Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach

Documentary maker Louise Osmond recently made a film called Dark Horse, a title which, it strikes me, might be used to have described Ken Loach at Cannes this year.

Of course Ken won his second Palme d’Or for his film I, Daniel Blake – it was a surprise to many, but as this perceptive and intuitive doc by Osmond shows, is a triumph typical of the man’s determination and quiet steeliness.

I did wonder if this new doc might need tweaking in light of the new victory at Cannes, but it is partly a ‘making of’ on the set of I, Daniel Blake, all of which gives it an immediacy and relevance that beautifully contextualises the work, the thought, the life that has come before it.

Versus talks to friends and family, former co-workers and antagonists. It traces Ken’s childhood, laughing at the variety acts in Blackpool and his first days studying law at Oxford, where he began acting and where, Ken says in reflection, he “learned the ruling class had a face, and it was the faces of these gilded youths who were expected to inherit the earth and rule it – and did,”

The film is particularly strong on the early films Loach made at the BBC, for the undiscovered country that was BBC2 and his ground-breaking naturalistic dramas Up The Junction and Cathy Come Home, all leading up to the breakthrough of Kes.

We also get revelations that Ken was once understudy to Kenneth Williams, danced with Jill Gascoyne, and loves camp musicals.

But mostly this early section establishes Loach’s method and nascent political conscience, something which appeared to surprise many who knew him in its anger and passion. But it’s where Loach – and his producer Tony Garnett – discovered that the two opposing forces in society, capital and labour, are enemies and also make for the “essence of drama and conflict.”

It wasn’t easy. Despite the success of Kes, Loach spent many years in a kind of wilderness, deemed to political for broadcast on TV or in cinemas. Even in the early 1980s under the freer aegis of Channel 4, Loach’s docs on the miners’ strike were deemed “untrabnsmittable.”

Loach clearly still bristles at what he sees as betrayals from execs and broadcasters. It forced him to make commercials for Nestle and McDonalds just to get by – something about which he still feels bitterly disappointed about himself, a betrayal of his own principles.

One of the most interesting episodes deals with the play Perdition which was pulled from The Royal Court in 1987 shortly before it was due to open. Such was the controversy around the play – which uncovered collaboration between Jewish Zionist leaders and Nazis in Hungary leading to thousands of deaths in the camps –  that it was felt it simply couldn’t be show. Max Stafford Clark took the decision to pull it and speaks here to defend his decision, somewhat sheepishly admitting it was a mistake. Loach accuses him of outright “cowardice”.

The flurry of films that have wowed Cannes since the 1990s,  thus comes rather late in life. But the list is dotted with minor classics: Hidden Agenda, Riff Raff, Land and Freedom, My Name is Joe, Sweet Sixteen, The Wind That Shakes the Barley (its star Cillian Murphy is a wonderful contributor on the acting techniques Ken gets out of his performers, seasoned pros or undiscovered talents), Looking for Eric…

It’s a groove that saw Cannes take his films 14 times, indicative of his status in European cinema even more than in the UK, where it is only now, at 80 years old, he is being reconsidered a “national treasure” rather than an irritant, Marxist, militant, looney left ranter or even traitor.

Versus is a fine, even inspirational, filmmaker documentary, one that looks at the man but that also puts him in context with his times and his tussles, all of which are encompassed in an unparalleled body of work.

These are films which,  I think, years from now, will be some of the most valuable social documents of late 20th century and early 21st century Britain available to students of cinema, history and, of course, politics and how it affected the people.

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