Search results for: the wind that shakes the barley

The Wind That Shakes The Barley (UK/Ireland 2006)

The local lads playing hurley at the start of the film – construed by the British as an illegal assembly under DORA (the Defence of the Realm Act, updated 1915)

(This piece was first published under the title ‘The Wind That Shakes The Critics’ in in the picture 55 in Spring 2007.)

The Wind That Shakes the Barley  has received a very hostile reaction from right-wing political commentators in British newspapers, being called a “poisonously anti-British corruption of the history of the war of Irish independence” (Tim Luckhurst in The Times) or a “portrayal of the British as sadists and the Irish as romantic, idealistic resistance fighters who take to violence only because there is no other self-respecting course” (Ruth Dudley Edwards in the Daily Mail).

However, the reaction from film critics – as opposed to political commentators (some of whom, like Simon Heffer, attacked the film before even seeing it) – has been generally extremely positive. The right-wing Daily Telegraph’s film critic described it as a “brave, gripping drama” and said that Loach was “part of a noble and very English tradition of dissent”. The film critic of The Times said that the film showed Loach “at his creative and inflammatory best”. (www.wikepedia.org).

The response summarised above is not unusual for a film directed by Ken Loach. His 1966 television film, Cathy Come Home, was followed by one of the earliest television ‘balancing’ programmes. His films about organised labour, Questions of Leadership (1983) and Which Side Are You On? (1984), were effectively banned. When the subject was Ireland, as in Hidden Agenda (1990) on the ‘shoot to kill’ policy, the campaign became almost  hysterical. And so the BBC series, Days of Hope (1975) which included labour and Ireland, provoked leaders in both The Times and the Daily Telegraph.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (TWTSTB) compounds its sympathy for Irish republicanism by drawing parallels:

“I think what happened in Ireland is such a classic story of a fight for independence, to establish a democratic mandate and to resist an occupying army. Yet it was also a fight for a country with a new social structure. The British army in Ireland during 1920-21 did what armies of occupation do the world over – adopt a racist attitude towards the people they are attacking and occupying. They destroy people’s houses, engage in acts of brutality and generally oppress the people – and in Iraq that’s exactly what the British army is doing.” (Loach interview on www.socialistworker.co.uk).

The Irish dimension
Few of the reviews have actually explored these parallels in detail, focusing mainly on the Irish dimension. Quite often such comment include odd asides. Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian: “To be fair, there is surely a bigger market for anti-Brit diatribes across the Channel . . .” And Edward Lawrenson in Sight & Sound comments re the anti-Treaty hero “is his implication that any deviation from Damien’s principles is perfidy and his distaste for the very idea of compromise appropriate in these post-Good Friday Agreement times?” Lawrenson goes on to make a point common to a number of reviewers: “This coarsening of Loach’s artistry is most evident in the director’s depiction of the English and Scottish soldiers as either pantomime toffs or brutish squaddies.” He believes that Loach is using stereotypes, a technique not peculiar to this director.

In the same issue of Sight & Sound there is a review of United 93 (US 2006). This is also a historical reconstruction on film. The characterisation of the hijackers gets no mention in that review. What the film offers is a stereotypical group who “pray, read the Koran, bow to Mecca, perform ablutions, and hug goodbye – the rites of religious cleansing before a holy war.” (Cineaste, Fall 2006). Moreover, the only other foreign accent in this film belongs to the one dissenting voice among the passengers. It would seem that stereotypes are at least partly in the mind of the beholder.

Form and Style
What receives less attention than the political standpoint of the film is its form and style. As Loach remarked film “is absolutely a group activity”. Some sense of the production team and their use of film techniques is presented in a Channel Four documentary Carry on Ken. The title reflects Ken Loach’s liking for the oft-reviled ‘Carry On’ films. The programme includes examples of the improvisation techniques of actors, and points out the way that a long lens is used.

On the eve of Irish 'Home Rule' in December 1921 British Auxilaries commit another atrocity at the farmhouse where Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald) lives. (See comments below.)

One comment on the staging is by Lawrenson who refers to the farmhouse where several acts of violence by the British occur. He comments: “It comes across on the screen as an implausible and heavy-handed bit of symbolism.” This is to ignore the way that place can function to enrich stories. This is another aspect of the film accorded little attention, in that it builds on the iconography and generic elements of the cycle of films dealing with Irish Republicanism. The majority of such films have tended to stereotype the liberation fighters. Typical are two portrayals, James Cagney in Shake Hands with the Devil (1959) and Miranda Richardson in The Crying Game (1992). Both are psychotic killers. More sympathetic films romanticise the republicans, as doomed victim in Odd Man Out (now on re-release) or as heroic leader in Michael Collins (1996). In neither case is there much involvement with the politics of the Republican movement, or of the occupying power, Britain.

Republican traditions
This is exactly what TWTSTB does do. And it does so by tapping into Irish academic and popular traditions of Republicanism. So the film not only relied on Irish locations and casting, but the narrative features actual figures and events from the period. It also uses the iconography of Irish films. Little is seen of these in the UK but they go back to the early years of the Irish Free State. Channel Four screened The Dawn (1936) in the 1990s. This film centres on two brothers with different responses to the war, and it features scenes of marching volunteers and ambushes of the Black and Tans. But it does not address the post-Treaty Civil war.

