Blue sky stretches over Newcastle’s mighty bridges, the Tyne beneath reflecting shiny riverside developments. It’s a far cry from the grey concrete landscape of Ken Loach’s new film I, Daniel Blake. The titular character, a fictional 59-year-old joiner, inhabits this very city. His is a world of Jobcentres, chilly council houses and gloomy frustration.
Blake’s creator, the socialist director behind classic Sixties working-class films like Cathy Come Home and Kes, is here to introduce his new work to the city where it’s set. But the film very nearly didn’t happen at all – just a couple of years ago, Loach was hinting at his retirement from filmmaking. In 2014, his team suggested that Loach’s 29th feature film, Jimmy’s Hall, would be his last big project.
Loach has spent his career relaying tales of hardship and focusing on the relationships among those who suffer most in an unequal society. His breakthrough work was Kes (1969), a film version of Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel for a Knave – the story of a troubled teenage boy in a Yorkshire mining community who befriends a bird. Since then, Loach has established himself for British audiences and glitzy international film festivals alike as a master chronicler of working class struggle.
Loach himself is a grammar school boy with an Oxford law degree who grew up in Nuneaton – the West Midlands town now seen as a crucial barometer in UK elections. His father was a foreman in a tool factory, and a blue-collar Tory. The young Ken was more interested in theatre than politics, but still grew up to be an ardent socialist.
When the Tories won a majority in 2015, Loach swiftly emerged from his rumoured retirement with I, Daniel Blake. It’s a moving portrayal of heartless welfare bureaucracy, and has already scooped a number of awards – including the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or. Yet today, Loach seems more saddened than triumphant.
Loach and his writer, Paul Laverty, spent months travelling the country, hearing harrowing stories and researching the difficulties benefit claimants face. They heard about an ill man who refused to get into an ambulance because he was too worried he would be punished for being late to the Jobcentre, and a family whose benefits were withheld because the mother went into premature labour. They missed an appointment with a welfare adviser when rushing to hospital.
Loach says he was “shocked” at the scale and immediacy of the sanctions that claimants face. Payments can be blocked for even the smallest transgressions, like running late.
“It’s implemented with a really conscious cruelty,” Loach says. We are talking in the dining room of the hotel that was Loach’s home for three months while filming I, Daniel Blake. Fittingly, news from the Conservative party conference is playing on a screen behind him. “They’re a rum bunch, aren’t they?” he mutters.
The rattle of cutlery, canned piano music and the maroon spiralled carpet provide a jolly backdrop for Loach’s melancholy. A member of the hotel staff greets him like an old friend, congratulating him on the film’s reception. Loach smiles, and says: “It was all down to the breakfast!”
The director, who is now 80, is small and slight with a modest manner. He blinks earnestly out from behind tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses and is dressed casually in a rumpled shirt and black blazer. He takes his wallet from an inside pocket and shows me something.
“I’ve still got my Labour party card,” he says. In his hand is a yellowing plastic card bearing the old illustration of the Labour rose. A broken corner is taped in place. Loach reads the party’s socialist Clause IV (before Tony Blair’s famous revision in 1995) from the card. “A historic document!” he says, laughing gently. “Calling for industry publicly owned under workers’ control. I’ve stuck by that. The Labour party has shifted.”
Loach left Labour in the Nineties, sick of its compromises “after putting up with the miners’ strike, putting up with Blair’s clear intention of turning it into a party to support business”. He has demonstrated at Stop the War Coalition rallies, supported the Socialist Alliance (a short-lived amalgamation of UK socialist parties), and even stood as a candidate in the 2004 European elections representing Respect – George Galloway’s party that grew out of the opposition to the Iraq war. He has also backed the anti-austerity movement, the People’s Assembly.
After drifting away from Respect, Loach helped to found a new left-wing party, Left Unity, at the end of 2013. For him, Labour was no longer of the left – the party was too soft on austerity, too “neoliberal”, and too dismissive of trade union power.
The last time I talked to Loach was in March 2015, in a Soho squat. He was launching the Left Unity general election manifesto in front of a few curious journalists and some bemused squat residents. The latter were cradling cups of tea and eventually turned the bass down on a giant speaker that was blasting beats through the abandoned building so that Loach could be heard.
I remember him standing meekly in a suit and brown brogues amid the general detritus of sleeping bags, shopping trollies and miscellaneous snacks. “I’m only a rank-and-file member; please don’t present me as the leader,” he pleaded with the room, before laying into the Labour party for failing Britain’s progressives. “The left is not a crowded place, I’m afraid,” he concluded.
Today, Loach feels more enthusiastic about the Labour party now that Jeremy Corbyn is in charge. He hasn’t rejoined, but says that “it’s something I would have to consider”.
Loach spent a couple of days documenting Corbyn’s interactions with supporters for a campaign video during the 2015 leadership campaign. “He’ll only be unelectable if people keep saying it,” he warns. “They [Corbyn’s critics] are saying it because they want a more right-wing agenda. Stop saying it. Say he is electable, and he will be electable. Who would’ve thought Blair was electable? The kind of smarmy, oily presence that he has?”
He is enthusiastic about Labour growing as a movement, and is full of praise for Momentum, but calls himself “realistic” about its chances of entering government. “Who would have foreseen Labour becoming the largest left party in Europe? So, who knows?”.
“The left has never had a party that will represent the interests of the working class, not just the rhetoric,” he says. “Now I think there’s a chance that it [Labour] could do that.”
Dave Johns, the stocky Geordie comedian and former brickie who Loach cast in the title role in I, Daniel Blake, bounces over to our table, wearing an anorak and a big grin. “I’ve got something for you!” he announces. He opens the box he’s cradling, and inside is a delicate model of a leopard – the trophy that I, Daniel Blake won at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. “I had it on the mantelpiece, and my daughter was going ‘that’s Ken’s award, you can’t keep it!’”
Loach often casts relatively unknown actors and amateurs from a variety of backgrounds in his films. Does he believe acting in Britain is dominated by the privileged?
“There’s a shortage of British films anyway,” he says. “A large part of the British film industry is making American films . . . there is a predominance of upper-class stories. And that’s seen as entertainment, and working-class stories are seen as social dramas,” he grimaces at the phrase.
“That’s the problem. The upper class are entertaining us. Actually no, the real story of the ruling class would horrify us. We’d realise they’re ripping us off. So I don’t have that genial acceptance that ‘aren’t they just jolly good fun?’
“It’s to do with the kind of films that are being made, what those who commission things think is entertaining, how they present them,” he says. “Their obsession with the rich and the aristocracy or the upper class is tedious. Tedious beyond words. And indulgent. And it diminishes our self-respect.”
You can forgive him his weariness. Loach has been making films for decades about the deprivation faced by Britain’s working class, and inequality only seems to be getting worse.
I, Daniel Blake is out on Friday 21 October.
This article appears in the 19 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood