Filmmaker Ken Loach has returned to the documentary format with an impassioned look at post-war Britain and a rallying call to protect the one remaining triumph of Clement Attlee’s Labour government, the NHS.
THERE are times when Ken Loach must feel like he’s a lone voice shouting in the wind. The fiercely left-wing filmmaker has been making his own brand of social realist cinema for almost 50 years now; hard-hitting films like Ladybird Ladybird, Raining Stones and Sweet Sixteen, challenging the political status quo and highlighting the problems of poverty, unemployment and social inequality in Britain.
While his 1966 BBC television play Cathy Come Home made such an impact it led to the formation of the housing charity Shelter, more often than not, he’s seen his protests fall on deaf ears.
“Well, sadly, films are peripheral,” Loach sighs, when we meet at the Berlin Film Festival. “They’ll make a little reflection, but you need a political movement, you need strong unions, you need political leadership. Films are little happenings around the edge of that. They’re not significant, sadly.”
As Loach knows only too well, cinematic outbursts can all too easily be censored. Take his 1971 film on Save The Children – funded by the charity – which was banned after it was deeply critical of the organisation (and was only seen for the first time in September 2011). Or his 1982 documentary series Questions of Leadership, commissioned by Channel 4, about the trade unions under the shadow of Thatcherism. That, too, was buried when its backers became anxious at the content.
Fortunately, the demise of the Thatcher government coincided with Loach’s return to the big screen, beginning with 1990’s Hidden Agenda. While his career has been fruitful ever since – 15 further films, many of which were written by his Glasgow-raised screenwriter Paul Laverty, including the Cannes-winning The Wind That Shakes The Barley – he’s rarely returned to the documentary format. Until now. The Spirit of ’45 is an impassioned look at post-war Britain, that pivotal period when nationalisation brought about a state-run health service, transport system and housing projects.
Loach, who was born and raised in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, was only nine when the Second World War ended. Naturally, his memoires are a little faint now. “I remember being bombed out in the war, and I remember the euphoria of 1945. But I don’t remember the politics because my family wasn’t political at all. But I remember the street parties; families reunited and people coming back from the army, and putting on their uniforms, which were ten times too big.” It was only later, in the 1960s – after he joined the BBC – that he became conscious of “what happened politically” in this post-war period.
Detailing a remarkable moment of country-wide community, a seismic shift when Britain was rebuilt radically, Loach is relatively assured that his new work won’t suffer the fate of some of his earlier non-fiction films.
“It’s about history; you can’t ban history, can you?” He pauses, momentarily, adding ruefully, “Well, they might try.” In truth, The Spirit of ’45 is about far more than history. Yes, there is archive footage from the era – including a particularly delicious shot of Winston Churchill being heckled by detractors (“His main enemy was the British working class. He had this period of glory for six years, but actually he was an imperialist,” says Loach).
There are also recollections from a number of freshly interviewed participants, from Labour MP Tony Benn and former president of train drivers’ union ASLEF, Bill Ronksley, to the 90-year-old Eileen Thompson, who grew up in the slums of Liverpool in the 1930s, lived through the Second World War and witnessed the arrival of the Clement Attlee-inspired New Britain. But Loach’s film is no nostalgic, rose-tinted view of how much better it was in the olden days. Rather, jumping to 1979 and the start of Margaret Thatcher’s period as prime minister, it looks at the systematic dismantling of nationalised industries, as privatisation took hold. Loach doesn’t just lay the blame at Thatcher’s door. “It was prepared for by the failure to defend the 1945 gains. The right-wing government didn’t change the gains in the 1950s. They kept the nationalised industries and they kept the National Health Service, but they didn’t develop it. So it decayed, the whole idea. Then in the 60s and 70s, it failed – a lack of investment. So in the 80s, it was ripe for collapse, and for private capital to come in. Because private capital needed to invest, so it invested in water, electric, gas, railways, steel, cars – everything we owned together, it was just given away. That was the most critical moment for us, in Britain.”