Box Office
Despite or because of all the publicity, good and bad, TWTSTB has done very well – for a Loach film (£3.7 million and still on release). Initially, the UK release was planned to be only thirty prints, but with 300 touted for France, the UK figure was upped to 105. On the first weekend the film posted £390,000, “nearly three times that of his previous biggest opening Sweet Sixteen” (an 18 rather than a 15 Certificate film). ‘The Numbers’ column in Sight & Sound went on to point out that: “The Irish territories accounted for 73% of the . . . box office total.” The Irish territories apparently include the North and the South; both lumped in with the UK. This is a poetic confirmation of the argument put by Dan (Liam Cunningham) against the Treaty, “England would still rule you”. (In France the film has made over £3 million.)

Value judgments
Two aspects of the critical responses strike me especially in relation to TWTSTB. Whilst critics do not claim to be objective, there is a sense in which they claim to be judging films on identified technical and aesthetic standards. Yet the revealing asides in so many reviews indicate that value judgments are often just as important. As with Loach himself, ‘politics inform your aesthetics.’ British critics also tend to dislike didactic cinema, ‘film with a message.’ Jeffries comments: “but there is a deeper problem: we are always sure whose side Loach is on and the dramatic journeys he take us on are ultimately not engaging because we know where they are headed.” The reviewer’s comments on United 93’s message reckons that it: “terrifyingly conveys the nature of the threat facing the world today and poignantly conveys onscreen the decision by a few brave individuals to fight back”. Both films clearly embrace and present a set of value judgements about the world of their story. The differing comments are revealing.

Ken Loach was quoted on one occasion: “I’ve spent as much time defending my films as I have making them.” Does he mind that much? Just because his films are not mere entertainment but social and political interventions, they spark discussion and debate. I think it is highly likely that the arguments in the review columns are endlessly repeated and developed long after audiences have left the cinemas.

References
Sight & Sound reviews of the two films are July 2006. ‘The Numbers’ is August 2006.
Carry on Ken, A Feasible Film for Channel Four tx  More 4 on 17 June 2006.
Kevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons and John Hill (1987) Cinema and Ireland, Routledge

In Defence of Ken Loach

In 2018 I posted defending Ken Loach from the slander of being a ‘holocaust denier’. The campaign against him bore all the signs of supporters of Zionism and the Israeli state. Now unfortunately we have another instance of this.

Jewish Voice for Labour finds it deeply regrettable that the Board of Deputies of British Jews is seeking to disrupt the work of a leading anti-racism football charity by demanding the removal of an internationally respected cultural figure as a judge for its children’s design competition.

Show Racism the Red Card (Strict) is under attack by the Board for choosing campaigning filmmaker Ken Loach to help judge the charity’s 2020 Schools Competition. Thousands of young people in hundreds of schools across the UK take part in the project, designed to stimulate discussion and understanding about issues around racism. Winners are invited to an awards ceremony with special guests, including current and former professional footballers.

SRtRC Chief Executive Ged Grebby announced on Tuesday Feb 4 that Loach and former children’s laureate Michael Rosen were to be this year’s judges. Grebby commended both men as valued supporters of the charity, saying they were “ideally qualified” to help choose the most inspiring and original creative designs produced by young people on anti-racist themes.

However the Board of Deputies has challenged this appointment saying that Loach “is a poor choice to judge a competition on anti-racism”. The grounds for this extraordinary allegation against an anti-racist with Loach’s record have not been made public. We note however that the flurry of online abuse targeting Loach and Show Racism the Red Card since the Board’s intervention, has consisted mainly of unfounded (and potentially libellous) allegations of antisemitism or Holocaust denial. A scurrilous report in the Jewish Chronicle suggested that Michael Rosen too is an unsuitable competition judge, because he has rejected charges of antisemitism against Jeremy Corbyn. (Article].

In fact a statement by the Board of Deputies does specifically mention ‘holocaust denial’; a hoary old charge that was featured in the pages of The Guardian newspaper. The dubious nature of this attack was revealed when the same newspaper refused to print Loach’s response. Unfortunately that newspaper, along with nearly all the other mainstream press, television and radio, treat fraudulent claims against supporters of the Palestinian Struggle completely uncritically. If you want some critical reporting than I commend The Jewish Voice for Labour Web pages, Al Jazeera, R.T. and Media North.

Ken Loach, apart from his politics, has also frequently treated football in his films. There is the now famous football sequence in Kes (1969). More recently his film Looking for Eric (2009) presented football as sport and as culture rather than a capitalist commodity. Presumable this is what made him such a suitable figure for the Show Racism the Red Card competition.

