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Loach, Ken (1936-)

Director, Writer

Main image of Loach, Ken (1936-)

Ken Loach was born on 17 June 1936 in Nuneaton, Warwickshire. The son of an electrician, he attended grammar school in Nuneaton and after two years of National Service studied Law at Oxford University, where he was President of the Dramatic Society. After university he briefly pursued an acting career before turning to directing, joining Northampton Repertory Theatre as an assistant director in 1961 and then moving to the BBC as a trainee television director in 1963.

Loach's first directorial assignment was a thirty-minute drama written by Roger Smith (who worked as story editor on Loach's early Wednesday Plays and was still collaborating with him over thirty years later). In 1964 he also directed episodes of Z Cars (BBC, 1962-78), which taught Loach the difficulties of directing live television drama, and Diary Of A Young Man (BBC), which enabled him to see the possibilities film afforded to get out of the studio and onto the streets. Diary also used non-naturalistic elements, such as stills sequences cut to music and a narrational voiceover, in its attempt to achieve a new kind of narrative drama and Loach was to incorporate some of these innovations into his early Wednesday Plays.

Of the six Wednesday Plays Loach directed in 1965, Up The Junction (BBC, tx. 3/11/1965) was the most groundbreaking for its elliptical style and its inclusion of a controversial abortion sequence. That he was still experimenting at this time was evident from The End Of Arthur's Marriage (BBC, tx. 17/11/1965), an uncharacteristic musical drama from a script by Christopher Logue, but the following year saw Cathy Come Home (BBC, tx. 16/11/1966), written by Jeremy Sandford, consolidate the documentary drama approach of Up The Junction and establish Loach's reputation for social-issue drama. Cathy Come Home's exposure of homelessness as a social problem, at a time when the media was preoccupied with the hedonistic fantasy of the 'swinging sixties', aroused national concern and gave a boost to homelessness charity Shelter which, coincidentally, launched a few days later..

Loach's next Wednesday Play, In Two Minds (BBC, tx. 1/3/1967), written by David Mercer, explored the issue of schizophrenia and the ideas of the radical psychiatrist R. D. Laing, but for his first feature film, Poor Cow (1967), he returned to the world of Up The Junction and Cathy Come Home. With a script by Nell Dunn (who had written Up The Junction), and starring Carol White as a rather more feckless variant on her Cathy character, it was a transitional film, retaining some of the stylistic innovations and non-diegetic music of Up The Junction and Cathy Come Home while striving towards the naturalistic style that was to become Loach's trademark.

Several people were instrumental in Loach finding his style and his subject matter in the late sixties. One of these was Tony Garnett, with whom Loach worked on Up The Junction, Cathy Come Home, In Two Minds and his final two Wednesday Plays: The Golden Vision (BBC, tx. 17/4/1968) and The Big Flame (BBC, tx. 19/2/1969). It was on these television dramas that Loach developed a naturalistic style which reached its fullest expression in his second feature film, Kes (1969), which Garnett produced. Adapted by Barry Hines from his own novel, Kes told the story of Billy Casper, a working-class lad from Barnsley, alienated from school and the prospect of working in the coal mine, who finds a sense of personal achievement in learning to train and fly a kestrel. The cinematographer Chris Menges collaborated with Loach on developing a more observational style which allowed improvisation and the use of untrained actors such as David Bradley who played Billy.

Kes was a commercial and critical success but Loach's next film, Family Life (1971) a re-working of In Two Minds, held little appeal for mainstream cinema audiences and, in the face of a declining British film industry, he spent most of the '70s working in television, making a series of extraordinarily radical political dramas. The Big Flame, scripted by the Trotskyite writer Jim Allen, dramatises a fictional strike at the Liverpool docks which almost escalates into a working-class revolution. Allen also wrote The Rank and File (BBC, tx. 20/5/1971), a less daring but more realistic play built around the strike of the Pilkington glass workers.

