Ken Loach, the conscience of Cannes

KEN Loach has always been a conviction film-maker, but he won’t stand on a soapbox. And even at 77, he refuses to rest on his laurels

Director Ken Loach. Picure: Tulio M Puglia/Getty Images

‘WELL, the main thing is to get your film shown in the main section of the festival, that’s the award really.” This is Ken Loach’s typically modest response to the extraordinary achievement of having his latest and largest-scale production, Jimmy’s Hall, selected for the competition at Cannes.

Loach is one of Britain’s most respected film directors. He’s made more than 30 films in a career that spans 50 years, and at the age of 77 he seems far from retiring, even if he might scale things back a bit. He holds the world record for films accepted at Cannes; Jimmy’s Hall is his 12th film to be chosen.

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He’s won nine prizes at the festival, including the Palme d’Or for The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006), about Ireland’s civil war, and the jury prize for The Angels’ Share (2012), his malt whisky caper. He also received the 30th Anniversary Prize of the Ecumenical Jury for his life’s work. Astonishing – not that you’d get Loach to admit it.

Ken Loach on the set of Jimmy's Hall. Picture: Contributed

“There are only 17 or 18 films and it’s the premier festival in the world, so to be shown is the big thing,” he says, not exactly grudgingly. “Anything after that is a bonus. It’s presented as winning or losing, but actually the main thing is to have a showing, and then if people like it, brilliant – that’s a platform from where you can sell the film around the world. It’s a huge privilege.”

And there you have it, Loach in one quote. He doesn’t go in for hyperbole, he’s not for oversimplification, he couldn’t give a hoot about personal vanity. Something similar might be said of his films: they are political but without grandstanding; they deal in complex truths, not soapbox simplicity; and they are often poignant reminders of the brutal realities many people face in their lives. In Land And Freedom, it was a young unemployed man’s quest to join the Spanish militia to fight against Franco; in Bread And Roses it was a group of office cleaners in Los Angeles campaigning for decent wages; while My Name Is Joe tackled the personal devastation wreaked by alcoholism. Personal stories, political struggles – it’s meat and drink to Loach.

Jimmy’s Hall takes on the relationship between the church and the state through the experience of Jimmy Gralton, a communist activist in Ireland during the 1920s and 1930s. It’s a story which is compelling and not a little heartbreaking. Written by Loach’s longstanding collaborator, Paul Laverty, it’s less a biopic – there isn’t enough known about Gralton to create that – and more a poignant imagining of the life of the only Irishman deported from his own country as an “illegal alien” without a trial in 1933.

Gralton built a community hall in a bog in County Leitrim in 1921. It was a stone’s throw from where he’d been born and where his family still lived on a small farm. It was a place where young people could meet – there were drawing classes and singing groups, boxing lessons and dancing. As its success grew, so did the suspicions of the local clergy and officials, who eventually forced Gralton to flee to New York and the hall to close. A decade later he returned to look after his mother, and despite vowing to live a quiet life, the lure of the hall and what it could offer the community was too much for him to resist, no matter the consequences.

Laverty has said that he knew it was a story for Loach when he saw “that glint in his eye at the prospect of meat and mischief”. For Loach, “it was interesting to do a piece that was ten years after the civil war [the period during which The Wind That Shakes The Barley was set] to see what had happened,” he says. “But to do it in a microcosm, not taking the grand view from Dublin but just in this dance hall in a bog in County Leitrim. By trying to establish something that was independent of the church and had a radical, free-thinking culture that the men of property, the landed interest, and the church had to destroy. Just telling that story indicates what kind of country it had become.”

The hall that Gralton and his community built may have stood in a bog in rural Ireland 80 years ago, but for Loach the story has pressing contemporary parallels. “It was a few years after the Wall Street Crash, and that’s exactly where we are now. It was a period of economic depression and there wasn’t a great deal of activity from the trades unions throughout the 1930s, and that’s the same now. It was a period when the far right was on the march, the fascist movement was just beginning in Ireland, as it was across Europe, and that’s the case now. In so many instances it reflects our current situation. And, of course, there are new orthodoxies; there are some religions stoning people for dancing. I think it’s a very relevant story for now.”

Harsh realities, state oppression, political struggle – these are the themes which are woven through Loach’s films. The lives he documents are those blighted by poverty and thwarted by a system over which they have no ownership. Recent talk of his retirement was premature, but he admits that Jimmy’s Hall is his last feature film because the demands of a production of such size are simply too onerous. “The plan is just to get to the end of presenting this film,” he says. “We’ll get to the autumn, think again, see what ideas are on the stocks, see if we can do anything and on what scale. I think it’ll just be on a smaller scale or possibly another archive documentary, which would be nice. Anyway, we’ll try to do something, but something that doesn’t involve getting up so early in the morning.”

Born in Nuneaton, the only son of working-class parents, Loach passed his 11 plus and went to grammar school. Living just 30 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon, he discovered his love of acting when he was a boy, but after national service in the RAF he went on to read law at Oxford, although he spent most of his time acting rather than studying. The left-wing politics he discovered at university chimed with the boy who’d grown up in the West Midlands, the workshop of the world, and he developed a political stance which, after he’d rejected acting as a career path, found its expression in directing. Loach’s big break was landing a job as a trainee director at the BBC. Over the course of five years or so, he made Up The Junction, Cathy Come Home and, his first feature, Poor Cow – landmarks in British filmmaking.

There’s more than politics to Jimmy’s Hall, there is much tenderness. The finely drawn relationship between Jimmy (Barry Ward) and Oonagh (Simone Kirby), the girl he left behind who is married and a mother of two when he returns, is touching, as is the bond between Jimmy and his ageing mother, who fears for her son while also being proud of the man he has become. Loach has a deft touch.