Attacks on Ken Loach in the media are nothing new. They commenced back in 1966 when he, together with his colleague and mentor Tony Garnett, produced and delivered the now classic Cathy Come Home. It continued over a number of programmes and films scripted by the late Jim Allen and directed by Loach. A particular germane example was the play ‘Perdition’ by Allen and Loach which was forced from the stage of the Royal Court in 1987. And it has continued with the script-writing work of Paul Laverty for Loach’s films. An example of this can be found on the post on The Wind that Shakes the Barley [‘shakes the critics’].

The early television work of Loach, Allen and Garnett dramatised the class struggle in Britain; a Britain that still occupies lands belonging to other peoples. In the 1980s all three found that they could no longer work on British television because of the official and unofficial censorship. The axe fell on Loach’s fine and poetic film supporting the miner’s strike, Which Side Are You On (1985). Something that also befell the black workshop Ceddo’s The People’s Account (1985) and the Derry Film and Video Workshop’s Mother Ireland (1988), both banned from Channel 4 .

The more recent films for cinema by Ken Loach which have not only addressed the struggle in Britain, but the struggles elsewhere in Ireland, in Central America (Carla’s Song, 1996) and in the United States (Bread and Roses, 2000), have been honoured by Europeans but often slated in Britain.

It is a real irony in this case that the campaign around what is falsely called ‘anti-semitism’ relies mainly on rhetoric, misquotations and unsubstantiated allegations. Loach’s films rely on detailed research and an understanding of the actual social relations and conditions in Britain today and over the recent decades. So we have a dominant media where the real world is constantly misrepresented by officials purveyors of news; whilst what are fictional representations of our world are much closer to reality and the underlying social forces.

One of the aphorisms of Mao Zedong was,

To be attacked by the enemy is not a bad thing but a good thing.

His rationale was the enemy was forced to take action by the strength of opposition. As other writers have pointed out, the recent campaigns orchestrated by Israel [see Al Al-Jazeera ‘The Lobby’] follow on from the successes of the Boycott and Divestment Movement, in which Ken Loach has played a vigorous role. However, the weakness of some responses to the Zionist campaign have only fuelled it. So it is important that all people with progressive views defend artists and activists like Ken Loach. From early dramas like The Big Flame (1969), through excellent films like Riff-Raff’ (1991) and Jimmy’s Hall (2014), Loach and his collaborators have celebrated people who resist and struggle.

UPDATE: Ken Loach has been withdrawn from the ‘Show Racism the Red Card’ 2020 School competition. The SRtRC  web pages have posted a statement which includes:

“Show Racism the Red Card and Ken Loach have together agreed that he will not act as judge for the SRtRC School Competition. A significant factor in Ken Loach’s decision is the abuse online and in person that he and his family have received. It is profoundly distressing, and he is very concerned to protect those closest to him.

This entire issue threatens to overshadow this year’s Competition and together we agree that the key focus must be where it truly belongs: on the creativity of our young people and their own positive anti-racism messages.”

Since the decision involves Ken Loach it seems it should be respected. But the accusations remain fraudulent. See a demolition at this blog:

Flimsy and vindictive: the ‘case’ against Ken Loach

Removing Ken Loach as  a judge is a completely unsatisfactory outcome: it seems likely that it can only encourage this sort of reaction: a reaction which is an attack on the National Liberation Struggle in Palestine and the wider world. The response of major institutions and the mainstream media in Britain to these fraudulent allegations has been dismal; one explanation being that Britain remains a colonial and imperialist state.

Jimmy’s Hall (Ireland-UK 2014)

Paul Laverty (left) and Ken Loach on set for JIMMY'S HALL

Paul Laverty (left) and Ken Loach on set for JIMMY’S HALL

Watching Jimmy’s Hall was an absolute joy. After reading some lukewarm reviews I was delighted to find that this is a film full of energy and wit as well as great music and dancing – and some serious insights into the repression of collective action in a conservative, rural society. Some critics have discussed it as a ‘minor’ work. Loach himself says the titular hall is a ‘microcosm’ (of the struggles of working people in rural Ireland). I would say that it is a film to inspire audiences with a belief in collective work and community-based art and culture.

Jimmy Gralton was a local hero in County Leitrim in the early 1920s and again in the early 1930s and has become an iconic figure for some on the Irish left with several books and a play about his exploits – which Paul Laverty lists among his sources. Laverty’s script is ‘true’ to all the public aspects of Gralton’s story but elements of his private and personal life have been invented to suit the construction of the narrative. The film opens with Gralton’s return to County Leitrim in 1932 some ten years after he left for New York as one of the ‘anti-treaty’ losing warriors in the Irish Civil War. Now, one of the other ‘losers’ Eamon de Valera is heading a new government in the Free State and Gralton believes he can return safely. As soon as he is home he begins to hear pleas that he should re-open the community hall (the Pearse-Connolly Hall named after two Republican heroes) built by local voluntary labour on the Gralton family’s land. (Flashbacks then show us the hall being built.)

The local priest making a note of all the locals attending 'Jimmy's Hall' – so he can denounce them from the pulpit!

The local priest making a note of all the locals attending ‘Jimmy’s Hall’ – so he can denounce them from the pulpit!

A typical Loach-Laverty scene – the community who run and use the hall discuss their plans for collective action.

