by Kevin Meagher
I’m always puzzled by the contrast between Ken Loach’s politics and his films. In person, Loach is a quiet and modest man with fairly run-of-the-mill and defiantly unreconstructed socialist views, having left the Labour party in the mid-1990s.
In contrast his films, although clearly polemical, are brilliantly nuanced. They take the broad theme of the value of collectivism but Loach’s amazing talent lies in small detail; nailing characters and situations with brilliant realism, simplicity and compassion.
His 2006 Palme D’or-winning film about the Irish War of Independence, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, is one of the finest parables about the clash between the politics of idealism and the politics of pragmatism that you will ever see.
Although his recent documentary, The Spirit of ’45, has been widely talked about before, it was two of his older films, shown this week as part of a Film Four series of Loach classics, that stand out for me.
The first, Riff Raff, was made in 1991 and sees Robert Carlyle’s jailbird, Stephen, an itinerant loner with a mysterious past, finding comradeship working on a London building site and love with a pub singer while squatting in a flat.
When Ricky Tomlinson’s character, Larry, a fellow labourer, complains to the management about the dangerous working conditions the men have to endure, he is sacked. Another man later falls to his death from the same scaffold Larry had been warning about. Given what we now know about the blacklisting of building workers in a notoriously un-unionised industry, the story is particularly poignant.
As is Bruce Jones’s hapless dad falling into the clutches of a vicious loan shark when he buys his daughter a new dress for her First Communion in the 1993 classic, Raining Stones. “Love and prayer is enough Bob” urges his local priest, trying to dissuade him from splashing out on a dress he simply can’t afford.
Ever optimistic that something better will turn up, he tries his hand at sheep-rustling, cleaning drains (with predictably calamitous results) and working as a nightclub bouncer; all to no avail. Bob is a magnet for bad luck.
So he defaults on his payments and the leg-breakers turn up at his home and threaten his wife and daughter. Set on a Rochdale housing estate amid the recession of the early 1990s, the story reflects the grim situation so many families find themselves in today.
Loach’s gift in chronicling the travails of working-class life is to offer vivid, compelling, humane and humorous tales of ordinary people doing their best to transcend the misery of their everyday condition. The hopelessness and, in turn, the hopefulness of people living on the fringe. No-one – with the exception of Charles Dickens – does it better.
There is no shortage of think tanks, journalists and campaign groups who can tell us about poverty, debt and unemployment; but a Ken Loach film brings all those figures and graphs to life. He provides something else too. There is always an upside, a better tomorrow. The message throughout is “don’t give up”.
Anyway, for the uninitiated, get watching; the fabulous Looking For Eric is on tonight.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut