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Ken Loach: Documentaries

Characteristically provocative non-fiction works from the radical director

Main image of Ken Loach: Documentaries

Ken Loach's documentaries tend to be overlooked in accounts of his career, but taken as a whole, they have been at least as contentious as his more visible film and television dramas. His first, The Save the Children Fund Film (aka In Black and White), was commissioned in 1969 by the eponymous charity, although London Weekend Television put up two-thirds of the budget in return for screening rights. However, when the charity discovered that Loach's film represented their efforts in England as characterised largely by class prejudice and one of their schools in Kenya as a hotbed of neo-colonialist attitudes, they threatened to sue Loach and destroy the film, faced with which LWT meekly wrote off their investment and agreed not to screen it. Fortunately, however, the charity agreed to the print being lodged with the BFI, and the film received its first public screening in 2011.

A similar fate befell Talk About Work, which the Central Office of Information commissioned from Loach partly to dispel the image of the insensitive careers officer portrayed in Kes (1969). However, when Loach included footage of one of the young interviewees describing his work in Ford's Halewood car plant as soul destroying, the COI refused to release the film.

Throughout the 1970s Loach concentrated on television drama, but by the start of the 1980s he had abandoned fiction in favour of documentary. Television drama was becoming increasingly expensive, and radical drama especially hard to finance. He also felt that the advent of Thatcherism, with its overt assaults on the working class, and especially on trade union rights, called for the directness of the documentary form. As he himself put it:

"There were things we wanted to say head on and not wrapped up in fiction...things that should be said as directly as one can say them... Thatcherism just felt so urgent that I thought that doing a fictional piece for TV, which would take a year to get commissioned and at least another year to make, was just too slow... Documentaries can tackle things head on, and you can make them faster than dramas, too - though, with hindsight, it's just as hard, if not harder, to get them transmitted."

Just how hard is illustrated by the fate of a number of his 1980s documentaries. His film on the 1980 steel strike, A Question of Leadership (ATV, tx. 13/8/1981) was deemed 'unbalanced' by the Independent Broadcasting Authority, not transmitted for over a year after its completion, cut to accommodate a 'balancing' discussion at the end, and never shown outside the Midlands ATV region. Meanwhile Questions of Leadership, four programmes about the relationship between the leadership and the rank and file of the trade union movement, commissioned in 1982 from ATV's successor, Central Television, by Channel 4, ran into further problems over 'balance' with both the IBA and elements within the Channel's own management itself.

But once these had been more or less resolved, Central's board suddenly produced the argument that the films were defamatory of specific trade union leaders and withdrew them. But as Loach biographer Anthony Hayward has revealed, the real problems for Central were political; not only did certain board members regard the films as too left-wing, but one of the trade union leaders criticised in the film was electricians' leader Frank Chapple, on whom board member and media tycoon Robert Maxwell was highly dependent for the smooth running of his numerous printing operations. Maxwell's representative on the board was the former Attorney-General Sam Silkin, whose legal advice persuaded the board that the programmes were defamatory. They were never transmitted.

Loach also encountered problems with his film about the music and poetry which emerged from the 1984-85 coal dispute, Which Side Are You On? This was commissioned by Melvyn Bragg for The South Bank Show (ITV, 1978-2010), but the company's controller of drama, Nick Elliott, insisted on the cutting of some of the scenes involving police brutality towards the striking miners, and even Bragg felt that the film was too political for an arts slot. Loach refused to cut the police scenes but nonetheless he and Bragg attempted to construct a version acceptable to both of them as well as to the LWT hierarchy. When the latter refused to budge Bragg sold the film to Channel 4 (tx. 9/1/1985), but, true to form, the IBA decreed that it must be 'balanced' the following week by a programme deeply unsympathetic to the striking miners.

Loach's other 1980s documentaries were less contentious. 'End of the Battle... Not the End of the War?' (aka 'We Should Have Won', Diverse Reports, Channel 4, tx. 27/3/1985), which enabled him to return both to the coal dispute and to the theme of the betrayal of rank-and-file trade unionists by their leaders. Loach revisited the strike again with 'The Arthur Legend' (Dispatches, Channel 4, tx. 12/6/1989), challenging the vilification of miners' leader Arthur Scargill by the Daily Mirror and ITV's The Cook Report (1987-98). Since the Mirror was then owned by Robert Maxwell, this adds further resonance to the tycoon's role in banning Questions of Leadership.

The 1990s saw Loach return to both the BBC and the Liverpool Docks setting of his drama 'The Big Flame' (The Wednesday Play, tx. 19/2/1969) with 'The Flickering Flame' (Modern Times, tx. 8/12/1996), focusing on the 329 dockers who had been sacked and replaced by non-union labour for refusing to cross a picket line, whose dispute the leadership of the Transport and General Workers had refused to make official.

That so many of Loach's documentaries faced such difficulties in getting shown all too clearly demonstrates the narrow limits of the politically possible in even the more liberal sections of Britain's media. As Loach himself put it: "Working people are allowed on television so long as they fit the stereotypes that producers have of them. Workers can appear pathetic in their ignorance and poverty, apathetic to parliamentary politics, or aggressive on the picket line. But let them make a serious political analysis based on their own experiences and in their own language, then keep them off the air".

Julian Petley

Further reading:
Hayward, Anthony (2005), Which Side Are You On? Ken Loach and His Films (London: Bloomsbury)
Petley, Julian (1997), 'Ken Loach and questions of censorship', in George McKnight (ed.), Agent of Challenge and Defiance: the Films of Ken Loach (Trowbridge: Flicks Books)

Related Films and TV programmes

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 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 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 Red and the Blue, The (1983)

Red and the Blue, The (1983)

Ken Loach documents the Labour and Tory party conferences

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

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Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Loach, Ken (1936-)

Loach, Ken (1936-)

Director, Writer