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It’s safe to say that no filmmaker has put more time into the struggles of the working class than Ken Loach. The 86-year-old British director has been making socially conscious dramas since the 1960s, when his kitchen sink drama “Cathy Come Home” aired as part of the BBC’s “The Wednesday Play” anthology. He has fixated on the victims of governmental neglect and oppression with an intimate gaze ever since, gaining momentum where many storytellers wound wind down: In 2006, he won the Palme d’Or for “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” and nabbed a second for 2016’s “I, Daniel Blake,” a movie he came out of retirement to make.
Now he’s readying a new immigration drama, “The Old Oak,” which is expected to be ready for this year’s Cannes.
In the midst of this prolific career, Loach has also produced a steady stream of documentaries that reflect his socialist ideals. Ten years ago, the filmmaker put the entire modern history of the U.K. in focus with “The Spirit of ’45,” a black-and-white documentary about the evolution of the Labour Party in the aftermath of WWII. With a trenchant blend of experts, first-person testimonies, and ample archival materials, the movie shows how the collective postwar energy catalyzed a collaborative spirit in British society embodied by the Labour Party — and why it eventually fell apart. While “The Spirit of ’45” was never released in the U.S., it finally opens this week via The Film Desk.
Loach spoke to IndieWire by phone about how the aftermath of the war impacted his own ability to become a filmmaker and why that process has grown more difficult for future generations. He also addressed his feelings on the monarchy, why he wouldn’t want to make a film with Prince Harry, and his current feelings on retirement.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IndieWire: What compelled you to revisit this particular era?
Ken Loach: What we call the “Welfare State,” which began after the war — that’s what the film is about, remembering this spirit of the age. The generation that had won the war did it as a team. They weren’t competing with one another. That was the spirit after the war and people worked together as good neighbors. They supported each other. That started to fail in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Then Margaret Thatcher destroyed – she consciously began its destruction. That’s what the film is about: celebrating the spirit and marking the beginning of its destruction.
You made this documentary 10 years ago. Would you change anything about it now?
It’s already out of date. The key part of it is more relevant now than ever but there was a significant political development that would’ve changed the ending. The Labour Party elected a leader, Jeremy Corbyn, whose politics are similar to Bernie Sanders. The way he was destroyed by the establishment and also the right wing of the Labour Party is significant because he would have re-established the principles of 1945 that were destroyed. In a way, there’s another chapter to be written. But the central point of the film, celebrating the changes after the war, still holds.
You were nine years old in 1945. How much did these circumstances impact you personally?
I remember the war vividly, but the political changes were something a child doesn’t notice so much. I do remember the change from having a doctor where you had to pay to one where you didn’t have to pay.
As your documentary points out, England suffered from tremendous poverty before the war. What do you recall about that from your own household?
My father was very proud that he had worked throughout the 1930s as an electrician in a factory. He was proud of the fact that he hadn’t been laid off because a lot of workers were. There weren’t orders to complete in the factories. He worked there during the war because they were making munitions. He was lucky he didn’t have to fight because he was, in effect, making armaments. After the war, there was a very different spirit, despite that many families had lost loved ones.
You made the decision to follow an artistic path in a postwar climate. How did these circumstances help you make that decision?
It made a huge difference. The education changed. It was not a good system, but a collective system. The town I lived in was very much a working-class town. There were 60-70,000 people. Everybody left school at 16 unless you passed an exam at 11 to go to a school that either had 60 boys or 60 girls a year. From that school, you could go on to do what we called “A levels,” and then university. That was just 60 boys or girls from a population of 60 or 70,000 people each year. So it was a tiny proportion and if you didn’t pass that exam at age 11, you had no chance of going to university.
When you’ve looked back on this period over time, you must have felt like history was being forgotten.
History is written by the people in control and now, they don’t want to remember 1945. It’s never part of our political discussion now, because they don’t want to remember the idea that people owned gas, electricity, water, the post office, the transport, the coal mines, the steel industry. They were all for the good of the people. They weren’t run by private companies taking a profit. That was what the postwar generation wanted — that collective sense of doing things together, owning things together. That’s what the Thatcher government wanted to destroy to reinstate the privately held industries so that businesses could make a profit.
But you got through.
It was a wicked system. I was lucky that I passed. When I got a place at the university, all my fees were paid – lodging, tuition fees, all paid on a grant. Of course that hadn’t happened before and now it has stopped. Afterwards, other Labour Governments have carried it on. Now students leave university here with a debt probably around $70,000. It’s massive, terrible, for a young person to begin their life with debt like that. It’s unbelievable.
Early in your career, there was a real social consciousness to your filmmaking. What did it feel like at the time to be funneling your politics into a mainstream art form?
It was extraordinary. When I joined the BBC, I was mid-to-late twenties. Almost within a year, a group of us were in a position to do contemporary drama in a peak viewing time midweek. We were getting 10, 12 million viewers immediately and we were kids learning the job. We managed to change production from being studio-bound to a $16 million film industry against the wishes of the BBC hierarchy. It was a great stroke of luck. Some of the films didn’t do so well but others did. That was all within just a few years, from 1964 to 1967, we’d done such a huge amount.
