There Will Never Be Another Ken Loach

Movies Features Ken Loach
There Will Never Be Another Ken Loach

After close to 60 years in the industry, director Ken Loach is retiring. At the grand age of 87, the two-time Palme d’Or winner is leaving us with one last film, and it’s a striking and deeply Loach-esque way to conclude a legendary career. In The Old Oak, a struggling mining community in County Durham face deep-seated tensions when a group of Syrian refugees are placed within their town. The local pub, the sole place where residents can come together, becomes the hotspot for this cultural divide, but also a safe space for understanding. 

It’s typical Ken Loach, a story of working-class grit that uses a cast of largely unknown and non-professional actors and is stridently progressive in its politics. That won’t be a surprise to literally anyone who has seen a Loach film. He’s one of the most vocal and prolific left-wing directors of the 20th and 21st-century, one who has long used his platform as an artist to call out bigotry, war, political injustice and the rise of right-wing fury. Loach is a cinematic powerhouse, one whose legacy is vast and near-impossible to summarize. He’s also the last of a dying breed. There will never be another Ken Loach, and not just because his talent is so tough to replicate.

Loach started work in regional theater before moving into directing for the BBC. In the 1960s, The Wednesday Play anthology series offered up-and-coming talents the chance to produce original works for TV. Loach made 10 plays in all for The Wednesday Play series, some of which were highly controversial. Perhaps his masterpiece from this era, and the one that truly paved the way for the Loach style, was 1966’s Cathy Come Home. Inspired by true events, the drama followed a young woman’s descent into homelessness, culminating in her children being ripped from her arms by social services. The intense realism of the project, which often feels like a documentary, was a slap in the face to the British public, who were so shocked by this raw portrait of the unhoused that it became one of the most pressing issues of the decade. A 1998 Radio Times readers’ poll voted it the “best single television drama” ever made, and it’s not hard to see why.

Ken Loach’s work remained intensely concerned with working-class people and their conflicts with the broken system intended to help them. After Cathy Come Home came 1969’s Kes, the heart-wrenching tale of a young boy who finds escape from the pains of poverty and an abusive home by caring for a kestrel. Loach’s commitment to working-class voices saw Kes face skepticism from American distributors, who found the Yorkshire accents too difficult to understand. Despite that, Loach quickly rose to the top of the pile of Britain’s best filmmakers. Yet he never rested on his laurels, and as the ‘70s and ‘80s opened up, he actively rejected national treasure status to hold those in power to account. 

In 1971, Loach made a film on behalf of the charity Save the Children, and they found it to be so critical of their neo-colonial attitude towards the African kids they claimed to be helping that they tried to have the film destroyed (The Save the Children Fund Film wouldn’t be screened until 2011). A Question of Leadership, his documentary on the trade unions of the steel industry, and its four-part series follow-up Questions of Leadership, was pulled from broadcast by Channel 4. It was later revealed that media tycoon Robert Maxwell (yes, the father of Ghislaine) had pressured the network to drop the program. 

Despite these backlashes, Loach never stopped working. He began collaborating regularly with Scottish screenwriter Paul Laverty, delving into romance with Ae Fond Kiss, a story about a Scottish Pakistani man’s love for a Catholic Irish schoolteacher, as well as comedies like The Angels’ Share and Looking for Eric. The latter depicts a depressed man who starts to hallucinate that the legendary French footballer Eric Cantona is appearing before him to offer advice (Cantona plays himself). That’s not to say Loach’s work ever became less political. He won his first Palme d’Or at Cannes with The Wind That Shakes the Barley, about two brothers fighting against the British Army in the Irish Civil War (and it’s clear which side of the fight Loach’s empathy lies with), and it was politics that kept Loach from leaving the industry. He initially announced his retirement in 2014, but felt so compelled to tackle the indignities of the U.K.’s Conservative government after they won the 2015 general election that he leapt back into the director’s chair. His follow-up to this event was I, Daniel Blake, a painfully real and proudly polemical exploration of Britain’s broken welfare system. It won him his second Palme d’Or.

