Ken Loach is Britain’s most renowned and most controversial director of socially conscious television drama. He is also an internationally acclaimed maker of feature films whose radical political messages consistently provoke strong responses in audiences and politicians alike. In 1965 he received the British Television Guild’s “TV Director of the Year” Award, while the 1990s have brought prizes and nominations at the Cannes Film Festival. His considerable body of work, documenting British society since the 1960s, is an acknowledged source of inspiration to his contemporaries.
Loach worked for a brief spell as a repertory actor before joining the BBC in 1963 as a trainee television director. Significantly this was during the progressive Director-Generalship of Sir Hugh Greene and coincided with Sydney Newman’s influential appointment as Head of BBC Drama. Loach’s earliest directorial contribution was on episodes of the ground-breaking police series Z-Cars, but he first attracted serious attention with Up the Junction, a starkly realistic portrayal of working-class life in South London, which went out in 1965 as one of the earliest productions in the BBC’s innovative Wednesday Playslot. This success marked the beginning of a long and fertile creative collaboration with story-editor and producer, Tony Garnett, which led to the recognition of their particular mode of documentary drama as the “Loach-Garnett” style. It also positioned Loach as the exponent of a televisual equivalent of the “social realist” British New Wave, so popular at the time in the cinema, theatre and novel.
Loach collaborated with Garnett on a number of other celebrated Wednesday Play productions, including, David Mercer’s famous play about schizophrenia In Two Minds (1967), which he later made into a feature film, Family Life (1971), and two significant industrial drama-documentaries written by ex-coalminer, Jim Allen, The Big Flame (1969) and The Rank and File (1971). These demonstrated Loach’s passionate concern to ignore theatrically derived artificiality in favour of authentic dramas on topical, important issues/dramas which give a voice to politically marginalised sections of society. By far the most powerful work from this period of Loach’s career, however, is Cathy Come Home (1966), a powerful study of the effects of homelessness and bureaucracy on family life. This remains one of the most seminal programme events in the history of British television.
Cathy Come Home, written by former journalist, Jeremy Sandford, exploded with tremendous force upon the complacent, affluent, post-Beatles culture of the “Swinging Sixties.” Drawing attention, as it did, to disturbing levels of social deprivation far in excess of those claimed by government, the play led to a public outcry, questions in Parliament, the establishment of the housing charity “Shelter,” and a relaxation of policy on the dissolution of homeless families. Reflecting years afterwards on this succés de scandale, Loach explained that, though he may have believed at the time in the potential of television drama for effecting social change, he had subsequently come to realise it could do nothing more than provide a social critique, promoting awareness of problems capable of resolution only through political action.
It is not only the subject matter of Cathy, and of Loach’s television work generally, that struck contemporary audiences and critics as innovative; his chosen form and style were distinctive and provocative too. Above all, he was concerned to capture a sense of the real, extending a range of practised cinema-vérité techniques to produce a sense of immediacy and plausibility that would in turn produce recognition in the spectator and inspire collective action. Lightweight, hand-held camera; grainy 16mm film stock; a black and white aesthetic; location shooting; natural lighting; direct, asynchronous sound; blending of experienced and non-professional performers; authentic regional accents and dialects; overlapping dialogue; improvised acting; expressive editing; incorporation of statistical information: all these strategies combined in varying degrees to create a compelling and original documentary effect markedly at odds with the look of traditional “acted” television drama.
In 1975, the distinctive “Loach-Garnett” style was employed in a notable exploration, nearly four hundred minutes in length, of British labour history, which functioned as a poignant commentary on the parlous state of contemporary industrial relations. This was the four-part BBC serial Days of Hope, scripted by Jim Allen, which follows a northern British working-class family through the turbulent years of struggle from the end of World War I to the General Strike of 1926. Loach, already subject to criticism for preferring the docudrama form (deemed reprehensible in some quarters for its potential confusion of fact and fiction), now found himself embroiled in an academic debate about the extent to which radical television drama, using the conventions of bourgeois realism, could be truly “progressive.” Loach, of course, insisted that his priority was a populist, political discourse rather than a rarefied, aesthetic debate of interest only to a critical elite. In other words, Days of Hope and the other strike dramas that preceded it were intended to open the eyes of ordinary people to the emancipatory potential of free collective bargaining within any capitalist culture.
Loach who had made his first feature film, Poor Cow, at the height of his television fame in 1967. He became a major founding partner, with Tony Garnett, in the independent production company, Kestrel Films, for which he made half a dozen low budget films between 1969 and 1986. His first project at Kestrel Films was Kes, a moving story of a young boy and his pet kestrel set against a bleak Northern industrial landscape. Some of the Kestrel projects were intended for television screening as well as limited theatrical release.
