Mild mannered and entirely unassuming, Ken Loach brings to mind one of the kindly, more elderly teachers that one inevitably comes across at school. You know the type; elbow patches, a quiet demeanour, a lifetime of stories to tell and just a vague whiff of charming puzzlement about them. As his assistant somewhat frantically seeks to keep his whistle-stop visit to St Peter’s college on track, Loach appears calm and unhurried, humbly applying himself to whatever he deems to be a good use of his time and answering every question with the assurance that 40 years of being interviewed doubtless brings.
Born in Nuneaton in 1936, Loach has had a long and illustrious career. But for anyone familiar with his work it may come as a surprise that he spent some of the formative years of his life at Oxford University. However, all stereotypes aside, he looks back on his time as an undergraduate fondly and contends that despite his distinctly socialist politics, Oxford’s perceived elitism has never been an issue when it comes to his audience and supporters. He states to me simply that “going to Oxford was a life changing experience and an extraordinary privilege, politics never came into it”. Indeed it was at Oxford that Loach first displayed the creative talents that would later do so much to further the cause of left-wing politics in the UK. Actor, director and promoter, his involvement with Oxford’s drama scene was extensive and it is with a slight look of nostalgic reverence that he declares that “I misspent my entire university life doing things I shouldn’t do”.
Looking at the success that he is now it’s hard to agree. He followed his studies with a job as an understudy in the theatre and then moved to the BBC to direct television admitting that far from being his lifelong dream, film directing is just something that he “stumbled into”. In 1969 he made the British classic Kes and his transition into cinema seemed assured.
But Loach has not always been comfortably successful. Somewhat of an outsider in Britain, his films often involve left-wing, radical and overtly anti-establishment themes that have won him little favour, particularly in the more politically conservative decades of our country’s recent history. In the 1980’s many of Loach’s documentaries engaging with the plight and activities of Britain’s trade unions proved unpopular and his views on the subject still provoke quite a bit of anger to this day. “The trade unions were compliant in not opposing the Thatcherite onslaught of mass employment. So I made films that showed that,” he puts simply. He tells me how the fallout from his documentaries in this period almost ruined his career putting it plainly that “the 80’s was a bad period for me in that respect”.
Loach brings this straight talking nature to all of his answers. Despite his political involvement with firstly the Labour and now the Respect political parties and despite the radical and societally targeted nature of his films, Loach still primarily sees himself as a filmmaker. “Films is what I do. It’s just that I look to tell stories that maybe other people don’t tell.” This simple philosophy however belies the varied body of work that has made Loach a hero to so many. When I put it to him about often being perceived as a hero of the working class Loach squirms somewhat but when I talk of his generalised identity in regards to socialism he seems happy with being pigeonholed. It’s this socialist vein that I see as being the focus of his work. He finds the extraordinary in the ordinary and sees the working class as being the people that have the power to instigate just and lasting change. His worldview he claims was formed “at the BBC where I met some interesting people, they had a radical view of the world. I read some books and was hooked.”
The controversy and uncommercial nature of some of this more overtly ‘political’ work is something which annoys Loach, “it can get wearying the political language because it’s only called political because it has a view that many others object to.” It’s being tarred with this ‘political’ brush that Loach sees as being a misrepresentation of the cinematic nature of his work, “everything is political, it’s just that some things are more plainly political than others”. After 5 decades in the business and with a Cannes Palme D’or in his back catalogue Loach still finds it hard to find finance and distribution. Loach bemoans the British distributors and cites why; “here it’s always a struggle. With the French and Italians it’s much better. The French have a different tradition of cinema, they have a much more intelligent tradition of political cinema and social realist cinema and they subsidise their own cinemas much better so there’s a greater variety of films on offer.”
He may now come off as a sort of kindly granddad figure who if you misbehaved would send you off to bed with an unwanted cup of steaming Bovril in your hands and some harsh words ringing in your ears, but Loach’s films are still far from meek. He goes about the interview as I’m sure he goes about his work. Every highly charged political view he espouses he does so with a calm, rational intensity that is nothing if not persuasive. He’s the acceptable face of left wing cinema not because he waters down his politics, but because he delivers it in such a reasonable manner. Indeed, a more reasonable man I don’t believe I’m ever likely to meet.