Ken Loach: “The rise in the working poor is a huge feature of our society that we tend to ignore.”

It has to live in people. If it doesn’t live in people, it doesn’t work as a film.

Ken Loach needs very little introduction to anyone who’s been near a TV set or a cinema screen any time in the last 50 years. He made Kes and Cathy Come Home in the 60s, and went on to make pioneering and sometimes even banned documentaries and films in the 70s.

More recently he made his most successful film, Looking For Eric, in 2009 and just when it seemed he was about to announce his retirement, he confounded us all by releasing powerful drama I, Daniel Blake in 2016. He has won the Palme D’Or twice – which is a record – plus BAFTA and BIFIs and numerous Lifetime Achievement awards. Loach’s latest film Sorry We Missed You is in cinemas now, and Exposed’s Mark Perkins took the opportunity to speak with the esteemed filmmaker about a long, intriguing career.

I’m looking at your latest film, Sorry We Missed You, as something of a companion piece to I, Daniel Blake. Is that a fair point?
Very much so, yes. When we were doing the research for I, Daniel Blake, we visited several food banks, and we were struck by the number of people who needed food provided by charity, but who were actually working. If they didn’t have that food, they wouldn’t eat. It’s something we tend not to talk about, but the rise in the working poor is a huge feature of our society that we tend to ignore. Paul Laverty, who wrote the script, did a lot of the research and went to meet self-employed delivery drivers. They were worried about talking to begin with, but he won their trust; and he went out in the delivery vans with them, talking to them about their experiences. One man had a photo of his children stuck to the dashboard. Paul made a comment about his nice kids. “I only see them in here,” he replied. “They’re in bed when I leave, and they’re in bed when I get home.” In the film, the lead character, Ricky, is a driver who gets fined if he makes a mistake and is always under pressure to make deliveries on time. His wife is a care worker.  They said they don’t have time to do the job properly, and they’re on very low pay. They may be given a 20 or 30 minute slot to help someone out of bed and do everything else for them in the time allowed, then the rest of the time is travelling, which is unpaid.

Is it fair to say your films have always been about social issues?
Well, no, they are stories really. You can’t make a film out of an issue. You need to find the story about the characters and the conflict to tell first. It has to live in people. If it doesn’t live in people, it doesn’t work as a film.

The film that many people still associate you with is Kes, which was recently voted the seventh best film of the 20th Century. I went to an anniversary screening of Kes, in Staveley, with an appearance by David Bradley, who played Billy Casper. He told us how at the end of the film, when he found the dead kestrel, that you let him think it was the bird he’d been working with.
Yes, it was a bit of a dirty trick, but we needed the reaction. David Bradley was brilliant, and he’s a lovely man and I have a lot of respect for him. Also, the boys who got caned weren’t told that was going to happen, but we paid them an extra 10 shillings and they seemed quite happy after that. In those days, getting the cane was just part of school life. I did a number of other films with Barry Hines, one about a gamekeeper and two about the pits called The Price of Coal. He was a lovely man, struck down by dementia well before his time.

It’s been well over 50 years that you have been making films. How would you say filmmaking has changed over that time?
Essentially it hasn’t changed at all. You arrange for something to happen and you photograph it. The basics of filmmaking stay the same: it’s about finding the right story that’s about a greater truth than just the characters on screen. It’s about working with great writers. It’s about finding people who will bring the story to life and that who the audience will care about and believe in. Too often films these days are about film stars.

I can think of several actors who have given what I think of as their best performances in one of your films. Is there a secret to achieving this?
Well, you do pick up lots of tricks and ways of doing things over the years. Often, what you don’t say to the actors is as important as what you do. You just create an atmosphere and a context in which they can live the story. There’s a lot of nonsense in filmmaking – actors having special caravans and special cars, etc., but it actually gets in the way. I have very stable team around me and we’re just a very normal group of people, working together. We know everybody’s names; it’s a very secure and reassuring, creative atmosphere. People must feel free to express themselves, but equally it has to be disciplined. These people are all skilled craftsmen and women, so you work closely with the cameraman and the sound engineer and the designer, but it all starts with the writer, who is the most important person of all. I’ve worked with Paul Laverty for over a quarter of a century. You need to be close politically and trust each other and share the same attitude to film. It’s almost as though you see things from the same pair of eyes.

What were your influences when you started out working in TV and then film?
I loved films like Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, well, all the Italian neo-realists really. I’ve always tried, just like they did, to find the drama in the everyday lives of people. That’s really a common thread in my work.

“It’s images, it’s drama, it’s characters, its comedy, it’s tragedy, it’s human relationships, it’s storytelling and it’s wonderful.”

I must just ask you about Looking For Eric, one of my absolute favourite films of yours. How on earth did that come about?
Yes, we really enjoyed that. I thought someone was pulling my leg when they said Eric Cantona wanted to speak with me about making a film. It was not long after he’d left Manchester United. It was extraordinary, like royalty had got in touch. Well, much better than royalty. Eric was such a magnificent player – such an original player. He transcended his club in people’s imagination and he was also great fun to work with and enjoyed a giggle. The lead actor, Steve Evets, didn’t know that Eric was even going to be in the film. He himself is a massive fan of Eric Cantona, and we kept it from him, so when Cantona appears standing behind him in the film, his shock and surprise is totally genuine.

There were a few comedians in the film who I’ve seen play at The Lescar in Sheffield such as Mick Ferry and Justin Moorhouse. That does seem to be something of a theme throughout your work, casting comics to act in the films.
Yes, that’s true. I like working with them. When we did The Price of Coal, written by Barry Hines, that was full of South Yorkshire comedians. There were people like like Bobby Knutt and Duggie Brown, who had also played the milkman in Kes.

How do you think you’ve managed to keep making films for so long?
I toyed with retiring, and making films is a big effort, so it won’t be long delayed now. I’m 83, and there comes a point when you have to recognise reality. But it’s not something you give up lightly, because it’s such a privilege to be able to make film; it is such a wonderful medium to express oneself in. It’s images, it’s drama, it’s characters, its comedy, it’s tragedy, it’s human relationships, it’s storytelling and it’s wonderful. If you’ve got the chance to carry on, why wouldn’t you?

Sorry We Missed You is out now. 

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