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Ken Loach

"One leap forwards, two leaps back,
Will politics get me the sack?"
Billy Bragg, 'Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards'


    Struggle, tragedy and censorship, all of which might suggest that his potential remains unfulfilled, have surrounded the career of humanist filmmaker Ken Loach. However, I think it is fair to say that Loach has ultimately given the world of cinema a distinct canon of work that is enjoyed and respected by peers, critics and audiences alike.

    Loach was born in Nuneaton, England on the 17th June 1936. His early childhood was lived out around the relocations demanded of his family by the onset of war. By the age of 25, he had completed two years of National Service in the Royal Air Force, going on to read law at St. Peter's Hall, Oxford. Here he involved himself with the University's drama group leading to, upon completing his course, working as an actor in repertory theatre.

    In 1961, Loach received a sponsorship from ABC TV, to become an assistant director at the Northampton Repertory Theatre before, in 1963, joining the BBC as a trainee television director. His first undertaking was to direct Catherine in 1964 (which starred Tony Garnett who was to play a large part in Loach's career). He was then assigned to direct three episodes of the popular, gritty police series Z Cars.

    Following this, he directed three episodes of the series Diary Of A Young Man. It is interesting to note that his approach to Diary… is quite the antithesis of 'naturalism', a term that is often applied to Loach's work, mainly due to the series being written by Troy Kennedy Martin, author of the polemical essay "Nat's Go Home", published in 1964.

    The period subsequent to Diary... was one of extreme significance in Loach's career, as he directed his first 'Wednesday Play' for the BBC. He would direct a further nine between 1965 and 1971, arguably finding, during this time, the vision and voice that has defined his subsequent career. The most consequential of these teleplays was undoubtedly Cathy Come Home. Regarding the issue of homelessness, Cathy… was latched onto by various political institutions upon transmission, and this eventually led to the advent of the charity, Shelter, something Loach refuses to take any credit for. Loach's Up The Junction and Cathy Come Home were the first 'Wednesday Plays' to escape the trappings of a studio set-up and, using genuine vox-pop interviews and statistics, was a ground-breaking piece of cin?ma v?rit?-esque documentary fiction, which was to cause great debate over the very nature of television drama.

    Also during this period, Loach had time to put his hand to the direction of his first feature film, Poor Cow (1967), although he felt that this film highlighted, if nothing else, his cinematic immaturity.

    Troubled by his first foray into the cinematic world, Loach and Tony Garnett, with whom he had worked with on many of the Wednesday Plays set up Kestrel Productions to actualize some low-key independent work. Their first film was Kes, which many acknowledge as a pivotal film in the late 60's period of British cinema. It concerns the story of a boy who, facing little or no prospects in life, finds a 'creative' avenue through his training of a bird. The issue of hope, destiny and struggle in working class communities that is intrinsic to Kes has become the benchmark of Loach's cinema, what some have called 'social-conscience realism'.

    Following the box-office success of Kes, Loach briefly returned to the 'Wednesday Play', re-inventing In Two Minds as a film, Family Life. However, this was commercially unsuccessful, which hit the Kestrel finances extremely hard. This failure has been blamed mainly on poor distribution.

    A further set-back occurred when a Loach-directed film made for London Weekend Television (LWT) to explain the work of the Save The Children Fund was refused by the charity, with LWT distancing themselves from their financing of the film.

    After a family tragedy, Loach was to take an understandably extended sabbatical from direction, returning in 1975 with Days Of Hope, a four-part television series looking at the British Labour movement between 1916 and 1926. The series was chastised for being "avowedly partisan", a criticism that had dogged Loach since the 'success' of Cathy Come Home, and has continued to do so since, seemingly indicative of the problems of the documentary-drama mode.

    It was also at this point that Loach's career began it's extended 'low', tellingly coinciding with the election of the Conservative Party to government under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, who embodied the very antithesis of Loach's ideology.

    A 3 million rise in unemployment, the crushing of the miner’s union strike, a significant cut in arts subsidy, as well as successful defense of the Falklands were seen during Thatcher’s first two terms of office. By this time she had gained many enemies in the creative community, for instance, community theatre groups, the avant-garde film work of Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman, the poetry of Adrian Mitchell and the Red Wedge music and comedy tours fronted by Paul Weller and Billy Bragg.  However this, combined with his lack of any meaningful creative outlet since "Days Of Hope", merely strengthened Loach's militancy. To combat the prevalence of Thatcherism, Loach embarked on a series of documentaries. His first foray into documentary was A Question Of Leadership put together for ITV's South Bank Show, but editor Melvyn Bragg stepped in and refused to authorize the broadcast. However, it was eventually shown on Channel 4, three months later, after the heat of Thatcher's overpowering of the steel strikers had subsided. Loach returned to these themes in his 1983 four-part Channel 4-commissioned Questions of Leadership, that extended the themes of the original broadcast but concerned the miner's strike. Spending almost two years on the project, the final programs were banned and, even today, cannot be exhibited.

    Between 1983 and 1990, Loach's focus and confidence would appear to have wavered, in the face of his inability to find finance. Backers were afraid to put faith in a man notorious for making unbroadcastable material. However, in 1986, he did manage to direct the feature Fatherland, written by Trevor Griffith, his first foray into a working relationship with Film Four. It was this alliance that was to pay dividends in the future, and as the 80's came to a close, Loach renewed his partnership with Jim Allen.

    After years of, as Loach himself describes it, of "walking up and down Wardour Street, briefcase in hand, desperately seeking finance", he directed, in 1990, Allen's typically polemical screenplay film Hidden Agenda, which won Loach the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival of that year. Described by Conservative MP, Ivor Stanbrook, as "the official IRA entry", this tag proved worrying to exhibitors but, nevertheless, received critical acclaim and relative box-office success.

    Since 1990, Loach has made six very successful films, certainly at a critical level and virtually all have dealt with a 'social evil' as Loach might describe it. His creative renaissance would seem to begin with the working-class triumvirate of Riff-Raff (1991), Raining Stones (1993) and Ladybird Ladybird (1994). The latter film, based on a true story, was criticized by Carol Sarler in the Sunday Times for, as she alleged, that Loach had "distorted the facts of the case" and "exploiting a families unhappiness" for his own end, an attack which particularly angered Loach, who disputed the claims but his right to reply was denied by the paper's editors.

    His subsequent films have seen Loach travel to Spain and Nicaragua to pursue stories of social struggle with Land And Freedom (1995) and Carla’s Song (1996) respectively. However, his latest, and arguably most successful, film My Name Is Joe (1998) has seen a return to the themes of working-class struggle familiar from his television, and early 90’s film work.

    Loach’s career has been subject to many fits and starts, but his reputation at the end of the Nineties, after a 35-year career, remains relatively intact. Certainly, the release in 1998 of My Name Is Joe has given rise to a distinct resurgence of interest in his work. Long may it continue.

This biography is adapted from a dissertation work undertaken by the author between September 1998 and April 1999. The complete work, detailing Loach's work and its relevance to discussions of 'traditional British realism' and works of social conscience from around the globe is available at the following URL:

? 1999 Dave Nicholls reserves to moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

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