Nationality: British. Born: Kenneth Loach in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, 17 June 1937. Education: Studied law at Oxford University. Military Service: Served two years in the Royal Air Force. Family: Married Lesley Ashton (Loach), three sons (one deceased), two daughters. Career: Acted with a repertory company in Birmingham, then joined the BBC, 1961; director of Z Cars for TV, 1962; directed episodes in the BBC's Wednesday Play series, including Cathy Come Home, Three Clear Sundays, Up the Junction, The End of Arthur's Marriage, Coming Out Party, In Two Minds, and The Big Flame, 1965–69; directed his first feature, Poor Cow, 1967; with producer Tony Garnett, set up Kestrel Films production company, 1969; freelanced, though working mainly for Britain's Central TV, 1970s. Awards: British TV Guild TV Director of the Year Award, 1965; Berlin Film Festival OCIC Award, Interfilm Award, and FIPRESCI Award, for Family Life, 1972; Cannes Film Festival Young Cinema Award, for Looks and Smiles, 1981; Berlin Film Festival OCIC Award, for Which Side Are You On?, 1984; Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize, for Hidden Agenda, 1990; Cannes Film Festival FIPRESCI Award, Best Film European Film Award, for Riff-Raff, 1990; Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize, for Raining Stones, 1993; Berlin Film Festival Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, for Ladybird Ladybird, 1994; British Academy Award Michael Balcon Award, 1994; Venice Film Festival Golden Lion of Career Achievement, 1994; Best Foreign ilm Cesar Award, Cannes Film Festival FIPRESCI Award, Best Film European Film Awards, for Land and Freedom, 1995; Venice Film Festival The President of the Italian Senate's Gold Medal, Havana Film Festival Coral for Best Work of a Non-Latin American Director
on a Latin American Subject, for Carla's Song, 1996; Leipzig DOK Festival Prize of the trade union IG Medien, Marseilles Festival of the Documentary Film Special Mention, for The Flickering Flame, 1997; British Independent Film Award Best British Director of an Independent Film, Valladolid International Film Festival Audience Award and Golden Spike, Robert Festival Best Non-American Film, Bodil Festival Best Non-American Film, for My Name Is Joe, 1998; Torino International Film Festival of Young Cinema Cipputi Carrer Award, 1998; Evening Standard British Film Award Special Award, 1999.
Films as Director:
Poor Cow (+ co-sc)
Kes (+ co-sc)
The Save the Children Fund Film (short);
Family Life (Wednesday's Child)
Black Jack (+ sc)
Looks and Smiles
Fatherland (Singing the Blues in Red)
Hidden Agenda; Riff-Raff
Land and Freedom
My Name Is Joe
Bread and Roses
Films for Television:
Catherine; Profit by Their Example; The Whole Truth; TheDiary of a Young Man
Tap on the Shoulder; Wear a Very Big Hat; Three ClearSundays; Up the Junction; The End of Arthur's Marriage; The Coming out Party
Cathy Come Home
In Two Minds
The Golden Vision
The Big Flame; In Black and White (not transmitted)
The Rank and File Film; After a Lifetime
Days of Hope (in four parts)
The Price of Coal
A Question of Leadership
The Red and the Blue; Questions of Leadership (in four parts, not transmitted)
Which Side Are You On? (+ pr)
Diverse Reports: We Should Have Won
Split Screen: Peace in Northern Ireland
The Flickering Flame (doc)
By LOACH: articles—
"Spreading Wings at Kestrel," interview with P. Bream, in Filmsand Filming (London), March 1972.
Interview with M. Amiel, in Cinéma (Paris), December 1972.
Interview with J. O'Hara, in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), April 1977.
"A Fidelity to the Real," interview with Leonard Quart, in Cineaste (New York), Fall 1980.
Interview with Julian Petley, in Framework (Norwich), no. 18, 1982.
Interview with Robert Brown, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), January 1983.
"The Complete Ken Loach," interview with P. Kerr, in Stills (London), May/June 1986.
