Putting the Manifesto before the Movie

Ryan Gilbey

  • Sweet Sixteen directed by Ken Loach
    October 2002
  • The Cinema of Ken Loach: Art in the Service of the People by Jacob Leigh
    Wallflower, 192 pp, £13.99, May 2002, ISBN 1 903364 31 0

One afternoon in May 1995, I rang Ken Loach to try to persuade him to play Fantasy Filmmaking. In fact I had to call a number of British directors, and ask each one to imagine the kind of movie he or she would make given a bottomless budget. ‘An unlimited budget would be a liability,’ Loach said. ‘The more you spend, the more restricted you are because the more money you’ve got, the bigger the investment, the more nervous the investor and the more they dictate what the ending should be.’ He wouldn’t be drawn on his dream cast. ‘Casting is often about hiring stars, and I do find stars pretty boring because then a film becomes all about watching those stars.’ Actually, he wouldn’t be drawn on anything much at all. ‘I carry ideas for films around in my head, but I’d never share them and show them the light of day, not until they were completed.’ He had effectively said nothing, and in the process said everything.

Loach wasn’t being stubborn, though stubbornness makes some of his best films better (and some of his worst more unwieldy). The fundamental artifice of film-making appears to trouble him. ‘If Loach could make a film without a camera, he would,’ Trevor Griffiths observed (they had collaborated unhappily on the 1986 film Fatherland). ‘He wants the actors to just be themselves so that everything looks as though it has just happened.’ A performer working with Loach would do well not to ask any questions about motivation. On Carla’s Song, he gave the actor Robert Carlyle a run-down of his character. ‘Your name’s George and you drive a bus. Maybe it would be a good idea if you learned to drive a bus.’

Had Loach stuck with theatre directing – an early pursuit – he would by now be bringing his plays to schools, hospital wards, disused factories. His television work, in the 1960s and 1980s especially, was the closest he has come to supplying an uninterrupted stream of rhetoric: the fanfare of the movie screen has always sat uneasily with his chosen subjects. But the urgency of TV has diminished as the channels have multiplied, and cinema, with its swelling audiences, has become the crucial outlet for his arguments.

Loach’s commitment to his position as British cinema’s defender of truth, justice and the socialist way inevitably bestows undue significance on his most trivial deviations from that role. He is pragmatic about his brief and uncharacteristic detour into commercials in the 1980s (‘It was indefensible’), but there is something disingenuous about a filmmaker who expresses concern that critics ‘construct an argument about a film in cinematic language’ but don’t ‘deal with it politically as well’ and yet complains: ‘I’ve spent as much time defending my films as I have making them.’ Either they’re worth arguing about, or they’re not. He should take it as a compliment that his work invites a degree of scrutiny out of all proportion with the revenue it generates, just as he should feel satisfied that those commercials look so incongruous on his CV, or that the Sunday Times went to such extraordinary lengths in 1994 to expose some largely run-of-the-mill distortions in Ladybird, Ladybird (real-life people and events were conflated in this movie about a mother fighting to retain her children, while evidence allegedly calling into doubt the woman’s parental suitability was omitted).

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