Do you have to be a boring lefty to enjoy the films of Ken Loach? The reason I ask is, the British Film Institute have just rereleased three of Loach’s finest films on DVD, and though I loved them when they first came out, when I sat down to watch them again, after twenty years, my heart sank. Why? Because nowadays, when people mention Ken Loach, I don’t think of his masterpieces like Kes (one of the greatest British movies ever made) so much as his dreary appearances on political discussion programmes like Question Time.
Ken Loach is a socialist filmmaker – whatever that means. If you’re a socialist, maybe that makes his movies even more enjoyable. Who knows? But what if you’re not a socialist, or even particularly left wing? I’d say it spoils them, because his political opinions can’t help but colour the way you watch his films. It distances them from anyone who doesn’t share his point of view.
But isn’t Ken Loach’s socialism integral to his movie-making? This is a man, after all, who made a film about Jeremy Corbyn for Labour’s general election campaign, and got an effusive shout-out from John McDonnell in his latest Labour conference speech: ‘I’d like to thank Ken Loach for that wonderful film and thank Ken for his incredible contribution to our movement,’ gushed McDonnell yesterday. Well, the funny thing is Loach might think so, but I reckon his best movies aren’t really socialist in the slightest. They might set out with that intention, but they’re actually such great works of art that they subvert their polemical motives – and the three films in this box set are a perfect case in point.
After a fallow period during the 1980s, when little seemed to go right for him, this trio of Ken Loach films represented a triumphant return to form. All three were showered with awards, and rightly so. They comprise a kind of triptych of that forgotten era, Major’s Britain. And though they shine a light on social problems that were widespread then and are still widespread today, the solutions to these problems aren’t necessarily socialist – whatever Loach may say.
The best movie in this trio is Riff-Raff, mainly because it’s by far the funniest. Made in 1991, it portrays the travails of a bunch of casual labourers on a London building site. Loach’s clear intention is to highlight the injustices of non-unionised labour, but this didactic objective is eclipsed by a beautiful, bittersweet love story, brilliantly portrayed by Emer McCourt and Robert Carlyle.
Raining Stones (1993) is about an unemployed plumber who borrows some money from a loan shark, and ends up in a lot of bother when he can’t pay it back. The unspoken subtext is that he wouldn’t be driven to such desperate measures if he wasn’t on the dole, and the reason he’s on the dole is because… Well, no-one seems quite sure. Of course if you’re a socialist, like Loach, you might suppose he’s on the dole because of the Tories – but if you’re a Tory, you can probably think of all sorts of other reasons why he might be unemployed. You don’t need to be a socialist to disapprove of loan sharks.
Ladybird Ladybird (1994) is the bleakest of the lot, about a deeply flawed but fundamentally decent woman who keeps getting her children taken into care. It’s a heartbreaking story about the cruelty of state bureaucracy, but again there’s no reason to suppose the solutions to her problems are necessarily left wing. As that fine film critic Philip French observed (in the Observer) at the time, ‘Is it saying that things would be better in a thoroughgoing socialist society?’ French wasn’t convinced, and nor am I.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that great artworks are diminished when you know the artist’s politics. Sure, we can draw our own conclusions from a work of art, but that’s quite another thing. The best way for an artist to preserve the quality of their creation is to keep shtum. Shakespeare is so enduring because we know so little about him. Would his plays feel so universal if he was on TV with Alan Yentob, complaining about cuts in government funding for The Globe? The late great American comic Bill Hicks argued that comedians should never do commercials. He might have added that great filmmakers should never appear on Question Time.
Three Films by Ken Loach (Riff-Raff, Raining Stones & Ladybird Ladybird) is released by the British Film Institute (www.bfi.org.uk) price £29.99 (DVD) or £34.99 (Blu-ray).