I, Daniel Blake told it how it is in Tory Britain; as does Sorry We Missed You. Tory Britain is a place of exploitation, discrimination and a callous, uncaring state that treats working people as an underclass. MP Rees-Mogg’s recent remarks about the Grenfell disaster (the victims didn’t show common sense) is emblematic of how the Conservatives are unfit to rule. There’s only one way that compassionate people who vote Tory will perceive this film: they won’t believe it. That, of course, is a mistake as scriptwriter Paul Laverty does the research and everything in this film has a ‘truth’ which is moulded into a melodrama.
Director Ken Loach is most famous for Cathy Come Home, a 1966 BBC TV drama that led to the creation of the charity Shelter for homeless people. In those days of three television channels a significant proportion of the population watched the same programme at the same time and roughly 12 million people saw the drama (about 25% of the UK population at the time). Nowadays it’s virtually impossible to make anywhere near the same impact. That said, both of Loach’s last two films should have led to the same outrage of 50 years ago.
Sorry We Missed You dramatises the ‘flexible workforce’ beloved of Tory businesses because it reduces their costs and increases profitability (and reduces prices for consumers). However, the human cost to the workers and their families is hidden, except in the liberal press and some Twitter circles; occasionally a tragedy reaches the BBC. For the first half hour of the film I felt I was watching a documentary (the content not the form of the film) as I learned nothing but once I became emotionally engaged with the family’s predicament the film turned into a heartbreaking melodrama (incidentally, once again used as a term of abuse in Mark Kermode’s otherwise reasonable review). The only false note in the film was the under-developed character of the ‘rebellious son’; he veered too much between surly and caring and there was no back story explaining his political awareness.
Typically for Loach’s films the mise en scene is a fairly ugly long lensed affair; he uses telephoto lenses that flatten the scene (so it looked like people were always about to be run over by passing vans in the depot) as a way of getting authentic performances. Moments of humour and lyricism are few but that’s not entirely inappropriate in a film that portrays what nine years of Tory government have done to the country.
Winner of the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, this film is now attracting good audiences at both the Hyde Park Picture House and at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum. All the people I have spoken to have been impressed and moved by the film. Now, on Friday October 28th, The Guardian had a slew of letters motivated by seeing the film ‘The punitive treatment of our Daniel Blakes’. We had four decrying the inequities of contemporary Britain and its treatment of the low paid, the unemployed and people outside the labour market. The fifth letter was refreshingly different:
“Am I the only person not to like I, Daniel Blake?”
The writer objected to the lack of a story: the characterisation of Daniel Blake as a ‘deserving benefits claimant’, and the portrayal of the ‘dole’ as one-dimensional’.
I did not agree with much of this criticism. The film is extremely well written by Paul Laverty and extremely well made by Ken Loach and his team. The two lead actors, David Johns as Daniel, and Hayley Squires as Katie, the single mother he befriends, are excellent. Both are ‘deserving’ but also convincing and rounded characters. There is a story, but it is low-key and treated in the observational style that is Loach’s metier. And I do not think the representation of the Benefit System and staff is simplistic, though it does lack depth.
Other responses included people telling me they cried in emotional scenes and two people who described the treatment of Daniel and Katie, and her two children, as ‘cruel’. This is where the writer in the Guardian seems to be picking up on an important point. I, like many film fans, often cry during films, and I was intensely moved in I, Daniel Blake. But this is an emotional response and does not necessarily involve a reflexive engagement with the characters and situation depicted. And reflexivity is an aspect that is rare in Loach films.
As for ‘cruelty’, this is valid comment but less than adequate. What the film depicts is serious exploitation and oppression. The situations in the film are part of a systematic attack on the working class, including its organisations. In the film Daniel, a victim of a heart attack, is denied income for which he has contributed throughout his working life. Katie and her children are forced to relocate from London to the unknown Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Alongside this we learn that Daniel’s neighbour, ‘China’ (Kema Sikazwe), appears to work on what is known as a ‘zero hours contract’ at below the minimum wage. One of the powerful sequences takes place in a local food bank where Daniel, Katie and the children join a long queue that involves hours of waiting.
So congratulations are on order to Loach and Laverty for addressing an issue that the mainstream media and film industry mainly ignore or caricature. But the representation they offer has severe limits. Community has always been an important strand in the films of Ken Loach, but there is no coherent community in this film. Katie has left family and friends behind in London, as have her children Daisy (Brianna Shann) and Dylan (Dylan Philip McKiernan). The only neighbours of Daniel that we see are China and his flatmate. Daniel’s only surviving community is his workplace and his workmates, from whom he is now separated by illness. The Benefit Office is certainly no community: the claimants are deliberately isolated and the staff are divided, apparently by whether or not they have any sympathy for the people they serve.
