by Richard Fudge
from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, pp. 41-43
In any analysis of politically oriented cinema in Britain over the past decade, the names of Ken Loach and Tony Garnett stand out. Financially, it hasn't been easy for anyone to make or distribute films in Britain, particularly if their intentions limit what backers see as their commercial potential, and all filmmakers’ outputs have been modified by this. Ken Loach and Tony Garnett, as director and producer respectively, worked together at the BBC for a number of years and produced several outstanding plays and films of both artistic and social importance. This formed a foundation from which they were able to establish their own production company and work independently on cinema and television films of their own choosing—though, nevertheless, within the confines of what they could get money for.
Unlike most British filmmakers who came to prominence during the sixties, they have not sought the easier production opportunities of the U.S. film industry and, furthermore, their choice of subject matter has severely restricted their potential for distribution in the United States. Consequently their work remains almost entirely unknown to U.S. audiences. This article undertakes a brief survey of their films and their attitudes to film.
Their early collaborations consist entirely of television plays/ films for the BBC Drama Department and these remain as important as anything they have done, and confirm, for me at least, Loach and Garnett’s importance. Others, such as Boorman or Russell or Schlesinger, having established their talent and reputation at the BBC, have left television altogether and concentrated on cinema, whereas Loach and Garnett have always seemed keen to work in both media. There seems to be no clearcut reason behind their decision and it would appear to be a combination of artistic and financial considerations. Loach, in a recent conversation we had in preparation for this article, made no secret that artistically the cinema screen is preferable to that of the television, though foremost among his considerations is of making a particular film rather than working in a particular medium. (For example, their current project for the BBC was originally conceived as a movie, but they simply had to go where the money was available—and seemingly with few regrets.) Garnett seems more ideologically committed to television and has made the observation:
This, admittedly, was written in 1970 when perhaps their access to both media was more open, but it nonetheless illustrates very accurately what I see to be the most admirable of Loach and Garnett’s intentions. The major characters in all their work have been drawn exclusively from the working classes and it is the powerless in the community whose cause they have been most eager to pursue. The television treatment of the working class in Britain rarely reflects seriousness or integrity of purpose, and this, combined with the working class’ inability to participate actively in media, has continually excluded them from what Garnett has referred to as “the imaginative life of society.” In other than personal terms, it’s difficult to evaluate how far Loach and Garnett, and their few like-minded colleagues, have actually made contact with the social classes to whom they speak, though Loach, cautious in his claims, feels it is nevertheless worth the attempt.
Loach’s work, while firmly romantic, is not concerned merely with the larger than life reflection of working class culture that characterizes the humanistic and pseudoradical British documentary tradition. His most successful work has always been built from issues rather than emotion, and though he sets out to immerse an audience, Loach’s occasional scenes of pathetic sentimentality clearly detract from the larger successes of the films. Working in a medium which has institutionalized the confusion between emotion and sentimentality, it must be difficult to know where to pitch one’s product if you are to reach an audience that has been force fed a diet incongruous with one’s own purpose and approach. If you are still to make contact—something of the familiar must, presumably remain, though it is not in Loach’s character, I believe, to patronize. Loach’s first feature, POOR COW, now considered by him to be entirely worthless, shows him to be struggling to find the right key in which to communicate with the popular imagination of cinema goers.
Similarly there exists the problem of an over-abstraction of issues, where the arguments under discussion interfere with the otherwise everyday flow of realistic life one attempts to present. This is the perennial dilemma for “political” filmmakers if they are to break ground with an audience unfamiliar or unsympathetic to overtly political discussion. An audience who might be alienated from a tract might be less shy of the same arguments if presented in fictional terms through a sympathetic character. For example, in 1966 Loach and Garnett made a television film entitled CATHY COME HOME, in which they discussed the inadequate provisions made for homeless families in Britain, largely through the dramatic presentation of the central character, Cathy. This drama, followed by a compilation of factual statistics in the final credits, had an enormous impact on British audiences and its central arguments were brought into public discussion in a manner perhaps less likely with a straight forward documentary presentation.
Nevertheless, a later television film, THE BIG FLAME, written by Jim Allen, which sought to discuss the equally personal crises of workers in a dock dispute in which the army was finally brought in to break the workers’ occupation, was too overtly political to reach the popular imagination with the same immediacy or sense of identification. Those militant dock workers were no more or less socially deviant than the homeless Cathy, and yet, expressed more explicitly as a political issue, their problems were not largely regarded as interesting or pertinent. Many similar characters appear in Loach and Garnett’s present project, DAYS OF HOPE, also by Allen (a four-part television film which follows several characters through the years 1914 to 1926). Yet the characters are, from what little I have seen of it, more fully drawn and their commitment to ideas during the First World War or the General Strike more visible in personal terms.