Many critics have made the mistake of assuming that Loach is all politics and no craft, that he exists solely to preach to the converted. All one has to do is watch his movies to see the legacy of works like The Battle of Algiers and Bicycle Thieves. Kes is as beautifully shot as any work of Italian neorealism. Loach may eschew the bells and whistles of overt stylization, but his commitment to authenticity does not mean a lack of visual care. He prefers real locations to sets, the noise of the street to grand sound design. His camera moves through people’s lives like a character in and of itself, not gawking but contributing. Often celebrated for his unobtrusive gaze, Loach still bears the marks of his forefathers, from British kitchen sink dramas to François Truffaut. The closing scene of Sweet Sixteen, his drama about a Glaswegian teenager’s struggle to care for his mother as she prepares to be released from prison, is a proud echo of the climax to The 400 Blows.

Ken Loach’s films are also often very funny amid the anguish, capturing the inimitable comedy of working-class banter and how it’s used to puncture awkward and unfair scenarios. In Riff-Raff, an underseen Loach film set on a building site, the multicultural workplace brims with laughter and oft-inappropriate humor as the men talk about fair wages, women and squatting. The mix of accents (many of which were subtitled for confused American audiences) is both entertaining and honest, a reminder of the sheer breadth of what is considered Britishness both on and off-screen. Loach sees both beauty and drama in the everyday lives of working-class people, which still feels radical in 2024. One could argue it’s even more relevant as the gaze of the British arts scene looks away from the Loach-esque.

The class ceiling is the oft-discussed but seldom tackled millstone that hangs around the neck of the British entertainment industry. A 2016 academic study by the Sutton Trust revealed how the U.K. theater and film businesses are “heavily skewed towards the privileged.” Without the financial support of wealthy parents, many creatives simply lack the means to survive in an industry where long periods of unemployment are common and access to London is mandatory. Add to that the high fees for drama schools and the decrease in local theaters and companies to support regional talents, and the class gap has only grown in Britain’s arts scene. The Labour Party released an analysis this year that called out how 40% of all British cultural stars who were nominated for major awards in the last decade attended private schools. For context, only 6% of the population are privately educated. And you thought nepo babies were bad! (Not that we’re exempt from that hierarchy on this side of the pond either.) 

When the vast majority of British people are not able to see themselves in art, it creates a society-wide sickness, one that is only further exacerbated when the working classes are prevented from creating their own stories and having easy access to them. To this day, when a non-Brit is asked to describe a piece of British cinema, the chances are they’ll talk about a plummy period drama full of posh accents and cravats. They’ll think of privately-educated actors like Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne. It’s no surprise that a cultural establishment wishes to present a sanitized and “proper” version of the nation to the rest of the world as a palatable brand of entertainment, but it’s not the true Britain. 

For better and worse, Ken Loach’s work is the epitome of Britishness. His portraits of systemic cruelty have long exposed how dangerous it is to be British in a country where only a sliver of people at the top are able to flourish. He captures the resilience, the fury and the humor of just trying to live in a society that derides your worth. That his political fire hasn’t died down over the course of 60 years is both a testament to his grit and a damning indictment of a country where change, when it happens, is maddeningly incremental. 

We deserve more Ken Loaches, but the lack of funding and the current Tory government’s obvious disdain for the arts has put a stranglehold on the means to pave the way for his cinematic heirs. In February of this year, Arts Council England faced outcry. It was accused of limiting freedom of speech when new guidelines warned that organizations receiving ACE support that make “overtly political or activist” statements might create “reputational risk” and endanger funding arrangements. They seemed to talk that back after being called out, but it speaks to the current climate and how risky it remains to be stridently political in your creative outlook. Just look at the world right now and it’s all the confirmation you’ll need that we can’t afford to lose Ken Loach. But it’s a weighty responsibility to be the sole voice at the lectern, and he has never felt comfortable with that duty. He has fought for decades to give the silenced a voice, and we deserve the opportunities to make that voice louder.

Kayleigh Donaldson is a critic and pop culture writer for Her work can also be found on IGN, Slashfilm, Uproxx, Little White Lies, Vulture, Roger Ebert, and other publications. She lives in Dundee.

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