Film director Ken Loach has argued that working people’s struggles are inherently dramatic. His filmmaking career has proved that again and again. His latest – and probably final – film, The Old Oak, focuses on two downtrodden communities, an ex-mining village in the north east and a group of Syrian refugees. Words by Simon Horsford
It’s surely appropriate that Ken Loach was born in the same year as the Jarrow March when 200 men walked from the north-east of England to London to protest against unemployment and poverty during the Great Depression. That crusade may have passed into history but the 87-year-old director is still fighting the fight with the release of his latest film, The Old Oak. His strong political convictions remain the driving force behind his continued work, a fact alluded to recently by his long-time collaborator Paul Laverty, who wrote the screenplay for the new film. “It might make him smile if I quote St Augustine from over 1,500 years ago, when he said that Hope had two beautiful daughters. One, Anger at the way things are and the other Courage to try and change them. This has been [Ken’s] working life.”
The Old Oak. like Loach’s last two films, I, Daniel Blake (2016) and Sorry We Missed You (2018), is another powerful socio-political commentary with strong performances, again filmed in the north-east, and in many ways it can be seen to complete the trilogy. Loach has also indicated it will be his last film, “It will be difficult to go round the course again,” he suggests.
In I, Daniel Blake, the target was austerity, Sorry We Missed You honed in on the gig economy. This time the setting is a struggling former mining village and a run-down pub, The Old Oak, in County Durham, which is the only focal point of the community but becomes contested territory with the arrival of a coach load of frightened Syrian refugees, who are to be housed in the village. Trying to keep the peace between the regulars, who were already bitter and disillusioned with their lot, and the incomers is the pub’s long-suffering landlord TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner, a Geordie ex-fireman and union official and another Loach discovery), who is divorced, estranged from his grown-up son and barely hanging on. He’s been beaten down by life and that shows.
In particular, the locals’ anger centres around the collapse of house prices with whole streets being bought cheaply by foreign companies and then rented out exploitatively – for some, the Syrians are the last straw. Among the newcomers is Yara (played by Ebla Mari, an actress/theatre teacher from the Golan Heights), who is an aspiring photographer. Her father has been imprisoned by the Assad regime and she is being housed in the village with her brother and elderly mother. It is through her touching and unlikely friendship with TJ that Loach and Laverty try and unite the two disparate communities.
The story of these ‘abandoned’ mining villages is one that both Loach and Laverty were keen to develop. Talking to me via Zoom from the London offices of the distribution company StudioCanal, Loach says: “It was a subject Paul [Laverty] and I had been kicking around for a long time and in the end there was no choice, we just had to get on and do it. We had done two in the region and it cried out for a third. It turned into a trilogy but it wasn’t a grand design.
“People were left to rot with no investment when the pits shut after [Margaret] Thatcher’s attacks in the 1980s. These strong communities have been eroded, people have left and shops closed and they stand as a monument to the old industries and the refusal to plan anything to replace it. So that was one element [of the film] and then we thought how can draw out this story and Paul heard through friends what was happening when the first refugees were arriving from Syria [the film is set around 2016] and that seemed to be a catalyst to both see what was happening in those communities but also to see how the two communities would interact.” The focus is on two groups who have suffered loss: one through the removal of their livelihoods and the other via the trauma of war and relocation.
When the first Syrians arrived “there had been very little preparation,” says Loach, “the local authorities were caught on the hop so the surprise element was partly responsible for generating the hostility from some people (not all).” A scene captured at the start of the film, which is loosely based on an actual incident.
In parts of the country, the pub is seen as the hub of the community, but in this instance, it really is the only communal space left in the village. “All the public spaces have gone,” says Loach, “in many villages, the miners’ club, community centres, even churches have gone. Schools too, as population in these villages has decreased and pubs have gone too. The image of the pub as the last remaining public space and a place where people congregate is plain.” It’s somewhere people can forget about their troubles. Hence its importance to locals such as Charlie (Trevor Fox), who has a disabled wife, a daughter and a house worth a quarter of what he paid for it. For him and his mates, the pub is their sanctuary.