Their work is characterized by this endeavor to personalize the issues facing the working class community and to present these in terms both plausible and compelling to an audience. This personalization is central, I believe, to their strategy, expressed by Garnett, of “speaking directly to all people,” whether it be in the cinema or television. This desire to reach a broad, non-exclusive audience, while at the same time carrying on a debate or analysis commonly found only in more intellectualized and, consequently, elitist cultural forms, might inhibit the very discussion it attempts. Indeed, even Loach’s firm position within the documentary eye might not succeed, for there is a tradition in Britain (and the States for that matter) of naturalism in the documentary movement that fights shy of overt analysis. And while they by no means fill it, Loach and Garnett have placed themselves right in the middle of this gap between naturalistic documentation and a structural analysis of working class life.
To a large extent their most unresolved dilemma emerges from this: analysis tends to require a generalization of statement and view, and yet they seek to avoid generalization in their desire for realism.
“Not just to understand the world, but to change it, and to point out how it can be changed,” is how Tony Garnett described what he thought Loach and he were trying to do. As a normative view of the filmmaker’s aspirations this may be acceptable, but it is rather too bold a manifesto to realize in the categorical spirit of its assertion. Although Loach is more guarded than Garnett in speaking of predefined goals, their films do not achieve the overt manner of analysis that Garnett might have us believe they seek. There is, of course, material in the films open to analysis and Loach while scripting, shooting and editing consciously articulates a world view; and though their most recent feature, FAMILY LIFE, comes nearest to Garnett’s ideal, an earlier film like KES is too open to myriad interpretation beyond the analysis which it itself offers, to claim that it points out how things can be changed.
Nevertheless, Loach and Garnett do make exceptionally public films. Both the ideas contained in the films and the dramatic construction which supports these are immensely credible and accessible. But I think it wrong to call KES a failure because it is not specific enough in its indictment or in suggesting a program of. reform, and a brief discussion of the film will itself elicit the film’s strength. KES is primarily an indictment of British educational provision to develop in the working class community the ability to respond beyond the habitual and essentially narrow confines of industrial and material drudgery. It succeeds beyond the level of mere fictional portrayal of a young boy’s experience of school by selectively dealing with the inner imagination of the boy in reaction to the worthless institutional arrangements that thwart such imagination and individuality at every stage. Such a boy, for example, would be little moved by a Godard film, whereas the relatively down-to-earth nature of Loach’s analysis illustrates, in a vocabulary accessible to all, the subordination of the individual to industrial and bureaucratic convenience.
The first style successfully explored by Loach and Garnett to transform the otherwise fictional into a more realistic or factual assertion was that of the documentary drama. CATHY COME HOME for instance was, by the standards of the day, a documentary about a homeless family, except that it involved actors working from a script. Visually its camerawork created the illusion of a documentary camera taking note of events that occurred independently of any fictional conception, loosely organized scenes containing all the realistic irrelevancies of bystanders interrupting both soundtrack and frame, of “untidy” editing seeming not to be building a dramatic plot, and of natural lighting and locations not usually identified with the previously studio-based productions of the BBC Drama Department. Neither camera or microphone pretended to be unobtrusive, with actors frequently speaking directly to both, in the style of an interview, and their speech “flawed” by characteristic realism. Though the technique of presenting fiction as fact raised moral objections from some quarters, it asserted the realistic basis of drama and encourage an analysis of the issues involved.
Though Loach has never released anything so emphatically documentary in style, the realism that characterizes all his work derives from a documentary model and serves similar purposes. This sense of dramatized reality stems above all else from the performances Loach gets from his actors, and this is perhaps his most accurate skill. From CATHY COME HOME onwards, he has chosen his actors, it seems, for the sense of shared experience they can bring to a script. To a large extent this has meant recruiting people with either no previous experience of acting or with no direct experience of TV or film. (That he has not been able to recruit such people exclusively is, ironically, the result of protective measures necessarily taken by the British acting union.)
The use of such actors brings a freshness and dramatic conviction and is a principal element of the modest pace which Loach sets for his films. His editing is slow moving, his camera angles simple, seeming to decide at the outset of a take what he wants in frame and sticking to it—plus this accompanying “unstylized” style of his actors (their style stemming essentially from their own sense of the situation) combine to generate the powerful modesty of his image.
