Keeping it real: the brutal art of Ken Loach

Issue: 160

Nick Grant

You have to be realistic rather than optimistic or pessimistic—Ken Loach, 2008.1

Appearances are often deceptive. Kenneth Charles Loach is a slightly built and softly spoken Oxford University law graduate. Yet when it comes to a wide range of social, historical and political themes—frequently tragic, sometimes humorous—the default mode of his TV and cinema art is confrontational. Loach has repeatedly challenged audiences to decide which side they are on.

Many media critics now tolerate Loach as “a national treasure”, even if “the nation that produced him is not always keen to treasure him”.2 The Royal Court theatre, Save the Children,3 and some TV and film companies have blocked, binned or banned his works at varying times. His most acerbic opposition has come from the political right; the corporate controllers of his working milieux, their journalistic and parliamentary toadies, the moral crusaders of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (NVLA) during the 1960s, and apologists for the state of Israel more recently.

In September 2017, the Jewish Chronicle manufactured a pathetically confused contribution to its ongoing claim of endemic Labour Party antisemitism in Dave Rich’s piece:

Loach first attached himself to this Stalinist lie that Zionism and Nazism collaborated in the murder of European Jewry three decades ago, when he directed a play called Perdition, written by a Trotskyist playwright called Jim Allen, that dramatised the Kastner trial that took place in Israel in the 1950s.4

I doubt Rich will have read Perdition so he will have missed Jim Allen’s two dedications on the title page of the Ithaca Press 1987 edition, one to his partner, the second: “to the Jews of Hungary who were murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz”.5

A few openly despise Loach. In a review of the 2014 film Jimmy’s Hall for The Spectator blog, Julie Bindel, after introducing herself as a socialist, asserts that: “Loach is a man of the people, but only people with a penis…a classic example of the leftist dinosaur in the mould of Julian Assange, George Galloway and Tommy Sheridan”.6 Not to be outdone for vitriol, in a Daily Mail article attacking the veracity of I, Daniel Blake, Toby Young bleated that: “Loach’s indictment of Tory Britain certainly packs a punch if you can make it to the end of his 140-minute civics lesson. But don’t call it ‘social realism’. Judging by its misty-eyed, laughably inaccurate portrait of benefits Britain, it should be called a ‘romantic comedy’”.7 However, the online comments below Young’s snide article affirm the accuracy of Loach’s depiction of “benefits Britain”.

Loach fans have typically come from those who accept his blend of gravitas and mischief; fellow socialists and working class organisations across Europe and beyond. Palme D’Or (best film) successes at the prestigious annual Cannes Film Festival contrast with Loach’s zero recognition at Hollywood’s Oscars. He has won 98 international film awards so far and been nominated a further 76 times.8 This reputation is a tribute to both his political tenacity and artistic vitality throughout a career of permanent attrition.

It is crucial to an understanding of his general ideas and commitment to realise that Loach came of age in the 1960s, that era of radical social, technological, cultural and political change.9 He was no youthful socialist. Nor was he personally familiar with practising artists. But he was influenced by the people he began to work with. Many working class young people were excelling in the arts, especially cinema, TV, fashion, design and popular music. A generally inquisitive, experimental mood of confidence and optimism prevailed. More importantly, never before had UK working class life been the subject of so many cultural forms.

What follows here then is a guide to and critical appreciation of Loach’s work focussing on its evident artistic qualities and signature methodology. How does Loach contrive films that don’t just show us what he wants us to see and hear but also ask us what he wants us to understand about history, society and class consciousness? What do we say to those political sympathisers who nevertheless find his films pessimistic, even hopeless? Does this make him a naturalist or a social realist, or merely a propagandist in our age of so many virtual realities?10

Hence for readers to gain an insight into any of the Loach works that they already know or may yet see, it is worth understanding his modus operandi. In their combined ingredients Loach is now unique. The practical sequence of writing, assessing production requirements and costs, casting, directing, the cinematography, editing, music and distribution are all organised like nobody else. For historical guidance, table 1 is a selective timeline of the relevant personal and professional events in Loach’s life to help readers chart subsequent comments.11

Table 1: Key events in Ken Loach’s life and work


Born 17 June, Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England to parents from agricultural and mining communities.


Gains scholarship to local King Edward VI Grammar School. Much acting in school productions and frequent visits to Shakespeare plays in nearby Stratford-upon-Avon.


Compulsory national service served mainly as a typist in the Royal Air Force.


Starts law degree at St Peter’s College, Oxford, but spends most of his time acting in student productions. Meets Roger Smith who still works with him as a script doctor.


Leaves Oxford to act in and tour various UK towns with unsuccessful theatrical ventures.


In lean times meets and marries Lesley Ashton with whom he has had five children.


Having failed to get onto a BBC TV floor managers’ course he gets onto a short BBC TV directors’ course ahead of the new BBC2 launch.


Directs three episodes each of top BBC cop series Z Cars in spring and Diary of a Young Man drama series in autumn. Meets actor Tony Garnett who turns to writing and producing, and becomes major political influence on Loach.

15 October: Harold Wilson becomes prime minister for Labour ending 13 years of Tory rule.


Directs six productions of The Wednesday Play (TWP) for BBC1, notably Up The Junction shown on 3 November, written by Nell Dunn and Garnett.


Cathy Come Home broadcast 16 November. Script Jeremy Sandford. Producer Tony Garnett. Overnight sensation. Creates huge concern about housing for politicians.


Cathy Come Home re-broadcast by BBC. Directs first cinema film, Poor Cow. Writer Nell Dunn. Producer Joseph Janni. Lead roles Carol White and Terence Stamp.


The Big Flame BBC1 TWP 19 February. Script Jim Allen. Producer Tony Garnett.

Second film Kes. Writer Barry Hines. Producer Tony Garnett. Huge success on re-release in 1971.


Edward Heath returned as Tory prime minister for four years.


Third film Family Life released. Script David Mercer. Producer Tony Garnett.

The Rank and File BBC1 TWP 20 May. Writer Jim Allen. Producer Graeme MacDonald. In Black and White, a 50-minute film commissioned from Loach and Garnett’s Kestrel Films by Save The Children binned when the charity accused the makers of undermining them and being “hostile”. One print saved at the BFI.

