Ken Loach at Cannes promoting his new film Jimmy's Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Ken Loach has got us bang to rights: film critics know nothing about real life

The esteemed director joins Kevin Smith and William Nicholson among the ranks of writers and directors who blame critics, and their lack of experience, for disliking their films.

Funny how we tend to lash out when we feel cornered or criticised, blaming everyone else for our perceived failings and shortcomings. Why should internationally lauded screenwriters and film directors be any different? If you cut them, do they not bleed? If you give them a bad review or fail en masse to go to see their work, do they not have a hissy fit? The past week has brought objections from two venerable filmmakers who believe themselves to have been unfairly maligned or overlooked.

First Ken Loach decided that those who write about films—specifically, his films—lead too insular a life to be allowed to express their opinion. He told the Guardian that in general film critics are:

“[P]eople who live in darkened rooms—they don’t meet the people who are running campaigns to save hospitals or save community centres, or engage in that political struggle in the real world, or organise trade union activity. If they did they’d meet people who, from their own experience, can articulate their ideas, can articulate a strategy for the particular campaign; they’d find people whose use of language is very vivid. They tend not to meet those people and so it’s like it’s a fantasy for them.”

I have to admit that some of this rings true. When I was being ferried in my sedan chair between classes at Hogwarts Film Critics’ Academy in West Tossershire, I would often snack on Dairylea Dunkers—with the Dairylea removed and replaced by the puréed livers of trade unionists—and wonder how I could possibly relate to any film that did not correspond precisely to my own life and experience. After all, it wasn’t like I had any cause in my life to interact with doctors, nurses, refuse collectors, police officers, postal workers, domestics. When I became a film critic, I signed a form agreeing to forego for the rest of my life any interaction with friends or family members who might be, for example, teachers or train drivers likely to support union action in order to preserve their rights and working conditions.

Loach has got us bang to rights: becoming a film critic means withdrawing entirely from the world and having nothing more to do with it. I mean, it’s not as if the cinemas where we spend part of our working lives are in any way analogous to the offices or banks or schools or oil rigs or—yes—editing suites and film sets where people in other lines of work spend their hours of employment. We “live in darkened rooms” so we must, therefore, be in the dark. (Do you see what Loach did there?)

Even so, his solution was a tad extreme. He decided it was time to “sack the critics and get ordinary punters in. People who are experienced, who know life.” I’m disappointed that Loach, who knows his Cahiers du Cinema, his May 1968, his Free Cinema, should deliver such a short-sighted and self-serving prescription. The idea of removing critics from their posts and drafting in “ordinary” folk is often proposed by filmmakers who feel they’ve got a rum deal from the press. Kevin Smith felt critics (or “whiners” as he calls them, presumably excluding the ones who were instrumental in bringing his 1994 debut Clerks to the public’s attention and making it a success) were unkind to his comedy Cop Out. “Writing a nasty review for Cop Out is akin to bullying a retarded kid…” he said. It was a pretty rum position even if we forgive him his insensitive language, since it presupposes that films of foreshortened ambition or botched execution should automatically be exempt from criticism. When his next film, Red State, rolled around, he fired off tweets with the hashtag #OnlyPayingCustomersMatter.

It is quite something to respond to critics who say “I don’t like your movie” with the retort: “Then critics should be abolished!” If the system isn’t working in the favour of Loach and Smith, their solution is to dismantle the system.

Loach’s latest film, Jimmy’s Hall, has received largely positive reviews. I happened to dislike it. Nothing to do with not believing that working-class people can be articulate (I’m from a working-class background, and I like to think I’m fairly articulate, so it would be a peculiar act of self-loathing to reject it in that way). But not liking Jimmy’s Hall doesn’t mean I think Ken Loach should be banned from making films and replaced with extraordinary directors who don’t treat their working class characters like fluffy bunny wabbits to be cooed over and sentimentalised. He has every right to make those sorts of movies, just as film critics have every right to find them absurd without having their objections turned into class warfare.

The other figure this week who decided that his woes were someone else’s fault was the Oscar-nominated screenwriter William Nicholson, whose credits include Shadowlands, Gladiator and the recent adaptation of Les Misérables. Nicholson blamed the relative failure of his biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom on the success of 12 Years a Slave, which he believed “sucked up all the guilt about black people that was available.” The intensity of his delusion is almost touching. It would be unfair to expect him to see that his film was deeply orthodox where Steve McQueen’s movie, for all its flaws, at least employed sophisticated rhetoric, emotional effects and cinematic language. But to blame its disappointing profits on race is a low blow. If Nicholson thinks that guilt is the sole or predominant route through which a white viewer could connect to a film about black suffering, he has perhaps stumbled upon one of the reasons why his own movie failed.

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.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times