ROSS speaks to legendary director Ken Loach about his new feature and the politics of film.

Ken Loach is legend of modern British film making; a former Palmes D’Or winner still going strong in his seventies.

Famous as much for his left-wing politics as his bleak, but often uplifting and poignant, films, Loach has made more than his share of great ones since 1969’s Kes. For a man with such forthright views and a big name in British film, it is surprising he slips into the foyer of the Arts Picturehouse almost unnoticed. Shuffling around with a laptop case, it is only after staff track him down he is ushered to the mezzanine to speak to me.

He’s here to present a Q&A for his latest feature, The Angels’ Share – a tale of young Scottish down-and-outs, who plan a whisky heist to set them up for a better future. It seems a timely story in the age of austerity: showing young people have some value in society, despite trying situations. This is clearly important to Loach:

“There’s a million unemployed young people now, probably over that, and that’s not in education, not in training – just unemployed. And that means we are effectively writing them off. What work they will get is casual work, agency work, like we just with these kids at the Jubilee. Now they’re being told they have to work for no money.”

Loach is referring to the story of dozens of jobseekers and apprentices being bussed in to steward the Jubilee flotilla. Without pay and having to sleep under bridges, he describes this as, “extraordinary, I don’t think they even had that in the 1930s. They’re not political in the sense that they are members of organisations but they know that they’re being ripped off.”


Trailer for The Angels’ Share

The Angels’ Share is a rather uplifting film by the time the end credits roll, and undoubtedly one of Loach’s lighter films in its second half. However, this is not a key part of the message. He and screewriter Paul Laverty simply wished to convey it was “unpredictable, really. The obvious thing to do is take characters like this and make a tragedy of it. We just thought you can tell the story about their situation and still make people smile.”

Now relaxed, and no longer perched uncomfortably on a sofa arm, Loach inquires about my own accent – spotting a different Scottish accent to those portrayed in his film. Showing a genuine interest in my own background, it is easy to see how he manages to put the many first time actors he has worked with, like Paul Brannigan (the lead in The Angels’ Share), at ease. However, once the conversation moves into the realm of the politics of film making, Loach becomes more forthright – albeit maintaining his quiet and unassuming demeanour.

Throughout his career Loach’s work has been described, lazily in my view, as ‘political’ and that of a ‘social realist’ – the latter being a tag he predictably rejects. “I’d like to annihilate that term, along with ‘gritty’. I’d happily never see them again. I think it just becomes a substitute for thinking – a pigeonhole.”

Although he doesn’t deny his work is political, what gets Loach talking passionately is the way other films are considered apolitical when he views them as anything but: “[‘Political’] is a lazy euphemism for left wing because all the films about posh people with no visible means of support are apparently not. Like The King’s Speech, which I think is a pretty right-wing film – it endorses the idea of monarchy and gives itself a cheer when he manages to string two words together.”

Loach emphasises that “to have a healthy cinema is to have a challenging cinema”, before making note also of 2010 Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker. “I mean, the Oscar was dedicated to the American military. Never mind all the illegal wars, the million people illegally killed in Iraq – let’s dedicate it to the American military. That identifies the starting point for the film.”

A meticulous director, Loach leaves briefly to scurry around the projection rooms and lurk at the back of the screening – worried that the sounds levels for his film are set too low, and The Angels’ Share will have “no presence”. This stems from comparison to American films such as Prometheus, showing in another screen, which are “terribly loud”.

Loach may be a political animal, but first and foremost he is a film maker, and a damn fine one at that.

Ken Loach

  • Mr Cultured

    He gets far too much credit. The film he is most recognised for, Kes, is utter trash, and I'm glad he rejects the label of social realist since his film diverges so drastically from the genuinely great strain of British realist cinema epitomised by the early works of Tony Richardson and Emmanuel graduate Karel Reisz. Unfortunately the miserable tone of Kes, the product of an overly-political mind (feel free to write me off as lazy) with little real experience of working class life, has had a profound and perverse influence on British cinema since, best manifested currently in the abominable works of Shane Meadows and Andrea Arnold.

    We need less filmmakers like Ken Loach and more like Peter Greenaway – a genuine artist who strives to understand something of the world we live in rather than make shallow and banal political points.

    • The kestrel

      You lost me at a) calling yourself 'Mr Cultured' – I mean, really? Humility much? and b) dismissing the entire works of Meadows and Arnold. As well as dismissing Loach's whole body of work.

      Let me paraphrase….

      We need less commenters like Mr Cultured and more of the opposite – a genuine fan of cinema who strives to accept all forms of it and understand different approaches rather than make shallow and pretentious analysis with no sense of perspective.

      • Mr Cultured

        'dismissing the entire works of Meadows and Arnold. As well as dismissing Loach's whole body of work.'

        What is wrong with this? I'm sure you'd be willing to dismiss Michael Bay's entire body of work. Or Ed Wood's. The only difference I can find is that those two are common targets of ridicule, whereas my targets make you uncomfortable because they've been embraced by the middle-class, Guardian-reading critical establishment in this country (which counts among its members the philistine Mark Kermode) and you cannot bear to disagree with what they say. I bet you loved Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy too (one of the most malformed and pointless films of last year).

        'a genuine fan of cinema who strives to accept all forms of it and understand different approaches rather than make shallow and pretentious analysis with no sense of perspective.'

        Anybody who says they admire all forms of cinema equally is either a liar or a pathetically passive consumer of art. Even Loach himself here condemns certain films, except where I either do it on aesthetic grounds or judgements about the richness of the text presented, Loach does it based on petty things like political disagreement or the volume of the audio. Get real, mate. Some artists (like Loach) are just shallow, and they get a free pass because they share the same views as the hard-left, out-of-touch critical establishment. If a true artist like Josef von Sternberg were making films today, I'd love to see how the Guardian would react – they'd probably fall over themselves worrying about whether to fawn over his queer camp or condemn his gross misogyny, all the while forgetting to discuss the meat of the film itself. Everyone makes judgements about art, I just happen to do it more soberly than most.

        • Mr Cultured

          Jesus, lighten up – "or the volume of the audio". Did Loach take your toys away as a kid or something?

          I love how anonymous haters (me included) always pop up to make sweeping judgements about other anonymous people ("I'm sure you'd be willing to dismiss Michael Bay's entire body of work. Or Ed Wood's"). The amount of times you address the other commenter as if you know their entire tastes is remarkable.

          Also – I smell a bitter Emma student ("Emmanuel graduate Karel Reisz")

          Lastly, accepting and understanding different approaches is not the same as liking it. Just saying.

    • you have

      a better feel than Loach for what 'real working class life' in the 1960s was like?

      or maybe you mean than barry hines, the author of the book the film was based on? but then what would he know about working-class life. after all he only grew up in barnsley as the son of a miner, before working as a mining surveyor himself.

      • Mr Cultured

        I like how you secretly recognise that I, as a working class boy with a taste for twentieth century social history, probably do have a better feel for it than Loach, so immediately switch to discuss the biography of a man who had very limited involvement in the authorship of the FILM being discussed. A very nice dance from one vaguely relevant item into the utterly irrelevant, typical of the post-Kermodian, paranoid, ranting world of film discourse I find myself sadly forced to operate against.

  • WTF

    Has hell frozen over?! How exactly are The Tab interviewing Ken bloody Loach, whilst Varsity are still playing catch-up with reviewing Moonrise kingdom?

  • GoingMarvin

    What's the point of anything?

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