Still left after all these years – and still dead right! Ken Loach talks to Tara Brady
As a cinematic and political fire-brand, Ken Loach has been a force for good for five decades, but is he really ready to hang up his megaphone? “Being realistic, that’s as ambitious as you can be,” the 77-year-old director tells Tara Brady
The National Front tops the European Parliament vote in France. Golden Dawn win 10 per cent of the same vote in Greece. Lega Nord win 6 per cent in Italy. The Danish People’s Party win 27 per cent. Ukip tops the poll across the Irish Sea.
It has not been a good week for anyone whose politics fall anywhere to the left of Genghis Khan.
A necessary corrective arrives in the form of Jimmy’s Hall, a new film from Ken Loach. The reliably socialist film-maker behind such classics as Kes and Ladybird Ladybird, is, understandably dismayed by the left’s recent failure to woo voters at a time of economic collapse. Dismayed, but not too surprised.
“It’s very hard for the left to get any purchase in the public discourse,” says the 77-year-old. “Because the press reflect the political parties that exist. They convey a narrow spectrum of ideas. They’re all neo-liberals of one stripe or another. All pro-market. All pro-big corporations.”
It does not help, of course, that ‘the left’ is an awfully fragmented place to be.
“It’s totally infuriating,” admits Loach. “I’ve been involved in every attempt to gather together a united left. Right now there’s a movement called Left Unity which is trying to deal with the gap between political representatives who are all neo-liberal and the mass of the people who can see the system collapsing. There are so many campaigns to keep this hospital open or to address cutbacks in funding for the homeless or disabled. But these voices are fragmented. That’s the problem. If you can unite all that discontent you would have a big movement. But public discourse as represented by the press absolutely want to keep the left fragmented.”
But why on earth would the British press – even those outlets that maintain a sheen of soft-core socialist values – so consistently promote Ukip as an up-and-coming political force?
“Ukip is in favour of corporate power. So Ukip is another face of the establishment. They are funded by people who support big corporations. They play on the lowest prejudices and fears. They’re not a fascist party. But they are dangerous. They are using fear and economic collapse in the same way that the National Socialists once did in Germany.”
Jimmy’s Hall opens, rather defiantly in the circumstances, in Irish cinemas today. The film tells the story of Jimmy Gralton, a Leitrim man who immigrated to the United States in 1909. He returned to his native county to fight in the War of Independence, and founded a dance hall, where he and fellow members of the Leitrim Revolutionary Worker’s Group provided free classes in music, boxing and poetry. It’s a small and mostly overlooked story but one with plenty of contemporary resonance for Loach and his regular screenwriter, Paul Laverty.
“The ideas are for all time,” says Loach. “The struggle for free ideas. The struggle for a place where you can learn to dance and practise sport and where you can exchange ideas and develop a political perspective. Which can lead to activism.”
Ay, there’s the rub. Attendees, as one of the film’s saddest scenes depicts, were soon denounced from local pulpits and the ‘Hall’ came under fire from an alliance drawn from the clergy, Cumann na nGaedheal and local landowners.
Andrew Scott’s depiction of a young, kind-hearted priest – who provides a voice of reason to Jim Norton’s sterner minister – ensures that Jimmy’s Hall is not an anti-Catholic film, per se. Rather, what troubles Loach about the Gralton affair is the unholy marriage of church and state.
“Jimmy and his friends supported people who had been dispossessed, who had lost their homes,” says Loach. “And in doing that you challenge the men of property and then you’re in trouble. And if you establish classes outside the jurisdiction of the church, the church will attack you. The link between organised religion and the landed interests is permanent. It was only a few years later that the Catholic Church was supporting Franco and the Fascists in Spain.”
Although characterised by music and dancing, Jimmy’s Hall picks up where The Wind that Shakes the Barley, his 2009 War of Independence drama left off. That film, the winner of the Palme d’Or in 2006, prompted the Daily Mail to ask: “Why does Ken Loach loathe his country so much?” Well? “We knew we’d be attacked on that,” smiles Loach. “Because the British ruling class likes to hang on to its narrative about Ireland with absolute venom. The British story is that brave British soldiers were sent to Ireland to stop the Irish from killing each other. And if you say ‘No, hang on’. The British were the violent ones. The British wrecked Ireland and denied the Irish the right to independence which they voted for. If you say that they get very angry. So they got hysterical over The Wind that Shakes the Barley. But that’s good. If they didn’t we wouldn’t have made the film that we wanted to make.”
Loach has long been fascinated by the post-colonial Irish landscape. Hidden Agenda, his 1990 drama depicting collusion between Northern-Irish security forces and paramilitaries, was dismissed by the late Alexander Walker as “IRA propa-
ganda”. The film went on to win the Jury Prize at Cannes.
“The disaster that was partition was never acknowledged,” says the film-maker. “And even now when they’re asking if the IRA or Gerry Adams should be pursued for things that happened during the Troubles, there’s never any suggestion that the British state should be pursued. The biggest loss of life during the Troubles is always written as Omagh. When in fact it was the Dublin and Monaghan bombs. Which was acknowledged by the UVF.
“And there’s strong evidence for collusion with security forces. And this is written out of the story even now. I understand the realpolitik of Michael D Higgins visiting the Queen. I understand people in the Republic who want to adopt this position that times have moved on.
“If you make the kinds of films we do, it’s not going to be in multiplexes for very long, But you hope it can have a slow-burning effect. And you can support the people who will fight”
We’ve all changed. We can be friends now. But friendship is based on honesty.”