On 2 May Loach’s then five year old son Nicholas and grandmother-in-law are killed in a car accident caused by another vehicle on the M1 near Watford. Loach as driver and his passenger wife Lesley also badly injured. Unable to work for over a year.


A Misfortune. BBC2 13 January for Full House arts programme. Short film adapted from two Chekhov stories and directed by Loach. Producer Melvyn Bragg.


28 February, Wilson leads minority Labour government, and again on 10 October with majority of 30 seats.


Four feature length films Days Of Hope cover UK working class politics 1916-26. BBC1 weekly 11 Sept-2 October. Script Jim Allen. Producer Tony Garnett.


The Price of Coal for BBC. Script Barry Hines. Producer Tony Garnett.


Children’s film Black Jack. Script adapted by Ken Loach. Producer Tony Garnett.

3 May Margaret Thatcher leads Tories into 18 years of government.


Garnett parts from Loach to direct and produce a UK feature film Prostitute set in his native Birmingham before moving to work in Los Angeles.


Documentary A Question of Leadership made in April 1980 expresses steelworkers’ concerns about their union bosses, intended for ITV national broadcast but finally shown 13 August just in the ATV (Midlands) region.


Four one-hour documentaries entitled Questions of Leadership commissioned by new Channel 4 looking at democracy inside all UK trade unions are filmed in the summer. They have never been broadcast.


Which Side Are You On? for London Weekend TV, filmed on miners’ picket lines in August 1984 and shown on Channel 4 on 9 January. Most notable of other documentaries Loach made in mid-1980s.


Jim Allen’s play Perdition directed by Loach is pulled by the Royal Court Theatre with two days to go in January but performed at the Edinburgh Festival in August.


Hidden Agenda released. Script Jim Allen. Producers Eric Fellner and Rebecca O’Brien.


Riff-Raff released. Script Bill Jesse. Producer Sally Hibbin.


Raining Stones released. Script Jim Allen. Producer Sally Hibbin.


Ladybird, Ladybird released. Script Rona Munro. Producer Sally Hibbin.


Land and Freedom released. Script Jim Allen. Producer Rebecca O’Brien.


Carla’s Song released. Script Paul Laverty. Producer Sally Hibbin.


1 May Tony Blair becomes Labour prime minister.


My Name Is Joe released. Script Paul Laverty. Producer Rebecca O’Brien.


Bread and Roses released. Script Paul Laverty. Producer Rebecca O’Brien.


The Navigators released. Script Paul Laverty. Producer Rebecca O’Brien.


Sweet Sixteen released. Script Paul Laverty. Producer Rebecca O’Brien. First production by Sixteen Films.


Ae Fond Kiss released. Script Paul Laverty. Producer Rebecca O’Brien.


The Wind that Shakes the Barley released.

Script Paul Laverty. Producer Rebecca O’Brien.


It’s A Free World… released. Script Paul Laverty. Producer Rebecca O’Brien.


Looking For Eric released. Script Paul Laverty. Producer Rebecca O’Brien.


Route Irish released. Script Paul Laverty. Producer Rebecca O’Brien.

6 May David Cameron becomes Tory prime minister.


The Angels’ Share released. Script Paul Laverty. Producer Rebecca O’Brien.


The Spirit of ‘45 released. Documentary about post-war economics and politics.

30 November, Loach co-founds Left Unity political party.


Jimmy’s Hall released. Script Paul Laverty. Producer Rebecca O’Brien.


7 May David Cameron narrowly returned as prime minister by 12 seats. 12 September, Jeremy Corbyn elected as Labour leader.


I, Daniel Blake released. Script Paul Laverty. Producer Rebecca O’Brien.


8 June Theresa May returned as Tory prime minister with majority secured by deal with Democratic Unionist Party.


Sorry We Missed You. Script Paul Laverty. Producer Rebecca O’Brien.

In the beginning is the word

2018 finds Loach aged 82 engaged in yet another project for the Sixteen Films production company provisionally entitled Sorry We Missed You. It is a companion piece to I, Daniel Blake focussing on a working family rather than an unemployed individual. This will proceed along familiar lines to his existing films with his trusted off-screen team.

Loach rarely initiates the process of scriptwriting. But not only will he judiciously choose his writing partner(s), he will also interrogate any script’s underlying ideas, relevance and thrust, knowing that he will want to defend them against critics and political opponents eventually. In his approach to working with writers, one of his lasting inspirations has been the Italian cinema produced after the Second World War, amid the political turmoil of fascism defeated and communism on the rise, but with the United States keen to work with the Mafia to defeat it. Directors Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica among others took their cameras out of the studios onto the streets and featured the working class as their preferred narrative subject.12The Neo-Realist films were about comradeship, about solidarity, about a sense of mutual support… Vittorio De Sica worked with a very famous writer Cesare Zavattini. Without the writer the director has nothing to direct”.13

After a brief and unsuccessful career as an actor in theatre, Loach started his career as a director with three episodes of BBC cop show Z Cars and went on to direct for the innovative BBC drama series The Wednesday Play. His first writers were a mix of emerging talents such as John Hopkins, Trevor Griffiths and Dennis Potter. For his first significant work, Up The Junction, he worked with Nell Dunn, who had studied the local young working class characters who went up to Clapham Junction for their nights out. Dunn’s narrative is chaotic and inconclusive but shows the camaraderie of factory work and a frankness about sexuality that was a hallmark of much new drama of this time. This was also Loach’s first close work with Birmingham-born psychology graduate and actor Tony Garnett, officially credited as “story editor”. Both Loach and Garnett wanted to replace theatrical “plays” on TV with “films”.14 Dunn also wrote Loach’s first film Poor Cow, recalling 50 years later that she was still proud of depicting young womens’ sexual desires in both works.15

But what made Up The Junction most controversial was its inclusion of a kitchen table abortion scene.16 The actual scene of the abortion is brief and discreet. However, its shocking meaning was clear; working class women paid a dangerously high price for their heterosexual desires.17 It had a different meaning, however, for NVLA figurehead Mary Whitehouse, who frequently quoted Up The Junction as evidence of the BBC’s licentiousness under its liberal director general Hugh Greene.18 Simultaneously Julie Christie was beguiling Oscar voters to win best actress 1966 for her role as Diana Scott in director John Schlesinger’s Darling. In marked contrast Diana also has an abortion, but a safe one paid for by her advertising executive boyfriend Miles in a quiet private West End clinic. Finding an affordable, competent abortionist had also been a narrative strand in Alan Sillitoe’s script for the classic film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960).