And yet, the values of the film are clear from the outset and despite TJ undergoing heartbreaking experiences and the occasionally spiteful treatment of the Syrians, The Old Oak purposely doesn’t take sides. “Instead,” says Loach, the idea is to “try to understand people’s alienation, anger and feeling they are being ripped off.” He points to how a negative narrative can be “a seedbed for racism.” He cites the hostile environment [for illegal immigration] comments by Theresa May [in 2012], Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s ‘invasion by small boats’ statement [last year] and [this year] the Minister for Immigration Robert Jenrick making a point about removing Disney cartoons from a children’s reception centre because they it made it too welcoming.
Loach goes on to question why areas that have nothing are taking in refugees. “From their [the government’s] point of view property is cheap and out of sight, so it’s not a problem. But in terms of making life better for them, it’s not helpful because the infrastructure is already under pressure. There is an even longer queue at the doctor’s and school will be even more overcrowded.”
The north-east again provides fertile film-making ground for Loach. The area is “built on industrial struggle,” he says. “People have experienced hardship and unemployment going back to the Jarrow March. It has clearly defined characteristics, its own language and dialect and the landscape is extraordinary. There’s a lot of humour. It gives it a strong presence. Liverpool [also] has it, Glasgow has it and Manchester to a certain extent, South Yorkshire. Those are the areas it’s most easy to find coherent, militant elements among the working class.”
Unlike the other films in the ‘trilogy’, there are strands of hope to be found, even a touch of sentimentality. “Hope is political,” says Loach, “if you have hope, you can see a way forward and then you have the energy to make that work. But hope has to be realistic, it can’t be just a pipe dream. The hope you find [in these situations] is in solidarity and was implicit in the miners’ strike in ’84. When someone is in trouble people rally round.”
The black and white pictures of the miners’ marches on the walls of the unused – and contentious – backroom of the pub are a reminder, says Loach, “that if we have strength and stick together we can achieve things.” Hence a quote in the film: “If the working classes realised the power they had, they could change the world.”
Talk of change brings us to the current state of politics – or rather the Labour Party. Loach, who is no longer in the party, remains angered by the way the “Keir Starmer clique” have been attacking the Left and people known to have supported Jeremy Corbyn. “Starmer’s aim is to say whatever it takes to win the Labour leadership.
“He put his arm round Jeremy Corbyn in 2019 knowing he is going to stab him in the back. He has made [Labour] an intolerable party for hundreds of thousands of people who voted for him and who are seen to be of the Left in order to appease the establishment [to show] that he will be safe like Tony Blair and nothing will change. The rich won’t suffer, corporate power won’t be dented and things will stay as they are. He is the safe alternative, that’s his aim.”
How does he think politics has changed since he started making films in the mid-Sixties when the definition between Labour and Conservative was also far greater? Britain was still in the post-war settlement era, Loach points out. “There was a National Health Service that didn’t have private contractors, a council housing programme, everything was still public ownership, we owned a huge amount of infrastructure. Thatcher changed all that, turned it from public good to private greed as a consciousness of the nation. That’s the change and politics has mirrored that. The Labour party of Blair would have been inconceivable before Thatcher and she said Blair is her greatest achievement. Starmer is a crude caricature of Blair even.”
At present, Loach has no party affiliations and admits that Labour seems to have “disappeared’ in Bath, “although they were visible during the pandemic.” He doesn’t follow the machinations of the Liberal Democrats in the city, but worries about “horrors” such as any proposed redevelopment of The Rec, which would “destroy the centre of Bath.” He’d also like Bath to have a decent public transport system.
His home town remains close to his heart and a place where he likes to lead a normal life. Bath City FC is his other passion and a couple of days after we spoke he was planning to watch them in a local derby against Larkhall Athletic in the second qualifying round of the FA Cup. At the time of writing, the team was top of National League South, “It’s early days, but Jerry Gill has a good team and they play some good football, not all the time but quite a lot. The gates have gone up and we are over a thousand now. We need to double that and then we’d really be on the road. It remains one of Bath’s best kept secrets.”
With such a terrific body of work behind him – and if The Old Oak is to be his swansong – I ask what he’d like his legacy to be? Modest, as ever, Loach, replies: “I can’t think in those terms; that would be far too grand. Maybe if someone said, ‘he put in a decent shift’.”