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Ken Loach: The Controversies

How the director's uncompromising approach has ruffled feathers

Main image of Ken Loach: The Controversies

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 partisanship.

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 (tx. 13/8/1981).

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.

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

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 Looking for Eric (2009)Looking for Eric (2009)

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

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

Bleak portrait of a Scottish teenager coping with drugs and poverty

Thumbnail image of Talk About Work (1971)Talk About Work (1971)

An introduction for young people to the world of employment

Thumbnail image of Arthur Legend, The (1991)Arthur Legend, The (1991)

Combative report defending miners leader Arthur Scargill

Thumbnail image of Cathy Come Home (1966)Cathy Come Home (1966)

Classic Ken Loach-directed drama about homelessness

Thumbnail image of Days of Hope (1975)Days of Hope (1975)

Ken Loach TV drama spanning the 1910s and 1920s

Thumbnail image of Question of Leadership, A (1980)Question of Leadership, A (1980)

Ken Loach's analysis of the early impact of Thatcherism on workers

Thumbnail image of Up the Junction (1965)Up the Junction (1965)

Ken Loach's powerful drama about young women in Clapham

Thumbnail image of Which Side Are You On? (1984)Which Side Are You On? (1984)

Controversial documentary about the 1984 miners' strike

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Related People and Organisations

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

Director, Writer