“She’s a lovely woman, Aileen,” he says of Aileen Henry, who plays Mrs Gralton, Jimmy’s mother. Loach, of course, knows all about his cast. He is, after all, the man who refers to everyone on his set by their first name. “She was a farmer’s wife as well as being a shop steward when she was working. She had lived on a farm all her life and was born very close to the parish where we did the filming. She was very local.”

Henry, who’d never done any acting before, is just completely honest. It’s the kind of performance that Loach is a master of evoking. It’s why he keeps the script under wraps, away from the actors as they shoot, only revealing the scenes which are to be shot the next day. The actors working with him are prepared – there’s research and improvisation before shooting starts – but there’s also surprise. When the girl was shot by the Stalinists in Land Of Freedom, the actors playing the militia didn’t know it was going to happen; their shock was real. It is the same with a scene in Jimmy’s Hall where the Free State army bursts into the hall as the women sing. All of this is part of his quest to “capture the truth of the moment”. As to why this approach is important to him, the answer stretches back to how he became a filmmaker. Loach learned about the dangers of overacting from his time treading the boards: “I committed all the sins from which I now recoil” is how he puts it. Then there were his early days working on programmes such as Z Cars and The Wednesday Play and Play For Today – it was always the writing that fascinated and moved Loach, and his aim has been to allow a style of acting which interferes with this as little as possible.

Loach has given many a break to untrained actors, not least those from Scotland. As well as acclaimed parts for established performers such as Robert Carlyle (Carla’s Song) and Peter Mullan (My Name Is Joe), think about Martin Compston in Sweet Sixteen, William Ruane in Riff-Raff or Paul Brannigan in The Angels’ Share. His connection to Scotland is a long one, honed through his work with Laverty, so it’s no surprise that he’s got a view on the independence referendum. For Loach, the referendum presents a profound opportunity, almost irrespective of which way the vote goes.

“A whole set of ideas are coming to the surface about what kind of country an independent Scotland should be,” he says. “I think that’s very exciting because it’s a way of putting those ideas on the table.” Loach sounds just like so many in Scotland’s artistic community who are energised by what they perceive as an opportunity to imagine a new way in which to live.

“I think it’s a sign of how alienated people feel from the political process,” he says. “They feel that they don’t own it and there are these people who call themselves political leaders and it’s difficult to put a blade of grass between them. There’s a few degrees between the Labour Party and the others, and certainly they’re preferable to the other bunch, but it’s not a difference in principle it’s a difference in degree. So when there’s a chance to really open up a discussion about how we want to live together, I think people jump at that.”

Optimism and vision – it fits that these are the aspects of the debate which have grabbed the artistic and creative communities, amongst others, but what happens afterwards when, inevitably, one side of the debate is disappointed with the result? Loach is typically sanguine. “Well, it’s always a long struggle, isn’t it?” he says. “And it’s never won or lost on one occasion, it’s a process. The vote is a part of a process, the result will be a setback or an advance depending on your point of view, but it’s about making certain that those ideas are kept alive. It’s a platform from which to move further. I think it’s terrific.”

When it comes to social issues, matters of political structure and discourse, Loach speaks eloquently and with genuine passion. Ask him something more personal, though, or request that he acknowledge or – perish the thought – celebrate his achievements and it’s a different matter entirely.

It is, to be frank, utterly pointless. I know this. I’ve interviewed him before. I’ve even seen him at work on his sets – the man has no ego, or certainly none which he feels the need to share or show. And yet I want to know if he will accept that there could be said to be a parallel between himself and Jimmy Gralton. Gralton was an activist in his bones, he had no choice but to attempt to reopen the hall, no matter the personal consequences.

I’m not suggesting Loach has ever risked deportation without trial, Gralton’s unconscionable fate, but his political stance has played out through the films he has made, and how he has made them, over five decades. He has taken a collective approach in an artform built on hierarchy, he’s exposed and explored social issues when he could have told any story he wanted to. The question is whether it has been a matter of choice or conviction?

“Oh I don’t know about that,” he says, entirely predictably. “I’ve known a lot of activists over the years and they are the ones that I have a great respect for. The things that film directors do are very easy compared with people who are really engaged in political struggle. And they do have things in common. They do sacrifice their personal life like Jimmy did. I’ve known a number of people who when you go to where they live they’re in a rented room with one wall taken up with books – they are absolutely well read, know their history and politics – and are drawn to the struggle wherever they are. They are compulsive organisers, and Jimmy was like that.”

Loach has said many times that films don’t change anything politically. But then again, I can think of few other filmmakers who have remained so politically committed throughout their careers. I see a contradiction in that. He’s not so sure.

“It’s a medium,” he says. “It’s the only medium I know, or I’ve got some idea of how to use, so it’s the medium I work in. I’m not saying the films have no impact whatsoever, but people always tend to exaggerate the effects, so you tend to play it down a bit. It can encourage the people who are in a position to pursue campaigns.

“People say, ‘Oh, you’re talking to the converted’, but there’s something to be said for talking to the converted, because you give each other strength, you support each other and you hear your own thoughts reflected back, which by and large you don’t. You can read the press and it’s saying something totally different to the way you think. So to hear your own viewpoint, your own thoughts, your own dilemmas or difficulties reflected back can be strengthening.”

You are describing solidarity, I say.

“The very word,” he says, sounding quietly proud.

Twitter: @scottiesays

• Jimmy’s Hall (12A) is released on Friday