The Thatcher years found Loach increasingly in conflict with those who took exception to the left-wing thrust of his work and wanted to censor it or lessen its impact. Finding it difficult to ensure transmission of the kind of television drama he considered important, he turned for a while almost exclusively to straight documentary, convinced that the non-fiction form could more speedily and directly address the key social and political questions of the day. If anything, however, this route led Loach into even greater problems with censorship, culminating in the controversial withdrawals of the four-part series Questions of Leadership (1983) and Which Side Are You On? (1984), a polemical documentary about the socially disruptive Miners’ Strike. It was probably this unsavoury experience, and the greater freedom afforded by cinema, that drove Loach away from television at the end of the 1980s.
The 1990s have brought Ken Loach renewed success and established him as one of Britain’s foremost film directors, albeit not of mainstream, commercial films. Beginning with his political thriller about a military cover-up in Ulster, Hidden Agenda, which was reviled and praised in roughly equal measure on its first screening at Cannes, Loach has gone on to make roughly one feature film each year, usually with an early television showing in mind. These are, without exception, films of integrity which continue their director’s lifelong principle of bringing issues of oppression, inhumanity and hypocrisy to the public’s attention. The political content is, if anything, more foregrounded than in the earlier television work; the uncompromising focus on the disadvantaged or voiceless sections of society remains the same.
Photo courtesy of Ken loach
KEN LOACH. Born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England, 17 June 1937. Attended King Edward School, Nuneaton; St Peter’s College, Oxford. Married: Lesley Ashton in 1962; two sons and two daughters. Began career as actor with repertory company in Birmingham; joined BBC drama department as trainee, 1961; director with producer Tony Garnett, beginning with Up the Junction, 1965; founder, with Garnett, of Kestrel Films production company, 1969; has worked on a freelance basis, chiefly for Central Television, since the 1970s. Fellow, St Peter’s College, Oxford, 1993. Recipient: British Television Guild Television Director of the Year Award, 1965; British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award, 1967; Cannes Festival Special Jury Prize, 1990. Address: Parallax Pictures, 7 Denmark Street, London WC2H 8LS, England.
1962 Z Cars
1976 Days of Hope
1983 Questions of Leadership (not transmitted)
TELEVISION SPECIALS1964 Catherine
1964 Profit By Their Example
1964 The Whole Truth
1964 The Diary of a Young Man
1965 Tap on the Shoulder
1965 Wear a Very Big Hat
1965 Three Clear Sundays
1965 Up the Junction
1965 The End of Arthur’s Marriage
1965 The Coming Out Party
1966 Cathy Come Home
1967 In Two Minds
1968 The Golden Vision
1969 The Big Flame
1969 In Black and White (not transmitted)
1970 After a Lifetime
1971 The Rank and File
1973 A Misfortune
1976 The Price of Coal
1979 The Gamekeeper (also co-writer)
1981 A Question of Leadership
1983 The Red and the Blue
1984 Which Side Are You On?
1985 Diverse Reports: We Should Have Won (editor)
1988 The View from the Woodpile
1989 Split Screen: Peace in Northern Ireland
Poor Cow, 1967; Kes, 1969; The Save the Children Fund Film, 1971; Family Life, 1971; Black Jack, 1979; Looks and Smiles, 1981; Fatherland, 1986; Hidden Agenda, 1990; Singing the Blues in Red, 1990; Riff Raff, 1991; Raining Stones, 1993; Ladybird, Ladybird, 1994; Land and Freedom, 1995.
Poor Cow, 1967; Kes, 1969; Black Jack, 1979.
Bennett, Tony, Susan Boyd-Bowman, Colin Mercer, and Janet Woollacott. Popular Television and Film. London: British Film Institute, 1981
Brandt, George, editor. British Television Drama. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Hacker, Jonathan, and David Price. Take 10: Contemporary British Film Directors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Keighron, Peter, and Carol Walker. “Working in Television: Five Interviews.” In, Hood, Stuart, editor. Behind the Screens: The Structure of British Television in the Nineties. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1994
Kerr, Paul. “The Complete Ken Loach.” Stills (London), May/June 1986.
Levin, G Roy. Documentary Explorations: Fifteen Interviews with Filmmakers. New York, 1971
McKnight, George, editor. Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach. London: Flicks Books, 1995.
Pannifer, Bill. “Agenda Bender.” Listener (London), 3 January 1991.
Petley, Julian. “Ken LoachÑPolitics, Protest and the Past.” Monthly Film Bulletin (London), March 1987.
“Questions of Censorship.” Stills (London), November, 1984
Shubik, Irene. Play for Today: The Evolution of Television Drama. London: Davis-Poynter, 1975
Taylor, John. “The Kes Dossier.” Sight and Sound (London), Summer, 1970
Tulloch, John. Television Drama: Agency, Audience and Myth. London, Routledge, 1990
See also Cathy Come Home; Docudrama; Garnett, Tony; Wednesday Play