Issue 83 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Summer 1999 Copyright © International Socialism
For 35 years Ken Loach has been making films about the realities of class society in Britain. From his early days at the BBC, which produced the celebrated 'Wednesday Plays' Up The Junction (1965), Cathy Come Home (1966), In Two Minds (1967) and The Big Flame (1969), through to his feature films of the 1990s, Hidden Agenda (1990), Riff-Raff (1991), Raining Stones (1993), Ladybird, Ladybird (1994), Land and Freedom (1995), Carla's Song (1996) and most recently the magnificent My Name Is Joe (1998), Loach has maintained a steadfast commitment to working class experience, portraying both the relentless struggle to survive in capitalist society, and the fightback against oppression and exploitation. Over the years he has, in often difficult circumstances, produced a marvellous body of work, culminating in the epic Land and Freedom, still going strong with My Name Is Joe, arguably his best film so far, and rumoured to be working with writer Jim Allen on a new film about James Connolly and the Easter Rising. After 30-odd years, Loach seems to have been given a new lease of life, playing off against the crass hypocrisies of Tony Blair's New Labour. Paradoxically, his most recent films are better known on the Continent than they are in Britain, where his passions and concerns have, to all intents and purposes, been marginalised and outlawed as Blair and Co have sought to dedicate Cool Britannia to the service of big business.
At last, however, we have two books celebrating Loach and his work: Loach on Loach, edited by Graham Fuller, and Agent of Challenge and Defiance, edited by George McKnight. The first is a volume in the Faber & Faber series of extended interviews with notable film directors. Loach joins the likes of Woody Allen, Frederico Fellini, David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock, Krzysztof Kiéslowski, David Cronenberg, Martin Scorsese and, most recently, John Sayles. This is an indispensable volume that no socialist interested in the cinema should be without. The second, edited by McKnight, is a mixed collection of essays examining different aspects of Loach's work for a primarily academic audience. A number of the contributions are of interest, but taken as a whole the volume lacks bite.
From Cathy Comes Home to Days of Hope
In his introduction to the Loach on Loach volume, Graham Fuller usefully divides Loach's career into four phases: first, the 'Wednesday Plays' period of the 1960s; second, the period of the more overtly political plays and the first feature films in the 1970s; third, the documentary period in the 1980s when Loach was successfully strangled by censorship; and lastly, the succession of powerful feature films that he has made and is still making in the 1990s. Let us look at the first two phases.
Loach directed ten 'Wednesday Plays', of which the best known is undoubtedly Cathy Come Home, written by Jeremy Sandford and starring Carol White and Ray Brooks. This powerful drama of homelessness was first broadcast in 1966 and is generally credited with making the homeless a political issue and with inspiring the establishment of the charity Shelter. It successfully highlighted the failure of Harold Wilson's Labour government to seriously tackle a major social injustice.
In retrospect, however, Loach himself is quite critical of the play:
He goes on to describe how the Labour minister of housing, Anthony Greenwood, met with him and his producer, Tony Garnett, to express his appreciation of the play. When they tried to discuss with him what the Labour government was actually going to do about homelessness, 'He ummed and ahhed and talked around it.' Even Edward Heath, the then leader of the Conservative Party, expressed concern. Of course, by the standards of New Labour, Greenwood would be a dangerous red--indeed so would Edward Heath--and even an expression of concern would be most unlikely. Nevertheless, is Loach being too hard on himself here? Certainly, Cathy Come Home had limitations which meant that the likes of Greenwood and Heath never felt threatened by it, but this particular viewer can still remember the feelings of anger and outrage with which the play left him. These feelings were not containable within the parameters of British Labourism. This seems to have been Loach's own experience.
Cathy Come Home was a step, perhaps a necessary step, on the way to a more explicitly Marxist stance, to a determination to make more overtly socialist films. If the likes of Greenwood and Heath could respond favourably to the play then the conclusion that Loach and Garnett drew was that it 'couldn't have been very political. As a result, we said to ourselves that if we were to do a film like that again, we'd somehow have to tackle the ownership of land, the building industry and the financing behind it. Otherwise you're not really challenging anything'.1 In a period of increasing class conflict, when first Wilson's Labour government and then Heath's Conservative government confronted the trade unions, Loach and Garnett were to find themselves with a growing audience, moving from drama exposing the victimisation of the poor to drama celebrating working class resistance.
