Last dance: Barry Ward and Simone Kirby in Jimmy's Hall by Ken Loach
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Emotional blackmail on the Emerald Isle: Jimmy’s Hall by Ken Loach

Jimmy’s Hall returns Loach to early-20th-century Ireland, the site of a previous success. The new film could be called The Wind That Shakes the Barley IIThis Time It’s Heart-Warming.

Ken Loach in his heyday was tough and uncompromising, so it’s odd that he has inspired so many films with runny centres (Brassed Off, The Full Monty, Billy Elliot). His best work – Kes, Family Life, Raining Stones, My Name Is Joe – has a knack for expressing tenderness and hope without pretending that those qualities alone will make everything peachy. But Jimmy’s Hall proves that Loach is more than capable of making his own runny-centred movies. It is less a portrait of the Irish communist leader Jimmy Gralton than a big, dopey kiss blown at him. Unconditional love is a joyous thing when extended from a parent to a child. Between a film-maker and his subject, it is more problematic.

Jimmy’s Hall returns Loach and his long-time screenwriter Paul Laverty to early-20th-century Ireland, the site of a previous success of theirs. The new film could be called The Wind That Shakes the Barley II: This Time It’s Heart-Warming. The battle here is not between the emergent IRA and the British but between Gralton and the Church, which is vehemently opposed to him establishing the Pearse-Connolly Hall as a social and educational centre for his community.

As the film begins, Gralton (Barry Ward) is returning home to County Leitrim from New York, where he fled to a decade earlier to avoid arrest. The hall’s dilapidated interior is now good for nothing except acting as a trigger for damp-eyed flashbacks to a lovelier time.

But what’s this? The local youngsters, firebrands to a girl and boy, have heard tell of the hall and its liberating philosophy. They’re bored of knitting flat caps and tank tops from twigs, or whatever it is they do to pass the hours. They want to dance, recite poetry and box, though presumably not at the same time. They implore Jimmy to open the hall again. The twinkle in his eye will be familiar from every film in which someone has ever decided to put the show on right here or get the band back together to save the llama sanctuary from foreclosure.

Jimmy’s chief antagonist is the parish priest Father Sheridan, played by Jim Norton with beady-eyed relish and wit. It is only a minor hindrance that Norton played Bishop Brennan in the sitcom Father Ted. Viewers for whom the episode “Kicking Bishop Brennan Up the Arse” remains a source of ongoing joy may find it hard not to call for the same to be dished out to Father Sheridan. Some distraction comes from the old-school movie-star panache of Barry Ward, who looks like Aidan Gillen might if he wanted to caress you in your sleep, rather than kill you.

Laverty admits that much of the film is speculation – Jimmy’s sweetheart is one of several characters to have sprung from the screenwriter’s mind. What’s difficult to stomach is the level of emotional blackmail. Though there is grudging respect towards Jimmy late in the day from the clergy, generally those who disagree with him are unfeeling brutes. Even the violent raids on the hall are staged with a curious sentimentality. The police are always bursting in during Gaelic singing lessons or dancing classes to slap women to the ground. They never seem to call when the boxing is in full swing.

If his opponents are sadists, Jimmy is nothing short of saintly. Hungry for character flaws, you may alight upon the scene in which his mother complains that she can’t see well enough to sew his shirt. Jimmy walks over and pokes the cotton through the eye of the needle, then hands it back to her. A true hero would have said: “I’m a grown man, Ma. I can sew my own clothes, so I can.” But that’s the closest the film gets to admitting that Jimmy is as fallible as the rest of us. Those looking for a bit more balance and a good deal less soppiness are unlikely to be placated by the revelation: “Communist leader in ‘never helped mum with housework’ shock!”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

Ellie Foreman-Peck for the New Statesman
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The rise of Raheem Kassam, Nigel Farage’s back-room boy

The former conservative blogger is mounting a bid for the Ukip leadership. But can he do enough to convince the most right-wing of Britain’s leading parties to back him?

It is a mark of how close the UK Independence Party has moved to the heart of the British establishment that one of the three main candidates for its leadership has ascended from the so-called spadocracy.