A typical Loach-Laverty scene – the community who run and use the hall discuss their plans for collective action.

Gralton’s home is in one of the least-populated counties in Ireland (50,000 in the 1930s – a third of what it was at the time of the famine in the 1840s but nearly three times what it is now). There is no work and little to do – young people especially want to revive the dances, boxing gym and poetry and art classes. The hall re-opens and life improves but Gralton has enemies and it is this opposition that has attracted Laverty and Loach to his story. The opposition is led by the Catholic Church and the landowners – and also by the right-wingers from the pro-treaty IRA. Loach and Laverty have acknowledged that film is certainly linked to The Wind That Shakes the Barley. As Loach argues, after a colonial struggle any newly independent country can change its flag and ditch the trappings of imperialism but it’s much more difficult to change who has status in the community and who has control over what happens. Jimmy Gralton discovers that the old enemies are still in power. This is neatly summed up in a typical Loach-Laverty scene when the priest and the landowner meet to scupper Gralton.

In some ways, Jimmy’s Hall has a similar address to audiences as the Loach-Allen film Land and Freedom (1995). We know Gralton can’t ‘win’ – Loach is not a romantic and his films are rooted in historical accuracy (though not a history recognised by right-wingers). But what films like this do offer is a sense of the right way to organise, the possibilities of collective action, the pleasures of working (and playing) together and a clear analysis of what the enemy is up to. The strength of the film is that the priest is at once an oppressor, but also a thinking man who respects Gralton as an enemy. It’s interesting that the crucial ‘lever’ that the priest uses is to denounce American jazz and blues as the ‘devil’s music’. All kinds of metaphors are wrapped up in this stance – and the fact that Gralton brings in jazz to play alongside traditional Irish music, including music for dancing. The tragedy is that the reactionary forces in rural Ireland were set up to triumph over collective action. This is an important historical lesson that I hope younger people are able to learn from.

The Cannes Press Conference for Jimmy’s Hall is interesting in terms of Loach’s thoughts on what cinema can achieve. I think he would agree that young people in rural Ireland in particular were stifled by the Church up to at least the 1980s but that since then the international corporations with their movements of capital that first built up and then knocked down the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy have taken over as the oppressors. In case all of this sounds like hard work I should add that Laverty has created a ‘secret romance’ between Gralton and the woman he left ten years ago and who is now married with children. Simone Kirby plays Oonagh delightfully and she and Barry Ward as Jimmy make a handsome couple.

A romantic moment in this warm and uplifting film.

A romantic moment in this warm and uplifting film.

Jimmy’s other love is his mother. So far I haven’t managed to find out who the actress is (or perhaps she is one of Loach’s non-actors?). Either way she is terrific, as are all the other cast members. I saw the film a second time on a trip to Ireland. I was worried that a second viewing might reveal flaws, but I enjoyed just as much, if not more so. Rumours circulated before Cannes that this would be the last Ken Loach fiction feature. Ken is 77 now and losing the sight in one eye (see Danny Leigh’s interview in the Guardian). A major feature is tiring and stressful but I hope he can make another one. If he can’t, I think Jimmy’s Hall is a good swansong. Ignore gainsayers, this is the goods. More reviews of Ken Loach et al to follow.

Hidden Agenda (UK 1990)

Frances McDormand as Ingrid and Brian Cox as Peter Kerrigan

Frances McDormand as Ingrid and Brian Cox as Peter Kerrigan

With Jimmy’s Hall in UK cinemas at the moment I’m looking back and re-viewing the films Ken Loach has made about events in Ireland. Hidden Agenda is one of the two ‘odd’ films that Loach made in the 1980s (Fatherland in 1986 is the other). Hidden Agenda is odd for both institutional and aesthetic reasons – but in other ways it ‘fits’ the general trajectory of the director’s work with his various collaborators.

Ken Loach found it very difficult to get TV commissions or to raise money for films in the 1980s and this project was initially taken up by David Puttnam at Columbia in 1987. When Puttnam left Hollywood, his endorsement nevertheless enabled Loach to raise the money from Hemdale, the UK-US company founded by David Hemmings and John Daly. Hemdale already had a reputation for producing controversial films such as those from Oliver Stone (Salvador and Platoon) and a political thriller set in Northern Ireland presumably appealed to Daly as  a sound commercial business proposition. I do wonder though if he realised what kind of story he would get from Jim Allen.

Allen was in some ways Loach’s mentor in developing political ideas and he had written Days of Hope in the mid 1970s plus three of the more controversial of Loach’s TV plays, including The Big Flame (1969) about a dock strike in Liverpool. Allen was from an Irish Catholic family in Manchester and it’s interesting that the name of the central character in Hidden Agenda is Peter Kerrigan – the name of one of the regular actors (and trade union organisers) in Loach’s TV plays including The Big Flame.