In 1969 Loach directed The Big Flame, in 1971 The Rank and File and in 1975 the epic Days of Hope, all written by the Trotskyist playwright Jim Allen.2 These were a response to and celebration of the great class battles that saw the defeat of Labour's 'In Place of Strife' and of the Conservatives' Industrial Relations Act, that saw first the defeat of Heath's government by the miners in 1972 and then its destruction at their hands in 1974. As far as we know, this was not drama that the likes of Greenwood or Heath found the least bit congenial.
It is perhaps a mistake to describe the Loach-Allen dramas as merely celebrating working class resistance, because they were also very much concerned with explaining betrayal and defeat. They were determined to show not just working class men and women fighting back, displaying their creativity, courage, intelligence and humanity in battle with the bosses, but also how they were sold down the river by the official leaders of the labour movement, whether it was the trade union leader or Labour government minister. This is a crucial dimension of The Big Flame, with its occupation of the Liverpool docks, of The Rank and File, a dramatic account of the 1970 Pilkington's strike (the firm was cunningly disguised as Wilkinson's), and, lastly, of Days of Hope, their epic four part dramatic reconstruction of working class experience from 1916 through to the defeat of the General Strike in 1926. In some ways, this particular emphasis on betrayal can be seen as deriving from Jim Allen's orthodox Trotskyism. He was for a period a member of the Socialist Labour League and has tended ever since to continue that organisation's tendency to reduce all the problems confronting the working class to 'a crisis of leadership', and Loach has fallen in with this approach.
The danger of the 'crisis of leadership' notion is that abstracted from a more general appreciation of the balance of class forces, of the relative strengths and weaknesses of both the working class and the capitalist class, it can become a variant of conspiracy theory, whereby all that is necessary is to expose what is going on, to show the reformist or Stalinist leadership for what they are and, hopefully, replace them with a revolutionary leadership that will lead the working class to victory. In a revolutionary situation, the decisive moment can, indeed, be reduced to the question of leadership, but, short of that, other considerations require attention. It is necessary to consider the level of organisation and consciousness of the working class, the state of working class morale, the degree of confidence, the strength of traditions of solidarity, the willingness to engage in struggle, how angry people are, and how confident they are that they can do something about it. And, moreover, it always has to be remembered how quickly all this can change, so that an apparently cowed workforce, stitched up by a corrupt alliance of union leaders and management, can suddenly explode into action, as happened at Pilkington's. The question of leadership has to be placed in this context. Interestingly enough, I would argue that this is exactly what Loach and Allen do in The Big Flame and The Rank and File, where the drama remained at ground level, focusing on working class people organising and fighting back. It is lost in Days of Hope.
Days of Hope is a working class saga that follows Philip, his wife Sarah, and her brother Ben through the tumultuous years of war and class struggle from 1916 to 1926. The first two episodes, '1916--Joining Up' and '1921' are magnificent socialist dramas that successfully use individual experience of historical developments to illuminate the meaning of those developments. By the disappointing fourth episode, '1926--The General Strike', however, the drama has abandoned this necessary grounding. Instead, it has become an overly didactic history lesson intent on showing how the General Strike was betrayed. Loach and Allen were concerned to 'prove', beyond any shadow of doubt, that it was betrayed by showing how the sell out was contrived at national level. It was as if showing that union leaders betray strikes was enough to make them magically disappear, or at the very least obliterate their influence. Unfortunately, one of the problems with merely proving betrayal is that it can fulfil working class expectations of the inevitability of betrayal, producing resignation and hopelessness rather than anger and increased determination. From the shop steward who becomes a foreman to the union leader who joins the ermine vermin in the House of Lords, traitors are very much part of working class folklore.
What was crucially missing from the last episode of Days of Hope was how the General Strike, the most momentous act of solidarity in British working class history, was actually experienced by the rank and file, of how they reacted to the betrayal and the conclusions that the most politically advanced of them drew. Working class experience and its articulation, Loach and Allen's great strength, was abandoned in order to prove the betrayal of the General Strike. The final episode seemed almost to be intended to satisfy professional historians rather than a working class audience. The drama had lost its way, had become boring just at the moment where it attempted to make its big point. Days of Hope ended on the wrong note. It has to be accounted a heroic failure.