Spending a day on location, I was fascinated to see how he organized what often seem like the accidental and stumbling improvisations of his cast. Not surprisingly, it wasn't like that at all. However tired it sounds, Loach’s strongest virtue is his personal relationship with his cast. He is an extremely quiet, hesitant person with his sense of others more immediately evident than his sense of himself. Consequently, even for those among his cast whose background does not lead them to assume a professional trust and respect, the personal element is the powerful factor in his directorial control. Chosen, as I have said, for their personal proximity to the characters they are to “portray,” Loach’s advice is for them to bring the character from themselves.
At the time I had recently seen KES again and read the novel on which it is based and was astounded at the similarity between the dialogue of the book and the apparent improvised dialogue of the film. It seems that Leach’s technique is to acquaint his cast with the script and then shoot the sequence “in their own words”—after seven or eight takes, he agreed with a wry smile, they generally use the words which the script first suggested.
POOR COW (1967)
Ken Loach’s first film for the cinema, POOR COW, deals with the emotional and social struggles of one woman, Joy. She marries while in her late teens, gives birth to a son (which brings her companionship, as her ties with her husband are merely sexual and material), her husband is imprisoned as the result of a bungled robbery, and she falls in love with another criminal who is similarly imprisoned. It deals with her struggle on a day to day basis, selecting, in a quasi-documentary fashion, scenes over a three year period of her life.
This life conspires to seek two things—wealth and love—and, in her search for these, sexuality is seen as a means to both, as well as a relief and diversion when neither is immediately attainable. Loach goes out of his way to show us mundanity, through the social realism of his London locations and his dialogue. This mundanity is transcended on two levels: by pointedly universalistic themes of life, love, motherhood, etc., and by the romantic attitudes of Joy, whose occasional narration pushes the film away from realism into lyrical escape.
In parts this lyricism (be it Joy’s or Loach’s) goes too far and pushes the film to an awkward com-promise between cinema verite and silver screen indulgence. Chris Menges’ excellent photography (and it is even better in KES) unfortunately glamorizes rather than reflects; alienation devices such as titled headings or comments between sequences become a little glib; an angelic Donovan singing Christopher Logue’s otherwise pertinent title song ultimately detracts from it; the working class culture the film portrays is rather sensationalized; stars such as Terrence Stamp and Carol White are unconvincing and uninteresting in their attempts to be ordinary people: these all pull the film in two contrary and confused directions. The excitement which Loach attempted to put into his image is ill-conceived and detracts from its subject matter.
Nevertheless, the film is by no means a complete failure. Partly its naivety and lyricism can be explained, I feel, by the narrative stance often given to Joy. She is naive, she does romanticize an environment that might strike others with despondency or introspection—in short, she “makes the best of things.” To this extent the film makes an interesting attempt to oscillate between Joy’s mind and that of a third-person narrator—in the style of Nell Dunn’s novel upon which it is based. In fact, in writing the screenplay Loach and Dunn may have too literally transcribed features of the novel that appear indiscriminate in the way they finally work on the screen.
The film is full of the popular culture in which the principal characters surround themsleves. “What a day for a daydream” and evocations of San Franciscans with flowers in their hair play over the squalor of the housing conditions in East London, and while this achieves some analysis through paradox, it is a little too simplistic and fails to articulate the more urgent reasons why certain sections of our community have to live this way.
In POOR COW Loach compromised himself to commercial sensation in a manner that his previous and subsequent work seldom has. He admits there is much he would like to put in his work which is tempered by the ultimate need to get his films shown, if he is to speak to an audience at all, and POOR COW well shows him in a state of confusion about what he wants to do.
Based on a novel by Barry Hines entitled A Kestrel for a Knave (the book’s title refers to the only hunting bird the lowest social orders were allowed to keep), KES is the story of a fifteen-year-old boy, Billy Casper, during the last weeks of his secondary school career. The school experience offers him nothing and soon he will be unwillingly drawn into the coal mining industry upon which his local northern England town, Barnsley, is based. Home offers him equally little, with an indifferent mother who, deserted by her husband, is out each night with a different man, and a half-brother, Jud, himself a miner, who bullies Billy into submission at his every whim. Billy finds a young kestrel which he patiently trains and in which his life becomes absorbed. In a rage at Billy, Jud kills the bird in revenge.
Shot entirely on location, its actors, with one exception, are local townspeople and club entertainers. This realism gives the film Leach’s documentary edge and, indeed, many of its actors are cast in their real life roles of teacher, headmaster, librarian or school kid. While the film concerns itself ostensibly with the central character of Billy, I think it fully meets the demands of someone like Flaherty that “a story must come out of the life of people, not from the actions of individuals,” both through the representative aspect of Billy’s experiences and through the rich and detailed regional flavor of the film. The narrative style is one of utter simplicity, with no tricks, and the dramatic quality of the story is allowed to speak for itself.