Dunn’s partner Jeremy Sandford provided the script ideas for Loach and Garnett’s breakthrough work Cathy Come Home, broadcast late in 1966 to 23.6 percent of viewers, with more watching three months later when it was repeated.19 This time the focus was on the struggle of a mum with young kids to find anywhere decent to live. Loach and Garnett helped Sandford shape the script, as Garnett had only recently taken work in a London borough’s housing department. But stylistically notable in this production was the incorporation of elements such as authoritative voice-overs giving statistics on housing needs and provision during visual montages, a few intertitles giving bald facts, and occasional over-dubbed interior monologue by Cathy herself. The narrative closure, leaving the audience as well as the characters in shock and worry, was to set a pattern for much of Loach’s subsequent work.

Loach was at his most stylistically diverse during these BBC years. A script devised largely by Christopher Logue was used for The End of Arthur’s Marriage broadcast on 17 November 1965, combining an astonishing mix of modes probably influenced by theatre director Joan Littlewood via Bertolt Brecht. Stiff, murky TV studio set-ups and long, lively tracking shots across the bomb sites and streets of inner and West End London are cut with fantasy and musical interludes, comic capers with an elephant on a barge at Camden Lock, and a self-referential sequence where Loach and his camera operator are interrupted in their own filming, outside Harrods in Knightsbridge by BBC reporter Kenneth Allsop conducting interviews with shoppers entering the store.20 Cathy Come Home bore the combined imprint of various potent influences such as the increasingly didactic cinema of Jean-Luc Godard and the nascent global documentary and experimental film groups using lightweight 16mm-filmstock cameras and quicker, cheaper laboratory film-printing techniques.

Much of the criticism of Loach and Garnett at this time was that their hybrid genre of drama blurred the lines of distinction between fact and fiction, between news or current affairs and entertainment programming. But Garnett has remarked that they wanted that kind of impact. When presenter Magnus Magnusson put this point to Loach in the BBC TV show Making Out in 1970, he retorted in typically feisty manner: “This ideological problem only arose when the content was critical. The Archers of course have been doing this for many years, providing hints to farmers on how to manage their farms, in a fiction setting”.

A more radical writing contribution to Loach’s career came from Jim Allen (1926-99). Allen was an experienced workplace militant. By 1958 he was editing a rank and file paper The Miner inside the National Union of Miners, while politically aligned with the Socialist Labour League. His first broadcast play The Hard Word (1966) was directed by Ridley Scott for BBC2’s Thirty-Minute Theatre series. In 1967 The Lump, about the horrors of health and safety compromises on building sites, was directed by Jack Gold and produced by Garnett as a Wednesday Play. Garnett then introduced him to Loach. Their first project was The Big Flame in 1969, another Wednesday Play about a Liverpool dockers’ strike sold out by union officials and smashed by police and soldiers. Its leader was played by actual Trotskyist Peter Kerrigan. The Rank and File (1971) was closely modelled on an actual strike at Pilkington’s glassworks.

Part of Allen’s attraction for Loach and Garnett was that they had felt unhappy with the success Cathy Come Home had received, particularly after a meeting with then Labour Housing Minister Anthony Greenwood, because it merely outlined an issue without saying why it was so or what could be done. As a revolutionary socialist Allen had plenty he wanted to say in those respects. He did so later in Days of Hope (1975), a fictional quartet of films analysing political life for a north-east working family over ten years from 1916.

Later, Loach agreed to direct Allen’s play Perdition at The Royal Court Theatre ahead of its scheduled opening in January 1987. The play was pulled two days prior to opening by theatre management after intense Zionist lobbying. Allen came back to Loach with scripts for Hidden Agenda (1990), set in the north of Ireland about the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s shoot to kill policy against Republicans, a black comedy Raining Stones (1992) set in his native Manchester and Land and Freedom (1995) about the fate of a young Communist Party volunteer from Liverpool fighting on the Aragon front in Spain in 1936-7 with the Partito Obrero de Unification Marxista (POUM) as part of the resistance to General Franco’s fascist takeover.21

Garnett’s obituary for Allen in 1999 claims that:

He began the politicisation of virtually a whole generation of cultural workers, something which resonated through British society from the 1960s on. My generation, who were the 11-plus, first generation beneficiaries of the 1944 Education Act, had working class roots, bourgeois opportunities and declassé angst. Full of anger at where they were and guilt at where they had come from, they were floundering—highly educated but innocent of the ideas which would make sense of their condition and give meaning to their lives.

He was pig-headed, difficult, uncompromising and unforgiving of frailty. He had a series of dogs which frightened me to death: I sometimes thought that was why he kept them. But it took this manual worker who discovered Jack London and then Marx; this ex-miner, ex-building worker, ex-merchant seaman; this man with a fighter’s face and seaman’s gait; this auto-didact with a burning intelligence, to show us all the path of principle and the power of ideas.22

Thus Allen had an indelible impact on Loach’s work. His fierce commitment to a rank and file worker’s perspective, distrustful of union leaders, Stalinists and Labour politicians, largely contributed to what George McKnight pinpoints as the persistent mood and narrative payoff in all of Loach’s work: “the betrayal of hope”: “Loach’s films consistently turn our attention to the ways in which his characters are betrayed by their own side”.23

Like Loach and Garnett, Barry Hines was a working class grammar school product but from Barnsley in Yorkshire. His second novel A Kestrel for a Knave and Loach’s 1969 film of it, Kes, are familiar to millions educated in British secondary schools of the 1970s (although ironically dramatising the negative experience of school for young Billy Casper). Scottish building worker Bill Jesse provided Loach with an autobiographical script for Riff-Raff before his early death, and another Scot, Rona Munro, wrote Ladybird, Ladybird.

Paul Laverty has scripted the last twelve Loach films starting with Carla’s Song in 1996. This is a very rare partnership of longevity in the cinema business.24 Laverty’s research is fastidious. In preparation for the coruscating Route Irish, about the human costs of privatised warfare in Iraq, he noted that:

I was stunned to learn from the charity Combat Stress, who deal with ex-soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, that on average it takes approximately fourteen years for PTSD to manifest itself. They are bracing themselves (as is the US army) for a massive surge in the years to come. Norma, a gentle nurse on the point of retiring who had spent years with ex-soldiers, opened the way for this story when she told me “many of these men are in mourning for their former selves”.

