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Politics and Palme d'Ors: An introduction to Ken Loach

BY James Oliver

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

Politics and Palme d'Ors: An introduction to Ken Loach

As Ken Loach’s latest film, I, Daniel Blake, continues to make headlines across the UK, we put the spotlight on the acclaimed director known for getting up the nose of the establishment.

Who is Ken Loach?

Ken Loach
Ken Loach behind the camera

Even if you’ve never actually seen a Ken Loach film, chances are you’ve got a fair idea of what they’re like: he’s popularly associated with tough social realism, deprivation and thick regional accents.

But if you’ve never seen a Ken Loach film then you’re missing out. The caricature above is not entirely unfair—Loach has never made a secret of the fact that he prefers to make films about ordinary lives—but there’s much more to his movies than misery, chiefly a vital humanity that turns unpromising subjects into passionate, moving drama.



"The Loach back catalogue is one of the strongest in British cinema"



Although he’s often considered a ‘political’ filmmaker (he is famously a bit of a lefty), his films are much more about people than they are about ideology. If he makes movies about folk that films usually ignore then it is to show that they have lives and stories too and that they shouldn’t be ignored just because they didn’t go to school with the right people.

He’s been a fixture on our cultural landscape for over 50 years now and he’s still going strong. In fact, he won his second Palme d’Or this year for I, Daniel Blake. Even his politics are now less unfashionable than they were in the days of Tony Blair.

The Loach back catalogue is one of the strongest in British cinema. It is, though, rather substantial and thus daunting. Here, then, we present a brief introductory guide to some of his most significant projects and the insight they give to their director.


Cathy Come Home (1966)

Ken Loach began as a director at the BBC in 1964, after an unsuccessful stint as an actor (during which time, rather wonderfully, he appeared in an all singin’, all dancin’ musical comedy revue called One Over the Eight as Kenneth Williams’ understudy).

Theatre’s loss was television’s gain. After an apprenticeship that involved him steering episodes of Z-Cars, Loach started to work on The Wednesday Play, making more personal, and more political, projects, most famously Cathy Come Home, written by Jeremy Sandford.

Made in collaboration with producer Tony Garnett, another former actor who became a crucial colleague, it was a shocking indictment of housing policy, showing how the system conspires to rip a family apart.

Broadcast a few days before the housing charity Shelter was launched, the programme started a genuine national conversation and in doing so, revealed the power that television had to address issues.


Kes (1969)

The success of Cathy Come Home led to offers of theatrical feature films but Loach was something of an odd fit for British cinema in the late 1960s, an unapologetic Kitchen Sink Drama merchant in the era of Swinging London, never more so with Kes, which premiered at the end of that groovy decade.

It wasn’t his first feature—that was Poor Cow (1967)—but it was the film that established him in cinemas. It was adapted from Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel for a Knave, about a young lad named Billy Caspar who adopts a kestrel; training the bird allows him, briefly, to transcend the coal fields of South Yorkshire where he lives until he is brought brutally back down to earth again.

It remains his signature achievement and endures as a classic while its more obviously fashionable contemporaries have faded into obscurity.


Days of Hope (1975)

While many directors have dreamt of Hollywood, Ken Loach has been content to work at a more modest level, even consenting to return to television for the right project, something too many filmmakers might see as a demotion.

Days of Hope was very much the right project. It is Loach’s version of a historical epic—a four part, seven-hour drama that begins in 1916 as British troops try to put a lid on some trouble in Ireland and ending with the general strike. It is an unashamedly political piece, as certain Tory MPs fulminated at the time but it is never preachy and, most importantly, never dull.

Written by Jim Allen (another vital collaborator), it’s one of the best things that Loach has ever done and further proof that landmark telly didn’t begin with The Sopranos.



The 1980s were a bad time for Loach. He had no shortage of material—the office of Mrs. Thatcher meant he had plenty to say—but he found it harder and harder to get projects up and running. Those he did make were sometimes subject to censorship or even suppression.

But he wasn’t done yet. As a new decade dawned, Loach returned with Hidden Agenda and Riff-Raff (1990 and 1991 respectively), reminding everyone what they’d been missing. These inaugurated a string of films, many of them masterpieces, that continues to this day.

Let the records show how important producers Sally Hibbin and, especially, Rebecca O’Brien have been to this process: they’ve helped Loach become a genuine icon of world cinema, even if he’s not always appreciated at home.