Outline

The film’s narrative combines elements of two conspiracy stories of the 1970s and 1980s. The plot begins with the final press conference of an international ‘Civil Rights Monitoring Team’ which has been collecting evidence of the maltreatment of suspects held by the British security forces in Northern Ireland. One of the lawyers, an American Paul Sullivan (Brad Dourif), has been given a cassette tape by ‘Harris’ (Maurice Roeves), a mysterious figure who is clearly being watched by undercover British agents. Having listened to the tape Sullivan attempts to meet Harris again but is assassinated. Deputy Chief Constable Kerrigan (Brian Cox) flies in to investigate the murder. He meets resistance from both the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) and various figures from British secret service groups. Initially at least he is prepared to push and to find out the truth with the help of Sullivan’s partner Ingrid (Frances McDormand). Kerrigan’s investigation is arguably a reference to the so-called ‘Stalker Inquiry’. John Stalker was the Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester who investigated the alleged ‘shoot to kill’ actions of the RUC in 1983, but who was then controversially removed from the case. (A 1990 TV drama, Shoot to Kill, covered the affair in some detail.) Hidden Agenda also draws upon the stories of conspiracies by right-wing British politicians and security personnel to destabilise the governments of Heath and Wilson in the 1970s in order to ensure the election of a more right-wing Tory government.

Production

Apart from Jim Allen, only Jonathan Morris as editor and Martin Johnson as production designer were present from Loach’s usual crews. Rebecca O’Brien was a co-producer alongside Eric Fellner (who with Tim Bevan later became the main mover behind Working Title). Stewart Copeland was responsible for the score. Later he also worked on Riff-Raff and Raining Stones for Loach. Copeland had co-founded the pop band The Police with Sting but had started composing for films in the late 1980s. His was one of the more unusual collaborations with Loach. He’d attended Millfield, the public school associated with sport and his father was a senior member of the CIA. But Hidden Agenda includes a couple of Irish Republican songs featured in a Republican club and linking the film to both Days of Hope and The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Cinematographer Clive Tickner had just completed photography on the award-winning mini-series Traffik for Channel 4 and this and his documentary experience clearly recommended him. However, the production overall was invariably caught between the kind of political struggle film – the personal and collective struggles over conscience and actions delivered by Allen with the generic thrills of commercial cinema. Added to this, the production was forced to abandon Loach’s preferred ‘authentic locations and performers’ strategy. Parts of the film were shot in Belfast and its environs but the film’s insurers forced some shooting in England. Brian Cox and Maurice Roeves were well-known British actors at this point, Frances McDormand and Brad Dourif had been together in Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (US 1988) for which McDormand had been Oscar-nominated. Put all these elements together and the result is a production that resembles one of those Hollywood international thrillers directed by a European filmmaker. Sometimes they work in interesting ways – and sometimes they don’t.

Commentary

Hidden Agenda does work as a thriller on one level. Loach, Morris and Johnson capture some of the street feel of Belfast and the action is generally well-handled. All the performances are good I think and there are several set-piece arguments between the principals that are exciting in terms of political ideas. There are also a couple of very neat devices signalling the history of Irish struggles against British colonialism. The film opens with a quote from James Fintan Lalor (1807-49): “The entire ownership of Ireland, moral and material, up to the sun and down to the centre, is vested of right by the people of Ireland”. This is soon juxtaposed with a shot of an Orange march and a quote from Margaret Thatcher (about her ‘ownership’). Later in the film, a patrician British security chief opines that Ireland would be a “lovely country if it wasn’t for the Irish”. There is also a clear link made via the McDormand/Dourif characters with Chile in 1973. “It couldn’t happen here” one of them says – but it does, in a way. These moments promise us something that the film can’t really deliver and though I was gripped throughout the narrative, I realised afterwards that the script doesn’t manage to resolve the contradiction in the mix of genre and politics. It would be good, for instance, to know more about the background of Kerrigan. What lies behind his ‘professional’ career policeman persona? At one point he suggests that he might be prepared to lose everything to expose the truth. What motivates this?

Hidden2

Hidden3

Of course, whatever the film managed to produce in terms of readings it wouldn’t matter to Loach’s right-wing critics. Alexander Walker (a Unionist) famously denounced the film at Cannes (where it won the Jury Prize) as ‘IRA Propaganda’. This is nonsense of course. Certainly the film is pro real freedom for the whole of Ireland but the focus is completely on the behaviour and the ideology of the British security forces. And there is the problem. Perhaps Walker was referring to the film he expected to see. In her review for Monthly Film Bulletin (January 1991) Verina Glaessner identifies a character played by Michelle Fairlie as a young mother whose IRA husband is in Long Kesh internment camp. This is the kind of Irish character who needs to be central in the narrative to root the political discourse in the personal lives of ordinary people. John Hill (1997), one of the best analysts of Loach’s work, offers a detailed account of his problems with Hidden Agenda. He suggests that it is the constraints of the ‘conservative genre’ of the political thriller/detective story that undermine Loach and Allen. The generic narrative constrains the possibilities of different types of engagement by audiences – i.e. they must follow the conventional ‘uncovering’ of the conspiracy – and, as we noted, the personal story is focused on the ‘maverick investigator’. (There is actually a second detective, confusingly played by John Benfield (often a police chief, e.g. in Prime Suspect) who seems to disappear from the action early on.