While Loach bemoans the change from “working together for everyone’s good” to a society built on “individual greed” – one that has led to “mass unemployment, alienation, poverty and instability” – the real resonance of The Spirit of ’45 comes with its concluding rally cry; that we must protect the one remaining triumph from this post-war period, the National Health Service. “The vast majority of people in our country want to keep it. But we’ve got no political expression for that,” says Loach, who believes the NHS is disappearing gradually. “They want the American model. They want private insurance, and bit by bit, that’s what we’re getting to.”
Does he feel hopeful, however, that young people are motivated to carry on the fight? “I think young people are more involved than it appears,” he nods. “The big opposition to the war in Iraq was largely young people, and that was a million and a half in our country, and the young people have been very active in opposing students paying high fees.”
He also cites the Occupy movement, against social and economic inequality, and UK Uncut, which fights for fairer taxation. “They come together and they’re all of a certain age, and they’re full of energy and they make a big impact.”
The trouble is, with many of these organised via Twitter and other forms of social media, “it comes together very quickly but then it fades very quickly,” he argues. “I think the difficulty is to transform movements like Occupy into a bigger movement with some internal democracy.
“So it becomes an organisation that has staying power, rather than one that comes up quickly and then dissipates. I wish it would – I have great respect for the people that organise it. I wouldn’t put them down in any way, but the difficulty they face is integrating into a permanent resistance.”
Loach admits that it doesn’t help that many young people feel a sense of disengagement from politics and politicians. “Young people are more victims of it – because of their age – than I am, because I haven’t got long to go.” Talking of which, given that he turns 77 in June, what keeps Loach making films? “My wife [Lesley, to whom he’s been married for 50 years] asks the same question,” he laughs. “I don’t know. It’s a privileged position, really, so you don’t let it go easily, but I’m beginning to think it’s a job for a younger man.”
While his last film The Angel’s Share became one of his biggest ever hits in Britain, particularly in Scotland where it was set, I get the sense that Loach is on the verge of retirement. “Physically, it’s very demanding [to shoot a feature]. It is quite knackering.
“Documentaries aren’t; you can lead a civilised life. But [on a feature] when the alarm goes at 6am for about two months, by the end of it, you’re on your knees.”
Indeed, given the exertion it takes to make a movie, it’s hard to imagine how many films Loach has left in him. Is his screenwriter Paul Laverty currently working on another idea for a feature film, I ask? “Yes, we’re scratching around,” he says, cagily. “Maybe we’ll do one more, if we can.” If this is an admission of impending retirement, he’ll be much missed – though maybe not by the politicians.
HIS SCOTTISH REELS
Carla’s Song (1996)
Romantic drama meets political polemic as a Glasgow bus driver (Robert Carlyle) falls for Nicaraguan woman Oyanka Cabezas, and joins her when she returns home – landing right in the middle of a US-supported insurgency.
My Name Is Joe (1998)
Loach gives Peter Mullan one of his finest roles, as an alcoholic trying – and, tragically, often failing – to get his life back on track.
Sweet Sixteen (2002)
Martin Compston’s storming breakthrough performance, as a Greenock teenager hoping to start a new life once his mother is released from jail – a plan that spirals out of control when he falls in with local gangsters.
Ae Fond Kiss (2004)
Can a Muslim boy (Atta Yaqub) and a Catholic girl (Eva Birthistle) defy their families to be together? Unusually for a Ken Loach film, the answer is yes, in this gentle, upbeat romantic drama.
The Angels’ Share (2012)
Another mostly upbeat tale, as a young Glasgow dad tries to turn his life around after narrowly avoiding prison – and succeeds, with the help of a visit to a whisky distillery.
• The Spirit of ’45 opens in cinemas on 15 March with a nationwide screening and live satellite Q&A with Ken Loach and special guests at 3pm on Sunday 17 March. See www.thespiritof45.com for more details and participating cinemas.