Given his lifelong commitment to challenging the political status quo in
film, television drama and documentary, it's hardly surprising that much of Ken
Loach's work has proved highly controversial. Over the course of nearly half a
century his uncompromising approach has seen him in conflict with the BBC,
various ITV companies, Channel 4, the
British Board of Film Classification, the Central Office of Information, several
critics and columnists and even the Save the Children Fund.
Discussion of Loach's earliest BBC plays generally revolved around their
treatment rather than their content - and criticism of the latter, as in the
anti-capital punishment polemic 'Three Clear Sundays' (The Wednesday Play, tx.
7/4/1965), was mild compared to what would follow. But 'Up the Junction' (The
Wednesday Play, tx. 3/11/1965) and 'Cathy Come Home' (The Wednesday Play, tx.
16/11/1966) provoked much more heated debate, not least for their use of
documentary material alongside the fiction, which prompted Grace Wyndham Goldie,
the BBC's head of Talks (i.e. non-fiction), to complain that Loach appeared to
be side-stepping the Corporation's normally stringent rules about political
When Loach turned to documentary proper, he also encountered his first
serious censorship. Commissioned in 1969 to document the work of the Save the
Children Fund, Loach turned in a caustic critique of what he saw as the
organisation's patronising attitudes to working-class families at home and the
neo-colonial approach he witnessed at a Kenyan school. The resulting film
remained unshown until 2011. Talk About Work (1971) was made for the Youth
Employment Service, but Loach removed his name from the credits after the
deletion of sequences in which young factory workers describe their jobs as
boring and unfulfilling.
The four-part drama Days of Hope (BBC, 1975) was at least screened intact,
though a nervous BBC repeated it just once before shelving it for decades (its
video debut was in 2011). Critics complained of left-wing distortion of
historical fact (notably whether conscientious objectors had ever been tied to
posts in no man's land). By this time, drama-documentary had become television's
most contentious form, with regular press complaints about the 'blurring' of the
fact/fiction borders and some programmes heavily edited or even banned outright
by the BBC, most notably Peter Watkins' The War Game (1965; eventually tx.
31/7/1985). Loach, however, was not alone in believing that attacks on the form
of drama documentaries disguised an attempt to silence their political content.
But Loach's biggest television battle was still to come. Shortly after
Margaret Thatcher's election as prime minister, he returned to documentary,
convinced that the long gestation of feature films made them useless as
instruments of topical social comment. But his trade union documentary A
Question of Leadership, intended for national ITV broadcast, was criticised by
the Independent Broadcasting Authority for its explicitly anti-government
stance. It was eventually screened a year later, exclusively in the Midlands
Believing that the then-new Channel 4 would be more amenable to politicised
documentaries, Loach proposed the four-part Questions of Leadership (1983), a
wider-ranging study of the trade union movement - but on viewing the completed
programmes' strong criticism of leading trade unionists, an anxious Channel 4
shortened the series to two parts and proposed screening a 'balancing'
documentary by a different filmmaker, before scrapping the broadcast altogether.
In 1984, a South Bank Show about striking miners' songs and poems was shelved by
LWT on the grounds that it was more of a political polemic than the arts
programme they were expecting. Channel 4 eventually showed Which Side Are You
On? separately (tx. 9/1/1985). In 1987, Loach's production of Jim Allen's
strongly anti-Zionist play Perdition was cancelled by the Royal Court Theatre
just 36 hours before its opening night.
The feature Hidden Agenda (1990) premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to a
storm of protest, notably from the veteran Evening Standard film critic
Alexander Walker, who denounced it as IRA propaganda. Walker didn't live to see
The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), but other right-wing commentators were
happy to revive the same charge, and also to criticise Loach for using British
taxpayer's money (via the UK Film Council) to make an apparently anti-British
film, though the Daily Telegraph's Simon Heffer undermined his analysis by
admitting "And no, I haven't seen it, any more than I need to read Mein Kampf to
know what a louse Hitler was." The row may have affected the film's UK
distribution: only 30 prints went into circulation, whereas France got 300.
Loach had had no problems with the British Board of Film Classification until
Sweet Sixteen (2002) was given an 18 certificate for language that, while
admittedly stronger than that encountered in Loach's previous films, could be
convincingly defended as an accurate reflection of how working-class Glaswegian
teenagers spoke. While the BBFC stood firm, some Scottish local authorities
downgraded the certificate to a 15.
Looking for Eric (2009) looked set to be one of Loach's least controversial
films, at least once audiences had got over the notion of him directing a
supernatural buddy comedy featuring former Manchester United footballer Eric
Cantona as himself. Yet while it performed predictably well in Manchester, it
flopped in many other regional cities, doing especially badly in places noted
for local dislike of Cantona's team. Though this particular controversy might
have surprised him, Loach would presumably argue, as he always has, that causing
offence is a necessary fact of life for any filmmaker of conscience.