KES resists the temptation of being some sort of mere “nature” film with swirling and impressive shots of the hawk dominating the screen. The hawk is always shown in relation to the boy, and the boy in relation to his unequivocal, wider environment. For example, the sequences we see of Billy training the hawk on the green slopes behind his home are always framed to include the grey, smoky, industrial town as a constant reminder of its presence in Billy’s world. There is also a powerful sequence where Billy, on his early morning paper route, sits down too read through a kid’s comic he is to deliver. The boy, absorbed within the fantastic omnipotence and resilience of Desperate Dan, the comic hero, is not conscious at that moment of the churning coal mine beyond, and of his own vulnerability.
The impotent atmosphere of the school, which utterly fails to touch Billy’s imagination, is contrasted to the compelling world of the boy’s experiences with the kestrel. Billy’s inability to concentrate on the tasks externally set at school or home is contrasted with the intense and prolonged absorption in the training of the kestrel. Billy is one of the large number of children whom the British education system regard as ineducable and whose secondary school career is largely a matter of turning up at school and fitting into the institutional structure of behavior. Consequently, students and teachers, caught alike in this structure, seldom come together in any personal exchange. And then, when these children are sixteen, they are fed into the industrial machine.
A key scene in KES involves Billy’s interview with the Youth Employment Officer. Made gratuitous by both the lack of alternatives open to kids like Billy and by the incredible caseload of such an officer, allowing a matter of minutes in which each child’s vocational opportunities are explored and settled, it epitomizes the non-communicative interchange between citizen and state. The interview succeeds only in overwhelming and degrading the interviewee, with any control, through language and ultimate power, entirely beyond his reach. Billy’s thoughts can't focus on the mystical jargon of his interviewer’s concern, except to say, “I wouldn't be seen dead down pit”—the interviewer in turn takes such a future for granted and begins to talk in terms of superannuation, graduated contributions and pensions. In each of his feature films Loach has exploited the interview situation, to explore the communication between ordinary people and authority, and these scenes exemplify his acute ear for dialogue.
The character of Billy is played superbly by David Bradley, himself a fifteen-year-old in a similar situation, and every scene at which he is at the center works with compelling persuasion and power. Visually his scant and grubby body, scruffy and lacking care, and his tired eyes, contrast stunningly with the close ups of the kestrel in his keeping. One sympathizes with him completely through the understanding he brings to the role, although he retains throughout a cold unsentimental edge, and even the most unfortunate of his encounters with an insensitive world are touched with absurdity. As Loach himself has said,
The film’s humor works both through its irony and its sheer accuracy of detail, with all but the last scene of the film, seeing at once the serious and funny side of the facts it portrays. One sequence, of a school soccer lesson, is among the funniest I have seen in any movie. It nevertheless has weak moments such, for example, as one sequence in a working men’s club, which is overlong and superficial. Also, one scene of Jud beginning a day’s work at the pit, which though necessary to the overall portrayal of Billy’s world, seems poorly conceived except for the overdubbed soundtrack of the school’s religious assembly running simultaneously and emphasizing the recurrent “cage” image of both pit and school. Billy’s freedom from any of these cages can only be through momentary diversion.
FAMILY LIFE (1971)
The theme of the individual’s imaginative repression and lack of autonomy, explored in KES, becomes the pivotal notion in FAMILY LIFE. Written by David Mercer, it is a remake of a television film be, Loach and Garnett had collaborated on five years earlier. There is no doubt it is Leach’s most accomplished film and stands high against any film made in Britain in the 1970’s. (The film was initially released in the U.S. under the distributor’s title of WEDNESDAY'S CHILD.)
The film is overwhelmingly harrowing and pessimistic in its immediate impact, following an unspecified period of months during which its central character, Janice Baildon, deteriorates from being an attractive nineteen-year-old, helplessly estranged from parental expectations, to a physically and mentally wrecked mute, institutionalized with no immediate prospect of recovery. The final sequence of the film takes place in a lecture hall where Janice is brought in to illustrate a lecture being given to a class of medical students. The senior doctor, white-coated, stands at the front of the hall:
This short, telling sequence ends the film abruptly, stressing the need for serious and urgent inquiry and showing the complacent, unfeeling approach which typifies the treatment of psychiatric illness. It is worth quoting in full because it is the final dialectical blow thrown by the film, and is diametrically opposed to the arguments that the previous hundred minutes of the film so relentlessly press. The film sets out to evince unequivocally that Janice’s symptoms bear a very discernable connection with her environment, and that the traditional diagnosis and treatment of such symptoms is illogical, myopic, and barbaric.
