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Ken Loach: Television Drama

The powerful small screen work of an uncompromising master

Main image of Ken Loach: Television Drama

Though Ken Loach is often characterised as having begun in television before 'graduating' to feature films, his television dramas are distinctive in their own right, not just preparation for a cinema career, although they share themes, techniques and collaborators with his films. His most famous dramas embraced the space for creativity, radicalism and the airing of neglected voices to audiences of millions offered by the BBC's The Wednesday Play (1964-70) and Play for Today (1970-84), but also intriguingly tested that space's limits when interrogating broadcasters' definition of balance.

After graduating from Oxford in 1960, Loach wrote and acted in theatre, initially uninterested in television, though his year in Northampton rep was financed by an ABC scheme to support budding TV directors. Loach acted in small parts on That Was The Week That Was (BBC, 1962-63), but in late 1963 took the BBC's directors' training course.

'Catherine' (BBC, tx. 24/1/1964), about a woman whose marriage had broken down, marked Loach's debut. The play appeared in the experimental anthology Teletale (BBC, 1963-64), one of a succession of attempts to challenge naturalism in television drama. Teletale's producer, James MacTaggart, credited 'Catherine' with "breaking most of the accepted rules of television" with its fluid narration, experimental staging - without sets, lighting indicated scene changes - and quick cutting. 'Catherine' partnered Loach with two of his most prolific collaborators: actor Tony Garnett, who as a producer would oversee most of Loach's work through the 1960s and 70s, and writer Roger Smith, who was a script editor on several of Loach's earliest television works, and a script consultant on many of his later films.

More conventional, though no less complex assignments included three live episodes of police series Z Cars (BBC, 1962-78): 'Profit by Their Example' by John Hopkins (tx. 12/2/1964) and Robert Barr's 'Straight Deal' (tx. 11/3/1964) and 'The Whole Truth' (tx. 8/4/1964). His three episodes of the more experimental Diary of a Young Man (BBC, 1964; the other three were directed by Peter Duguid) matched him with MacTaggart, John McGrath and Troy Kennedy Martin, whose 1964 'Nats Go Home' article called for a new televisual grammar. Head of drama Sydney Newman called Loach's first episode "a major breakthrough in storytelling" for its combination of fractured narrative, studio material, stills, montage, voice-overs, archive, music and location filming. Other early Loach plays showed the influence of experimental television, the French New Wave and Brechtian theatre - as Loach recalled, "exposing the mechanism of drama".

In 1965 The Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-70) - produced, initially, by MacTaggart and story-edited by Roger Smith - broadcast six Loach pieces, including three written by James O'Connor: the amusing 'Tap on the Shoulder' (BBC, tx. 6/1/1965), about criminals in the Establishment; '3 Clear Sundays' (BBC, tx. 7/4/1965), with a victim's perspective of capital punishment; and 'The Coming Out Party' (BBC, tx. 22/12/1965), featuring a youth with imprisoned parents. Eric Coltart's 'Wear A Very Big Hat' (BBC, tx. 17/2/1965) featured actor Neville Smith, who appeared in, and soon wrote, other Loach plays. Although surreal musical 'The End of Arthur's Marriage' (BBC, tx. 17/11/1965) seems uncharacteristic, montage and pop music recur in Loach's early work. They are allied powerfully with documentary elements in 'Up the Junction' (BBC, tx. 3/11/1965), Nell Dunn's headline-making study of illegal abortion.

Loach and Garnett influenced the growth of all-filmed television plays, confronting BBC reservations about 16mm and circumventing compulsory studio scenes by editing them on film. Loach's drama documentaries evolved a style generating apparent immediacy, in particular aided by cinematographer Tony Imi on 'Cathy Come Home' (BBC, tx. 16/11/1966), the study of homelessness which remains one of Loach's most respected films and the best-remembered of all 1960s' television dramas. David Mercer's 'In Two Minds' (BBC, tx. 1/3/1967), on schizophrenia and conformity, was Loach's first all-location production, while 'The Golden Vision' (BBC, tx. 17/4/1968) saw the director start to cast club comedians in his search for authentic performance. Co-written by Neville Smith, 'The Golden Vision' included humour and football (recurring Loach elements) and further fused drama and documentary. Smith also wrote the affecting After a Lifetime (tx. 18/7/1971), about the funeral of a lifelong political activist, made for LWT by Loach and Garnett's Kestrel Films.