…As I imagine the intellectual authors of the above, Bush, Blair, Rumsfeld and Co, collecting their millions in after-dinner speeches setting up their interfaith foundations, I cannot help but think of the nurses in Fallujah assisting the births of babies born with two heads and deformed faces thanks to the chemical bombs rained on that city. Our gift to the future.25

From the very beginning of his career until today Loach has also sought the script advice of an Oxford University chum Roger Smith, who may well tweak Laverty’s submissions before a final working version is agreed. Lastly, it should also be noted that there is usually a slice of humour in Loach’s work, such as the hilarious title sequence of Ae Fond Kiss, where the harassed Asian shopkeeper rigs up a metal, free-standing advertising sign outside on the pavement to give the dog that keeps pissing on it an electric shock. With his teenage consumption of the Shakespearian canon in mind, Loach insists that: “The tougher the situation, the funnier the jokes. The classic books from English literature are full of laughter as well as tragedy”.26

Organising a Loach film

Loach relied heavily on Garnett as his producer in his early days. Desperate to break out of the straitjacket of live studio drama norms, their subterfuge at the BBC was daring. Their line manager Sydney Newman was often kept in the dark until the last minute about what they were up to, the pair deliberately leaving him no choice if it was too late to pull a controversial work such as Up The Junction because it had already been advertised in the Radio Times. Somewhat awkwardly, the broadcasting unions were often their most conservative opposition, reluctant to vary working agreements and practices. Once Garnett departed, Loach found Sally Hibbin and then Rebecca O’Brien as his trusty production organisers.

At Sixteen Films today O’Brien’s responsibility will be to find and spend money on an agreed project, “but my main role is to be the first second-opinion in the process from the inception of the idea through the development of the script to the point at which we decide to go for it and make a film… That decision as to what film to make is very much a shared decision”.27

Their business model since 2009’s Looking For Eric (starring French footballer Eric Cantona as himself) has centrally involved, along with a changing set of other partners, a French production company, Why Not Productions, and French distribution company Wild Bunch. They can access credit more readily for the specific production costs of filmmaking, and guarantee to cover them in distribution with no questions asked in between about the artistic decisions, unlike mainstream movie-making where accountants typically call the shots: “They came to us with Eric’s idea for that film. With France being our best territory it did make sense to work with them as co-producers”.

Such co-production projects were enabled by the original Convention Treaty of Rome predating the European Union (EU), but since 2014 Creative Europe has been the EU’s funding stream for cultural projects. This is now under threat from the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU. O’Brien emphasises that: “Creative Europe give big grants to indigenous European films. We only see European films in this country with that support. If we lose that we lose European films”. This means Sixteen Films could lose its automatic distribution in EU states which will cripple them once current Creative Europe agreements close in 2020. This fact of artistic life has put Loach in a tight political corner. Speaking in Cannes in May 2016 after the press screening of I, Daniel Blake, Loach’s compromised view was noted by The Guardian.

“On the one hand, the European Union is a neoliberal project,” he said. “It’s a drive towards privatisation and a drive towards de-regulation. The safeguards that are there for workers and for the environment are constantly under attack so it’s not doing us any favours at the moment. On the other hand, if we leave, we know the individual governments will be moving as far to the right as possible”.28

Casting is key

Loach often casts amateurs and largely rejects the star system. This bulwark of big money film and TV projects is a risk-lessening element enforced by investors who maintain that audiences crave familiar faces in new settings and thus will guarantee bums on seats or credit card downloads. When asked by Graham Fuller in 1998 why he has avoided making his socialism more marketable by using stars, like the film Reds, about the Bolshevik Revolution,29 or like Channel 4 TV’s popular Liverpool-set soap opera Brookside (1982-2003), which included left wing and right wing characters, Loach replied that:

It’s unacceptable because politics is reflected through the aesthetics of film-making. If say, you get a well-known film star to play a working-class guy, it’s like saying, “There’s no working-class man who’s capable of doing this”… “What’s a film star doing in the middle of a working class area of Manchester?” In other words, it invalidates the proposition. The reason we only went to one classroom in one school in Barnsley to pick a boy for Kes was part of the thinking behind the project, the idea being that there’s a kid in every class like Billy. The way you make a film is an important way of validating the ideas in it.30

Loach himself came to directing as an unemployed actor in 1963. His practical knowledge of an actor’s preparation for any role and how they can enjoy being directed when cast has informed his own handling of these two crucial stages of filmmaking ever since. Casting is probably Loach’s most exceptional talent. Assessing everything about an applicant’s looks, manners, physique, temperament, personality and more so quickly in a short interview takes huge empathetic skill. So what exactly is he looking for? O’Brien explains that:

Ken and casting director Kahleen Crawford will meet up to a thousand people for main roles, some of whom will get other parts, and shortlist those he thinks have the energy, and can engage in discussion, be quick-witted and think on their feet. You’re looking for somebody who you believe will be that person. Not a performer, just someone who is.

In the past, Loach has drawn on local trade unionists and regional club comedians to play serious drama roles such as Crissy Rock in Ladybird, Ladybird and Ricky Tomlinson in Raining Stones. He respects their experience of putting themselves at the mercy of an audience, negotiating hecklers and generally being able to improvise, plus their accents will usually match the locations. A select few, such as Carol White, Norman Rossington, Bill Dean, Robert Carlyle and William Ruane, have made more than one appearance. The remaining pragmatic reason for casting unknowns is that they are likely to have little or no other film work to keep them from full attendance during a shooting schedule.