Raining Stones (1993)

As mentioned above, Loach has been both prolific and consistent in recent years and it’s hard to single individual titles out. So there’s an element of personal preference in the pick of Raining Stones, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Again it was written by Jim Allen and it’s set in his native Manchester; Bob (Bruce Jones) is trying to scrape together the money to buy his daughter a communion dress and the film follows the scrapes he gets into along the way.

Some of these are very funny. For all his reputation for gloom and doom, Loach’s films are often supremely funny, brimming with unforced comedy. But the humour is always balanced against more serious issues; Loach’s great gift is to use despair and hilarity to heighten each other.


My Name Is Joe (1998)

Loach has never had much truck with the auteur theory that prizes directors far above their colleagues; in particular, he’s always acknowledged how reliant he is on good scripts.

These days, most of those scripts are written by Glaswegian Paul Laverty; they first worked together on Carla’s Song, which took them to Latin America. My Name is Joe, by contrast, remains in Glasgow, and not the posh bits either. That fine actor (and director) Peter Mullen is the titular Joe, a recovering alcoholic who begins a tentative relationship with social worker Sarah, played by Louise Goodall.

It’s a wonderful film, as tender and humane and heartbreaking as earlier Loach films. Loach and Laverty would return to Glasgow again and again—write about what you know, and all that—but this remains the finest story they’ve told about that city.


The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006)

The wind that shakes the barley
Image via Sky

Ireland has been a constant destination for Loach throughout his career, from Days of Hope to Hidden Agenda (about the supposed Shoot To Kill policy in the North) and, most recently, with Jimmy’s Hall.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley goes back to the birth of the republic, about the struggle for independence and the civil war that followed. It features a (slightly) starrier cast than normal.

While Loach usually favours lesser known actors or even non-professionals, so that audiences won’t have too many preconceptions around their characters, here he recruited Cillian Murphy, then fresh from Batman Begins to play the lead. (Backing him up is Liam Cunningham, who’d go on to appear in Game of Thrones). In fact, it’s a bigger film all round, with gun fights and even an explosion or two—a veritable blockbuster by Loach’s standards.

Maybe that’s what appealed to the Cannes jury headed by Wong Kar-wai; it took the Palme d’Or, the first time Loach had won the top prize despite being a regular in competition. He won it again this year for I, Daniel Blake, an acknowledgment of how highly he is regarded.


The Angel’s Share (2012)

the angel's share

As we’ve already seen, there are certain prejudices about Ken Loach films and even those of us who esteem his efforts must acknowledge you would be unwise to line up for a Loach flick in expectation of a happy ending.

There are signs, though, that the old boy is mellowing. First, in the delightful Looking for Eric and then, triumphantly, with The Angel’s Share, Loach has been allowing his characters to enjoy themselves a little more and even—gasp—leave the film in a better state than they began it.

The Angel’s Share is again written by Laverty and again set in Glasgow but it takes a somewhat different path to My Name Is Joe. Indeed, it’s very nearly a feel-good film: its hero is Robbie (Paul Brannigan, another Loach discovery), a petty criminal sentenced to community service who discovers a talent for whiskey-tasting under the tutelage of his genial supervisor Harry. His new-found gift offers him a way to escape his dead-end life but to do so will involve one more, and especially audacious crime—the heist of an especially rare drop of the hard stuff.

In whiskey parlance, ‘the angel’s share’ means the part lost to evaporation during distillation. Here, though, it has another meaning which comes at the end, a reveal that might well be the most heart-warming moment of any Loach movie.



A few years ago, around the time of Jimmy’s Hall (2014), Ken Loach gave notice that he was thinking of retirement. But any plans he had to spend his days watching daytime television and moaning about the youth of today were put on hold by the results of last year’s election.

Charged with anger over austerity policies—or rather, what those policies were doing to those who could least withstand them—he and Laverty started work on the film that became I, Daniel Blake. Not only did it fend off all comers to scoop the Palme d’Or, it’s managed to get up the noses of an assortment of right-wing columnists: it’s hard to know which Loach would regard as the greater achievement.

Hard at work on other projects (both feature films and documentaries, like his acclaimed The Spirit of ‘45), it’s clear Loach ain’t ready to bow out just yet. Let’s hope he stays angry for a bit longer yet: goodness knows, we need him.



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