The “comfortable home” which the doctor speaks of is seen in the film to be comfortable only in the contact of suburban conformity and sameness. The “happy childhood” of which he speaks is shown to be dominated by repressive parental inhibitions. At all stages of her existence Janice adheres to conventional expectations rather than personal inclinations. The ensuing and complete loss of self-respect results in severe mental detachment.
The film provides the background to what it clearly sees as the causes of her problems and shows the treatment she receives from the medical profession—firstly through a progressive group therapist with whose help she seems to be gaining a gradual sense of her own identity, but later, when this doctor’s contract is terminated by the hospital in favor of more traditional and “effective” techniques, she is given electro-convulsive therapy and drugs.
Many of the sequences of the film are too elliptical to be conventionally assimilated as narrative, and a plot summary would be trite in respect of the powerful cinema verite atmosphere which Loach achieves. Once again, his cast, either inexperienced, or inexperienced in film, are with very few exceptions superb. Grace Cave and Bill Dean, as the parents, bring a tremendous force to the screen, and though villains in the larger sense, Cave particularly, Loach told me, felt every nuance of the well-meaning-ness that she puts into her role. Even more impressive is Sandy Ratcliff, as Janice, who in her first, and, I think, only acting role gives a performance as perfect as it is disturbing.
The film’s ending is pessimistic to the extreme—a virtual emotional holocaust—and this pessimism might possibly detract from the task of analysis which the film appears to set for itself and its audience. In deciding the extent of his film’s emotional impact, Loach had to reconcile two areas of concern: the utterly convincing disintegration of a human life, if his audience were to appreciate the possible impact of mental illness; and, secondly, an analysis of that which causes and that which antagonizes such “illness.” Its final sequence identifies, as I have said, the attitude of the British health service as responsible for Janice’s ultimate plight, and, as the last image you see, the callousness of the doctor remains intact. The blame for the root cause of Janice’s “illness” is placed rather generally in the lap of “the system.”
The enunciated normality of Janice’s background, the suburban nuclear family, which created the roles and conditions which have stifled and destroyed her individuality, is poignantly expressed. But once again Loach chooses to make his condemnation in an implicit fashion, allowing the audience itself to articulate any explicit analysis. The assertion that most people can make that analysis seems in part to be contradicted by the portrayal of Mr. and Mrs. Average (i.e., Janice’s parents) as unable to see beyond the implications-of their “normal” behavior. And yet Loach seems prepared to accept that the same average folks, in the context of a cinema audience, will be able to see beyond their habitual assertions. Alternatives for the medical treatment of Janice’s problems are clearly offered, but no alternatives to the nuclear family in an industrial society are discussed at all. Such a lack of discussed alternatives is greatly responsible for the pessimistic impression the film leaves. One can only speculate as to whether Loach is intentionally pessimistic in his failure to discuss alternatives.
While both POOR COW and FAMILY LIFE contain a lot of improvised dialogue, and both to significant effect, there is a tentativeness about FAMILY LIFE which makes the dialogue less tidy, less equivocal in suggestion—more realistic. Much of the dialogue emerges in interview situations where the speaker is conspicuously aware of audience, which in itself provides a more energetic sense of “performance.” The seemingly unpolished editing—with long takes, insistently undramatic fades, etc.—similarly adds a spontaneity to the film—a spontaneity that in a way suggests discovery. In this respect I think it is less than satisfactory that the film is so overstated in deference to the point which it wishes to make, for its case could be more conclusive if it were a little less pushed in one direction. On some of the film’s issues Loach shows both sides of the argument, but overall its overstatement of the Laingian school of thought detracts from the film’s realism and honesty. Though, nevertheless, it stands as a convincing condemnation of the British health service’s attitude to psychiatric treatment and cure.
Although Loach has made merely three films for the cinema, and the last of these five years ago, his achievements are considerable. KES and FAMILY LIFE have been variously, though by no means unanimously, acclaimed as masterpieces, and as television director he has engaged an artistic reputation uncommon to that medium. The present, four-film DAYS OF HOPE project for the BBC represents three years work for him and Garnett and its screening this autumn should consolidate their achievements and hopefully give them capital enough to work in the cinema again if that is what they want.
By canvassing and conveying the life and opinion of the working class, Loach and Garnett have narrowed the gap between those who make and those who watch films. Equally they have narrowed distinctions between cineastes and popular audiences. Their revolutionary impulse is too emphatic for some audiences, and too slight for others. Ultimately they may never speak directly to all people, but they are certainly making contact.