Loach noticed in his earliest work on Z Cars that the more the cast rehearsed, the less convincing their performance was, especially as, in contrast to theatre, their facial expressions are paramount on TV. Thus in wanting to rehearse minimally he has to have huge faith in his casting decisions. Those chosen have to prepare for a wholly atypical filming experience. Has this risky strategy ever come unstuck? Could professional actors have done a better job than amateurs? The answer has to be yes, occasionally. For example, real life villain John Bindon as a hen-pecked husband in Poor Cow is wooden beyond belief. And there are times in other works where words are poorly enunciated or gestures ambiguous, like knots in a fine fabric.31

No acting required

In corporate Hollywood practice, scenes are filmed in disjointed chunks determined by accountants looking to minimise multiple costs per shooting location. They will want all scenes set in a certain place filmed in one trip irrespective of where those scenes fall in the eventual narrative structure. Instead, Loach and O’Brien shoot scenes chronologically, a method that the actors tend to enjoy. They were challenged on this by Los Angeles technicians hired for the making of their sole US production—Bread and Roses—in 1999. They found Loach’s method strange, but placed him in esteemed company: “Some recalled that the last director to do this was John Cassavetes, and the one before that Charlie Chaplin”.32

While the actors will have some idea of the overall story, they will only be given their own plot development, character instructions and scripted lines on a daily drip-feed, need to know basis. This means that they don’t have the normal worry of matching their work—gait, gestures, vocal tone/accent/volume, eye movements and so on—to scenes already recorded or yet to be recorded. Nor do they have to wrestle with committing a whole script to memory. Loach prizes reacting rather than acting, getting performers empathising with what others do and say as we all usually do in real life discourse.

Loach also claims that this sets up an emotional energy in every scene that stays in the actors’ memory easily for the next scene, such that continuity of mood, interaction and plot development becomes more natural for those in front of the camera and relationships can be carried forward into subsequent scenes. Each scene becomes a kind of rehearsal for the next. The cast are additionally free to vary scripted dialogue and react to other actors while the camera is rolling and expect to be caught with a range of authentic, emotive expressions.

However, the cast are set a very different and difficult stricture to actors on most films. They are asked not to discuss the film and their part in it with each other, on or off the set, until completion. To this extent Loach’s technique is very manipulative. Different actors will go into a scene with different expectations and purpose depending on what Loach has told them each separately beforehand. At their frequently memorable extreme, the on-camera expressions of shock, surprise, fear, relief or joy are known by the production crew as “Getting Loached”.

For example, in Sweet Sixteen lead character Liam is asked to prove himself to a drug gang boss by knifing one of his own lieutenants as he takes a piss in a club toilet. Actor Martin Compston had rehearsed and prepared the technicalities of this scene for days. But as filming started Liam was thwarted from carrying out the killing by other gang members appearing unexpectedly from toilet cubicles. Plot-wise it was all a wicked trust game rigged by the boss. The vivid look of surprise mixed with relief on Compston’s face was Loach’s pay-off on screen for this elaborate directorial ruse.

The fondest vindication of this directorial approach for many readers will be the debate in Land and Freedom about how to manage the captured village’s land with the private owners now fled or dead. The tableau of characters arguing competing political ambitions was spontaneous in many respects. A mixture of actors with locals, some of whom were civil war veterans, chip in with pleas for collectivisation on the one hand or permission to continue farming alone on separate plots. This tangible struggle between ideas of reform or revolution is echoed during scenes from The Wind that Shakes the Barley when it comes to accepting or challenging the partition of Ireland. It was of course also displayed many times previously in The Rank and File, The Big Flame, and Days of Hope.

Loach’s treatment of child actors is, however, somewhat controversial. In Kes the innocent messenger pupil who is caned on the hand by the headteacher along with some smokers did not know he was going to be caned—nor did the rest of the boys actually. The final scene of Cathy Come Home involved actor Carol White’s own two children being grabbed from her by social workers late at night on King’s Cross station in front of horrified real passers-by. In Sweet Sixteen Liam’s baby nephew Callum is in floods of tears seeing the burnt out wreck of a caravan he had spent time in with his fictional mum. Presumably, Loach is aware that his hero De Sica would pinch the cheeks of his boy star in Bicycle Thieves to generate those tear-jerking close-ups!

However, Loach emanates a very convivial atmosphere on set, working with yet another long-time colleague, designer Fergus Clegg. He doesn’t start shots with a clapperboard or call “action”, preferring simply to say to actors “off you go”. He also keeps the ­technical and support crew as well as cameras as far away from the action as possible. But because only he and the cinematographer(s) can look through the lens to see what is actually being captured, Loach concedes that this disqualifies him from claiming that it is a wholly democratic process.33

The look and sound

The look of Loach’s films has become unobtrusively distinctive. Tony Imi was possibly the most vital cog in Loach and Garnett’s wheel of intrigue at the BBC. He was their ally who threw a new 16mm cine camera onto his shoulders to capture often jerky action in cars, on streets, up and down stairs, over slag heaps and down back alleys and, in the case of Up The Junction, even into a municipal swimming pool where characters jumped over his head into the water for a late night laugh.

But by the time Kes was made, Chris Menges was behind the lenses. A devotee of the remarkable flowering of Czech cinema of the time and especially Miroslav Ondříček’s cinematographic work, he learnt from their approach about simple, effective ploys such as using lenses that match the natural human field of vision, rather than wide-angle or telephoto lenses.34 Menges moved the camera rarely and framed each shot to show maximum spatial context. These general rules still apply today for Loach in combination with the lighting design, which again is as natural as can be with daylight alone exploited as far as possible.

Barry Ackroyd worked on 12 Loach films over 15 years starting with Riff-Raff up to Looking For Eric. Oldham-born Ackroyd’s value for Loach was his ability to improvise simple camera movements within long takes in relatively confined spaces to capture significant details of actors’ hand movements, turns of the head, switching to another speaker and back again, and more. Probably Loach’s most graphic sex scene, in Ae Fond Kiss, is a case in point. The restrained, precise camerawork gives the scene a modest intimacy that prioritises the significance of this liaison in the story of a romance between a Pakistani-heritage young DJ and his Irish music teacher lover getting together for the first time in a Spanish seaside hotel away from their respective prying Glasgow communities. Just occasionally, with the opening scenes from Bread and Roses of migrants rushing to get across the US border, will Ackroyd display his skills of moving the camera rapidly with the hectic action.

While the traditional maxim of movie editing is to cut on movement, for example as a character opens a door or starts a fight, Loach refines this to insist on cutting on eye movement. Because we have got used to the smooth unfolding of time in chronological order in his mature films, it is very rare, as in Looking For Eric or Route Irish, for Loach to use cuts to signify a discontinuous time and/or space, such as “flashbacks”, speculative imagining of future events, or psychological interior visions from memories or dreams. Loach also avoids characters’ interior voices or recollections as comments on the visual track.

