In a no-holds-barred interview, the iconic filmmaker discusses his new film The Old Oak and the current state of the Labour party
When Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home aired on BBC1 in 1966, it was watched by 12 million viewers, a number significant enough that it shaped the imminent launch of two homelessness charities, Crisis and Shelter. “I’ve lived here all my life,” says Cathy, a young woman who ends up on the streets. “Now I feel like a refugee.”
57 years on, Loach’s latest and possibly final film, The Old Oak, applies a twist to the theme of Cathy Come Home. Whereas the locals of a former mining village in County Durham may feel like refugees abandoned by their government, they’re joined now by literal Syrian refugees who’ve escaped a warzone. “They’re two communities,” says Loach, 87, in StudioCanal’s King’s Cross office. “One with nothing, and one with nothing plus the pain of war. Can they live together?”
Straight off the bus, Yara (Ebla Mari), a Syrian artist, has her camera smashed by a local; other refugees are similarly unwelcomed. One sympathetic figure, though, is TJ (Dave Turner), a pub owner whose establishment has photos of the 1984 miners’ strike. “Margaret Thatcher decided in the 1980s to close the pits,” says Loach. “The pits shut, but the people were left. No security, no work. The shops close. Everything collapses. The infrastructure goes.”
The Old Oak, then, continues Loach’s reputation as a socially conscious filmmaker who stands up for the oppressed. The director tackled the UK’s Kafkaesque benefits system with 2016’s I, Daniel Blake and zero-hour contracts through 2019’s Sorry We Missed You. Further back, his best-known features include Kes and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, the latter winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes – a feat he repeated with I, Daniel Blake. As a fun aside, Bong Joon-ho told me he’d like Loach to remake Parasite.
To this day, Loach’s films still have a political impact: I, Daniel Blake, for instance, was discussed in parliament. However, Cathy Come Home premiered on one of only two TV channels. “Now you have the internet, streamers, TV, and social media,” says Loach. “Everything is much louder.” Should films become louder to compete with the noise? “No, the opposite. When everyone is shouting, you have to be a still, small voice. You want the audience to lean towards you and listen.”
Thus The Old Oak operates in a hushed tone, whether it’s the poetic presentation of Yara’s photography, or her gradual friendship with TJ. “The obvious thing is to have right-wing characters shouting racist abuse,” says Loach. “But that’s not the way. You show where it comes from.” The director describes it as people with nothing being asked to share. “A real grievance – the community has been abandoned – turns into racism. People don’t begin by being racist; they just want public investment and jobs. In the 1920s, fascism came from poverty and insecurity.”
The Old Oak marks Loach’s fifth film in a row with Robbie Ryan. Also the Oscar-winning cinematographer for Yorgos Lanthimos and Andrea Arnold, Ryan shoots The Old Oak with natural light, placing the emotional story at the centre. I mention to Loach that the director of Scrapper (a very digital-looking film, unlike the 35mm used for The Old Oak) has described her colourful debut as not a “Ken Loach film”.
“I haven’t seen Scrapper, so I’d be interested to see it,” says Loach. “You present people so that you have empathy with them. If you were in the room, you’d be a compassionate observer. The camera position has to be where someone might stand or sit. The lens has to be like a human eye. You don’t want an ultra-wide angle or telephoto lens… Find a common humanity between the observer and observed, and you get solidarity. But if it’s too bright, you recoil.”
A staunch supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, Loach was expelled from the Labour party in 2021; in June, Jamie Discroll was blocked by Labour from running as their candidate for mayor in the North East of England, a move reportedly connected to Driscoll sharing a stage with Loach in March. Was Driscoll thanked in the credits as a sign of support?
“No, that was done way before this recent episode,” says Loach. “That’s [Keir] Starmer playing political tricks, the dishonest politician that he is. Unprincipled. Seeks power while breaking every promise that he made to get elected.”
What does Loach think about Labour at the moment? “The Labour Party now is setting out to be the party of the establishment, like under Blair. Blair did what big business wanted, and Starmer will do the same. But the situation is now even worse, so the demands of big business are even more aggressive, and Starmer will do what big business wants. That’s his politics. He’s said as much. His team of similarly unprincipled politicians will do the same. Well, they have a principle, and that’s to support big business. They’ll do everything that big business wants.
“Hope is political, but it’s got to be well-founded ... the instinct to support each other is stronger than the instinct to walk away. I think that instinct is stronger. You have to hang onto that, and make it a reality. And out of that comes a different politics and a better world” – Ken Loach
“The dishonesty of the Labour party is blatant because Starmer made promises to get himself elected, and convinced the left of the Labour party that they should vote for him. He made promises, and systematically broken every one [of them]. He’s tried to destroy the left in the Labour party. He put his arm around Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, knowing he would stab him in the back. He’s treacherous.” With a laugh, Loach adds, “God, he’s probably the worst Labour leader there’s ever been. There’s a lot of competition for the worst Labour leader, but he is probably it.”
According to Loach, the establishment has to demonstrate that we live in a democracy, not a one-party state, and thus there eventually has to be a change of party. “So the Labour party has to be fit for purpose as the established power. And that’s what Starmer’s done. He’s demonstrated that if they win, nothing will change. Therefore the BBC, the Guardian, and the right-wing press can support him.”
It’s quite a contrast, then, from the BBC who screened Cathy Come Home in 1966? “The BBC and the Guardian led the campaign against Corbyn,” says Loach. “Interestingly, when they wanted someone to attack him, they didn’t need to get a Tory; they got a Labour right-winger.”
It’s thus a wonder if The Old Oak will be, as he warns, Loach’s final film. After all, the director came out of retirement in 2015 when the Conservative party won the general election. However, he explains that, at 87, your faculties decline, and filmmaking requires physical and emotional energy to galvanise the cast and crew.
I ask about a particular line of dialogue whereby Yara claims that if she stops hoping, her heart will stop beating. “There’s great inequality,” Loach says. “There’s great poverty. There’s insecurity at work. There’s a homelessness crisis. What faces the kids when they grow up?” He looks around at our swanky surroundings. “Casual work, or living in places like this, which is pretty inhuman. You feel that society is falling apart. The collapse of the environment. The war in Syria. The oppression of the Palestinians. Wars in parts of Africa, Somalia, Ukraine. Human rights under pressure. How can you have hope?
“But if you believe there’s a way forward – and it’s not wishful thinking or a utopia – then you have the confidence to try to make a change. If you don’t think there’s a way forward, then you’re pessimistic, because what can you do? Hope is political, but it’s got to be well-founded. The way that gives you hope is that, in the end, the instinct to support each other is stronger than the instinct to walk away. I think that instinct is stronger. You have to hang onto that, and make it a reality. And out of that comes a different politics and a better world.”
The Old Oak is out in cinemas on September 29