Ken Loach:
‘Poverty threatens
our very existence’

Ken Loach said recently that superhero movies are boring. Instead, he finds interest in apparently unremarkable people, like Ricky and Abby, crushed by precarious and zero-hours jobs in his new film

Hero image

Many people presumed I, Daniel Blake was Ken Loach’s swansong. The movie, released in 2016, was acclaimed for its uninhibited depiction of a broken welfare system, winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival and the Bafta for Outstanding British Film. It would have been a fitting finale to a career that’s spanned five decades, but Loach has more to say and is now back with a new film, Sorry We Missed You. At 83, he’s surprised himself.

“I’m constantly amazed, and I’m touching wood as I say this, because you bloody well never know what’s around the corner. When you reach a certain age, you just take each game as it comes, like the footballers do, and just plan one film at a time,” says Loach.

He and Paul Laverty, his long-time script writer, have discussed the changing employment landscape “for as long as I can remember”, but it was while researching I, Daniel Blake that the idea emerged for Sorry We Missed You.

In the film, he explores the impact of zero-hours contracts, bogus self-employment and the stark reality for the millions who work in the gig economy through one family, the Turners.

“The interests of the employer and of the worker are diametrically opposed.”

Ricky and Abby Turner, played by Kris Hitchen and Debbie Honeywood, are living in rented accommodation in Newcastle with their two kids, Seb and Liza Jane. Abby’s an agency care worker who loves her job but is working for what amounts to less than the minimum wage. Ricky’s a grafter and takes pride in the fact he’s never claimed benefits, but he needs to earn enough to put a deposit down on a house. They sell Abby’s car so they can afford to buy a van and Ricky becomes a freelance delivery driver in the belief he’ll be self-sufficient. In reality, he’s controlled by technology that tracks his every movement and is entirely bound to the company he’s delivering for.

“The story’s about parents trapped in precarious work and the consequences that has for the family. For various reasons, Ricky can’t go every day because of family issues. He misses time, he gets into debt, and the only way he can get out of debt is to put in more hours. It’s like he’s a prisoner in the van, of the system, and you can see it breaking him,” explains Loach.

“The propagandists for the system talk about the possibility of freedom, and how you are your own boss, but in fact, workers are now far more trapped than they were when I was young. Then, there was a 40-hour week at max and people had time to earn a living in a secure job that didn’t dominate their lives. They might not have been the best-paid jobs, but there was some degree of security. Now, because of the economic system, the interests of the employer and the interests of the worker are diametrically opposed, and people are in the position of the characters in the film, trapped, exploited, and bearing the full weight of responsibility for delivering the work.”

Loach, a committed socialist, isn’t afraid to speak his mind. When Brexit is mentioned, he quips he “can bore the pants off” anyone talking about it. “There’s no short answer to this bloody thing,” he sighs.

The UK had been due to leave the EU the day before Sorry We Missed You is released, until Boris Johnson was forced to apply for an extension. After three years, he understands some people are exasperated but has a word of caution for those who are keen to just get it done and move forward.

“Yes, it will move on, but the danger is then a whole series of other huge questions will come anyway, whether we want them or not,” he says, speaking before the general election was planned. “Because obviously a lot of the European investment will go, and it’s got to be replaced by something. And is it going to be an even lower paid, more vulnerable labour force than we have now? Those issues won’t go away.”

Loach has been vocal about his support for Jeremy Corbyn and believes the Labour leader should be the next prime minister.

“I think he’s got to be. I’ve known him and John McDonnell for many years, and I think they’re people with great integrity and I trust them, and they’ve got a programme that would begin to transform our society. I mean, in doing this and Daniel Blake we’ve been in the North East and seen those old mining areas. The Tories obviously left them to rot but also Labour, under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, left them to rot, too. Public investment is essential.”

So is “kicking the private contractors out of the NHS, reconstructing communities where you employ building workers directly, not sub-contracting to the building companies that have blacklists against trade unions, tackling poverty and the green economy because it’s an existential crisis – it threatens our very existence.

“But what can stop us is the Parliamentary Labour Party, the majority of whom are trying to sabotage his leadership and undermine and contradict him at every turn. He’ll say something and some idiot like Tom Watson will stand up and say the opposite. Of course, Jeremy stands for the diametrically opposite politics to Blair’s politics, which is when most of them came into parliament.”

As for Boris Johnson, Loach remains hopeful “people see through this invented character”.

“It’s phoney, this PG Wodehouse-type character, and there’s a kind of sharp, cynical little brain inside it being clever. But I think there’s something deeply troubling in someone like that.”

Loach has always taken great care to give a voice to the under-represented. Growing up in Warwickshire, he recalls how his father came from a family of coal miners. Despite showing academic promise, his mother needed him as a wage earner so “he was very keen I should be academic and be successful at something, and law was exactly what he wanted,” reveals Loach, who complied and studied law at Oxford University.

“I did intend to be a lawyer, but I was too enthused by the theatre,” says the director, who worked in regional theatre companies before the BBC where he contributed to The Wednesday Play series, tackling topics such as homelessness before moving into film.

It’s now 50 years since the release of Kes, his 1969 adaptation of Barry Hines’s novel, regarded as one of the classics of British cinema. It was a seminal moment for the director but “I tend not to look back,” he says. He doesn’t have a personal favourite film either. “It’s the old cliché, but they are like your children and you can’t have a favourite, although the ones that didn’t work quite as well, you feel more protective of.”

From Land and Freedom to Carla’s Song and Bread and Roses to The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Loach prefers to confront vast subject matters through the prism of personal relationships, and with ordinary, recognisable folk at the core.

“Most of the films we’ve done have just been the stories of apparently unremarkable people, the person on the underground, the person you pass on the street, people with an unresolved conflict or a contradiction to explore. The narrative might be simple but within that, and those characters, it contains a whole set of ideas, a view of society, and the conflicts within society,” explains
Loach, who is entirely self-taught.

“Filmmaking is essentially quite simple. You arrange for something to happen and then you photograph it and you join the bits together. What’s complex is understanding how to make these very simple techniques work in the way you want them to. Each part of filmmaking is full of endless nuances and possibilities and it’s learning your way through that, which you only get from experience.”

As he nears the end of his career, he has no interest in revelling in past accomplishments. “The moment you start wallowing in that, you might as well give up. The next project always comes out of dissatisfaction with what you’ve just done, otherwise you don’t stay hungry to get it right,” says Loach, who doesn’t rule out making another film.

“I think, as long as you’ve got the appetite and you can manage to get yourself around, then why not? As long as you don’t think you’re going to let anyone down too badly, then you just want to keep having a go. But you’ve got to keep reminding yourself what a huge privilege it is to be able to do that.”

Sorry We Missed You is in cinemas now

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