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Ken Loach: Feature Films

How the director brought his committed vision to the big screen

Main image of Ken Loach: Feature Films

Although Ken Loach began his career working for television, he has consistently rejected the idea that there is any fundamental difference between making work for television and cinema. Along with the producer Tony Garnett, Loach fought to shoot television drama on film and, from 1967 onwards, all of his television 'plays' were, in effect, 'films'. It was for this reason that the four-part series Days of Hope (BBC, 1975) was both subtitled and promoted as 'four films from the Great War to the General Strike'.

Given Loach's enthusiasm for shooting on film, it's hardly surprising that he should have been encouraged to move into film feature production. The opportunity arose when Joseph Janni, producer of A Kind of Loving and Billy Liar (both d. John Schlesinger, 1962 and 1963), recruited Loach to direct an adaptation of Nell Dunn's novel, Poor Cow (1967), following his earlier television success with the same writer's 'Up the Junction' (The Wednesday Play, BBC, tx. 3/11/1965). Starring Carol White and Terence Stamp as a luckless romantic couple, the film's freewheeling mix of cinematic experiment and socio-sexual observation caught the spirit of the times and proved a commercial hit.

Loach, however, was not entirely happy with the experience and, resuming his partnership with Garnett, went on to make one of his best-known works, Kes (1969), for the newly-created Kestrel Films. Based on Barry Hines' novel about a young schoolboy's passion for a kestrel, the film was also Loach's first collaboration with cinematographer Chris Menges, with whom he evolved a new approach to filming. This involved jettisoning many of the overt narrational devices of his earlier work (such as Poor Cow) in favour of a more observational approach in which the camera maintains a respectful distance from the (mostly non-professional) actors.

This paring-down of devices (and mixing of professional and non-professional actors) was carried over into Loach's next feature film, Family Life (1971), an emotionally gruelling remake of Loach's earlier television production of David Mercer's play about schizophrenia, 'In Two Minds' (The Wednesday Play, BBC, tx. 1/3/1967). Although Kes, following a campaign to secure proper distribution, had eventually achieved commercial success, Family Life did less well and Loach and Garnett subsequently struggled to get feature film projects off the ground. Towards the end of the 1970s, Garnett did succeed in raising the funds for a children's film, Black Jack (1979), based on a historical novel by Leon Garfield that Loach himself had turned into a screenplay. However, this was a project partly led by the availability of funding rather than personal conviction and proved to be the last of Loach and Garnett's collaborations

Loach then found work with the television company ATV, for whom he made an adaptation of another Hines novel, The Gamekeeper (ITV, tx. 16/12/1980), an 'amphibious' production that was broadcast on television in Britain but shown in cinemas abroad. Hines' story of a young school-leaver's search for a job, Looks and Smiles (1981) - made for Central Television - was also unusual in receiving a modest cinema release after it had received a TV screening (ITV, tx. 19/5/1982).

Loach subsequently concentrated on the production of television documentaries before collaborating with the dramatist Trevor Griffiths on Fatherland (1986), a somewhat uneasy European co-production dealing with an East German protest singer who moves to the West. This was followed by the 'troubles' thriller Hidden Agenda (1990), which not only reunited Loach with writer Jim Allen - responsible for such television films as 'The Big Flame' (The Wednesday Play, BBC, tx. 19/2/1969) and Days of Hope - but also teamed him up with producer Rebecca O'Brien. Along with Sally Hibbin, O'Brien has been responsible for producing all of Loach's work since the 1990s, initially under the aegis of the film co-operative Parallax Pictures and, subsequently, through the independent production company Sixteen Films (which she and Loach formed in 1992).

While Hibbin and O'Brien were able to provide the stable working relationships that Loach lacked following the break-up of his partnership with Garnett, Loach's capacity to continue making films on a regular basis also depended upon finding a 'solution' to the problem of raising finance that had beset his career since Family Life.

Ironically, it has been television, in particular Channel 4, that has played a key role in providing a regular source of funding for films that are now, with a few exceptions such as The Navigators (2001) and It's a Free World... (2007), expected to open in cinemas prior to television transmission. Following in the footsteps of Black Jack and Fatherland, Loach's films have also increasingly become European co-productions, funded by a number of regular partners, particularly in Germany, Spain and France. The international funding of Loach's films also reflects their appeal abroad, and a number of them have attracted bigger audiences in countries such as France than at home. This was particularly so of Looking for Eric (2009), an unusually upbeat Loach film starring the former Manchester United centre forward Eric Cantona as the 'imaginary friend' of a Liverpool postman.

Although Loach's films since the 1980s have shared a continuing artistic commitment to telling the stories of 'ordinary' people in an undemonstrative visual style, they may also be seen to have fallen into two broad camps of 'local' and 'international' films. Written by former building worker Bill Jesse, Riff-Raff (1991) signaled a revived interest in those at bottom of the social ladder and the uncongenial working conditions they face. This was followed by Jim Allen's Raining Stones (1993), dealing with an unemployed man's descent into debt as a result of his daughter's forthcoming communion, and Rona Munro's Ladybird, Ladybird (1994), an uncompromising tale reminiscent of 'Cathy Come Home', (The Wednesday Play, BBC, tx. 16/11/1966) that focused on an unmarried mother's efforts to hold her family together in the face of bureaucratic interference.

