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 Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

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.”


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

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