These gritty contemporary dramas were succeeded by Days of Hope (BBC, 1975), four feature-length period dramas shot in colour, showing the politicisation of a working-class family in the period from the First World War to the General Strike of 1926, which recount historical events from an explicitly Trotskyite point of view. After a return to contemporary politics with the two-part drama The Price Of Coal (BBC, 1977), Loach was able to make his fourth feature film Black Jack (1979), a children's adventure film set in the 18th century, made by Loach and Garnett's Kestrel Films with money from the National Film Finance Corporation.

Loach began the 1980s with two films scripted by Barry Hines, The Gamekeeper (1980), made for ATV and Looks and Smiles (1981), made for Central TV (and limited cinema release). Garnett had left (temporarily) for America, and Loach admits to finding things difficult at this time, struggling to raise money for films and failing to adapt to the political changes that were taking place as Britain swung to the Right:

I think I'd lost my way a bit - and lost touch with the kind of raw energy of the things we'd done in the mid-sixties and with Kes. The films I was making weren't incisive enough. I wasn't getting the right projects and I wasn't getting the right ideas. And so that's why I tried documentaries not long after the big political change occurred in Britain.

But even with documentaries Loach ran into problems of political censorship. The four-part series about the trade unions, Questions Of Leadership, commissioned by Channel Four, was never shown; a film about the miners' strike for The South Bank Show was withheld by LWT, to be shown eventually on Channel Four; and Jim Allen's stage play about Zionism, Perdition, which Loach was going to direct, was withdrawn at the last minute by the Royal Court Theatre. One of the few films Loach did manage to get made in the '80s was Fatherland (1986), written by Trevor Griffiths and funded by Film Four International with French and German co-production money. The resulting film was more European in subject matter and less social realist in style than many of Loach's previous films and, despite Loach and Griffiths sharing the same political sympathies, wasn't entirely successful, partly because Griffiths' script was more literary and less suited to Loach's naturalistic style.

It wasn't until 1990, with the release of Hidden Agenda, a political thriller set in Northern Ireland about the British army's 'shoot-to-kill' policy, that Loach was able to make a film that regained the polemical edge of the best of his earlier work. It was written by Jim Allen, who was to script two more films for Loach in the '90s, and followed by the equally successful Riff-Raff (1991), the first of a series of films produced by Sally Hibbin's Parallax Pictures and photographed by Barry Ackroyd. In addition to Jim Allen, who wrote Raining Stones (1993) and Land and Freedom (1995), Loach was able to draw on a new generation of left-wing writers such as Bill Jesse (Riff-Raff), Rona Munro (Ladybird, Ladybird, 1994), Paul Laverty (Carla's Song, 1996, My Name Is Joe, 1998, Bread and Roses, 2000, and Sweet Sixteen, 2002) and Rob Dawber (The Navigators, 2001), to regain his sense of purpose and achieve a remarkable renaissance in his career.

A new element which came into Loach's work in the '90s was an increased use of humour. This was partly a result of working with new collaborators such as Bill Jesse and Paul Laverty who brought a new sensibility, tempering the earnest didacticism of some of Loach's earlier films. Additionally, while some of the '90s films veered towards social realism (Riff-Raff, Raining Stones, The Navigators), others mixed social realism with melodrama (Ladybird, Ladybird, Carla's Song, My Name Is Joe), adding an extra enriching dimension to the films. Some critics, however, noting the presence of a downward spiral towards pessimism and defeat in Loach's films, have identified this as a persistent and fundamental problem in his work which is exacerbated by the adoption of a naturalistic style. When so many of his films end on a bleak, despairing note, no matter how 'realistic' this may be, the audience is left with little prospect of positive change, no manifesto for how things might be different.

On the other hand, one can but admire Loach for relentlessly sticking to his task, repeatedly championing the underdog by revealing the hardships and struggles of those at the bottom of the social hierarchy. It is no accident that his best work has been produced at times of supposed affluence, in the mid '60s and the '90s, when he has often been a lone voice, bravely and resolutely standing up for the disadvantaged and the downtrodden. Few directors have been as consistent in their themes and their filmic style, or as principled in their politics, as Loach has in a career spanning five decades. Without doubt he is Britain's foremost political filmmaker.