Nigel Farage used to castigate David Cameron and Ed Miliband for having worked as special advisers and little else, but Raheem Kassam – said to be his preferred choice as his latest successor – was his aide for several years and sometimes styled himself as Farage’s “chief of staff”. His only other substantial jobs have been in the right-wing blogosphere.

Kassam has one big advantage going into the election on 28 November: the support of Ukip’s mega-donor, Arron Banks. He will stand against the party’s former deputy chairwoman Suzanne Evans – who is backed by its only MP, Douglas Carswell – and the former deputy leader Paul Nuttall, who has declared himself the “unity candidate”.

Kassam, 30, was born in Hillingdon, west London,
to Tanzanian parents of Gujarati descent. They are practising Muslims but their son says he has not followed the faith for a decade.

Like Evans, he came into politics through the Conservative Party, and sat on the board of its youth wing. Although his political colours have changed since then, his allegiance has always been to the far right: he once listed Barry Goldwater, the Republican senator who voted against the Civil Rights Act and was defeated by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 US presidential race, as a hero.

Kassam worked for the Commentator, a right-wing blogging platform, but left on bad terms with Robin Shepherd, the site’s founder and editor. Subsequent articles on the Commentator attest to the acrimony. One brands Kassam “weird”, and the latest mention of him appears under the headline “Ukip leadership contender Raheem Kassam is a criminal, and we can prove it”.

His time there did, however, earn him the approval of the conservative polemicist James Delingpole. In 2014, Delingpole brought Kassam on board as managing editor when he set up the British outpost of Breitbart News, the right-wing website whose US executive chairman Steve Bannon became Donald Trump’s campaign manager in August. Breitbart sees itself as the house journal of the “alt right”, hardline on immigration and invested in denying climate change. Recent articles from its London bureau have carried headlines such as “British peer: polygamy ‘commonplace’ within Muslim communities in Britain” and “Green politico: it’s time to learn Arabic and stop worrying about migration”.

Given his hardline views (he addressed the first UK rally of the far-right group Pegida), it is not surprising that Kassam felt more at home in Farage’s Ukip than David Cameron’s modernising Conservatives. In 2014 he officially switched from blue to purple, joining Farage’s office later that year.

There, he was soon at the centre of the tensions between the Ukip leader and Carswell, who had defected from the Tories to Ukip that year. From the start, Carswell and Farage were at odds over strategy, with the former concerned that his leader’s anti-immigration rhetoric would imperil the EU referendum result.

Carswell tried to oust Farage after the 2015 election, in which Ukip polled 3.9 million votes but won just one Commons seat. Then as now, Carswell’s preferred candidate was Suzanne Evans. She is not only a close ally, but an employee in his parliamentary office.

Such is Evans’s proximity to Carswell that Farage and his allies will do their utmost to prevent her from becoming leader. Although Farage now has his eye on a lucrative new career as a pundit on Donald Trump’s long-rumoured television network, the knowledge that Ukip had fallen into the hands of his old enemy would sour his retirement.

Farage, like Arron Banks, had settled on a preferred replacement: Steven Woolfe, formerly a Ukip MEP and now sitting as an independent. But Woolfe’s candidacy was beset by problems from the outset – culminating in a brawl that ended with him in hospital. On recovering, he announced not only the end of his leadership bid, but also his association with Ukip, which he now regards as “ungovernable”.

That left Kassam as the most plausible anti-Evans candidate. But can he do it? Kassam has two obstacles in his path. The first is his own record of combative public pronouncements – he has asked if Angela Eagle has “special needs”, called for Nicola Sturgeon to have her mouth taped shut so she couldn’t speak, and added “and her legs, so she can’t reproduce”. The second is his name, coupled with his skin colour and Gujarati heritage.

As a conservative blogger, Kassam will be familiar with the rumour, peddled by Breitbart and others on the alt right, that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim. So his campaign website is liberally dotted with photos of him sipping a pint (he lists Whitstable Bay as his preferred poison). Will that be enough to convince the most right-wing of Britain’s leading parties to back him? 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage