Why Ken Loach hasn’t made a decent film since Kes

He’s so keen to parade the virtue of those he feels have been robbed of a voice that his work sinks under the weight

31 May 2014

9:00 AM

31 May 2014

9:00 AM

‘If you want to send a message,’ said Sam Goldwyn, one of the men who invented Hollywood, ‘try Western Union.’ It is such a well-known remark one might have thought every film-maker of the past 50 years would have acted upon it. Not Ken Loach. After half a century of fighting the good fight on behalf of the poor, down-trodden working class, the grumpy Oxford graduate releases his latest film this week. Don’t all rush at once.
Jimmy’s Hall, it will surprise nobody who has followed Loach’s work over the years to learn, pits an Irish socialist recently returned from America against the local priest. The screenplay, as ever with Loach, comes from the fair hand of Paul Laverty, who is usually described as a Scottish ‘human rights campaigner’. Wake up at the back! They’re doing this for your benefit.

Yes, Loach is once more at his exercise. And once more the critics will roll out the usual phrases to honour him — the grand old man of British cinema, our very own iconoclast, and such like. The one word you won’t read, because it is considered poor form, is ‘bore’. Yet that is what he is. Loach is no heir to Powell, Lean, Hitchcock and Reed. He is a one-man wind farm.

To give him his due, he seems, a month before his 78th birthday, to have got the message. Speaking at Cannes last week, he said he wasn’t sure his films had deepened people’s understanding of working-class lives. Though, naturally, it wasn’t his fault. ‘They cannot stand working-class characters who speak with some knowledge,’ he said.

In this case ‘they’ were film critics. From what he has said in the past, however, it could be anybody. Americans, Zionists, Conservatives: Loach feels oppressed by them all. They all stand in the way of the master’s vision. Only one thing is for sure. Not many people, working-class or otherwise, want to watch his films. Even critics, one feels, see them out of a sense of duty.

With one exception. In 1969, Loach made Kes, one of the finest films of post-war English cinema. Adapted from the novel by Barry Hines about a Yorkshire boy’s relationship with a kestrel (A Kestrel for a Knave), it still scrubs up well 45 years later. Brian Glover’s performance as the sadistic, cheating PE teacher (‘Casper, get off that crossbar!’) has become part of British folklore.

If only Loach had made more films like Kes. Instead, rather than showing, he made the bore’s mistake of opting to tell, with ever-diminishing consequences. Loachland occupies a world of permanent grievance, at home and abroad, with ‘issues’ getting in the way of the tale. Hidden Agenda was about Northern Ireland, Carla’s Song was set in Nicaragua, Land and Freedom took us to the Spanish Civil War. Tick, tick, tick.

There are good films to be made in these settings, and film-makers have made them. But Loach is so keen to parade the virtue of those he feels have been robbed of a voice (thereby parading his own virtue as the one person who can hear their song) that the films sink under the weight of so much unnecessary baggage. Think of what Jean Renoir intimated about class divisions in La Règle du jeu, and then watch a Loach film, and the chasm stretches wider than just the English Channel. Renoir was an artist. Loach is merely a propagandist.

Like many propagandists, he came from a cosy background. At Oxford, a friend of mine who was up with him remembers ‘a dandy, a Noel Coward figure. Never have I seen such a transformation.’ It’s not that uncommon. Joe Ashton, the former Labour MP who came from true proletarian stock, once mocked Tony Benn’s idolatry of working people with a remark that was intended to wound: ‘If he knew anything about them, he would know there are as many shits among the working class as any other group of people.’

It is palpably untrue in any case to suggest that working-class people have never been given a voice in English cinema. Films like Room at the Top, A Taste of Honey, A Kind of Loving, This Sporting Life, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner transformed our way of seeing the world as well as making stars of Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Richard Harris and Tom Courtenay. With Kes, Loach helped to add a verse to the chorus.

There is an irony here, a delicious irony in the week that Ukip have taken such a bold step in the political life of the nation. Had Loach kept his eye on the ball in the past two decades, he would surely have noticed that the things that truly affect working-class folk do not always correspond with the issues that people like Loach deem important.

By trying to speak on their behalf, Loach has revealed himself to be woefully out of touch. But it’s not too late. There is still time for the grand old man to tackle (as the socially engaged like to say) subjects like immigration and the rise of Islamism in our cities. Seen from a truly working-class perspective. If Loach bothered to find out what those people really thought, he might get the sort of unscripted shock that produces a memorable film.

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  • Rex Hale

    I completely agree. He’s the most dreary, inert film maker alive. Give me a Michael Powell or a Ken Russell any day.

    • Gwangi

      Ah now Ken Russell, there’s a star – but he couldn’t get any cash for movies in the last decades of his life. I have a letter from him which states you can only get money to make films these days if you’re 17 years old, female and Scottish!

      • JoeDM

        …. and an immigrant !!!

  • SFTB

    You praise the early 60s films which depict working class desperation, poverty, violence and marital disharmony. You are bored by any that show them to have aspirations and where they challenge established order.
    A very unconvincing argument. Who watches Renoir and takes action?

    • stewart

      ” Who watches Renoir and takes action?”
      Who watches Loach and takes action? (or that other bore Leigh)

      Art school anarchists and bourgeois fauxcialists playing at revolution until its time to fill mummy and daddy’s place in the (now liberal) establishment

      Loach is right about one thing ,working class people are denigrated in films (left or right) , but he is one of the worst offenders reducing working class people to sub-brectian archetypes.

      Either deluded cattle manipulated by top hatted, waxed mustachioed villains or heroic rouges who speak only in cant. All Rita’s in the rough who need only the guiding hand of the intelligentsia to lead them into the light.

