Ken Loach "I Remember"

Simon Hemelryk

An excerpt from our interview with Ken Loach available in the upcoming December issue—on sale November 19

Ken Loach, 83, is one of Britain’s best-known directors who’s made more than 60 films, TV dramas and documentaries—including Cathy Come Home, Kes and The Wind That Shakes the Barley

 

…Sitting in the air raid shelter in our neighbour’s back garden in the 1940s, aged around four. We were only about eight miles from Coventry and I can recall the horror the adults felt when we heard the cathedral had been destroyed by German bombs.

 

…My father, Jack, had a lot of affection in him, but he didn’t show it. He was a factory foreman and came from a mining background, and his midlands working-class culture inhibited him. He’d passed the exam to go to grammar school, but couldn’t go because his family couldn’t afford the uniform. Instead, he directed his energies towards making sure I worked hard at school, and I did eventually get into a grammar.

Loach as a baby with his parents, 1936

My mother, Vivien, was gregarious but had given up her job as a hairdresser after I was born. It was a source of pride for my father that his wife shouldn’t have to work. It was a pity for her, as she missed the social life.

"I was too prescriptive, telling the actors 'do it this way', the opposite of what I do now. But that’s how you learn, isn’t it, making mistakes?"

 

…Getting very passionate about theatre, aged 11. I played a nymph in the school production of The Tempest, then Bolingbroke in Richard II. After that, I started reading plays and casting them in my mind. I used to cycle to Stratford-upon-Avon, 30 miles away, and see all of the great actors of the time: Olivier, Gielgud, Ashcroft. My dad was fearful that theatre would supplant my academic studies. But we were studying literature and plays at school, so that just about justified my interest, in his eyes.

 

…Feeling like a kid in a sweet shop at Oxford. I was accepted to study law—which pleased my dad, as that’s what he’d have chosen. But I spent the whole three years getting more and more into acting. In the first term, I was in a play with Dudley Moore. In the second, I was Kent in King Lear. And that was me set, then, doing a couple of plays, every term. I’m not proud, but I nearly got sent down in the second year, because I hadn’t been going to lectures. The first play I directed was The Glass Menagerie, but I didn’t do it very well. I was too prescriptive, telling the actors “do it this way”, the opposite of what I do now. But that’s how you learn, isn’t it, making mistakes?

 

…A love of history with Kenneth Williams. My first professional acting job was as an understudy to Lance Percival in a West End review, One Over the Eight. Williams was the lead and we’d talk about medieval kings and exchange books. He was hilarious but very mercurial. One day you’d be his greatest friend and the next he wouldn’t know you.

Filming in Liverpool in 1967

 

…Meeting my wife, Lesley. I’d joined a repertory theatre in the Midlands, where she was a dancer and secretary. I was giving my Brer Fox to audiences of assembled school children, who’d obviously rather have been doing something else. But, despite that, she went out with me.

We met in 1961, got married in 1962 and had our first child in 1963. We had another one about every two years after that—five in all—so Lesley was a full-time mother for over a decade.

 

…Feeling terrified directing Z Cars, when I was just 27. I moved into theatre direction, then the BBC, who entrusted people like me to make drama, despite not knowing one end of a camera from the other.

It was broadcast live, straight into people’s homes. I was just trying to keep my place in the script and everything was passing me by. The vision mixer also had a disconcerting habit of knitting. Fortunately, she knew what she was doing and got me through it.

During production of Kes in 1968

 

…Challenging the establishment with The Wednesday Play. The BBC’s director of drama, Sydney Newman, gave a group of producers, writers and directors licence to create bold productions about modern life. I did Up the Junction, then Cathy Come Home, with the writers Nell Dunn and Jeremy Sandford, in 1966. There were only two and a half channels, then, so Cathy… was a national event. Viewers were appalled to learn that people could have their children taken away due to lack of housing. The law changed shortly after that—though homelessness is worse than ever, now.

 

…Feeling a little bad about a caning scene in Kes. There’s a part where a little boy gets the cane because some other boys have made him hide their cigarettes. We didn’t tell the boy he would be caned because it would have taken the shock away. A little tear escaped from his eye. But he got double payment, so he was laughing all the way to the piggy bank. And maybe, in a tiny way, the scene helped end corporal punishment.

Billy Casper [actor David Bradley] is now in his sixties. We still see each other about once a year.

 

...There was no money for films in the Seventies, unless it was a Carry On or a historical epic. Kes wasn’t a big hit and didn’t immediately open that many doors—it grew in people’s affections over the years. So I did a few TV dramas with producer, Tony Garnett, such as The Price of Coal by Barry Hines [the writer of Kes].

One of them, Days of Hope (1975) was about the early labour movement and the needless sacrifice of working class men in the First World War. The right wing objected. One criticism was that we showed the army marching in threes instead of fours. “If you can’t get that detail right, how can we trust anything you say,” people argued.

Sorry We Missed You opens nationwide from November 1

 

Buy the December issue to keep reading this article, on sale November 19


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