The Old Oak - and the legacy of great films by Ken Loach
Friday, 19 July 2024 21:18

The Old Oak - and the legacy of great films by Ken Loach

Published in Films

Ken Loach's latest film The Old Oak, opening in cinemas this weekend, may also be his last. At 87, if it really is time for Ken to hang up the clapperboard and exit across the cutting room floor, there is little doubt that apart from his bitterest critics this is a moment to mark an unrivalled career in film.

Documentaries, thrillers, historical pieces – Ken Loach has made the lot, but what makes most of his films which exist outside of these genres so special is their mix of comedy and socialist realism. A Ken Loach film always provides a compelling exposure of society's failings, while never omitting a lighter touch to lift spirits and aspirations. It was the critic David Widgery who was the first to name a fundamental cultural failing of the left, 'miserabilism'. But without exception Ken's films, however depressing the circumstances they depict, always find the means to go above and beyond leaving his audience feeling miserable.

That's not to say he's a hopeless romantic in the manner of the many films that seek to portray the sunny side of capitalism. Instead, his work is rooted in an unapologetic class politics which is centred on the liberatory potential of collective action – especially trade unionism. And at the same time, they are movies to sit back and enjoy, in between the popcorn.

Compare and contrast to Richard Curtis, a latter-day contemporary. It would be a tad miserabilist to deny chuckling along to the trilogy of Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999) and Love Actually (2003), but these films portray a twee, middle-class version of England which is entirely disinterested in anything apart from its unchanging self.  The coincidence with the rise of Tony Blair, and plenty more like him, is surely not coincidental.

There are other films that share Ken Loach's cinematic ambition. Brassed Off (1996) and Pride (2007) are two obvious examples, both depicting the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike in a Loachian manner and along the way expressing a counter-narrative to Blairism. But these were pretty much one-offs, fondly enjoyed because they were so rare. Steve McQueen's extraordinary Small Axe (2020) a five-film anthology about immigration, racism and resistance in London, is perhaps the closest thing yet to what Ken Loach has managed to achieve.

What makes Loach unique is the scope and longevity of his work – he has kept on keeping on, making films for the best part of sixty years. This is an extraordinary achievement, and the values and subject matter he champions have remained unchanging, yet never samey.

The early days saw classics Up the Junction (1965), Cathy Come Home (1966) and Kes (1969) The 1990s saw Riff Raff (1991). His first Palme d'Or was for The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006). Then there was Eric Cantona as himself in Looking for Eric  (2009), followed by the late flowering of I, Daniel Blake (2016)  and Sorry We Missed You (2019).

Homelessness and poverty, the 'gig economy', Irish republicanism, mod£rn football, the cruel indignities of the social security system – what other film-maker can match Loach for this kind of subject matter, made into damn good films? But don't take my untutored word for it. Just a short selection from an impressively long list of awards he has won would include the Palme D'Or for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and in the same year the accolade of a BAFTA Fellowship. In 2012he won the Cannes Jury Prize for The Angels’ Share, and in 2016 he became one of the few to win a second Palme D'Or, this time  for I, Daniel Blake – the same film also landing the 2017 BAFTA for outstanding British film of the year.

Film reviewers greet his films with near universal praise. The Guardian has made The Old Oak its 4-star film of the week describing it as 'a ringing statement of faith in compassion for the oppressed.' While the Evening Standard  welcomed The Old Oak with this ringing endorsement 'we need someone with Loach’s righteous fury to make films about the deplorable treatment of Britain’s often invisible and maligned underclass.'

Not a single reviewer, not a single awards jury, his films have won an astonishing 117 awards in total has ever cited Ken Loach for antisemitism. And as an occasional filmgoer I can't for the life of me remember a single anti-semitic trope appearing in any of his many films. Which rather leaves the Labour Party expelling him for antisemitism a tad out on a limb does it? And begs this question – what does the Labour Party know that legions of film reviewers, film award panels, and filmgoers don't?

Endlessly repeated Labour figures claim Ken's expulsion was for antisemitism, but it wasn't. Most recently Rachel Reeves made precisely this claim until unlike most she was corrected by her interviewer Simon Hattenstone, who happens to be Jewish. Yes, Ken signed a petition protesting against members – a high proportion who are Jewish – being expelled under the charge of antisemitism. That's a protest, not a trope.

A celebrated former Director of Public Prosecutions is presiding over the replacement of this right to protest, to replace it with guilt by association. And along the way as under Sir Keir Labour expels more Jewish members than any other time in its history, the title of a much celebrated account of antisemitism, Jews Don't Count, is reinvented by Labour as 'Some Jews count more than other Jews.'

Earlier this year Jamie Driscoll was banned from standing as a Labour candidate for North East Mayor for interviewing Ken Loach at one of Newcastle's leading arts venue about the film, The Old Oak, and two previous films, I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You, that he'd made in Jamie's patch, the North East. The reason for the ban? By appearing with Ken Loach, he was allying himself with anti-semitism.

Has Loach ever erred to such an extent to deserve being ostracised by Labour, and only by Labour, to such an extraordinary extent? In 1987 he directed the play Perdition written by his long-time collaborator Jim Allen, which was then withdrawn before opening at the Royal Court Theatre. The play centred on a much-contested suggestion that one branch of Zionism sought to negotiate with the Nazis free passage to enable some Jews to escape being sent to the concentration camps. In typing those words the very obvious explosion of anger that giving any kind of platform to such a tale can act as a means to legitimise anti-semitism is startlingly obvious.

In my personal opinion Loach's decision to direct the play was wrong - but enough to disqualify his entire legacy of work? I don't think so. At the time, 1987, Neil Kinnock's Labour Party leadership, not exactly backward at expelling known Trotskyists and others, didn't think so either, taking no action against Loach who'd been a party member since 1962. Is the suggestion therefore that Kinnock was soft on anti-semitism? And if he was, why does he continue to sit in the House of Lords as a Labour peer? Put simply, none of this adds up, and outside the world of the current Labour leadership few would countenance a blanket ban on Ken Loach or on any kind of association with him.

So this weekend as Loach's film opens, what is it to be?

Will we have a Labour Party three-line whip barring the Shadow Cabinet, MPs and members from  a crafty looksie at The Old Oak? Accompanied by Constituency Labour Party picket lines (oh I forgot Labour MPs are barred from those too) outside the flicks to collar any waverers? Because that is the logical conclusion of where Labour's strictures on Loach have ended up.  Anything less and we're tempted to suspect all the huff and puff about Loach's antisemitism is for show.

Or will we have a celebration of a much-loved maker of films that fire up indignation and hope in equal measure? Films that depend not on a star-studded line-up but jobbing actors we've never heard of, and for most parts those who've never ever even acted before. The Old Oak follows this unique Loach tradition and is none the poorer, quite the opposite, for it. And Ken Loach is most certainly the only director who would include in his final film a banner made by a Syrian refugee and a former mining community, to march behind together at the Durham Miners’ Gala.


The words they choose for their banner? 'Strength, Solidarity, Resistance', in English and Arabic. It makes a great banner - and a great T-shirt too. The exclusive and strictly unofficial Philosophy Football Old Oak Banner T-shirt is available from here.