The Old Oak poster The Old Oak poster. Source: IMDB

An unrivalled legacy of films summed up by Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football

Ken Loach’s latest film The Old Oak, opening in cinemas this weekend, is being widely reported will also be his last. At 87 if it really his time for Ken to hang up the clapper board and exit across the cutting room floor there is little doubt that apart for his bitterest critics (see below) this is a moment to mark an unrivalled career in film. 

Documentary, thriller, history, but most of all a unique mix of comedic socialist-realism. An unashamed leftist, but what makes Ken Loach films so special, arguably unique, is the way they combine a compelling exposure of society’s failings with a lighter touch to lift spirits and aspirations. It was the critic David Widgery who was the first to name a fundamental cultural failing of the left, ‘miserabilism’.  Without exception Ken’s films, however depressing the circumstances they depicted, always find the means to go above and beyond leaving his audience feeling miserable. That’s not to say he’s a hopeless romantic in the manner of many films that seek to portray the sunny side up of capitalism. Instead, his work is rooted in an unapologetic, some would say unreconstructed, class politics centred on the liberatory potential of collective action, in particular trade unionism.  And at the same time, movies to sit back and enjoy in between the popcorn. 

Compare and contrast to Richard Curtis, a latter-day contemporary. Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999) and Love Actually (2003) are a trilogy it would be a tad miserabilist to deny chuckling along to, but this was a twee, middle-class version of England entirely disinterested in anything apart from its unchanging self.  The coincidence with the ascension of Tony Blair is surely not coincidental. And plenty more from where that ilk came from ever since.

Of course, there are films that share Ken Loach’s cinematic ambition.  Brassed Off (1996) and Pride (2007) two obvious examples, both depicting the 1984-85 miners’ strike in a Loachian manner and along the way a counter-narrative to Blairism. But these were pretty much one-offs, fondly enjoyed because they were so rare. Steve McQueen’s extraordinary Small Axe (2020) five-film anthology, each film revolving Immigration, racism and resistance with the shared location of London, is perhaps the closest thing yet to what Ken Loach has managed to achieve. Let’s hope so. 

What, to date, makes Ken unique is the scope and longevity of his work, he has kept on, keeping on, making films for the best part of sixty years. An extraordinary achievement, and while the values he champions, and to some extent the subject matter, have remained unchanging, yet never samey.

The early days classics – Up the Junction (1965) Cathy Come Home (1966) and Kes (1969). The 1990s Riff Raff (1991). His first Palme d’Or for The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006).  Featuring Eric Cantona as himself Looking for Eric 2009) followed by the late flowering of I Daniel Blake (2016) and Sorry We Missed You (2019). Homelessness and poverty, the ‘gig economy’, Irish republicanism, modern football, the cruel indignities of the social security system. What other film-maker can match Ken for this kind of subject matter and damn good films to boot? But don’t take my untutored word for it.  Just a short selection from an impressively long list of awards Ken Loach has won. The 2006 Palme D’Or for The Wind That Shakes the Barley and in the same year he was awarded the accolade of a BAFTA Fellowship.  In 2012 the Cannes Jury Prize for The Angels’ Share . In 2016 he became one of the few to win a second Palme D’Or this time  for I Daniel Blake the same film also landing the 2017 BAFTA for outstanding British film of the year, 

And for the wider cinema-going public film reviewers greet his films with near universal praise.  The Guardian has made The Old Oak its 4 star film of the week describing it as ‘a ringing statement of faith in compassion for the oppressed.’ While the Evening Standard welcomed The Old Oak with this ringing endorsement ‘we need someone with Loach’s righteous fury to make films about the deplorable treatment of Britain’s often invisible and maligned underclass.’

Not a single reviewer, not a single awards jury – his films have won an astonishing 117 awards in total – has ever cited Ken Loach for antisemitism.  And as a sometime filmgoer I can’t for the life of me remember a single antisemitic trope appearing in any of his many films I’ve seen, if anyone can, do please let me know. Which rather leaves the Labour Party expelling him for antisemitism a tad out on a limb does it? And begs the question what does the Labour Party know that legions of film reviewers, film award panels, filmgoers don’t? 

Endlessly repeated Labour figures claim Ken’s expulsion was for antisemitism. It wasn’t. Most recently Rachel Reeves made precisely this claim until unlike most she was corrected by her interviewer Simon Hattenstone, who happens to be Jewish. Yes, Ken signed a petition protesting against members – a high proportion of whom are Jewish – expelled under the charge of antisemitism.  That’s a protest not a trope. A celebrated former Director of Public Prosecutions is presiding over the replacement of this right to protest to replace it with guilt by association. And along the way as under Sir Keir Labour expels more Jewish members than any other time in its history the title of a much celebrated account of antisemitism  Jews Don’t Count is reinvented by Labour as ‘ Some Jews count more than other Jews.’

Earlier this year Jamie Driscoll was banned from standing as a Labour candidate for North East Mayor for, checks notes, interviewing Ken Loach at one of Newcastle’s leading arts venue about the film, The Old Oak, and two previous I Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You he’d made in Jamie’s patch… the North East. The reason for the ban? By appearing with Ken Loach he was allying himself with antisemitism.

Has Ken ever erred to such an extent to deserve being ostracised by Labour, and only by Labour, to such an extraordinary extent? In 1987 Ken directed the play Perdition written by his long-time collaborator Jim Allen, which was then withdrawn before opening at the Royal Court Theatre. The play centred on a much-contested suggestion that one branch of Zionism sought to negotiate with the Nazis free passage to enable some Jews to escape being sent to the concentration camps. In typing those words the very obvious explosion of anger that giving any kind of platform to such a tale can act as a means to legitimise antisemitism is startlingly obvious. In my personal opinion Ken’s was a bad choice, but enough to disqualify his entire legacy of work? I don’t think so. At the time, 1987, Neil Kinnocks’ Labour Party leadership, not exactly backward at expelling known Trotskyists and others, didn’t think so either, taking no action against Ken who’d been a party member since 1962. Is the suggestion therefore that Kinnock, was soft on antisemitism? Well if he was why does he continue to sit in the House of Lords as a Labour Peer? Put simply, none of this adds up and outside the world of the current Labour leadership few would countenance a blanket ban on Ken Loach or any kind of association with him.

So, this weekend as Ken’s film opens what is it to be? 

A Labour Party three-line whip barring Shadow Cabinet members, MPs and members from a crafty looksie at The Old Oak accompanied by Constituency Labour Party picket lines (oh I forgot Labour MPs are barred from those too) outside the flicks to collar any waverers. Because that is the logical conclusion of where Labour’s strictures on Ken Loach have ended up.  Anything less and we’re tempted to suspect all the huff and puff about Ken’s antisemitism is for show, surely not?
Or a celebration of a much-loved maker of films that fire up indignation and hope in equal measure?  Films that depend not on a star-studded line-up but jobbing actors we’ve never heard of, and for most parts those who’ve never ever even acted before.  The Old Oak follows this uniquely Ken Loach tradition and is none the poorer, quite the opposite, for it.  And Ken Loach is most certainly the only director who would choose (spoiler alert) as the happy ending to his final film Syrian refugees and a former mining community coming together to make a banner they then march behind together at the Durham Miners’ Gala. The words they choose for their banner?  ‘ Strength, Solidarity, Resistance’ in English, and Arabic. What a way for Ken to close his final film. Makes a great banner, and a great T-shirt too, available from…

The Philosophy Football unofficial t-shirt based on The Old Oak

Exclusive, and strictly unofficial Philosophy Football Old Oak Banner T-shirt from here

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Mark Perryman

Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is Corbynism from Below and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here


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