Subsequently, this dramatic failure was put down by some to the Trotskyist politics that informed the series. This is not so. Days of Hope did not fail because of its Trotskyist politics, but because Loach and Allen failed to successfully dramatise those politics. This was not a mistake they were to make with their later epic, Land and Freedom, where the temptation to have scenes showing the Stalinist apparatchiks actually planning the downfall of the Spanish Revolution is firmly resisted.
One interesting point worth briefly considering is the response of a section of the academic left to Days of Hope, in particular the journal Screen. There was a brief furore around the notion of 'the classic realist text', occasioned by Colin McCabe's indictment of Loach's failure to develop a revolutionary cinematic form that would somehow endow the audience with a revolutionary awareness of contradiction. Two problems arose from this scholasticism, problems that, it must be said, never seemed to trouble Loach: first, those few films that ever attempted to fulfil McCabe's ambitions proved incomprehensible and, second, far from advancing working class struggle, the whole exercise proved more adapted to advancing academic careers.3
The year 1967 saw the appearance of Loach's first feature film, Poor Cow, based on the Nell Dunn novel. This was followed in 1969 by Kes, based on the Barry Hines novel. Both these films explored a very different dimension of working class experience from his class war dramas. They focused on working class people surviving in capitalist society and on the costs and consequences involved. Kes in particular is a magnificent achievement. Similar themes were explored in subsequent feature films: Family Life (1971), The Gamekeeper (1980), and Looks and Smiles (1981). Looks and Smiles has been described by Loach as being in some ways a sequel to Kes. Whereas in Kes the tragedy was of the working class lad being sentenced to a life of working down the pit, by 1980 in Looks and Smiles the tragedy was of the working class lads being sentenced to life on the dole! Times change.
Loach had lost any illusions he might have had in the Labour Party and Labour governments during Harold Wilson's first term in office from 1964 to 1970. Wilson's support for the US war in Vietnam and his notorious attack on the National Union of Seamen in 1966 all helped convince Loach, along with thousands of other socialists, that there was no place for them in the Labour Party. The conclusion he drew was that Labour 'was the enemy in another guise'. He acknowledged that there were still socialists in the Labour Party, but 'as far as the leadership goes, it's still the enemy'.4 The election of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives to power in 1979, however, was to herald a dramatic intensification of the class struggle, at least on the part of the ruling class. The deliberate creation of mass unemployment, the calculated wrecking of the lives of millions of working class men and women, was accompanied by an unprecedented assault on the trade union movement.
In these circumstances Loach decided that it was not enough to direct plays or feature films, no matter how politically informed they might be. He determined to turn his considerable talents to the production of documentaries, made for television, that would put the socialist case. Thatcher would be condemned, her accomplices in the labour movement would be exposed, and the rank and file would be given a voice. The result was the most dramatic and blatant episode of political censorship, the suppression of a major film maker, since the Second World War. Loach describes his own thinking at the time:
Out of these concerns came the four part documentary Questions of Leadership (1983), subtitled, 'Problems of Democracy in Trade Unions: Some Views from the Frontline'. According to Loach, the series told how:
The first episode looked at the Lawrence Scott and Electromotors closure, the steel workers' strike, British Leyland, British Rail and the NHS. The second looked at democracy, or rather the lack of democracy, in the electricians' union, the EETPU, including an interview with union leader Frank Chapple, who cut it short by walking out. The third dealt with the victimisation of Derek Robinson at British Leyland. And the fourth and last was a film of a day's discussion and debate of the issues raised that included contributions from both critics and supporters of the union leaderships. The four programmes provided a unique opportunity for a number of left wing and rank and file trade unionists to criticise the conduct of the trade union leaders and the lack of democracy in the trade unions. These criticisms were explicitly endorsed by the commentary, which at one point stated quite bluntly that, in a very real sense, 'the leaders of the trade unions have kept this Conservative government in power'.7
There is an excellent discussion of Questions of Leadership and its fate in the McKnight volume--Julian Petley's chapter, 'Ken Loach and Questions of Censorship'. Loach was eventually informed that the series was too unbalanced to be broadcast and required substantial changes, with Channel 4 and the Independent Broadcasting Authority blaming each other for the decision. The series was to be reduced to three programmes, with each programme followed by a half hour discussion made by another director. The fourth programme that concluded the series was also to be made by someone else. This began a protracted process of negotiation and delay that dragged on into 1984 and the start of the Great Miners' Strike. By now the stakes were such that any chance of the programmes being broadcast in any shape whatsoever had vanished. As Loach himself observed, the union leaders criticised were the very men that 'the government and the Coal Board are relying on to leave the miners isolated. Anything which criticises them is really too sensitive to broadcast now'.8 Questions of Leadership was killed. Legalistic pretexts were found to mask what was in reality straightforward political censorship.
