The Cannes Film Festival’s award of its Palme d’Or to Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake is a significant event politically as well as culturally. Loach is the last of our genuinely radical film directors who is not a ‘Luvvie’, making films on important working-class themes, with largely amateur actors who are encouraged to extemporise. This kind of social realism used to be fairly common in the democratic 1950s and ’60s, producing that wonderful spate of grainy black-and-white pictures about ‘Northern’ Life: A Taste of Honey, This Sporting Life, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, and so on; until they were edged out by shinier and more upper class-themed pics, often starring the public school-educated actors who have attracted some controversy recently for their domination of the field. (Though that’s hardly their fault; and many are very good.)
By contrast, even Loach’s most recent films can appear passé today, as though working-class culture were a thing of the past – which it may be becoming, with the destruction of traditional working-class jobs. (But I didn’t notice it in West Ham the other day.) When I come away from them, I still imagine them in black-and-white, even though most of them are in colour. All of them treat deeply serious popular themes as well as being warmly entertaining, deriving their entertainment value from a different and distinctive culture from their rivals . My personal favourites are Cathy Come Home (1966, for TV); Kes (1969); Riff-Raff (1991); Looking for Eric (2009), and the inspiring documentary – for old Labourites like me – The Spirit of ’45 (2013). But there are many more; all of them still sticking to ‘the spirit of 1945’, however hopeless that spirit must appear now.
Loach is still politically very active: anti-austerity, pro-Palestine, pro-trade unions, anti-EU, and so on – the usual (good) causes. In 1977 he turned down an OBE, on the grounds that it represented ‘all the things I think are despicable: patronage, deferring to the monarchy and the name of the British Empire, which is a monument of exploitation and conquest. I turned down the OBE because it’s not a club you want to join when you look at the villains who’ve got it.’ Touché. (I’d love to be offered an ‘honour’ just so that I could turn it down. No chance of that.)
Of course films don’t ‘matter’ – although Cathy Come Home is supposed to have had an impact on the housing crisis of its time. What Loach’s may do, however, is to indicate that radical left-wing opinion, or at least its spirit, is not quite as antediluvian as it is often presented, if it can still be represented in ‘culture’ as well as in street politics; giving us old Lefties a smidgeon of hope that its embers could be pokered into flame again. If that is so, then Jeremy Corbyn should benefit.
A true hero; and sadly the only one of his kind left.