Ken Loach has long been Britain’s leading socialist filmmaker. His work stretches from early films such as Cathy Come Home in the mid-1960s, to Route Irish, which came out earlier this year.
His unflinching devotion to the workers’ movement is the foundation on which his films are built. His protagonists are ordinary working people, although sometimes in extraordinary situations.
The British Film Institute (BFI) is therefore to be congratulated on their current season of Loach films, set to coincide with his 75th birthday.
He has directed more than 50 films, 30 of which are on offer at the five‑week retrospective.
Cathy Come Home is one of Loach’s most influential films. He made it in 1966 for the BBC.
It tells the story of Cathy, her partner Reg and their three children. They move into a modern home. But their income suddenly dries up after Reg is injured in an accident, and they are evicted by bailiffs. They travel desperately from caravan park to hostel, which takes a huge toll on the family.
As Cathy says to social services, “Give me a place to live with them and their father and they need no other care.” The film ends with Cathy’s children being forcibly taken into care.
The film was seen by 12 million people when it was first broadcast—around a quarter of the British population.
Cathy Come Home brought the issues of homelessness and childcare to a mass audience. It led directly to support for homeless charity Shelter growing until it became a national organisation. And it made people question how life could be made so unbearable even under a Labour government.
True to his principles, Loach would later support striking Shelter workers in 2008.
Also on show at the BFI are Loach’s more recent works, including The Wind that Shakes the Barley—an uncompromising portrayal of the Irish Republican movement from 1919 to 1923.
So honestly brutal was the portrayal of the British occupation that the Times’ reviewer Tim Luckhurst called it “poisonously anti-British” and went on to compare Loach to Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. To provoke such ire, he must have done something right.
Loach’s ideology sinks deep to the heart of his work. No shiny edits and polished narrative—the actors in his films are often only shown the scripts to the scenes they are currently filming, with plot twists as much a surprise to the actors as to the audience.
It is a testament to his ability that Loach films still draw in the crowds without his radical edge being compromised.
His first US film, Bread and Roses in 2000, told the story of striking migrant worker office cleaners in Los Angeles.
And Land and Freedom, his remarkable 1995 film about the Spanish Civil War, not only exposed Stalin’s role in the revolution’s defeat, but also included a 20 minute debate about the merits of farm collectivisation.
No one can accuse Loach of dumbing down to reach a mass audience—he wouldn’t have reason to anyway.
The Ken Loach Retrospective runs at BFI, South Bank, London, until 12 October