Once the Great Miners' Strike was under way, Loach was commissioned by Melvyn Bragg's The South Bank Show to make a documentary looking at the songs and poems that were being written by the strikers about their experiences. The film included scenes of police violence against the pickets, and somewhat predictably it was decided not to show it due to lack of balance. Eventually it did appear on Channel 4 in January 1985, but with a balancing programme providing an opportunity for the former Communist Jimmy Reid to join the chorus attacking Arthur Scargill. It is worth remembering that coverage of the strike produced such breakthroughs in creative television as the celebrated filming of a mounted police charge at Orgreave provoking the miners into throwing anything they could lay their hands on at their attackers. This was shown on television the other way round to create the impression that the police charge was a response to attacks made on them. So much for balance.
The overall consequence of all this was, as Julian Petley points out, that 'one of Britain's most radical film makers was either marginalised or completely silenced during one of the most momentous, not to say catastrophic, decades in British political history'.9
Fighting to survive
The late 1980s saw Loach make a return to political film making. In 1986 he directed Fatherland, which prepared the way for a remarkable sustained period of creativity that is still going strong. The year 1990 saw the appearance of his underrated thriller Hidden Agenda. Set in Northern Ireland, the film combined the John Stalker and Colin Wallace affairs effectively enough to be described as 'the IRA entry at Cannes' by one Tory MP. It is a grim tale of conspiracy and assassination, involving a secret state that is running out of control, and ending with the police investigator, Kerrigan, walking away from what he knows has gone on. This is a fitting metaphor for the conduct of the liberal establishment throughout the whole war. The film impresses more with every viewing.
After Hidden Agenda Loach went on to make three films that explored working class experience in a period of defeat. Riff-Raff (1991) and Raining Stones (1993) are films about ducking and diving as class struggle, of guerrilla war and individual resistance within the capitalist system. The first, Riff-Raff, looks at a group of building workers, all fiddling the dole, converting a disused hospital into luxury flats, a symbolic rendering of the triumph of Thatcherism. Low pay, dangerous conditions and personal abuse are their everyday experience. They respond by taking as many liberties as possible while dreaming of something better. The only one of them who is politically aware, Larry, attempts to interest them in the union and even goes to the site manager to complain on behalf of his mates. His victimisation goes unopposed. This is a working class that has been defeated. The corrosive effects of this defeat are highlighted by the young Glaswegian, Stevie, who catches someone breaking into his squat (the poor robbing the poor) and discovers that his girlfriend is using heroin. Resistance does come in the end, however, although it is individual, not collective. After a fatal accident on the site, Stevie and one of his mates torch the building and bring the whole lot down. The end of the film is immensely satisfying, even if it does not point the way forward politically.
The harsh reality is that for millions of people at that time the collective response to oppression and exploitation did not seem a realistic prospect. Sticking your neck out has been replaced by ducking and diving. Nevertheless individual victories, small triumphs, can still be achieved even in the context of defeat. Loach celebrates these small scale victories, while recognising the larger picture of retreat and downturn. There is, however, always a voice in these films arguing for a collective response, advocating class politics. The only exception to this is the recent My Name Is Joe. How significant is this? Has the triumph of Blair's New Labour somehow demoralised Loach? My own view is that there are no real grounds for regarding this absence as ominous, as indicating a depoliticisation of his work. Instead, one can be confident that the voice advocating class politics will undoubtedly reappear and move centre stage when the working class once again moves into action as a class, and resistance becomes generalised.
Raining Stones follows the attempt of a working class family to retain their dignity and self respect in circumstances of poverty and unemployment. Bob wants his daughter to have a new dress for her first communion. He tries to raise the money by various means (rustling a sheep and stealing the turf from the Conservative Club's bowling green), but in the end has to go into debt, a debt he has no chance of paying. What Loach and writer Jim Allen show us are working class men and women trying everything to survive, while being preyed on by loan sharks, the purest exponents of Thatcherism. Once again, Bob is driven to lash out in an act of individual, not collective, resistance, and once again it is tremendously satisfying.