"Getting It Right!," interview with G. Ambjornsson, in Chaplin (Stockholm), vol. 29, no 3, 1987.
Interview in Film Dope (London), February 1987.
"Voice in the Dark," interview with Gavin Smith, in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1988.
Interview in Cinéma (Paris), June 1990.
Interview in La Revue du Cinéma (Paris), November 1991.
Interview in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), November 1991.
"Why Cathy Will Never Come Home Again," interview with Julian Petley and Sheila McKechnie, in New Statesman & Society (London), 2 April 1993.
"Sympathetic Images," interview with Gavin Smith, in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1994.
Interview with Geoffrey Mcnab, in Sight and Sound (London), November 1994.
Interview with Noël Herpe, in Positif (Paris), October 1995.
"The Revolution Betrayed/Land and Freedom," interview with Richard Porton, in Cineaste (New York), April 1996.
"Recontre avec Ken Loach," with Bernard Nave, in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), November-December 1996.
Interview with Marcel Meeus and Ronnie Pede, in Film en Televisie+ Video (Brussels), December 1996.
Interview with Judith Waldner and Peter Krobath, in Zoom (Zürich), April 1997.
Interview with John Hill, in Sight and Sound (London), November 1998.
"My Life in the Movies," interview with Monika Maurer, in Empire (London), December 1998.
"The Politics of Everyday Life," interview with Susan Ryan and Richard Porton, in Cineaste (New York), Winter 1998.
"Things I Cannot Change," interview with Adam Pincus, in Filmmaker (Los Angeles), February 1999.
On LOACH: book—
McKnight, George, Agent of Challenge and Defiance, Westport, 1997.
On LOACH: articles—
Taylor, John, "The Kes Dossier," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1970.
"Tony Garnett and Ken Loach," in Documentary Explorations:Fifteen Interviews with Filmmakers, by G. Roy Levin, New York, 1971.
McAsh, Iain, "One More Time," in Films Illustrated (London), December 1978.
Petley, Julian, "Questions of Censorship," in Stills (London), November 1984.
Kerr, Paul, "The Complete Ken Loach," in Stills (London), May/June 1986.
Fatherland Section of Jeune Cinéma (Paris), January/February 1987.
Petley, Julian, "Ken Loach—Politics, Protest, and the Past," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), March 1987.
"Kenneth Loach," in Film Dope (London), February 1987.
Nave, B., "Portrait d'un cinéaste modeste: Ken Loach," in JeuneCinéma (Paris), October/November 1987.
Grant, Steve, "Troubles Shooter," in Time Out (London), 2 January 1991.
Pannifer, Bill, "Agenda Bender," in Listener (London), 3 January 1991.
Malcolm, Derek, "Straight out of Britain, Tales of Working-Class Life," in New York Times, 31 January 1993.
Fuller, G., "True Brit," Village Voice (New York), 9 February 1993.
Munro, Rona, and Geoffrey Macnab, "Ladybird, Ladybird," in Sightand Sound (London), November 1994.
Garbicz, Adam, "Brat Loach," in Kino (Warsaw), April 1995.
Guérin, Marie-Anne, "Kenneth Loach," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), July-August 1995.
Hooper, J., "When the Shooting Starts," in Village Voice (New York), 26 March 1996.
Hill, John, "Every Fuckin' Choice Stinks," in Sight and Sound (London), November 1998.
Light, Bob, "Class of '98," in Sight and Sound (London), January 1999.
* * *
Ken Loach is not only Britain's most political filmmaker, he is also its most censored—and the two are not entirely unconnected. Loach's career illustrates all too clearly the immense difficulties facing the radical filmmaker in Britain today: the broadcasting organisations' position within the state makes them extraordinarily sensitive sites from which to tackle certain fundamental political questions (about labour relations, "national security," or Northern Ireland, for example), while the film industry, though less subject to political interference and self-censorship, simply finds Loach's projects too "uncommercial," thanks to its habitually poverty-stricken state. And what other filmmaker, British or otherwise, has found one of his films the subject of vitriolic attacks by sections of his own country's press at a major international film festival—as happened at Cannes in 1990 with Hidden Agenda?