If these films seek to reveal the unflattering underbelly of contemporary Britain, Jim Allen's story of the Spanish Civil War, Land and Freedom (1995), evokes the revolutionary spirit of an earlier age and suggest how lives might be lived differently. Since then Loach's films have oscillated between those dealing with the victims of economic neoliberalism in contemporary Britain - The Navigators, It's a Free World..., My Name is Joe (1998), Sweet Sixteen (2002) - and those concerned with a range of international struggles against political and social injustice. Carla's Song (1996) recalls the social experiments of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and Bread and Roses (2000) tells the story of the Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles, while The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) draws attention to the 'forgotten' social radicalism of the Irish War of Independence.

All of these films were written by Paul Laverty, a former human rights lawyer who has been Loach's regular collaborator since Carla's Song. It is Laverty's Glaswegian background that partly accounts for the subsequent 'Scottish turn' in Loach's work. My Name is Joe tells the gloomy tale of a Glaswegian alcoholic while Sweet Sixteen, set in the former shipbuilding town of Greenock, laments the waste of lives that results from unemployment and poverty. Ae Fond Kiss..., also set in Glasgow, explores the possibilities of overcoming ethnic and religious divisions in the wake of 9/11 while Loach's contribution to the 'omnibus' film Tickets (2005) observes the encounter between a group of Celtic supporters and a family of Albanian migrants. Following the production of Route Irish (2010), dealing with events in Iraq, Loach returned to Scotland to shoot The Angel's Share in 2011. In this way, Loach has not only made an important contribution to the upsurge of filmmaking in Scotland since the 1990s but also been responsible for the production of films commanding an international appeal.

John Hill

Further Reading:
Hill, John, Ken Loach: The Politics of Film and Television (London: BFI, 2011)
Leigh, Jacob, The Cinema of Ken Loach: Art in the Service of the People (London: Wallflower Press, 2002)

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Ae Fond Kiss (2004)Ae Fond Kiss (2004)

Unusually tender Ken Loach feature about love across cultural divides

Thumbnail image of Black Jack (1979)Black Jack (1979)

Ken Loach's only children's film, an adventure set in 18th century Yorkshire

Thumbnail image of Bread and Roses (2001)Bread and Roses (2001)

Ken Loach's first US film, about the exploitation of Latino workers in LA

Thumbnail image of Carla's Song (1996)Carla's Song (1996)

Glaswegian-Nicaraguan love story about an idealistic bus driver

Thumbnail image of Family Life (1971)Family Life (1971)

Ken Loach's big-screen remake of the David Mercer TV play 'In Two Minds'

Thumbnail image of Hidden Agenda (1990)Hidden Agenda (1990)

Tough, Belfast-set thriller about the British army's 'shoot to kill' policy

Thumbnail image of It's a Free World... (2007)It's a Free World... (2007)

Ken Loach's alarming portrait of the exploitation of immigrant labour

Thumbnail image of Kes (1969)Kes (1969)

Masterly Ken Loach film about a lonely boy adopting a wild kestrel

Thumbnail image of Ladybird Ladybird (1994)Ladybird Ladybird (1994)

Heartbreaking drama of a mother's struggle to keep her children

Thumbnail image of Land and Freedom (1995)Land and Freedom (1995)

Passionate tale of British volunteers fighting the Spanish Civil War

Thumbnail image of Looking for Eric (2009)Looking for Eric (2009)

Football-related supernatural buddy comedy from Ken Loach (!)

Thumbnail image of Looks and Smiles (1981)Looks and Smiles (1981)

Powerful early-Thatcher era drama about the prospect of life on the dole

Thumbnail image of My Name Is Joe (1998)My Name Is Joe (1998)

Drama about a reformed alcoholic trying to run a failing soccer team.

Thumbnail image of Navigators, The (2001)Navigators, The (2001)

Ken Loach's powerful response to the privatisation of British Rail

Thumbnail image of Poor Cow (1967)Poor Cow (1967)

Ken Loach's cinema debut about a woman's relationship with two criminals

Thumbnail image of Raining Stones (1993)Raining Stones (1993)

Jobless Bob struggles to buy a communion dress for his daughter

Thumbnail image of Riff-Raff (1991)Riff-Raff (1991)

Ken Loach tragicomedy set on a London building site

Thumbnail image of Sweet Sixteen (2002)Sweet Sixteen (2002)

Bleak portrait of a Scottish teenager coping with drugs and poverty

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Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Allen, Jim (1926-99)Allen, Jim (1926-99)


Thumbnail image of Hibbin, Sally (1953-)Hibbin, Sally (1953-)

Producer, Executive Producer

Thumbnail image of Laverty, Paul (1957-)Laverty, Paul (1957-)


Thumbnail image of Loach, Ken (1936-)Loach, Ken (1936-)

Director, Writer

Thumbnail image of O'Brien, Rebecca (1957-)O'Brien, Rebecca (1957-)