Ken Loach has become a tiresome, humourless parody of himself

Ken Loach attending the premiere of The Old Oak, September 2023
Ken Loach attending the premiere of The Old Oak, September 2023 - WireImage

In the excellent new comedy-drama series The Lovers, one of the biggest laughs comes when Johnny Flynn’s smoothie TV presenter Seamus, talking about his actress partner, says “She’s not a snob! She’s good friends with Ken Loach!”

Not only is the line typical of the wit of David Ireland’s script, but it immediately captures the essence of the now 87-year old film director, as he’s usually perceived: on the side of righteousness, in his own eyes at least, but ornery, humourless and belligerent, and the kind of person who it’s difficult to befriend without being subjected to a lengthy lecture about the evils of the Conservative government, Tony Blair, the Israeli occupation of Palestine or any of the other bugbears that Loach has accumulated throughout his career.

His latest film, The Old Oak, is almost parodically Loachian. Written by his usual collaborator Paul Laverty, it revolves around a community pub in a depressed former mining community in County Durham: it is run by a widowed landlord with a heart of gold, unlike most of his bigoted and xenophobic regulars, who are appalled when a group of Syrian refugees are housed in the town. A friendship begins between the landlord and one of the refugees, a woman named Yari, and, predictably enough, it leads to tensions with the locals and consistently expressed outrage at the heartless policies of the wicked Tories that have led to this situation.

Many of Loach’s trademarks are present and correct. We have non-professional actors, a focus on contemporary social issues, all-purpose Northern grit leavened with what might be strained attempts at humour if you could hear it through the accents, and a focus on interpersonal, usual male, relationships with one major, albeit caricatured female character thrown in for variation.

The film premiered at the Cannes film festival earlier this year to respectful, rather than laudatory, reviews. Although nominated for the Palme d’Or, it did not win, unlike his earlier films The Wind that Shakes the Barley and I, Daniel Blake.

The director has suggested – mercifully, perhaps – that it may be his last film. “Realistically, it would be hard to do a feature film again,” he has said. “Your facilities do decline. Your short-term memory goes and my eyesight is pretty rubbish now, so it’s quite tricky.” Those with longer memories may remember that Loach had also threatened (or promised) to retire in 2014, when he brought his film Jimmy’s Hall – the Catholic church are evil! – to Cannes, and then again in 2019, when he presented his agitprop drama Sorry We Missed You – the gig economy is evil!  – at the festival.

Yet, although Loach could be enjoying a peaceful retirement in his home town in Bath, some wickedness or social inequality inspires him once again, like an aged gunslinger strapping on his Smith & Wesson for one final battle, to saddle up and get behind the camera to fight the good fight for the next time.

Over the course of what is now a near-60 year career, viewers would struggle to find a purely enjoyable Ken Loach film. When he’s in a more relaxed and expansive mood, the pictures are less punitive to watch; his 2009 film Looking for Eric, about the relationship between a depressed postman and his imagined conversations with the legendary footballer Eric Cantona, is wryly funny when it’s not dealing with an interminable subplot about gun-wielding gangsters. And 2012’s The Angel’s Share, a low-key take on a heist comedy, has a deliciously arch performance by Roger Allam as a wealthy whisky collector; would that Laverty’s script had given him any genuinely witty lines, although Allam is such a pro that he can turn even didactic base metal into comic gold.

Ken Loach's Kes
Ken Loach's Kes - Alamy

Yet set against this, Loach’s filmography is one of the most depressing of any major film director. At his best, especially earlier in his career, the pictures have real anger and bite behind them; Kes, often (and correctly) described as his best film, combines a touching relationship beyond a teenage boy and a kestrel with a righteous denunciation of the failing standards of the educational system of the late Sixties.

However, especially latterly, it seems as if Laverty and Loach find an issue that needs to be denounced, and then build a didactic, two-dimensional script around it, with characters who are often given to monologuing agitprop rather than exchanging dialogue. Loach’s films are, in their own way, as comfortingly predictable as the Marvel superhero pictures that he has (naturally) denounced; there are villains just as diabolical as Thanos or Killmonger, but they are the forces of business, or conservatism, or any other subset of British society that the aged firebrand objects to. They are portrayed in caricatured form, if they even appear at all; the implication is that they are barely human, and not worthy of consideration.

