BBC Films

Case Study: Ken Loach

Ken Loach on his path into filmmaking, censorship and the UK film industry.

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Ken Loach is one of Britain's finest directors, a political firebrand whose films have upset as many as they have enthralled. After studying law at Oxford University in the 1950s, he joined Northampton Repertory Theatre as an assistant director, then moved into television in 1963 where he worked as a trainee director at the BBC. It was here, working on The Wednesday Play, that he made his mark with social drama Cathy Come Home, about the homeless crisis in 60s Britain. It marked him out as a filmmaker willing to use his work to address social and political issues.

Loach continued working in television and made his feature debut Poor Cow in 1967. He followed this with Kes in 1969. Throughout the '80s he suffered outrageous censorship from various quarters but continued making films, bouncing back in the '90s with a string of influential projects, including Riff-Raff, Raining Stones and Carla's Song. Today he's widely respected as a leading light of the British industry, making hard-hitting movies like Sweet Sixteen and The Wind That Shakes The Barley. Here he talks about working for the BBC, censorship and why "the UK Film Industry" is an unhelpful phrase...

First interest in filmmaking...

"I wasn't really interested in filmmaking until I was at the BBC doing TV drama in the mid-'60s. I'd really wanted to be in the theatre, when I was a kid that was my ambition. But then I got a job in television. I started on Z Cars but I didn't do that for long. And then it was The Wednesday Play. We did TV plays in the studios and then gradually managed to start using more film in the plays until we were making the whole piece on film, on 16mm. My interest in filmmaking just developed from there really."

Moving into features...

"It was an inevitable development into features. Television was a barrier to what we wanted to do. We wanted to get a taste of 'the street', as it were, and you just couldn't do that within a television studio. It was very false and constricting to the kind of acting you could develop because there had to be marks; you had to be in the right position for two or three cameras simultaneously. The only way to liberate it was to work on film outside of the studio. The BBC management fought it every inch of the way because they had this huge investment in the TV studios and they could control things much more. Management like to control things and the kind of films we wanted to do were much more open-ended and dangerous. There was a long battle which Tony Garnett, the producer [of Cathy Come Home], was instrumental in fighting and winning to get us a space to make films.

Biggest career setback...

"By and large I've been very fortunate. If I had to pick one setback, the biggest was having the documentaries banned by Channel 4 and Central TV in the early 80s. We did a total of six or seven documentaries and four of them were banned outright, two of them were taken out of the schedule and delayed and delayed. There was also the banning of a play [Perdition, about Zionism] that I directed at the Royal Court - by the Royal Court. All those are examples of straight political censorship and that was a very harsh experience - to have your work suppressed because people didn't approve. The management and the establishment didn't want to hear those anti-Thatcher views or allow them to be heard. The biggest damage was done to people who were in the films. Their voices had never been on television, they represented a whole swathe of working class people and trade unionists that were opposed to what Thatcher was doing. To have their voices suppressed was shocking and disgraceful and appalling and gave the lie to the idea that we were a genuinely pluralist society."

Influences and aspirations...

"The people who inspire you are the people who you meet in the course of making a film or whose story you are trying to tell. I think there are obviously things you learn from filmmakers when you're young. But the inspiration for it comes from what it is you're trying to communicate. Every film has an inspiration - from the kids in Kes to the homeless families we met in Cathy Come Home. We met veterans from the Spanish Civil War [in Land And Freedom] and you feel a huge inspiration and responsibility towards them. We went to Nicaragua [for Carla's Song] and met people who'd fought with the Sandinista to build a whole new society for them - amazing women, mothers who'd faced all kinds of dangers and still had their ideals intact. Then there were the dockers and the miners during the miners' strike. You meet people who are inspiring on whatever project you're working on. They are quiet, modest, unknown people but they stick to their guns and they're the people you feel an obligation to."

Favourite part of the process...

"Each part is good in different ways. The point when you are imagining the whole thing is very exciting because that's when everything is possible. The problem at that point is that you know that you've got to make this colossal effort to get the thing filmed. So the enjoyment is tempered by that threat hanging over you. When the shooting is enjoyable, the enjoyment is very intense but the prospect of waking up very early every day and finishing very late and winding yourself up to do it all is quite draining. It's a bit like a boxer going into a fight. You've got to psych yourself up over the previous weeks so that when you start you've got the emotional and physical energy to do it. But nevertheless when you hit a highpoint it's the most intense enjoyment. When you're cutting a film, that's much more relaxed. You can live a normal life, live at home and get up when everybody else gets up, and that's extremely enjoyable because you've either solved the problems or you've got to find another way round it."

Advice for budding filmmakers...

"I think it's always better to be on the inside looking out and complaining about the business, rather than on the outside looking in. So I think that means getting a job in the business somewhere somehow and working your way up that way. By the business I'd include the theatre in that. I think if you're going to work with actors you've got to work in the theatre so that you get to see how they work. It's very difficult if you don't. In theatre you deal with a lot of the same problems except you haven't got a camera to hide behind. I think actors respect you more for that and you share the same language and anecdotes and you become one of them - which is very important. I'd also recommend television. Do anything - direct crime reconstructions, direct the weather forecast, do whatever you can. Because again you'll have similar problems: where do you frame the shot? How do you get the person to speak their lines?"

The UK film industry...

"I don't really feel that there is a UK film industry. There are a number of different people trying to work in it and they all have alliances that reach outside the country. A lot of them look to America: work for American companies; get their funding from the States; and have ideas that they think will do well in America. Some, like us, look to Europe. It's very fragmented and very disparate and so I don't see it as an entity at all. The people who talk about it by and large don't have much idea of filmmaking. They just see it in very industrial terms. You might as well say there's a British writing industry or a British fine art industry. It's just not a helpful way to think about filmmaking."

Jamie Russell | Published 06 June 07


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1 comments posted.

  • Sep 28, 2013


    The UK film industry... this part is nicely answered. I always get confused when our lecturer speaks about it. Then I wonder why they think there is a British film industry, meanwhile all of them works in States and so .... Inspiring interview

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