Fuller, Graham (ed), Loach On Loach (London: Faber and Faber, 1998)
Hill, John, 'Every Fuckin' Choice Stinks', Sight and Sound, Nov. 1998, pp. 18-21
Kerr, Paul, 'The Complete Ken Loach', Stills, May/June 1986, pp. 144-8
Leigh, Jacob, The Cinema Of Ken Loach (London: Wallflower, 2002)
McKnight, George (ed), Agent Of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach (Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 1997)

Lez Cooke, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

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

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

An introduction for young people to the world of employment

Thumbnail image of 3 Clear Sundays (1965)3 Clear Sundays (1965)

Black, powerful drama that lent force to the campaign against hanging

Thumbnail image of After a Lifetime (1971)After a Lifetime (1971)

20th-century class politics explored through the death of a lifelong activist

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

Combative report defending miners leader Arthur Scargill

Thumbnail image of Big Flame, The (1969)Big Flame, The (1969)

Incendiary drama about a dockers' strike turned workers' takeover

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

Classic Ken Loach-directed drama about homelessness

Thumbnail image of Coming Out Party, The (1965)Coming Out Party, The (1965)

Poignant but comic tale of a 12-year old boy searching for his jailbird mum

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

Ken Loach TV drama spanning the 1910s and 1920s

Thumbnail image of Diary of a Young Man (1964)Diary of a Young Man (1964)

TV drama about two young Northerners in London, co-directed by Ken Loach

Thumbnail image of End Of Arthur's Marriage, The (1965)End Of Arthur's Marriage, The (1965)

A real Ken Loach curio: a musical satire on money and property

Thumbnail image of End of the Battle... (1985)End of the Battle... (1985)

Ken Loach's bitter anatomy of the failure of the 1984-85 miners' strike

Thumbnail image of Flickering Flame, The (1996)Flickering Flame, The (1996)

Polemical documentary about an under-reported dockers' dispute

Thumbnail image of Gamekeeper, The (1980)Gamekeeper, The (1980)

Low-key drama exploring the class divide in rural Yorkshire

Thumbnail image of Golden Vision, The (1968)Golden Vision, The (1968)

Witty Ken Loach drama-doc about obsessive Everton fans

Thumbnail image of In Two Minds (1967)In Two Minds (1967)

David Mercer and Ken Loach's controversial study of schizophrenia

Thumbnail image of Price Of Coal, The (1977)Price Of Coal, The (1977)

Comic and tragic events at a Yorkshire pit in Ken Loach's two-parter

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 Rank and File, The (1971)Rank and File, The (1971)

Fictionalised account of a 'wildcat' strike by Jim Allen and Ken Loach

Thumbnail image of Red and the Blue, The (1983)Red and the Blue, The (1983)

Ken Loach documents the Labour and Tory party conferences

Thumbnail image of Tap on the Shoulder (1965)Tap on the Shoulder (1965)

Ken Loach's first Wednesday Play, a tale of villainy and corruption

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

Ken Loach's powerful drama about young women in Clapham

Thumbnail image of View from the Woodpile, The (1989)View from the Woodpile, The (1989)

Abandoned young people speak out in this lively Ken Loach documentary

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

Controversial documentary about the 1984 miners' strike

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Ken Loach: Feature FilmsKen Loach: Feature Films

How the director brought his committed vision to the big screen

Thumbnail image of Ken Loach: The ControversiesKen Loach: The Controversies

How the director's uncompromising approach has ruffled feathers

Thumbnail image of Ken Loach: DocumentariesKen Loach: Documentaries

Characteristically provocative non-fiction works from the radical director

Thumbnail image of Ken Loach: Television DramaKen Loach: Television Drama

The powerful small screen work of an uncompromising master

Thumbnail image of Ken Loach: The Lost TV DramasKen Loach: The Lost TV Dramas

TV's great extinction means some of the director's early works are missing

Thumbnail image of Play for Today (1970-84)Play for Today (1970-84)

Single drama slot known for its provocative political work

Thumbnail image of Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)

Long-running, often provocative BBC drama strand

Thumbnail image of Ken Loach and his collaboratorsKen Loach and his collaborators

Collaboration is key for Britain's foremost political filmmaker

Related people and organisations