Hill also refers to the way in which the generic mise en scène of the police thriller clashes with Loach’s more usual naturalistic style. He suggests that Loach finds only clichéd generic images to represent the Northern Ireland setting which doesn’t allow audiences to reflect on the political issues. The film becomes an entertainment featuring a vulnerable hero – the ‘good policeman’. This ties in with Glaessner’s complaint that Loach’s overall embrace of naturalism/realism, for which he was heavily criticised by left media/film theorists in the 1970s, is not suited to ‘political filmmaking’. Hill refers to the debates around the film as Costa-Gavras style thrillers rather than Godardian, self-reflexive policiers (like Pierrot de fou?). All of these are valid points, although I would argue that the tradition of Swedish crime fiction suggests that it is possible to re-cast crime thrillers in a ‘non-Hollywood’ way in visual terms without losing the politics (see my review of Bo Widerberg’s The Man on the Roof (Sweden 1976)).

I don’t want to end on a negative note. Hidden Agenda didn’t offer the alternative view of the Irish struggle that Loach and Allen’s supporters might have wanted, but to get the film made and released in 1990 in the face of the British media’s distorted view of Ireland was a triumph in itself and Ken Loach made up for some of its failings with The Wind That Shakes the Barley in 2006. Hidden Agenda put him back in cinemas and he has not been kept out over the past 25 years. I’m looking forward to Jimmy’s Hall.

Reference

John Hill (1997) ‘Finding a form: politics and aesthetics in Fatherland, Hidden Agenda and Riff-Raff‘ in George McKnight (ed), Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach, Flicks Books

Theatrical trailer:

The Angels’ Share (UK/Fra/Bel/Italy 2012)

The four young offenders at a whisky auction in ‘The Angels’ Share’ (l-r: William Ruane, Jasmin Riggins, Paul Brannigan and Gary Maitland)

The ‘Sixteen Films’ crew have triumphed again, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and chalking up a significant box office success with The Angels’ Share. Sixteen Films as a company was formed by Ken Loach with producer Rebecca O’Brien and writer Paul Laverty to make Sweet Sixteen in 2002, but the partnership between Loach and Laverty goes back to Carla’s Song in 1996. Rebecca O’Brien missed out on that film but she was with Loach on earlier productions going back to Hidden Agenda in 1990. The West of Scotland and Scottish culture has featured in six of the groups films in all (My Name is Joe in 1998, Ae Fond Kiss in 2004 and Tickets in 2005 alongside Carla’s Song, Sweet Sixteen and the current film.) I think it’s fair to say that while the earlier films were all located in a recognisable urban Scotland and dealt with aspects of contemporary urban Scottish culture, none have ‘played’ so openly with ideas about Scottishness (without losing track of a strong central narrative).

‘The Angels’ Share’ refers to the small amount of liquid which is lost during the long process of maturation of whisky. With whisky as the centrepiece and four young working-class Glaswegians deposited in the Highlands, clad in kilts and carrying bottles of Irn-Bru, Loach and Laverty are clearly teasing us with thoughts of Whisky Galore and Trainspotting – as well as several films by Bill Forsyth including Local Hero and Comfort and Joy.  Some reviewers seem to think that comedy is something new for Loach. They’ve already forgotten Looking for Eric but, more importantly, they’ve forgotten that dramas set in believable working-class communities often feature comic characters and comic sequences. Ricky Tomlinson, later star of The Royle Family sitcom on TV, started making us laugh in Loach’s Riff-Raff (1991). In most cases, however, laughter in a Loach film co-exists with tears and pain, not least in a film like Kes (1969). And it still does in The Angels’ Share. The difference is perhaps that the obvious pain is contained within the first part of the narrative so that the second part becomes closer to a conventional ‘caper movie’ narrative – and the film’s resolution is quite different in feel to something like Kes. In fact it could almost be described as upbeat.

Outline (no spoilers)

The protagonist in The Angels’ Share is Robbie a young Glaswegian with a violent past, once more in court but this time offered a way out via 300 hours of ‘community payback’ because he is about to become a father and the birth of his child might bring him to his senses. (Robbie is played by Paul Brannigan, a very talented non-professional who obviously has great potential as an actor.) Robbie does try to change, keeping off drugs and trying to avoid fights. He makes good friends of three other young offenders on the programme and forms a bond with his supervisor (the wonderful Jon Henshaw) who is lonely and missing his own family. It is by chance that Robbie discovers that he has a natural talent, a ‘nose’ for whisky, and this will lead him into a seemingly crazy scheme to make money. But to do so, he needs the support of his three willing but not necessarily accomplished fellow miscreants.