Loach's next film was Ladybird, Ladybird (1994), an almost unbearable experience. He acknowledges this as a film he personally 'feels very warmly toward', although, 'I can see it's quite a tough film for people to take'.10 This is something of an understatement. Once again, it is a story of working class men and women surviving, but only just.
At one point in the Loach on Loach book, Graham Fuller asks him what has driven his work in the 1990s. His reply is most instructive:
His most recent film, the outstanding My Name Is Joe (1998), continues in that vein, with its central character a reformed alcoholic fighting to survive in a community devastated by unemployment, drugs and crime.
Very different is Carla's Song (1996). Here we have a Glasweigian bus driver who refuses to knuckle down at work and be a 'good employee' confronting the realities of the US war on the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. George--standing in, one suspects, for the British working class--knows nothing of what is going on in Central America, of the brutal war that is being waged by the US backed Contras against the Nicaraguan people. He accompanies the Nicaraguan refugee, Carla, back to Nicaragua to help her search for her missing lover. The search becomes George's journey to understanding as he is forced to confront the enormity of what is being done in Nicaragua. An attempt by the common people to take control over their lives has brought the vengeance of the most powerful country in the world down on them. George cannot deal with this and returns home, hopefully a wiser man, while Carla remains behind to fight for the Nicaraguan Revolution.
One recent discussion of Loach's work, John Hill's 'Every Fuckin' Choice Stinks' that appeared in Sight and Sound, has argued that what we see in Carla's Song is Loach turning to the 'Hispanic "other"' for an embodiment of 'the purity of political spirit the British working class is increasingly seen to lack'. Certainly there is implicit in Carla's Song a lament that whereas the Spanish Civil War was a major issue within the British labour movement and someone like George might well have gone to fight there, today the Nicaraguan war has gone relatively unnoticed. Nevertheless, Hill is exaggerating what he sees as Loach's growing pessimism.12 Instead, we have to see his films as dramatising what is undoubtedly the experience of an important section of the working class--trying to survive rather than fighting back. As the level of class conflict in Britain rises, as working class confidence increases and the fightback gathers momentum, so, without any doubt, this will be reflected and celebrated in Loach's films.
The Spanish Revolution
What of Land and Freedom? This is arguably Loach's masterpiece, one of the great socialist films. Here Loach not only produces a remarkable portrayal of revolution and of the fight against fascism, but also decisively settles the account with Stalinism. The film retells the story of George Orwell's Homage To Catalonia, but through the eyes and in the voice of Dave a young, idealistic, working class Communist from Liverpool. He falls in with the POUM in revolutionary Barcelona and becomes a witness to the secret history of the Spanish Revolution. His story is told through the old letters, photographs and newspapers that his granddaughter has discovered after his death.
Dave is a witness to the bravery with which the POUM militia, both men and women, fight the fascists. He fights alongside them and has friends and comrades killed. He is a witness to the carrying out of the revolution--Loach's celebrated scene when the issue of collectivisation is discussed and voted on. Nevertheless, he still supports the Communist Party line of postponing the revolution until after Franco has been defeated (as did Orwell), and eventually prepares to transfer from the POUM militia to the International Brigades (as did Orwell). Dave is in Barcelona recovering from a wound at the time of the revolutionary outbreak of May 1937 and sees the Communist apparatus in action, suppressing the revolutionary left in the interests of Stalin's foreign policy. He realises that what his POUM comrades, including his lover, Blanca, have been saying about the Communists and their counter-revolutionary intentions is true, whereas what the Communists are saying about the POUM being fascist agents and stooges is lies. Dave has fought alongside these people, and he knows they are being slandered. He tears up his party card and rejoins his militia unit. The terrible climax of the film is the enforced disarming and disbandment of the POUM militia and the arrest of its leaders under the guns of Communist troops. In the confusion, Blanca is shot and killed. The revolution is dead, murdered.
The last image of the film is of Dave's funeral with his granddaughter and some old comrades giving the revolutionary salute over his grave. The spirit of revolution lives on. Loach explores an episode of heroic defeat, but succeeds in leaving his audience inspired.
Let us leave the last word with Loach himself. He is replying to Graham Fuller asking whether his socialist politics were still relevant: