Interview: Ken Loach, director of The Angels’ Share

Ken Loach on the set of The Angels' Share. Picture: Joss Barratt
Ken Loach on the set of The Angels' Share. Picture: Joss Barratt
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KEN Loach’s new film, The Angels’ Share, is about being given a chance in life. it’s a subject close to the veteran director’s heart, and it’s also pretty important to the movie’s unknown Scottish star

The dampness seeps up through the soles of my shoes persistently enough to curl the hair on my head. The air is dank and still. The smell is of wood and earth and a trace of something I can’t quite pin down. The dunnage at Balblair Distillery, near Tain, is astonishingly quiet given that amongst the oak barrels, stacked three high like sleeping giants, there are more than 250 people.

A still from The Angels' Share. Picture: Joss Barratt

A still from The Angels' Share. Picture: Joss Barratt

The majority are dressed in their Sunday best – fur coats and pearls and a wee bit too much blusher on the cheeks of some of the women; suits and ties – and of course, the odd kilt – for the men. Most sit upon gold-backed chairs, eyes fixed upon a large whisky cask and an auctioneer standing behind a lectern, gavel in hand. It’s like suspended animation; everyone poised. But there are others, too, in the low-roofed space. They look like renegade ramblers kitted out head to toe in North Face, woolly jumpers and walking boots. Some have walkie-talkies in their hands, a few have clipboards. In the middle of this scene stands director Ken Loach. He’s slight in a green anorak and green cords, with his hands thrust deep in his pockets. This is the set for his latest film, The Angels’ Share, and in his unique, low-key way he is presiding over day 27 of the shoot, capturing the biggest and most technical scene in the film.

There are two things that people who have met Ken Loach will tell you about him. One is that he tries to get to know everyone on his set by their first name. No mean feat if, like today, there are a couple of hundred in the room. And the other is that he never says “action”, he prefers something less authoritative, less didactic, a phrase such as “right then” or “on we go”. To be honest, so uncommanding is his instruction that after spending a day watching him work I can’t quite remember what it is he says. Somehow, the gaggle of people around him – there are around 50 crew and all the cast and extras – all of whom are looking to Loach, seem to just know what he wants. He stands in the middle of the mayhem, calmly chatting, carefully observing and somehow quietly leading.

At 75, Loach is one of Britain’s most respected directors. His long film career includes Kes, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Carla’s Song, My Name is Joe, Sweet Sixteen, and Land and Freedom. The list could go on, it could encompass his early television work such as the seminal Cathy Comes Home, or one of the Wednesday Plays which Loach directed at the BBC after cutting his teeth on Z Cars. It was in this period that the political aspect of Loach’s work was cemented and it’s a dimension that has never dimmed. Political struggles, harsh realities, the plight of working class people trying to survive in a system designed with little interest in, or care for, their existence. Loach documents lives lived in the face of the brutality of poverty and impoverished ambition.

The Angels’ Share is no different, bar the cheeky glint in its eye, a decision Loach says that he and his long-term collaborator, screenwriter Paul Laverty, reached after being mired in the grimness of the Iraq war in their last film, Route Irish. Still, when I tell him that at the screening I attended the audience laughed raucously, he sounds relieved. “I’ve been quite reluctant to describe it as just a comedy because you hope it’s a story with just a few smiles in it,” he says. “You’re anxious not to oversell it.”

Ken Loach on set of The Angels' Share. Pictur: Joss Barratt

Ken Loach on set of The Angels' Share. Pictur: Joss Barratt

The film is a comedy, albeit bittersweet. Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a young Glaswegian labelled as much by his criminal record as the chib mark on his face, wants to change his life. He wants away from the violence and the feuding, he wants a job and a future. But it’s not easy to escape your past and there aren’t many people who will help you to do it. If you ask Loach why he wanted to tell this story, he’ll tell you it’s because last year the number of unemployed young people in Britain reached more than a million. He’ll tell you that he wanted to give a voice to the young people in this country who face what he calls an “empty future”. It’s a theme he’s explored before.

“We did a film called Kes,” – Loach’s modesty knows no bounds; based on the Barry Hines novel, Loach’s 1969 film is routinely regarded as amongst the best British films ever made – “which is about a lad with a talent that nobody can recognise, or that nobody chose to recognise. The system wouldn’t allow for it to be recognised because there was a demand for semi-skilled or unskilled labour, that’s what the school system produced; that was the point of the 11 plus.”

Loach, born in Nuneaton, passed his 11 plus and went to grammar school and then on to study Law at Oxford. But his interest was the theatre, with him first thinking that he’d be an actor and then moving into directing. Having grown up in the West Midlands, the workshop of the world, he formed an early and deep respect for workers which, fused with the left-wing politics he discovered in the 1960s while at university, shaped a political outlook which has hardly changed in the decades since.

“Now again it’s the economic system which cannot provide a decent life for a large number of people,” he says. “It won’t provide security, it won’t provide a decent job. We’re denying that to a huge number of kids. And even the ones who are allegedly in work are in temporary work or on short-term contracts or hired by the day. People become humiliated. They don’t have any defining, dignified sense of who they are through work.

“What strikes me – we’re apparently at the mercy of an economic system that will never work and the big question is, how do we change it, not how do we put up with it.”

Laverty describes Loach as a man with a “tough mind and a tender heart”. It’s a description that is palpable in the way that he speaks, the voice is quiet but there is a sense of grit and genuine outrage at the predicament in which millions of people live. Loach is steely-eyed enough to accept that film can’t change the way things are, but he hopes that it can help people see things differently, maybe even giving them a sense of solidarity.

In the chill air of the dunnage, Loach is guiding cast and crew through one of the key scenes of the film. He seems utterly calm, but the man who must lead the auction of the very rare whisky is looking a little flustered. He’s not an actor, but a real auctioneer and the pressure of the two fixed cameras pointed directly at him is taking its toll. Loach is friendly and reassuring. If it goes wrong, as it does, he just keeps on going and then he starts the scene again. No drama. Loach often works with non-professional actors, filming in sequence, revealing the script as it goes and encouraging improvisation. Of the four principal cast members of The Angels’ Share two are complete unknowns – Brannigan and Jasmin Riggins (Mo), William Ruane (Rhino) is an actor who has worked with Loach before and Gary Maitland (a scene stealer as Albert) has been in two of Loach’s films but hasn’t acted for anyone else; he works in street cleansing.

“You just treat everybody in it the same whether they’ve worked in films or not,” says Loach. “The ones that know the ropes impart the way it’s going to work without anything being said, which is very important. And once we’re working, everyone is treated the same.”

Brannigan’s performance is full of dignity and pathos. As Robbie he’s in almost every scene in the film and he brings a depth and nuance to his performance that really does carry the story. Partly it’s just natural talent, but it might also be because Brannigan, 24, knows first-hand about the struggles Robbie faces.

Sitting in the back of a people carrier, a moment of peace on the busy set, he shows me the scar on his cheek. Having seen the make-up artist touching up the chib mark I want a closer look. Brannigan, from Barrowfield in Glasgow, actually does have a scar on his face but, in a neat irony, it is lengthened for the film.

“The bottom bit’s my own scar,” he says. “See the wee Nike tick? That was in a fight with my brother. The two of us were in a fight and the two of us had bottles in our hand. It was just a mental moment. That was the last fight we ever had. After it, we were all cut to pieces and we looked at each other and gave each other a cuddle and said ‘sorry’ and that was it.”

That fight was about three years ago, not long after Brannigan got out of prison after being convicted for reckless conduct and discharge of a firearm. He didn’t actually fire the firearm, a shotgun, but he was there. “The sheriff officer said, ‘you fly with the crows you get shot with the crows’ type thing,” he says, shrugging. He was 16 and served three years and eight months.

In Brannigan’s company you can see why when Laverty met him he felt that he had presence. There’s a kind of sureness about him, a sense that he knows he’s got something to say.

In prison Brannigan got himself fit, he got back into football and when he came out he did voluntary work.“I wanted to start up football coaching in my area because it’d never been there for me,” he says. “I was always involved in football but there was never anyone there to teach. So I came out with my coaching badges and I started to work for Project Scotland.”

He did that for more than a year at the local community centre and then another project came along, a violence reduction initiative with Strathclyde Police. He was employed and he did some courses – “working with gangs, dealing with conflict, that sort of thing”.

The Angels’ Share is about people being given a chance. Brannigan’s role in the film is an example of the same principle in action.

“When my wee boy was born [he’s now nearly three] I realised that ... because there were still times when things were getting said to me and I felt I had to do something about it. I was still thinking, will I go and fight here or will I not? Will I move? But then I thought, you know, it’s not about me it’s about him. It changed me a lot. I grew up hating my mum and dad for taking drugs. Hated them for it. I thought to myself, if I keep going on the way I’m going, thinking about taking drugs, my wee boy will end up hating me.”

Brannigan’s life has been harsh. He was suicidal as a boy. He speaks about it matter-of-factly, eloquently, but the shock of what he’s saying is like a slap on the face.

“I tried to slit my wrists. I’ve had a gun to my head. That’s a mixture of taking drugs, emotions with your family, pressure of people wanting to kill you. What’s the point?”

Laverty met Brannigan when he was researching the lives of boys like Robbie. He spotted him as someone remarkable and so when casting began he asked him to try out, to give himself a chance. I could see he had great presence and that he was really smart,” Laverty says. “I could see that he could talk and that he could listen. And he’s got amazing blue eyes.”

Brannigan didn’t make it to the first audition. The project he was working for had lost its funding and he’d been dumped unceremoniously and was struggling. A trip to London to meet a director seemed pointless.

“I got a phone call asking me to go down and speak to Ken. I said I would go down but at the time my head was in a bad place and I just wondered what the point was of me doing it. I’d been working hard for 18 months, out 6pm to 10pm, Monday to Thursday doing coaching, not getting paid for it and this was the thanks. Paul Laverty phoned me back and gave me a kick up the backside which I owe him my life for.”

He wasn’t promised anything but that didn’t matter. “I was thinking, if I get a couple of hundred pound that’ll help me pay back the loan I got for Christmas for presents. Then they sat me down and told me I’d got the lead role.”

Brannigan wasn’t worried about relating to the story, “I could play that with my eyes shut,” he says. “Been there done that.” But he was concerned about being on a film set, in front of cameras and a crew of strangers. “I wondered if I would be able to handle that pressure. I wondered what the people would be like – I thought the crew would be posh and they’d look down on me. It’s been the complete opposite. It’s fantastic coming in to work in the morning. Nobody moans, everybody’s happy and calm. That comes from the top; Ken’s very calm, very direct and knows what he wants.”

There is a palpable dignity in Brannigan’s performance and it’s there in the flesh too. He’s eloquent, sincere and on the plight of boys like Robbie he’s breathtakingly clear.

“If you ask any young boy what they think of the Scotland national team, they’ll tell you they’re shite. Scotland are shite at all sports. That starts from a very young age and that’s not only about sport, it’s about life in general: ‘Ach you’ll never get a job here, it’s shite.’ It goes back to young boys having problems at home which means the only family they feel they’ve got are their friends, gangs they’re in. When friends are shoplifting, stealing, fighting, stabbing, slashing, shooting – whatever it might be, selling drugs – they feel they need to do it because that’s all they’ve got and they’re scared to say no.

“It’s feeling that you belong to something but not realising that belonging to that isn’t going to get you anywhere other than into prison, into trouble or dead.”

The door of the van opens and Brannigan is summoned back to the set. It’s late afternoon and the rain is now drumming on the roof of the dunnage. Loach is still surrounded by people who need him to make decisions on this or that. At 75, I wonder how he can put up with the long days and the pressures of making a film? “There’s always a point to it,” he says. “If it was just for fun, you’d do something else. But there’s a point to it and we’ve always just been lucky enough to find ourselves in the position when you have something to say so in a way you’ve got to keep battling, really. You go as far as you can until you reach the point when you feel it’s just one too far. God knows when that will be.”

Laverty smiles wryly when I mention Loach’s advancing years.“There will obviously come a point when he deserves a rest. He has the temperament and the intellect and commitment to go on for many years but he’s got many other things in his life. He’s a real renaissance man, his life wouldn’t be empty if he wasn’t making films. So I’m sure there’ll come a time when he’ll want to do other things.

“I’d love to see him write his memoirs. He’s got great stories and insights in many things. I’d love to see him do that. I think they’d be remarkable. They’d be funny too – he’s very funny. I hope the bugger does it.”

• The Angels’ Share is out on general release from 1 June.