Although dramadoc devices placed characters' stories in wider social contexts, Loach worried that 'Cathy Come Home' "wasn't political enough" because it didn't question structural causes such as land ownership. Collaborating with Jim Allen made his subsequent work more explicitly political. 'The Big Flame' (BBC, tx. 19/2/1969) depicted revolutionary occupation by Liverpool dockers, while Loach's first Play for Today (BBC, 1970-84), 'The Rank and File' (BBC, tx. 20/5/1971), fictionalised a recent strike; both were political interventions, articulating working-class interests which they charged trade unions with betraying. Airing alternative viewpoints through techniques resembling the non-fiction programmes that they followed in the schedules (a specifically televisual concept), the plays questioned television's claims to objectivity. For Loach and Garnett, complaints about drama documentary form disguised an effort to suppress political content.

After a family tragedy, Loach returned gradually with the half-hour Chekhov adaptation 'A Misfortune' (Full House, BBC, tx. 13/1/1973), before embarking on Days of Hope (BBC, 1975). This high-profile Loach-Garnett-Allen four-parter presented a 'people's history' from the First World War to the 1926 General Strike, inviting comparisons between its labour movement treachery and contemporary politics. Testament to television's radical film culture - cinema financers backed away from the initial idea - it and 'Loach-Garnett-Allen' techniques became central to academic debates in the film journal Screen about politically impactful film form.

Since Chris Menges' cinematography on Kes (1969), Loach's style left behind documentary devices in favour of sympathetic observation inspired by the Czech 'new wave'. This approach underpins two collaborations with Kes's writer, Barry Hines: 'The Price of Coal' (BBC, 1977), a comic-tragic mining two-parter, and The Gamekeeper (ITV, tx. 16/12/1980), which ambitiously crosses different seasons while raising questions of land ownership, class and alienation. However, feeling that his style lacked dynamism in Looks and Smiles (1981), and wanting to respond urgently to Thatcherism, Loach focused on television documentaries, sharing themes (such as unions failing members), techniques and collaborators (including Menges, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and editor Jonathan Morris) with his fiction.

Given that television still helps to finance many of his films, it's difficult to state that Loach left television drama for cinema. However, Loach's films receive limited distribution in Britain, lacking the "immediacy and real exchange" that Loach and other filmmakers experienced when engaging mass audiences and attentive critics. That engagement was invoked when cinema films were broadcast early as, in effect, television dramas: The Navigators (Channel 4, tx. 2/12/2001), on privatisation and casualisation affecting rail workers, and It's A Free World... (Channel 4, tx. 24/9/2007), on the exploitation of economic migrants, were reminders that Loach brought topicality, humanity and passion to television drama.

Dave Rolinson

Further reading Hayward, Anthony, Which Side Are You On? Ken Loach and his Films (London: Bloomsbury, 2004). Hill, John, Ken Loach: The Politics of Film and Television (London: BFI, 2011).

Related Films and TV programmes

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 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 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 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 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 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 Z Cars (1962-78)

Z Cars (1962-78)

Groundbreaking cop drama introducing new grit and realism

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of Ken Loach: Feature Films

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Thumbnail image of Ken Loach: The Controversies

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Thumbnail image of Ken Loach: The Lost TV Dramas

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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 The Television Play

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

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Long-running, often provocative BBC drama strand

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Allen, Jim (1926-99)

Allen, Jim (1926-99)


Thumbnail image of Garnett, Tony (1936-)

Garnett, Tony (1936-)

Producer, Director, Writer, Actor

Thumbnail image of Hines, Barry (1939- )

Hines, Barry (1939- )


Thumbnail image of Loach, Ken (1936-)

Loach, Ken (1936-)

Director, Writer

Thumbnail image of MacTaggart, James (1928-74)

MacTaggart, James (1928-74)

Producer, Director, Writer

Thumbnail image of O'Connor, James (1918-2001)

O'Connor, James (1918-2001)


Thumbnail image of Smith, Roger

Smith, Roger

Writer, Script/Story Editor, Actor