For all the obvious political differences with Grierson, Loach is the chief standard bearer of the British cinematic tradition that started with the documentary movement in the 1930s. His quintessentially naturalistic approach was apparent even in his earliest works (in his contributions to the seminal BBC police series Z Cars, for instance) but really came to the fore with Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home. In the days when television drama was still finding its way beyond the proscenium arch and out from under the blanket of middle-brow, middle-class, literary-based classics, Cathy's portrayal of a homeless family hounded by the forces of a pitiless bureaucracy caused a sensation and led directly to the founding of the housing charity Shelter. Indeed, one critic described it as "effecting massive, visceral change in millions of viewers in a single evening." Typically, however, Loach himself has been far more circumspect, arguing that the film was socially as opposed to politically conscious, that it made people aware of a problem without giving them any indication of what they might do about it. He concludes that "ideally I should have liked Cathy to lead to the nationalisation of the building industry and home ownership. Only political action can do anything in the end"—a point of view to which he has remained faithful throughout his career.
Accordingly, in The Big Flame, The Rank and File, and the four-part series Days of Hope, Loach turned to more directly political subjects. It is in these dramas that Loach begins his project of giving voice to the politically silenced and marginalised. As he put it, "I think it's a very important function to let people speak who are usually disqualified from speaking or who've become non-persons—activists, militants, or people who really have any developed political ideas. One after the other in different industries, there have been people who've developed very coherent political analyses, who are really just excluded. They're vilified—called extremists and then put beyond the pale."
Such views made enemies across the spectrum of political ideologies but, typically, Loach's critics cloaked what were basically political objections in apparently aesthetic rhetoric. In particular, Loach was dragged into the much-rehearsed argument that the "documentary-drama" form dishonestly and misleadingly blurs the line between fact and fiction and, in particular, presents the latter as the former. Loach himself dismisses such criticisms as "ludicrous" and a "smokescreen," citing the numerous uncontroversial disinterrings of Churchill, Edward VII, and others and concluding that "It's an argument that's always dragged out selectively when there's a view of history, a view of events, that the Establishment doesn't agree with—it's not really the form which worries them at all. It's such an intellectual fraud that it doesn't bear serious consideration."
Loach's work, especially Days of Hope, was also drawn into a more serious debate which raged at one time in the pages of Screen about whether films with "progressive" political content can be truly "progressive" if they utilise the allegedly outworn and ideologically dubious conventions of realism. Loach's response was to accuse such critics of "not seeing the woods for the trees. The big issue which we tried to make plain to ordinary folks who aren't film critics was that the Labour leadership had betrayed them fifty years ago and were about to do so again. That's the important thing to tell people. It surprised me that critics didn't take the political point, but a rather abstruse cinematic point. . . . Even the more serious critics always avoid confronting the content of the film and deciding if they think it is truthful. They'll skirt around it by talking about realism and the Function of Film or they'll do a little paragraph while devoting all their space to some commercial film they pretend to dislike."
With the coming of the 1980s Loach began to shift increasingly into documentary proper, abandoning dramatic devices altogether. This was partly a result of the increasing difficulty, both economic and political, that he had in making the kind of films in which he was most interested, but was also related to the advent of Thatcherism in 1979. As he himself explained, "There were things we wanted to say head on and not wrapped up in fiction, things that should be said as directly as one can say them. Thatcherism just felt so urgent that I thought that doing a fictional piece for TV, which would take a year just to get commissioned and at least another year to make, was just too slow. Documentaries can tackle things head on, and you can make them faster than dramas too—though with hindsight it's just as hard, if not harder, to get them transmitted."
Indeed, Loach had major problems with his analysis of the relationship between trade union leaders and the rank and file in A Question of Leadership and the series Questions of Leadership, the first of which was cut in order to include a final "balancing" discussion and broadcast in only one ITV region, while the second was never broadcast at all after numerous legal wrangles over alleged defamation. Similarly, Loach's coal dispute film, Which Side Are You On?, was banned by the company (London Weekend Television) which commissioned it. It was finally televised, but only after it could be "balanced" by a programme less sympathetic to the striking miners than Loach's. It says a great deal about the system of film and television programme making in Britain that one of the country's most experienced and politically conscious directors was, and remains, unable to produce a full-scale work about one of the most momentous political events in the country's recent history.