It does not help that Loach has made himself so easy to mock. A recent appearance by him, incongruously enough, on Saturday Live – alongside, of all people, self-described Right-wing comic Geoff Norcott – saw Loach ascend his soapbox in his usual, time-honoured fashion. Yet even as he denounced his old enemies, those with longer memories should remember how, in December last year, he gave an interview to the socialist website Equal Times in which he angrily said that “the BBC played a prime role in [the destruction of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party] – an absolutely shameless role – and now that whole political project, that nearly became the government three years ago, has been wiped out of the public discourse.”

Ken Loach directing Eva Birthistle in A Fond Kiss
Ken Loach directing Eva Birthistle in A Fond Kiss

Clearly, the demands of publicity meant that he was prepared to sit down with the “shameless” broadcaster once more. For good measure, in the same interview, he also railed against the “joint offender” in the liberal and Left-wing media, the Guardian newspaper, for their craven silence in the face of Sir Keir Starmer’s attempts to expel anti-Semitism from the Labour party by banishing (in Loach’s estimation) “at least 200,000 people, as far as we know.”

It is deeply unfortunate, then, that many would now consider Loach himself either an anti-Semite, or at the most generous assessment, at least sympathetic to those who have been expelled from the Labour party for that particular bigotry. He is one of their number, having been ejected in 2021, something that he denounced on Twitter by writing “There is indeed a witch-hunt … Starmer and his clique will never lead a party of the people. We are many, they are few. Solidarity.”

He is considered so politically toxic by Labour that the Corbynista mayor for the North of Tyne, Jamie Driscoll, has been blocked from standing for re-election after appearing on stage with Loach in March this year; it was felt that the director’s views on anti-Semitism, Israel and the Holocaust were so outrageous that failing to denounce them publicly was tantamount to tacitly agreeing with them.

Ken Loach with Eric Cantona at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival
Ken Loach with Eric Cantona at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival - AP

It may come as a surprise to those who would see Loach as a force for good in society that he is on record as saying that the rise in anti-Semitism in Britain was an understandable by-product of Israel’s actions. Or that he has said “all history [is] up for discussion” when asked whether he would condemn the Holocaust (although he has subsequently clarified that “The Holocaust is as real a historical event as the second world war itself and not to be challenged”). Or, indeed, that he remains a fervent supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, for whom he made a promotional film in 2016, after which he praised the “optimism and hope” of his supporters.

Some would see all this as an example of Loach’s consistently Left-wing politics – he was, after all, a man whose production of Jim Allen’s play Perdition at the Royal Court in 1987 was ditched over its claims of collaboration between the Zionist movement and the Nazis, Others might ask why, in an era where Right-leaning figures such as Laurence Fox find their careers curtailed overnight, someone on the other side of the political divide has never been seriously challenged over views that most would find difficult, if not offensive.

At least Loach, that most committed of Left-wingers, has never taken the Hollywood dollar; there is no superhero picture or James Bond film to desecrate his filmography. Alas, there is one spectacular blot on an otherwise spotless oeuvre. In 1990, at the height of the Conservative government that he so despised, times were hard, and so the director took work from none other than McDonalds to make an advertisement for them.

The brief clip involved a man who, frustrated by going shopping with his wife, became revitalised when allowed to eat a burger. Nor was this Loach’s only venture into commercialism, because he also directed an advert for Caramac chocolate, a Nestle product. Subsequently, he has confessed that “it sits really badly on my conscience”; but his son Jim said that it was either that or having to move house. Would that we all had such dilemmas.

Loach, then, may or may not be about to hang up his staff and abandon filmmaking. There will be many who miss his inimitable brand of issue-led cinema, and who consider his abrasive, often dour personality an important part of the cultural landscape. Yet for those less partisan, who see Loach’s personal politics and workaday films as less essential than his admirers do, it will be hard not to feel that this particular old oak, gnarled and wizened as it undoubtedly is, will not suffer too much from its inevitable, possibly overdue, fall.