Commentary

The film narrative is cleverly thought through and encapsulates several political observations that we might expect from Loach and Laverty. A 100 minute film perhaps does not have the length to allow the gradual development/transformation of a character like Robbie, who does seem to go from extremely violent youth spaced out on drugs to astute schemer and smooth operator rather quickly. On the other hand, because of its subject material, the film does have the possibility to engage with debates about Scottishness and representation as outlined above and this makes what is otherwise a seemingly ‘light’ comic tale into something else. In interviews, Loach and Laverty have spoken about the waste of young people’s talents and the disease of unemployment in the increasingly unequal society that is modern Tory Britain (and which the SNP in Edinburgh can only ameliorate but not radically alter). Here are young Glaswegians who have probably never tasted whisky, the national drink of Scotland, and who never visit the beautiful landscapes of their own country (from which their own families may well have been ‘cleared’ by rich landowners a hundred and fifty years or more ago). That same whisky (and the rivers and glens used for game hunting) is now valued by collectors who can pay extraordinary sums of money for something created by craft workers who don’t receive the remuneration that is their due. In this analysis, stealing the angels’ share seems a just venture if the proceeds are recycled in the Scottish economy.

One of the most important debates in Scottish film culture focuses on the representation of what is termed ‘tartanry’ – the romantic attachment of a Highland past that is commonly found in Hollywood’s celebration of Braveheart or Rob Roy. In fact, much of the mythology is a creation of romantic novelists and Victorian gentry – and it has little meaning for the Scottish working-class of the central lowlands, whose culture has been derived from mining and heavy industry. Whisky has an ambiguous position in this context – ironically, I read a magazine article on the boom in the Scottish whisky industry only a few days before seeing the film. Unfortunately a new distillery in the highlands will only create around 150 jobs – whereas the closure of factories and shipyards loses thousands. For readers outside the UK, it’s worth pointing out that Irn-Bru, bottles of which play a key role in the narrative are iconic in Scotland as the brand is claimed to be one of the few local products to match the popularity of Coke and Pepsi.

The Angels’ Share was released in the UK and Ireland by the Canadian mainstream distributor e-One. They have followed the usual practice on Loach’s films of a limited specialised cinema release starting with 73 screens. After four weeks the film is still going strong, passing $2 million. It opens this week in France and Belgium where Loach is usually guaranteed a bigger audience than in the UK. The biggest box office winner from Sixteen Films has so far been the Palme d’Or winner, The Wind That Shakes the Barley (boosted by a massive Irish box office response) but The Angels’ Share might top it.

I enjoyed the film very much but I probably need to see it again. There have been the usual silly certification problems about the way that working-class Glaswegian youths use profanities – often as words of endearment as much as hostility but fortunately the film got the ’15’ Certificate it needed. I should warn anyone who isn’t familiar with Loach-Laverty that some of the early scenes are disturbing (and emotional) before the caper elements take over but what follows will I think attract a new audience as well as satisfying existing fans. I’m intrigued as to how an American release will deal with the profanities in the subtitles which will surely happen for that market. Here is the trailer to whet your appetite (it gives away more of the plot than I have done, so be warned):

Ken Loach: Black Jack (UK/France 1979)

Jack and Tolly look for some evidence. (Image from DVD Beaver)

Black Jack is one of the least known of Ken Loach’s early films, appearing as the only cinema feature between Family Life (1971) and Fatherland (1986). During that long period, when Loach should have been establishing himself as a major international filmmaker, he was confined to television and then in the early 1980s almost kept off screens of any kind (as he would be again in the late 1980s). The television years were by no means wasted as John Hill points out in Sight and Sound, October 2011 and Days of Hope (1975) was, I seem to recall, shown on cinema screens in France.

So how did Black Jack come about and why was it generally forgotten for such a long time, only recently appearing on a BFI DVD? The DVD includes a Loach commentary and he has also spoken about the film in Graham Fuller’s book, Loach on Loach (Faber 1998). He explains that although the second of Kestrel Films’ releases, Family Life, had been a flop in the UK, it had attracted attention in France. Tony Garnett, Loach’s partner in Kestrel Films, thought that with the right property another film release could exploit this French interest. However, the UK film industry in the 1970s was in dire straits and the prospects of finding investors for a feature production were poor. Then Garnett discovered that a ‘children’s film’ stood a chance of attracting public funds via the National Film Finance Corporation. Kestrel Films were then able to embark on an adaptation of a novel by Leon Garfield that Loach knew from his own children’s reading. The story was changed in two crucial ways. First, ‘Jack’ was made into a Frenchman and second the location was shifted from Sussex to North and East Yorkshire. Clearly the casting of Jean Franval was supposed to help the film in France, but I haven’t been able to find any evidence of French money in the production – or whether or not the film played in French cinemas. The film did appear at Cannes where it won the Critics’ Prize and it is listed with various alternative titles suggesting that it went to both North America and across Europe – I suspect that a subtitled version might have worked well.

The story is set in the 18th century, 1750 to be precise. 12 year-old Bartholomew (‘Tolly’) finds himself unwittingly helping a giant Frenchman, ‘Black Jack’, escape the hangman’s noose and is then forced to accompany him in fleeing from York. On the road Jack and Tolly become involved in rescuing a young girl, Belle, who is being sent to an asylum so that her unseemly behaviour will not threaten the marriage arrangements of her elder sister. Eventually, the three companions end up travelling with a fairground troupe with Belle’s fate being fought over by her father, the men who run the asylum and a blackmailer, all determined to get her back.

