In June the great socialist film-maker Ken Loach turned 75. To celebrate the British Film Institute is holding a retrospective of most of his important films and some of his matchless work for TV. Simultaneously, the BBC is releasing a six-disc collection of the TV work that Loach directed in the 1960s and 70s. This includes Days of Hope, the epochal four-part analysis of the 1926 General Strike, and also my personal favourite, the sublime Big Flame dramatising a workers’ takeover of Liverpool Docks.
Loach has made 21 feature films plus documentaries, short films and an enormous volume of TV programmes. Taken individually there are disappointments as well as successes – some of his movies bore me (Fatherland, for one), while others are seriously dated (Poor Cow being the most obvious). But in his body of work Loach has maintained an amazing goals to games ratio. All of his film and TV output is worth seeing, and some is as good as films and TV get.
Two essential qualities radiate through all Loach’s work – his lifelong commitment to socialist politics and his exploration of the full possibilities of cinematic realism.
From his first movie, Poor Cow, right through to his latest, Route Irish, Loach’s films tell the stories of ordinary people confronting everyday problems thrown at them by an unjust system. He has made films set in a variety of countries (Spain, Nicaragua, Iraq, Ireland) and different historical periods, but none of them are about superheroes, boy wizards or gentlemen spies.
In film circles it is still common to criticise Loach as a past his sell by date director stuck in clichéd “It’s grim up north” realism. But far from being humdrum and lifeless, Loach’s films sing with visual energy and narrative audacity. Loach roots his films in the real world only because he wants to dissect and transform that world.
For me everything that is so inspiring about Loach is summed up in his 2000 film Bread and Roses.
When the news broke that Loach was making a film in Hollywood with US money cynical rumours circulated that Loach had finally crossed to the dark side, like so many “lefties” before him. Yet when Bread and Roses was released it was quite unlike almost any film that has come out of Hollywood since Salt of the Earth – an exhilarating and incendiary story of Latina office cleaners organising themselves to fight against corporate power – all shot with Loach’s familiar qualities of compassion, humour and social anger. Loach had taken the Yankee dollar, and thrown it back in their corporate faces. In so many ways it is our luck to be alive when such a brilliant socialist artist is in his prime.