George Fenton has composed music for Loach on 14 films, having made his name on Richard Attenborough’s biopics Gandhi (1982) and Cry Freedom (1987) about Steve Biko. In a BBC Radio 3 interview he explained why he likes working for Loach:

Our process is the only relationship I have where when I see the film it is “dry”. Normally when I see the first cut it has temporary tracks… Finding the music’s voice that makes it implicit to the film rather than an addition is very difficult. Ken makes you question whether it’s a true or false emotion.35

The soundtracks of Loach films are generally unobtrusive, but exceptionally Bread and Roses, Looking For Eric and Jimmy’s Hall have musical interludes of community evening dances, and Ae Fond Kiss inevitably shows both the DJ and music teacher at work in a few scenes.


The patronage of various regimes at the BBC ensured that Loach and Garnett’s drama was reaching huge audiences in the late 1960s, less so into the 1970s. But his cinema works were always dependent on corporate support when it came to getting work shown to the public. Kes suffered to begin with because United Artists weren’t sure how to market it. It was rescued by some rave critical reviews during 1970 and re-released in 1971. Loach suffered again in the 1980s as his documentaries were shunned by nervous executives of the Margaret Thatcher era.

Today Sixteen Films has benefitted from spreading its funding bets among various mainly European backers at the production stage to be assured of theatrical distribution in the known heartlands of Loach support on completion. The prestige annual awards at events such as the Cannes Film Festival obviously boost Loach’s marketability when he wins something. He also follows up any release with extensive personal media appearances, a Twitter account that carries general political comment as well as marketing info, and supportive critical promotion by his partial critics.

But most young eyes today are focussed on the ephemeral, repetitive narcissism of services such as Snapchat and Instagram, circulating moving as well as still imagery. In addition, the growth of time-devouring computerised action gaming and fantasy-dominated serial blockbusters mitigate strongly against Loach’s work getting any of their attention. He certainly does not get a look-in on new BBC drama programming, which is in any case often shunned by those who can access superior quality US drama on Amazon, Netflix and other binge-watched, drama box-sets.36

Hard-earned as the cachet of his back catalogue is, Loach can be thankful that Sixteen Films does not have to start again in the post-Google, virtual reality era. While he has generously insisted that most of his work is now freely distributed on YouTube and on the BFI channel, he would never be able to feed his family were he starting again now. As Astra Taylor comments in her vital plea for a public, rather than private, cultural hegemony:

Culture is a gift, a kind of glue, a covenant, but one that, unlike barter, obliges nothing in return. In other words, the fruits of creative effort exist to be shared. Yet the challenge is how to support this kind of work in a market-based society.

…The fate of creative people is to exist in two incommensurable realms of value and be torn between them—on one side, the purely economic activity associated with the straightforward selling of goods or labour; on the other, the fundamentally different, elevated form of value we associate with art and culture.37

Thus most artists find themselves with less and less remuneration as producers, while the often free, online accessibility of their works as commodities increases. It is the complex fate of Loach’s successors and sympathisers to square this hugely exploitative circle.

Now, having hopefully illuminated how Loach works, there remain some issues about what he has made, who he has or hasn’t represented and what audiences may actually have understood.

Minority representation

Firstly, there is the fact that the aggregate UK portrait from Loach’s work is very much of a white, heterosexual working class. While Chris Menges can photograph Afro-Caribbean London with director Franco Rosso for Babylon (1980), Gurinder Chadha can amuse us with tales of Punjabi life in Hounslow in Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and Stephen Frears can portray gay friendships in My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Loach rarely deals with these themes. Only the excellent Ae Fond Kiss foregrounds issues of ethnic minority life and there is not an explicitly gay character in any Loach film. Furthermore, US writer-director John Sayles and his producer partner Maggie Renzi have shown with Lianna (1983), Brother From Another Planet (1984),38 The Honeydripper (2007) and Passion Fish (1992) that gay romance, black lives and women-dominated dramas respectively can be within the same filmmaker’s impressive reach. Indeed, Sayles and Renzi share much in common with Loach when it comes to an explicit engagement with working class life and politics.

What’s more, there are too few instances in Loach’s films where women have speaking parts and roles that are about matters other than their relationship(s) with men as formulated in the Bechdel Test.39 (Ironically, It’s A Free World…, the one film that does have a lead female character with evident control over her sexuality, lifestyle and employment, plus a female work partner, is one of the Loach team’s least effective films, for reasons set out later.)

Nevertheless there are certainly no condoned expressions of homophobia or racism in Loach’s work. Indeed his disgust with the racist, colonialist nature of Save the Children’s work in Africa, once he witnessed it first-hand, led to it disowning his filmed report in 1971.

Regarding the more problematic issue of sexism in scripts, Loach and Laverty’s works set in Spain, Ireland, Nicaragua and Los Angeles seem to permit more independence in roles for female characters. There can be very few scenes in any film between two women that are as chokingly unexpected and narratively ­devastating as when immigrant Maya confronts her sister Rosa in Bread and Roses about why Rosa is refusing to join their fellow workers in a cleaners’ union. As usual the actress playing Maya had no idea what sordid home truths her fictional sister was about to reveal.40 When Loach claims that surprise is the most difficult image to register for an actor or capture as a director he hit the jackpot in this scene.

Narrative enigmas

Secondly, there is the recurrent mystery of the apparent pessimism and hopelessness implied by Loach’s open-ended narratives.