Do you see parallels today with the social climate that inspired your earlier films? I’m thinking of “Cathy Come Home” in particular.
The homeless situation is the same. There was a short period after the war where housing was seen as a service to people. That faded, there weren’t enough houses, and people were in the situation that we tried to show in “Cathy Come Home.” But of course it got worse. The building of houses for people as a service has almost disappeared. They were built by the municipalities.
Now it’s entirely a market. You find the building industry is often building luxury flats that ordinary people can’t buy but they have as investments for property companies — international wealthy people who can live anywhere in the world. Often, you’ll see a block of luxury apartments with no lights on at night because nobody lives there. Yet you’ve got massive homeless problems. It’s the logic of the market. People buy them thinking they will get more valuable. That’s why, if my films last, it’s because the situation has gotten worse. The economic system generates the problem.
How did the Thatcher era impact your work?
I had a terrible decade. I could barely work for 10 years. Most of what I did in the ‘80s was banned. It was a very tough time financially. I don’t mean to exaggerate it, but I would say six or seven of my documentaries were banned. This is after they had been commissioned by the BBC or the main ITV channels. They weren’t things I did without a commission. The very channel that commissioned them refused to show them. It was a very dark period for people in general. Our consciousness changed from “We do things together” to “We do things for individual profit.”
What do you see as the risks of socialism?
I had to learn it as I went through. But the generation I grew up in politically was the ‘60s and that was the time of the New Left. One of the slogans then was “Neither Washington nor Moscow.” It was anti-Stalinist Soviet Communist and Western Capitalism. It was just trying to make sense of the world without adhering to either of those concepts. We were radical socialists, but not interested in a dictatorship.
In “The Spirit of ’45,” the media seems to acknowledge the prewar poverty. Do you feel as if the current situation gets the attention it deserves?
There are programs about poverty, and what you call in America “the gig economy,” where you have no guaranteed hours, holiday party, or sick pay. Ostensibly you’re a worker for a company, but they employ you in such a way that you have no benefits. That is being discussed. Millions of people are going hungry. It is colossal.
The figures are shocking. But they’re written about something that’s almost inevitable and no sense that we could change the way we live together and reorganize society. Production isn’t determined by big corporations. It’s determined by planning and common ownership. That’s never mentioned. It’s presented as an inevitable product of the free West. This is the price that people pay unless they’re immensely wealthy.
Many Americans may not understand how this happened in the U.K. in recent times. How would you break it down?
We’ve got a two-party system like you. When the Labour Party was founded, it was founded to be a voice for the working people. It very quickly became a party where the support of the system that created the rich was more beneficial of the people.
The problem is that the system itself created the inequality. If you’ve got a party of labor meant to represent those voices — the working class — but support the system that produces inequality, you’ve got a problem democratically. If the whole public discourse is in favor of two parties that both represent the same economic system and you don’t have a party that represents the interests of labor, then you have a fundamental problem with democracy. One class has ownership of both political parties.
What would it take to change that now?
Jeremy Corbyn introduced a very radical program bringing public services back into public ownership. The establishment wasn’t having it. They wanted whole areas for profit. And they destroyed him. He nearly won the 2017 election. Labour would’ve gotten a majority. Once they got that scare, in the next two years, they destroyed him. He’s a good, principled man, but he’s not a street fighter. So the left of the Labour Party lost and is now expelled. It was like a British coup d’etat.
I’m surprised you haven’t made a movie about that.
It’s a story that needs to be told. If I’ve got enough years left, I might have another go at something, but it depends. It’s very hard to get this story told because we’ve got a state-owned broadcaster very subject to the pressures of the government and the right-wing opposition. It’s very politically sensitive.
By and large, they don’t run stories that are hostile towards anything — the monarchy, the free market, organized religion. So it’s hard to get them made. You can make a feature film, but there’s a limitation to it. As for documentaries, if you’re not a performer, like Michael Moore — if you just tell the story in the words of the people themselves — it’s a struggle commercially.
Since you mention the monarchy, how do you feel about its current role in British life?
Well, the monarchy is the apex of the class system. It is the ultimate ruling-class family, a hangover from feudal periods. It’s presenting as a sentimental, romantic attachment to the ideal family we should all look up to. In a way, it’s an endorsement of privilege, wealth, power, and it only makes sense in a society built on hierarchy. If your struggle is for a society that is more equal, then you can’t have a monarchy, because that’s an emblem of the opposite.
What do you make of Prince Harry’s defection? He and Meghan Markle have started a production company in the U.S. Perhaps they could support your work.
[laughs] Well, it’s so far away from what I do that I don’t think that would work. I don’t think he’s anti-monarchist. I just think he’s been badly treated. I don’t think we would agree on the central point that the monarchy is a symbol of something I oppose.
Your new film “The Old Oak” is finished and in the running for Cannes this year. You announced your retirement in 2014 but came out of it two years later and won the Palme d’Or. Are you staying in the game for good now?
[laughs] The years pass, don’t they? You can’t hold back the tide. I just live one day, one film, at a time. Thank god I can still stand up. I can’t imagine doing another feature film again because that’s just a major physical undertaking. But never say never.