When the film was released (by a small independent distributor, Enterprise Films) I’m afraid that, despite being a Loach fan, I stupidly dismissed it as a ‘children’s film’. I should have known better. Watching the film now, three points are clear. First, it looks terrific and demonstrates just how well cinematographer Chris Menges’ approach fitted in with Loach and Garnett’s vision. Second, it is clearly part of the overall ‘project’ of Kestrel Films and the broader spread of Loach’s work – and it also relates to other radical attempts to rethink ‘period drama’ during this period of British Cinema. Third, wonderful though it is, it doesn’t quite hold together – or perhaps it just has a couple of problems. But it’s still absolutely worth seeing.

The main problem, as Loach admits, is that there just wasn’t enough money to re-shoot scenes or to spend the necessary time on aspects of post-production. The sound mix is certainly a problem – at least on my old TV – but DVD Beaver (the bible on such matters) says it is OK. Loach tells us that the mix was done one weekend and there really wasn’t enough time. In casting the film, Loach and Garnett relied on the local performers that they had found in South Yorkshire around the time of Kes and who were subsequently used on other Barry Hines scripted projects. Some critics have objected to the ‘modern’ working-class accents of South Yorkshire being used by characters from rural North and East Yorkshire in the 18th century, but the accents worked for me – I simply couldn’t hear them well enough in the mix.

It is the hesitant speech of what I take to be mostly non-actors which coupled with Menges camerawork (using natural light, I think) that gives the film is naturalistic qualities. The interiors were shot on 35mm and the exteriors on 16mm and this works well. As with Kes, Menges brings to the image something that is simultaneously ‘realist’ but also ‘magical’ and perhaps ‘romantic’. Certainly it feels different compared to the more observational, but ‘immediate’, style of Barry Ackroyd seen in most of Loach’s later films in the 1990s and 2000s. I was pleased to go back and discover a paper I’d forgotten about by Deborah Knight entitled ‘Naturalism, narration and critical perspective: Ken Loach and the experimental method’ (part of the collection edited by George McKnight, Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach, Flicks Books 1997). Knight tries to rescue Loach from the critical attacks from both right and left. The attacks from the right are not surprising and shouldn’t really trouble us, but Loach certainly deserves to be defended from Colin McCabe and those Screen theorists who held to the notion of the ‘classical realist text’ and how it is inevitably a bourgeois form. This isn’t the place to discuss that debate in detail but it’s interesting that Knight traces the development of naturalism back to the novels of Emile Zola with their direct exposition of social ills in the industrial regions of North East France and how they influenced British novelists like Arnold Bennett and George Meredith. She then traces the influences through to the so-called ‘Angry Young Men’ of 1950s writing in Britain and the New Wave films of Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz. Loach, she argues is in this tradition. What McCabe sees as a weakness – the the influence of the realist literature of the late 19th century – she sees as a strength and she argues that it is one of three distinctive features of British ‘naturalist’ drama. It’s partly that the realist novels discussed contemporary social issues, but also that they focused on working-class and lower middle-class characters – ordinary people living through social changes. Secondly she picks out the emphasis on dialogue in British Cinema, partly influenced by the theatrical tradition, but also by the celebration of regional voices through various forms of popular entertainment. And finally she emphasise the importance of location shooting. This latter has always struck me as related to a general enthusiasm for documentary in the UK since the 1930s.

The attempt to offer a more socially-committed historical drama ties Black Jack to films like Comrades (dir. Bill Douglas 1986) and Culloden (dir. Peter Watkins, 1964). In terms of literary adaptation it follow Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963) and precedes Michael Winterbottom’s radical take on Jude (1996). In terms of British genre cinema it has links to Witchfinder General (dir Michael Reeves, 1968) and Rob Roy (dir. Michael Caton-Jones, 1995). All of these films, set at different times from the 17th to the 19th century, represent the rural regions of Britain in interesting ways and to some extent offer the possibilities of the picaresque and action-adventure found in American genres like the Western. Black Jack stands out because, despite the title, it has a pair of twelve-year-olds at its centre. Whether this makes it a ‘children’s film’ I’m not sure. I think that contemporary audiences of children would need some support in engaging with the story, which is very loosely structured, but the younger characters are both entertaining and affecting. The social commitment in the film resides in its drive to expose the conditions of the asylum and its central role for the ‘marginalised’ in society, e.g. the travelling fairground people. ‘Authenticity’ is always a tricky issue with historical films, especially those that suggest a form of realism. Black Jack features a pair of highly literate young apprentices (with no suggestion where they may have learned to write quite sophisticated letters, although Tolly does have an uncle who captains a ship). It’s the relatively large sums of money that are quoted that struck me as odd but perhaps this is intended to make it easier for audiences without the historical knowledge to follow the plot points easily.

Overall, Black Jack is well worth exploring. It’s perhaps surprising that Loach has not made other films set in the 18th or 19th centuries – periods of enormous social change and various forms of radical politics. He has made 20th century historical dramas of course, not least The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and we’ll try and look at some more of these in due course.