The nearest to a community that we see is the food bank, where the volunteers are both sympathetic and caring in their assistance. There is also a suggestion of community when Daniel finally makes a public protest, as passers-by cheer him and barrack the managers and police when they stop him. But these latter people are separated by the road, and do no more than express verbal solidarity. This would seem to express the fractured situation of the working class in modern Britain.
In other films Loach and Laverty have often included a sequence where the working class protagonists provide some analysis of their situation. Such sequences could be seen in the recent Jimmy’s Hall (2014) and in the earlier Looking for Eric (2009). But whilst this film refers to matters like re-housing, sanctioning benefits, low wages, the lack of jobs, malnutrition . . . we do not meet a character who offers some sort of critical discussion.
Our Guardian writer offered a parallel example, the 1978 TV drama, The Spongers, scripted by Loach’s earlier colleague Jim Allen (now sadly passed on), produced by another Loach colleague Tony Garnett, and directed by Roland Joffé for the BBC. The parallel is instructive. There are crossovers between the television and film dramas, including a single mother and children and an uncaring bureaucracy. But the earlier play also delved into the world of the local council and the council departments who administer the system that impacts so negatively on the characters. Some sort of rationale on their part is voiced. We do not get a similar ‘behind the scenes’ presentation in I, Daniel Blake. And there is only a brief reference to an ‘American company’ clearly offsetting the declining rate of profit through state assistance. I think such a sequence would have improved the politics.
This one of the bleakest of Ken Loach’s films and dramas. In some ways it harks back to the seminal Cathy Come Home (BBC, 1966). There is the same downward spiral for the protagonists. I, Daniel Blake does end on a more positive note for Katie and her children, as Daniel’s caring assistance has help them start on a new life ‘up north’.
A friend who recommended the film to me referred to it as a ‘socialist’ film. To be honest I think a socialist film needs to offer articulation of the politics of the world it depicts. This seem to me a definite failing in what is still a very fine film. And thanks to our Liverpool-based letter writer who stimulated me to think on this.
This event is organised by the Northern section of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom. The Unity + Works Hall is only two minutes walk from the Wakefield Westgate Railways Station.
This full and varied afternoon kicks off with 45 minutes of Tony Garnett talking about his newly published memoir. Garnett is a key figure in alternative television and film, and his work with Ken Loach in the 1960s and 1970s is seminal, both for television and for working class representations.
The Price of Coal were two interlinked television plays for BBC 1 filmed in 1976. They were scripted by Barry Hines, produced by Tony Garnett and directed by Ken Loach. Meet the People (1977, in colour) is broadly a comedy set round a royal visit to a colliery. The follow-up Back to Reality, is a darker more sombre play. This first play runs for 75 minutes.
And then there will be the appreciation of a key collaborator and writer Barry Hines by Ian Clayton, about 45 minutes.
So a rich three hours celebrating some of the best and most politically felt work on British Television and the filmmakers who created this.
For over 25 years since the release of Hidden Agenda (1990), Ken Loach has been the most consistently successful British filmmaker – not in gross box office, but simply in terms of producing films regularly and putting working-class characters (English, Irish, Scottish, Spanish, Latin-American) on screen in ways that do them justice. Before that he had a prolific career in UK TV drama and film and a great success in cinemas with Kes (1969) before he was sidelined in the Thatcher 80s when ‘greed was good’ and the working-class were hammered before being marginalised. Ken will be 80 in a few days and this new documentary was released midway between his birthday and the award of a second Palme d’Or at Cannes to his company Sixteen Films for I, Daniel Blake. Ken Loach certainly deserves a cinema documentary made about him. Unfortunately there are some problems with this one.
Director Louise Osmond is a celebrated documentarist whose last film Dark Horse (2015) won prizes at Sundance and at the British Independent Film Awards and she had full access to Loach’s preparations for shooting I, Daniel Blake, as well as to Ken and his collaborators. I’m puzzled by the lack of real analysis of the work and by the poor technical qualities of her film. To be fair, Ken Loach has had an eventful life so far and his films and television material represent a formidable body of work. To do justice to the man and his work would need a documentary series rather than a single 93 minute film. I’ve seen all Ken’s feature films (apart from the new one) and most of the important TV work. It isn’t surprising then that I enjoyed being reminded of the work and that I was grateful for the archive material insights into his early life alongside the contributions of his family. The film also includes useful contributions from Tony Garnett and Gabriel Byrne (who give the best insights into Loach as a committed director) and a host of other talking heads with stories and observations. Osmond’s strategy is to use the making of I, Daniel Blake as a running example of Loach at work. She then breaks into this ‘making of’ narrative to visits distinct periods in Loach’s life and career, not necessarily in chronological order.