      Harold Steptoe was a more realistic and empathetic betrayal of working man than any thing produced by Loach crass agit-prop

      ( don’t bother correcting my grammar, frankly my dear…)

      • SFTB

        Aye! But can you spell damn?

      • Kaine

        One of the most gut-wrenching scenes I’ve ever seen is when Harold is nominated to be a Labour councillor by his branch, and the local party organiser over-rules them to nominate a local GP no-one there has heard of.

        Pushed me closer to tears than Kes did.

  • Fraser Bailey

    Very true. I haven’t bothered with this films since ‘Fatherland’ in 1987, which more or less claimed that life behind the Iron Curtain was better than life in the West.

    And the fact is that ‘Kes’ isn’t a particularly good film either (the book is much, much better). I saw the film quite recently and it’s jam packed with clumsy social comment of the leftie kind.

    • La Fold

      The only good thing about Kes is the PE teacher.

  • La Fold

    Cant stand any of that kitchen sink, its grim oop north, “working class” pathos bolleaux.
    I like ten things I hate about you. There, ive said it.

    • DBarry

      “Cant stand any of that kitchen sink, its grim oop north, “working class” pathos bolleaux.”

      Neither can I, and I’m from exactly the sort of northern background that Loach claims to champion. Still have the accent.

      The only class prejudice I’ve encountered has been from the people I left behind – the people who chose victimhood over education and optimism.

      Patronising and depressing.

      • La Fold

        Same here, mustve been the last generation which had an “outhouse” although years of living on army bases, deepest darkest scotland and london has left my accent mongrelised beyong recognition.
        I fully concur.The most prejudice ive come across has come from very affluent oil rig workers who bang on about being socialists as they drive a mercedes and work for Halliburton.

  • victor67

    My Name Is Joe, Riff Raff and Hidden Agenda were all good films. I didn’t like The Wind That Shakes The Barley though.

  • rob232

    Good director. Always enjoy his films. Well drawn characters and interesting stories.

  • Simon Morris

    What a load of tripe. He is the only Film Director to have had 12 films in competition at Cannes so he can’t be doing that much wrong! He has provided the launch pad for many terrific actors and many more would love to work with him. Not all films can have a happy ending! Some films are better than others but no doubt they all contain humour, realism, warmth and great acting…

    • Jonathan Burns

      Cannes juries are dominated by Champagne Socialists that will vote foe any PC, dreary or anti British rubbish.

      • Simon Morris

        You sound like a bitter man. Have you actually ever seen any of Ken’s films?

        • Jonathan Burns

          Yes and even Kes wasn’t all that great. Never watch a movie that has won an award at a film festival. Your arguing that Roach is a great director because of Cannes, while I argue this only proves he is bloody awful. Cannes is pretentious drivel which the luvies dominate. Produce any depressing Marxist or IRA drivel and the you are guaranteed an award.

          • Simon Morris

            My sympathies are with you…

          • Jonathan Burns

            Same to you…..

    • GraveDave

      Poor Cow and Up the Junction. They were real enough. I know that much. I was there.

  • Jonathan Burns

    Ken Roach sorry Loach a Marxist fossil who makes Lottery etc funded propaganda movies that nobody watches, but Champagne Socialists who do jury duty at various international film festivals.
    Give me Carry On, Hammer, 007 and Harry Potter any day.

    • Simon Fay

      ‘Carry On Hammer 007’
      Reboot mash-up calling, or a thread in a rebooted ‘Fast Show’ perhaps. I’d watch it.

  • Chris Hobson

    As a yorkshireman his films depict Yorkshire in such a miserly way. In that typical southerner way. like every socialist he seeks out misery and exaggerates it for his own end.

  • David Prentice

    The “people below the stairs” have no voice..? You write as though Dick Van Dyke didn’t articulate their needs in his compelling turn as Bert in Mary Poppins!

  • I utterly agree. he is the foremost dreary, inert film maker alive. provide Pine Tree State a archangel Powell or a Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell any day.

  • Ama Zohn

    There is no moral reason why those who have joined forces are entitled to expand the footprint of their own power in the name of democracy.

  • Tim Almond

    I’d generally agree, but The Angel’s Share is worth a watch. It’s got Loach’s naturalism, but mostly avoids politics in favour of telling a story about someone turning their life around. it’s funny and warm-hearted.

  • tres66

    I enjoyed “Land and Freedom”, but it was propaganda. As for the politics his latest, though he does expose the nasty, small minded side of the Irish Free State in the 30s, he insists the English were far worse.

  • Gwangi

    I mostly agree. Kes is classic BUT of its time too – and boy does it look dated today. Also, it grates – what sounded fresh back then sounds amateur and clichéd now.
    The best movies of the last 50 years are not the preachy leftie new wave stuff; they are good old-fashioned stories with rounded characters and great storylines – as they ALWAYS have been (Aristotle would surely agree).
    I can’t stand that hectoring lecturing tone of leftie film-makers. But I do so adore the blatant hypocrisy: doesn’t Mike Leigh have a huge detached house in north London, and didn’t Loach do everything he possibly could to get his son started in the film industry.

  • NickOLarse

    I agree up to a point but this is too harsh on Ken Loach. You can’t dismiss a film simply because it is ‘propaganda’ – what about ‘The Battle of Algiers’? ‘This Is England’? ‘Triumph of the Will’? Anyway, the ‘message’ is not always so up front with Loach, such as in ‘Ae Fond Kiss’. On a purely artistic level he has a particular talent for drawing outstanding performances from non-professional actors.

  • Evergreen Fields

    While liberty is compatible with restrictions upon certain actions, liberty is not present where authorization is required more than not.