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Ken Loach on The Spirit Of '45

Film4.com editor Catherine Bray talks to acclaimed director Ken Loach about the state of UK cinema, the heckling of Churchill and the politics of apolitical films, in the context of his new documentary The Spirit Of ’45....

Ken Loach. Photo credit: Dogwoof

The diametric opposite of a superficially plausible politician delivering empty speeches in a loudly impassioned call-to-arms tone, Ken Loach is very softly spoken, while his conversation is full of ideas, principles and a willingness to admit he doesn’t have all the answers.

Our interview has been set up at the tiny Soho offices of Loach’s regular production partners Sixteen Films to talk about The Spirit Of ’45, a timely documentary about the consequences of the enormous will to change that gripped the UK after the Second World War. The 1940s, as the film shows, was a time when despite the enormous difficulties involved, politicians like Nye Bevan managed to find ways to measurably improve the lives of working class people through social housing, welfare and the NHS –by 1950, life expectancy had already improved by an average of seven years due to these reforms. But don’t expect all this to be relayed by a God-like narrator – The Spirit Of ’45 doesn’t have a Michael Moore figure fronting things. “I hate that,” Loach explains. “The person in front, telling you what to think. It’s very uncinematic. Our model was oral history, with pictures.”

To make The Spirit Of ‘45, researcher Izzy Charman contacted a range of sources, talking to former nurses, miners and trade unionists, whose interviews, together with footage found by the film’s archivist Jim Anderson, make up the narrative of the film. Not that there isn’t any editorial direction involved. Footage of police beating miners is used, for example, to make a larger point about privatisation in much the same way Sergei Eisenstein used the famous Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin to draw broader lessons about the macrocosm from the microcosm. Or as Loach puts it: “The privatisations were driven through on the back of the miners’ strike and their defeat. The miners were beaten into submission at the end of a police truncheon, so I thought it made sense to put the details of the privatisation over the whacks of the bobbies on the miners backs.”

The Spiriti Of '45: Clement Atlee is elected

"I think it’s always better to see it in the cinema – it’s proper sound, a proper image, it’s a collective experience. When there’s a chuckle goes around the audience, you can share it"

It’s not hard to draw from these juxtapositions your own conclusions about the morality of the political decisions involved. “Exactly. That’s what’s interesting in the medium – to let the pictures and the juxtaposition tell the story.”

Loach becomes most animated, however, not when talking about Soviet montage theory, but about the content of the incredible footage his researcher and archivist have allowed him to bring to a wider audience – such as a vigorous booing endured by a newly despised Winston Churchill. “We were delighted to see Churchill get heckled. At the time he was known as an old imperialist, he was aggressively anti-working class, very active in the general strike in trying to force the miners into a humiliating defeat. He was deeply unpopular in many areas and a very divisive politician. It’s a useful corrective, I think, to the deification we see of him today.”

Although this archive footage will be seen by a much wider audience now than it would have been before it was put in this film, The Spirit Of ’45 won’t enjoy the same breadth of audience guaranteed to expensive American cinema, something Loach is quick to lament. “The multiplexes mostly pursue one kind of cinema, which is by and large the very loud, big bags of popcorn, very commercial American films - of course there are exceptions – but it’s like having an art gallery with only one kind of picture in. That’s very limiting. Not everybody wants to be hammered over the head and force-fed with sweet food."

"I think it’d be great if cinemas were run like municipal theatres and they had a wide range of films, where other forms of cinema are readily available – world cinema, independent cinema. It’s certainly something I would have liked as a kid.” Loach grew up in Nuneaton in the Midlands, a town that today houses almost 80,000 people, catered to by one Odeon cinema which is part of a complex housing the predictable attendant KFC and Superbowl. When Loach was growing up, a population half that size had rather more choice: “At one time we had six cinemas, at another time five. There was a cinema that showed continental films. We always used to lie about our age when we were in the Sixth Form - the continental films sometimes had young ladies in. They haven’t got any cinemas there now. There’s one on the outskirts in an industrial estate. It’s very sad.”

Film4

"The characters you put on the screen, the stories you don’t tell, the whole way you treat people implies an attitude, and implies your politics"

But does the lack of cinemas matter when films can be seen so readily on any number of platforms? Loach thinks so. “I think it’s always better to see it in the cinema – it’s proper sound, a proper image, it’s a collective experience. When there’s a chuckle goes around the audience, you can share it even if you don’t laugh out loud yourself, whereas you don’t get that at home. At home the temptation is to pause the film and go and take a phone call or whatever - you don’t get the same level of concentration.” Films recently receiving their fair share of concentration in multiplexes across the land have included Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and Ben Affleck’s Argo, all of which won or were nominated for Oscars, but were criticised in some quarters for their politics and in others for their lack of politics.

Loach is firmly in the former camp. “The stories you choose to tell indicate your politics. Even leftwing critics referred to the latest round of American CIA films as not being political, when in fact of course the politics is embedded in them like the word Blackpool in a stick of Blackpool rock – it runs through it.” So in saying that you don’t take a stance, you in fact take a very powerful stance? “Yes, the characters you put on the screen, the stories you don’t tell, the whole way you treat people implies an attitude, and implies your politics. The Iraqis in these films are mostly deeply stereotypical, not to mention that the films don’t question why American is in Iraq in the first place.”

The Spirit Of '45 archive still

"We were delighted to see Churchill get heckled"

By way of wrapping the interview up I ask if there are any common solutions on the horizon to the problems raised in The Spirit Of ’45, the problems of an attenuated cultural diet, and the difficulty that the detailed social history of a film like The Spirit Of ’45 is so happily written off by papers like The Daily Mail as a “barking mad Marxist fantasy”?

Loach concedes it’s a big question. “It’s very difficult because the Right holds the main means of communication – they monopolise the press. You can only fight them in the most effective way you can, I suppose, by using the proper language and refusing to be cowed. Fascists won’t call themselves fascists – the BNP don’t admit that they’re fascists, they pretend they’re not. We’ve got to be imaginative and go for the big ideas and express them in simple language without the ‘isms’ and ‘ists’ on the end where possible. The idea of people owning things together, and making sure everyone has a job, and planning the economy so that we don’t destroy the planet: these are fairly simple ideas.”

The Spirit Of '45 is out now on DVD. Click here to buy it...

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