KEN LOACH started making films for TV in the 1960s including the groundbreaking Cathy Come Home, which shook up the establishment and forced a change in the homelessness laws.
His other films include Kes, Riff-Raff, Carla’s Song, Land and Freedom, My Name Is Joe, Bread and Roses, and Sweet Sixteen. He is a socialist and a member of the Respect national executive.
His new film, Ae Fond Kiss, which explores a relationship between a Muslim man and a white woman in Glasgow, is out next week and it has won rave reviews. Ken spoke to CHRIS NINEHAM.
You’re widely acknowledged as a unique figure in British cinema. Do you make films in a different way to other directors? Do you have a special way of working with actors?
That’s difficult, because directors don’t see other directors at work and I don’t get to see many films. But operational things are very important. I’ve been very lucky to have had producers who have fought for space for us to operate in the way we want.
For example, it is very important to be in control of the shooting schedule because it means you can shoot in sequence. That allows actors to go through the experience of the story of the film and learn things as they go.
Most directors don’t have that luxury. The accountants force them to shoot the scenes according to the locations. Organisational things like that make a big difference to the feel of the film. In the end, they give you a distinctive way of working.
The first task of a director is to try and make sure the actors are inhabiting the story in a truthful way. A whole series of things flow from that-how you organise the set, how you prepare the actors. It’s important that actors feel valued and secure in what they are doing.
Hopefully people also respond well to the kind of films we’re making. People know that these are not big budget films and they perhaps see them as being films that have some value. So they develop a kind of committed relationship to their work.
You first started working in film at the BBC. How did that happen? And what was happening at the time to open up a space for radical film making?
In the 1960s there was a guy called Hugh Carlton Green at the BBC. He had quite a progressive view of the BBC’s function. He brought in Sidney Newman from ITV as head of drama, who was also quite progressive.
Newman carved out some space for a whole new generation of writers and directors to work without any interference. Working at the BBC now is stifling. Writers and directors have lots of people sitting behind them telling them what to do all the time.
A number of things coincided in the 1960s. Television was still very young and people in the government and the establishment hadn’t realised what an important medium it was. So there was some freedom to experiment.
Also there were only two channels, so if you did make a programme you spoke to half the country. Programme by programme, it was more powerful.
At the same time we had just emerged from a long period of Conservative government. The previous Labour government had been a social democratic. It had done various things-it set up the NHS, nationalised some industries and so on.
Socialism was a word people talked about, it hadn’t been so abused and devalued. After a long period of stagnation in the 1950s, there was a sense that when Wilson got elected there were possibilities.
It obviously didn’t take long for many of us to be disabused of this feeling. After Wilson got elected in 1964, peoples’ hopes were dashed. But that was educational for some of us—we saw the true nature of social democracy.
That turned people my age to more social issues, to reading books, to more radical ideas, to Marxism. Similar things happened across Europe and it all culminated in the great radicalisation of 1968.
The situation in the culture industries today seems quite different. On the one hand, corporations have a stranglehold over the media. On the other, there’s a political counterculture that is in the mainstream—think of Michael Moore, Naomi Klein and all sorts of musicians from Dizzie Rascal to Radiohead out against the war and writing political songs. Is all this affecting cinema and television?
The big event that shifted the way the media works was the Thatcher counter-revolution. That made the market the centre of everything. It is still with us. Film and television executives and producers talk in the language of second-rate business school. That’s how they see it.
We never saw it in those terms in the 1960s. That has blighted everything. But the opposition is springing up. I think that ITV and the BBC are much more in the hands of the elite than they used to be. So the counterculture is springing up in other places, in the theatre, in music-and that’s great.
How do you choose what film to make? For example, did you have the fallout from 11 September in mind when you made your new film Ae Fond Kiss?
Every new film seems like an insurmountable hurdle before you work out how to make it. You just don’t know where to begin or how to do it. And then gradually work out a way to do it. I think the moment you think you know how to do this job, you’re screwed. You might as well pack up, because you will be found out! Ae Fond Kiss is partly about identity. It’s set in Glasgow-the main family is Glaswegian with a Pakistani background. The parents came from Pakistan in the early 1960s.
The kids see themselves as Glaswegian, but also have a Pakistani background. They are also Muslim. And you hear all this in their voices.
We felt we had to cast people who really knew all that from the inside. The way the different generations speak just can’t be imitated from the outside. It is a small community of just a few thousand people with no big tradition of performance, so finding people to cast was the big hurdle.
What shapes people is their history and their economic conditions. All the details add up. If you ignore that, the people who really know whether it is true or not will discount it.
When we made Land and Freedom, about the Spanish Civil War, the most important audience were those people who had fought with the left wing POUM, or on the Aragon front, or with the anarchists. If they thought it was okay, it was okay.
With this one it’s the people in Glasgow, Muslims and others. They may not agree with it, but if they think its true then that’s fine, that’s the test we have to put ourselves through.
Do your films about campaigns and struggles present a different set of problems?
They do in a way, because you can’t just turn up on the street and film everything that is going on. Everything has to be arranged, so it’s much harder work.
I don’t think directors know everything. I have to ask experts to come along from whatever field and I ask them, is this right, or is that right? How would this have happened? How did people do this? Because otherwise, if the details are wrong, it’s just sloppy thinking about everything.
For me, it’s about making stories in which the audience can identify with the protaganist and go through their experience. I have made a number of documentaries about disputes and campaigns, and you find that people are very articulate when you’re making these kind of films. It’s the job of someone in my position to elucidate these opinions, to let them be heard, not to disrupt the visual flow. You have to use whatever techniques you’ve got to clarify these ideas and enhance the people who are articulating them.
You are presenting a new cut of Bread and Roses at the European Social Forum in London this year. You have strong links with the real movement. Does this matter to your film making?
I think it is very important, because it is through the various strands of the movement that you work out what story you need to tell. Because underneath every film idea there needs to a political argument about why the story is worth telling, what the implications of it are, what the conflicts are revealing.
All of that flows from political judgement, from working out a political position. That was obviously true of something like Land and Freedom. Dealing with the Spanish Civil War, we had to find one incident that really got to the heart of what we wanted to say.
I would be very suspicious of anyone who makes films that are part of contemporary commentary, but is unrelated to any political movement. They are abstentionists, and if you’re an abstentionist, I don’t think you have much to say.
Loach’s best-known and possibly best-loved film. Adapted from the Barry Hines novel A Kestrel for a Knave it is a portrait of northern working class life and remains as pertinent and fiercely unsentimental almost 30 years on.
A young boy, who is ignored at school and bulied at home, finds and trains a Kestrel he names Kes. Despite the brutality that surrounds him he maintains a spirit that no one can crush.
AE FOND KISS
Loaches returns to Glasgow for his latest film which is a story of love and prejudice. Casim, who is Glaswegian, second generation Pakistani and a club DJ, is due to be married within in weeks.
Nevertheless, he falls in love with Roisin, a music teacher at his sisters’ school.
He and Roisin fight to keep their relationship secret from Casim’s family and friends but ultimately cannot do so indefinately.
As word spreads, a chain reaction takes place. Roisin losses her job at the school and Casim’s failure to marry as arranged causes his sister’s engaugement to be called off.