Exactly the same could be said about Loach and Northern Ireland. Revealingly, the initial idea for what was to become Hidden Agenda came from David Puttnam when he was studio boss at Columbia, after two of Loach's long-cherished Irish projects, one with the BBC and the other with Channel 4, had foundered. However, Loach has borne his treatment at the hands of the British establishment with remarkable fortitude. With his particular political outlook he would presumably be surprised if things were otherwise. Nor does he have an inflated view of the role of film and the filmmaker. As his remarks about Cathy clearly testify, Loach is a great believer in the primacy of the political. And, as he himself concludes, "filmmakers have a very soft life really, in comparison to people who have to work for a living. And so it's easy to be a radical filmmaker. The people who really are on the front line aren't filmmakers. We're in a very privileged position, very free and good wages—if you can keep working."
As Ken Loach ages, his films remain consistently provocative and politically savvy, with a deep respect for and understanding of his struggling, working class characters. Riff-Raff features a prototypical Loach hero: an unemployed blue collar worker who comes to London and lands a job on a construction site. However, the film is no dry, pedantic political tract. While it is never less than pointed in its depiction of the eternal conflict between the classes, it also is piercingly funny. Comic asides also highlight Raining Stones, an otherwise intense drama depicting the efforts of an out-of-work laborer to scrape together funds to feed his family. He is a proud man, who will not accept charity; complications arise when he unwittingly borrows money from a loan shark to pay for his daughter's communion dress. With vivid irony, Loach graphically portrays the sense of hopelessness of honorable laborers who desire nothing more than the right to a suitable job, for suitable pay. And he offers another realistic slice-of-working-class life in My Name Is Joe, the story of a jobless alcoholic who attends AA meetings, coaches soccer, falls for a social worker, and finds himself in deep trouble while attempting to aid a recovering junkie and his dope-addicted wife.
Loach's concerns are not solely with the male working class. Ladybird Ladybird is a trenchant, based-on-fact drama about a profoundly distressed single mother with a sad history of being exploited by men. He also is interested in the impact of history on the individual. In Land and Freedom, he abandons his usual British working-class setting to tell the story of a jobless but passionate Liverpudlian communist who treks to Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War to do battle for "land and freedom." The film works best as a potent look at political idealism in the face of the reality of a heartless, brutal enemy.
A strong female character and a non-British setting unite in Carla's Song, an unusual drama-love story. Carla's Song is set in 1987 and opens in Glasgow, where a bus driver becomes involved with a beautiful, elusive, deeply distressed Nicaraguan refugee. Eventually, the two travel to her homeland to find her former boyfriend, who already may be a casualty of the war between the Contras and Sandanistas. While the first section is not as dramatically involving as it might be, the final part, in which the bus driver finds himself thrust into a war zone, is poignant and heartbreaking. Here are some of the film's best scenes, which follow what happens as the driver crosses cultures and language barriers and befriends Sandanista soldiers and Nicaraguan villagers.
Unsurprisingly, Loach had difficulty finding an American distributor for Carla's Song, and it was not released in the United States until two years after its completion. Shadow Distribution, the company that picked it up, is far from a high-profile distributor. Loach's predicament may be linked to his film's Nicaraguan section, which includes political rhetoric that is distinctly anti-CIA. Here, the filmmaker points out how the CIA backed the Contras in Nicaragua—and sponsored atrocities committed against the Nicaraguan people. All of this is revealed by an ex-CIA operative who underwent a crisis of conscience, and is shown to be toiling for a human rights organization.
And Loach has not completely abandoned the documentary. In 1997 he directed The Flickering Flame, the chronicle of a Liverpool dockworkers' strike in which he spotlights the political struggles of the workers.
—Julian Petley, updated by Rob Edelman