As was noted regarding Cathy Come Home, this has been a feature of Loach’s work from the beginning. For example, in 1973 Loach eased his way back into work after the trauma of his son’s death in a car accident, with a 30-minute interpretation of two Anton Chekhov stories about a woman’s adultery as A Misfortune for producer Melvyn Bragg: “Both recognised the need to paint the grim reality of hopelessness and despair experienced by some people so that alternatives could be considered”.41

But let’s scrutinise a much later work. Laverty’s narrative design for the ironically titled Sweet Sixteen (2002) produces perhaps the bleakest, most brutal cinematic depiction of working class youth made in the UK. Without the excessive Steadicam42 cinematography of Tim Roth’s startling acting debut in Alan Clarke’s Made In Britain (1982), the pounding soundtrack of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996) or the familiar cast in Gary Oldham’s Nil By Mouth (1997) it simply tells a comparably harrowing, unforgettable tale.43

Set in Greenock beside the Clyde’s stunning hills, the film portrays 16-year old Liam’s desperation to make life comfortable for his imprisoned mother when she is released. That means ousting her bully of a boyfriend, who drags him along to assist in orally passing her drugs during visiting time under the noses of dozy screws. Even if it means shitting on his best mates and working for the most evil drug gangsters in town, Liam wants to do right by her. But at what cost to himself? This tragic, Oedipal narrative of a son desperate to eliminate his mother’s lover and win her affections, closes with Liam knifing his mum’s lover in front of her when he finds that she has forsaken the nice flat he bought her in preference for the boyfriend’s tiny room and his drugs. The final scene shows a forlorn Liam walking along the riverbed at dawn towards the water, wordlessly coming to terms with having become a killer. Though similar in location, theme and tone to My Name Is Joe, Sweet Sixteen, more than most Loach films, begs the frustrated viewer’s question of who is it actually made for, why is it so depressing and deeply hopeless? It’s hardly entertainment, and it’s definitely not a fun night out.

In Loach’s defence, as playwright Howard Barker remarks, suggesting the ideological work done by some narrative genres: “You emerge from tragedy equipped against lies. After the musical, you’re anybody’s fool”.44 In this case tragedy equips against lies about all being well in the UK economic garden, lies about sustainable futures for young people, lies about the sanctity of the family, lies about the dog eat dog, possessive individualism and fiercely competitive ethics of capitalist conformity replicated viciously in life at the bottom of the pile. “Thatcher would have been proud of Liam”, says Loach on the DVD edition of the film. He usually responds to questions about the bleakness of his films by claiming that he tries to show the world as it is—or was in his history works—not how it might, should or could be, and that he wants the audience to feel the punch of such nominally inconclusive, unfinished narratives to provoke a response. That said there is also a schematic dialectic at work here that narrative theorists have tried to explain in some detail and that helps explain these frustrations that audiences experience.

Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act draws on the pioneering works of Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp, French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and the later development of this work by AJ Greimas.45 Propp identified seven narrative functions common to the empirical study he spent much of his life on. Levi-Strauss sought to contextualise such knowledge sociologically. Greimas and others modified Propp’s functions, showing how they are not necessarily contiguous with seven discrete characters. Thus the same character can fulfil differing functions called actants. Greimas usefully attempted to schematise matters in a semiotic square whose four positions comprise a positive, its opposite, its negation and a negation of the negation.

Therefore in Sweet Sixteen we can plot the transitions Liam goes through (figure 1). Initially he is the positive, dutiful son and brother forced by lack of any other financial option to become its opposite: a money-grabbing petty criminal and heroin dealer. Eventually acquiring the funds to secure his mum a comfortable flat, she rejects Liam’s devotion, which he responds to by becoming a killer, a negation of all his initial innocence. What audiences yearn for is that the square be completed by some means that negates the negation and forms an opposite of the life Liam was forced into.

Figure 1: Schema of the plot of Sweet Sixteen

Thus this interpretive schema suggests that audiences’ intuition of standard narrative balance, resolution and wholesomeness is thwarted, which leaves what may have been necessary for Liam to avoid transition from innocence into criminality and on to Oedipal assassin for the audience to debate and question. This repeated inconclusiveness of his narrative endings remains Loach’s hallmark agitational tool. Not for him the “utopian resolutions”46 of Brassed Off (1996) and The Full Monty (1997), or the schmaltzy if historically true finale of Pride (2014). His final ideological impact is to claim that life is like this so what are you, the audience, going to do about it?

Loach’s two major period pieces did indeed spark intense public debate. According to historical advisor Andy Durgan, speaking on the DVD commentary version of Land and Freedom, it was showing in 40 Spanish cinemas simultaneously at one stage and initiated a fierce debate among young and old about the personal, family, regional and national silences that had followed Franco’s successful grip on power for so long. Regarding The Wind that Shakes the Barley Rebecca O’Brien, following derision from a lot of the usual English critics, says that: “I found extraordinary the reaction in Britain because it was taken to the bosom of the Irish. Practically everyone in Ireland saw it, it was the most successful independent film ever at the time and it became part of the popular culture”.

Nobody does it better?

Loach has evolved a naturalism of style and a social realism of intent.47 The look, sound and performances he craves are calibrated to represent natural settings, locations and people, irrespective of any formal aesthetic beauty in the framing, movement and composition of shots, the costume and set design, the glory of architecture and landscape, or even characters’ physical appearance. Loach actively denies these elements of customary cinematic pleasure, as he does any kind of sentimentality. Consequently John Hill’s point still holds good after 20 years, that:

Much of the power to unsettle in Loach’s work derives from the apparent ­impassivity of his cinematic style in relation to the disturbing events in front of the camera. But though his films are shot from a distanced observational standpoint, many of them rely on the dramatic machinery of melodrama: impossible choices, misjudgements, coincidences, a foreshortened sense of cause and effect.48

But what separates Loach’s work from conventional melodrama is the way it discourages too strong an emotional identification with the characters while insisting on the economic and social underpinnings of their actions. In this way the impossible dilemmas and choices are seen to derive less from personal trait or moral shortcomings
than from economic circumstances.

Cambridge academic Colin MacCabe, writing in Screen journal, decried the naturalism of Days Of Hope, claiming that its mode of address was ipso facto conservative in its techniques and citing many popular TV historical family sagas of that time such as London Weekend TV’s Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-5).49 Loach and Garnett gave him short shrift. They knew that greater flak flew from their right flanks; Labour and Communist Party critics lined up with Tory representatives, the TUC and Fleet Street.50 While there is not space to expound fully on McCabe’s gripe here, the general lesson from communist history under Stalin and his successors is that no artistic genre or style should a priori be deemed to be inherently progressive or reactionary; every text has its context.