There are arguably four sections to the film to add to the ‘making of’ doc. We get archive photos and memories to learn about both Loach the boy from Nuneaton and Loach the paterfamilias in later life. Tony Garnett takes us through the early work at the BBC and explains that Ken was not really ‘politicised’ until he met the writer Jim Allen in the late 1960s. Garnett’s analysis ends with Kes in 1969. The third section deals with the frustrations of the 1970s and 1980s and in particular on the cancellations of TV commissions and the last minute cancellation of Jim Allen’s Royal Court play Perdition in 1987 – a furore over the exposure of Zionism during the Second World War in Hungary that seems very contemporary today. Loach was reduced to making commercials to avoid financial disaster – something which still makes him feel ashamed. The fourth section plots the ‘renewal’ following a Cannes prize for Hidden Agenda. Throughout the film Ken responds carefully, guardedly perhaps with lots of self-deprecation, but also occasionally with the steely determination mentioned by both Garnett and Byrne.
The narrative structure is intended to serve the film’s title – to present the Ken Loach who is loved (by the left) and loathed (by the right). But this is very simplistic and demeaning. Loach is also treated with condescension by many of the so-called ‘liberal élite’ in the UK. His films are seen by this group to be all the same, without any real analysis. There is an indication of this in Liz Forgan’s explanation of why Channel 4 refused to broadcast Ken’s 1980s series on Questions of Leadership on the grounds that they all argued that trade union leaders had betrayed their members. I think it is a weakness of the documentary to not explore Ken’s politics and the different politics of his films across the years. My own question to Ken would be why he has always set his films in one of London, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Strathclyde or Ireland. Why not the Midlands? Why not Nuneaton or Oxford which he would know from his own experience (since this is part of why he casts actors and recruits writers)? I’d also ask why there are relatively few non-white characters in most of the films and only one film (Ae Fond Kiss) specifically about a migrant family? (I’m not arguing that he should make a film about any particular set of characters – only that it is an interesting question to ask.)
The technical problem with the film is now a common-place – and already identified as a problem with Loach’s own Spirit of ’45. All of Loach’s early TV work was shot 4:3 on video or 1.37:1 on 16mm film. Even a feature like Kes was shot for 1.66:1 projection. Yet in Versus all this early material is either cropped or squeezed to fit a 1.85:1 ratio (in fact it might even be 2.35:1 Not only this but the archive footage seems to have come from someone’s old VHS collection and it looks dreadful. Even the extracts from some of the later films look like poor copies. I’m worried that younger audiences will look at these downgraded images and fail to appreciate not just Ken’s direction but the great cinematography of collaborators like Chris Menges and Barry Ackroyd. Menges is interviewed in the film but not Ackroyd – who helped establish the Loach style of social realism in the 1990s (as against the more naturalistic style of Menges’ work on Kes). The film does attempt to explore Loach’s work with actors and it does mention the Czech New Wave (to underpin Menges’ comments) but there is much more to the development of Loach’s approach than that one film movement. Some explanation of neo-realism and possibly some discussion of Robbie Ryan’s current work for Loach would help to dispel the view that Ken’s importance in British Cinema is just down to the subject matter of his films. There is a brief discussion of ‘Ken at Cannes’, but it would have been good to hear from some of his many European supporters why they are so passionate in support of his films.
My other moan is about what is becoming a modern documentary convention for ‘bio-docs’ – the shot of a location for no real reason except to break up the talking heads. Here we get shots of Blackpool Central Promenade because the Loach family went there for their annual one week holiday when Loach was a child – and because Thatcher made speeches there at the Tory Conference. Similarly we get aerial shots of Oxford, again from not very good footage.
Versus seems to me to be a rushed project made on a low budget that struggles to do full justice to its subject. I realise that documentarists have to select carefully and they can’t include everything, but in this film the choices could be better. I assume that they were made because of constraints. I do applaud the ‘pay what you can’ screenings that helped launch the film in cinemas and it’s true that the technical limitations of the image might be less visible on smaller screens, so I hope it does find some new audiences for Ken Loach’s work who will want to explore the films in more detail.
Here’s a clip from the film – one of the best parts in which Tony Garnett recalls first meeting Ken (note the cropped footage at the end):