Loach’s words, on paper at least, seem to spell out ‘fire-brand’. But in person, he’s softly spoken and self-deprecating. We shouldn’t be too surprised. Since the 1960s, his representations of the social and economic realities of everyday life have provided some much-needed ballast to contemporary cinema’s flightier tendencies.
His beliefs, in common with his films, are borne from basic human decency not grandstanding ideological tendencies, as evidenced by his poignant depictions of the struggle for labour rights ( Bread and Roses, Riff-Raff), state-sanctioned crime ( Route Irish) and economic deprivation ( Raining Stones, Sweet Six
In 1966, his TV play, Cathy Come Home, inspired changes in British housing policy and inspired the creation of the homeless charities Shelter and Crisis. Can his cinematic folk songs still make that kind of difference? “I thinks it’s more difficult. When we did
Cathy, half the country saw it because there were only two channels. The medium was new so people were more open to it. Cinema is more fragmented again. Certainly if you make the kinds of films we do, it’s not going to be in multiplexes for very long, But you hope it can have a slow-burning effect. And you can support the people who will fight. Like people working for job security or a decent wage. It can help give them strength. But being realistic, that’s as ambitious as you can be.”
Loach has faced many obstacles over the years, including political censorship. When the Save the Children Fund commissioned him to make a documentary in 1971, they disliked the results so much they attempted to destroy the negative. A documentary series on trade unions during the Thatcher era called
Questions of Leadership never aired. It’s hard to believe that someone who has battled throughout his career could be ready to hang up his proverbial megaphone. Can Jimmy’s
Hall really be his last film? “I’m not sure I’ll manage another one on the scale of Jimmy’s Hall. I’m keeping an open mind. You’re away from home for a year. You’re short-changing your family. The days are long. You have to find a lot of emotional energy to keep everyone on the boil. I don’t know if I can climb that mountain again. Maybe something smaller. Maybe another documentary. You don’t have to shoot much. You just have to go into a cutting room. It’s a good job for a senior director.
“And there’s always cricket to watch.”
JIMMY’S HALL ★★★
Directed by Ken Loach. Starring Barry Ward, Francis Magee, Jim Norton, Andrew Scott, Aileen Henry, Simone Kirby, Stella McGirl, Sorcha Fox, Martin Lucey 15A cert, general release, 108 min
Eight years after winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes with The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Ken Loach, unstoppable director, and Paul Laverty, his regular screenwriter, return to offer one more angry footnote to their evisceration of the Free State’s compromises in the years following independence.
Adapted from a play by Donal O’Kelly, Jimmy’s Hall focuses on one of the more bizarre outrages perpetrated during the new nation’s mewling years. Jimmy Gralton, a spirited socialist from Co Leitrim, must be the only man deported from his own country for supposed sedition.
As the film tells it, in the 1930s, Mr Gralton, recently returned from New York, decided to make some- thing of the local Pearse-Connolly Hall. He set up classes (thereby, cutting into the Catholic Church’s monopoly on education). He allowed dancing to this satanic new jazz music (thereby, cutting into the state’s moratorium on fun). After run-ins with the priests and the police, he found that his US passport might permit a hurried dispatch back across the Atlantic.
Jimmy’s Hall is beautifully assembled. The inestimable Robbie Ryan, using natural light, shoots the luscious scenery with a vibrancy that offers diverting counterpoints to the film’s pessimistic worldview. The largely unknown Barry Ward is a revelation as Gralton. With a less charismatic actor in the role, it would be hard to understand why the citizens found Jimmy so invigorating and the establishment found him so infuriating.
The film posits a slightly throwaway romance with the hero’s old flame (a strong Simone Kirby), but the relationship that really matters is the one between Jimmy and the terrifying, authoritarian Fr Sheridan (Jim Norton).
It was amusing to note how none of the US and European reviews from Cannes last week pointed up a particular cultural association that Irish viewers will find unavoidable. Norton is not quite reprising Bishop Brennan from Father Ted, but the priest has the same sense of divine authority – and the same instability of temper.
Unfortunately, the interactions between the two rivals seem slightly half-formed. By the close, we are given the impression that some sort of mutual respect has grown up, but little evidence is offered. We are left to assume that, in a world of compromises, each recognises the other’s conviction.
Jimmy’s Hall also suffers from a simple lack of plot. If you’ve seen the trailer then you have a pretty good idea what happens in the picture. The returning hero sets out on his scheme. The authorities fights back. It ends badly for those who matter.
One imagines that the play made coups de theatre of the dancing, fighting and rousing speeches. The film desperately requires a few more starling reveals and hairpin reversals. And Loach needs to take more care with his non-professional actors; at least one delivers lines in the manner of an inexpressive speak-your-weight machine.
For all that, Jimmy’s Hall remains a pleasingly humane work that directs its anger at all the right targets. As was the case with Barley, writer Laverty seems more enraged by the Irish State’s betrayal of socialist ideals than by the expected brutality of the former colonisers. The least attractive character in the film is a former IRA man, now happy to enforce the new reactionary orthodoxy.
If Jimmy’s Hall really is Loach’s last dramatic feature – he’s still being a bit coy on that topic – then, though not among his best, it will stand as an appropriate last hurrah. You’ll laugh and you’ll fume. That is what we’ve come to expect.
Loach on the set of Jimmy’s Hall. Right: Barry Ward as Jimmy Gralton