If there is a faultline in Loach’s fictional work, however, it is that between art and propaganda. This is clearly not a problem in his documentary and campaign films. They explicitly propagandise on a range of issues such as union democracy and socialist policies in elections. But, however much Laverty claims to seek out personalised angles in order to find a way of telling a fictional story about, for example, the Iraq war or impoverished Glasgow, there are times when that art seems compromised. The authorial voice is in hectoring rather than suggestive mode, and generally lacking the narrative coherence of Loach’s best work. Thus a political ambivalence about the European Union explained earlier probably underlies Loach’s least convincing recent film—It’s A Free World… (2007). Ostensibly a tale of how decent migrant workers from Europe and beyond are exploited by avaricious UK-based labour contractors, it nevertheless provides too little back story about its main characters for an audience to be able to empathise with them, and leaves a lot of plotlines dangling. For example, what exactly does happen to the immigrant families we are introduced to? Laverty has admitted that the central character Angie is both “positive and repellent” at the same time,51 and Loach has insisted that we are all shaped by our circumstances despite our aspirations and therefore such contradictions are to be expected and acceptable. Nevertheless, the film ends up as an unsatisfyingly propagandistic argument against what is now commonly called “freedom of movement” within the EU, rather than a cogent, emotionally engaging tale. This is very much an exception, however.

As to which generic label best tags Loach’s oeuvre I would prefer the term “brutalism” as an encapsulation of what he is about artistically and politically. Though this term has taken on derogatory overtones of cheap, crude and formulaic construction when used in architectural and pop music analyses, it sums up the world that many conscious cinema artists are grappling with today, all trying to keep things brutally real in a harsh world.52

Nick Grant is a former secondary school teacher of Media Studies and Expressive Arts.


1 See the Loach interview included on the 2008 (Belgian) Speelfilm DVD edition of both It’s A Free World… and Carla’s Song. Loach has made most of his films freely available online, mainly via YouTube. See footnotes for DVD or online links to many Loach interviews. Tony Garnett’s blog also contains many links and items of relevance to this article. Go to

Thanks to Rebecca O’Brien and Emma Lawson at Sixteen Films for their courtesy and time, Alan Fair and Ian Greaves for resources and comments and Jo Lang, Harkan Kirk Karakaya and Anne Lemon for comments on this article in draft.

2 Clarke, 2006.

3 Bradshaw, 2011.

4 Rich, 2017.

5 Allen, 1987.

6 Bindel, 2014.

7 Young, 2016.

9 See Harman, 1988.

10 At this point readers may wish to spend an hour watching the “How To Make A Ken Loach Film” video made for the British Film Institute. Using the production process of I, Daniel Blake this video shows how Loach works, why he does what he still does and what his co-creators have to say about the whole process. Go to

11 Unfortunately there is not space here for a full biography of Loach or comments on each of his 50+ works. See Hayward, 2005, Hill, 2011, Leigh, 2002, and McKnight, 1997, for these.

12 Iannone, 2018.

13 Loach and others interviewed for a documentary about de Sica, included as an extra on the 2016 DVD edition of Two Women (1960) by Cult Films. Sophia Loren won the Best Actress Oscar for this in 1961, the first time a foreign language film had won any Hollywood award.

14 Garnett had his own deeply personal motivation for this element. His mother died following an abortion when he was five, and his father committed suicide two weeks later out of guilt. Garnett also experienced the irrevocable severe mental breakdown of his first partner actor Topsy Legge, which caused her to lose the role of Liz in the film of Keith Waterhouse’s book Billy Liar that Julie Christie stepped into in 1963—Garnett, 2016.

15 See the interview with Dunn included on the DVD release of Poor Cow in 2016.

16 Apologies to readers who have not seen certain works but occasional plot spoilers will be necessary to make a relevant point about some of them.

17 Terminations up to 28 weeks were legalised by the 1967 Abortion Act, but the Act excludes Northern Ireland to this day.

18 Telegraph, 2001.

19 Hill, 2011, p61.

20 This fascinating film and other key works feature in the “Loach At The BBC” DVD box-set released in 2011.

21 A full inventory with many copies of Allen’s work is held at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford. Go to

22 Garnett, 1999.

23 McKnight, 1997, p7.

24 This interview with Laverty is a useful insight to his methods and relationship with Loach:

25 Laverty, 2011, p9. See also his conversation with Michael Moore here about how Route Irish was developed at

26 See the Loach interview referred to in footnote 1.

27 This and other direct quotes are based on my interview with Rebecca O’Brien on 9 May 2018.

28 Lee, 2016.

29 Reds was actor/producer/director Warren Beatty’s 1981 adaptation of John Reed’s 1919 reportage Ten Days That Shook The World.

30 Fuller, 1998, p114.

31 See Leigh, 2002, p6 for a closer analysis of this issue in Carla’s Song.

32 See Hayward, 2005, p246, although these two named directors are not alone in shooting in final sequence.

33 Fuller, 1998, p114.

34 Loach talks specifically about the Czech film Blondes In Love (1965) at There have been a lot of blonde female characters throughout his films.

35 Sound of Cinema presented by Tom Service on 23 September 2013.

36 For a slightly dated but frank assessment of why US TV drama is best see Jukes, 2009.

37 Taylor, 2014, p50.

38 See this excellent anti-racist, sci-fi comedy at

39 For an explanation of the Bechdel Test with examples see Waters, 2017.

40 See this scene at 11 minutes, 48 seconds:

41 Hayward, 2005, p131.

42 In 1976 left-wing cinematographer Haskell Wexler was the first to use Steadicam on the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound For Glory, also the first film featuring this ground-breaking equipment to win the Academy Award for cinematography. It is essentially a lightweight camera strapped around the waist and shoulders of its operator allowing smooth, extended tracking shots especially in confined spaces. Loach’s colleague Chris Menges was director of photography for this particular film.

43 See Friedman, 2006, for expanded discussion of these works.

44 Barker, 1997, p13. My working definition of tragedy here is a narrative that presents a character with choices that prove to be fatally flawed when other better choices were, or should have been, possible.

45 Jameson, 1981; Propp, 1958 [1928]. Excerpts from the Propp book are available at

46 Hill, 1998, p20.

47 Mike Wayne makes a similar point about Loach—Wayne, 2007.

48 Hill, 1998, p20.

49 See MacCabe and others’ original work collected as “Part IV: History, Politics and Classical Narrative”, in Bennett, 1981.

50 This debate regarding Days of Hope is expertly laid out in Hill, 2011, pp134-156.

52 For an outline of who these filmmakers currently are, see Leigh, 2018.


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