After winning the 2006 Cannes Palme d'Or for The Wind That Shakes the Barley—a storming account of the 1918 revolt and civil war in Ireland—the avowedly political Ken Loach had retracted a little, allowing himself the indulgence of making a buoyant comedy, Looking for Eric, about his favourite pastime, football, and starring the most Left-leaning player ever in the game, Frenchman Eric Cantona. With the 2010 thriller Route Irish, Loach reverted back to his political roots with all guns blazing—literally, as he used more stunt scenes and pyrotechnics than in any of his previous films—to create an in-your-face examination of the privatisation of war in Iraq.
The best bit of archive footage that we enjoyed finding was the bit of Churchill being shouted at by the people
Route Irish didn't make it to Australian cinemas. Though when Loach lightened up again with The Angels' Share, a wry comedy about unlikely working class lads outwitting big business over some mighty fine malt whisky, it was natural that after such a crowd pleaser he should return to his agitprop agenda with The Spirit of '45.
“I hadn't made an archival documentary before and it was just the way things turned out,” Loach explains. “My writing partner Paul Laverty and I are doing one film after another and we had other ideas for films we wanted to do and then there was this gap of a few months. I'd sort of nursed this idea for some time so I just thought, well, now is the time to do it. We probably should have done it 10 years ago.”
The film recounts how after the collective struggle of fighting and winning the Second World War, Britain was ready for a change. The electorate voted out Winston Churchill in favour of a radically reforming Labour government committed to the introduction of democratic socialism. Clement Attlee's Labour government (July 1945-Oct 1951) undertook the nationalisation of public utilities and major industries as well as creating the National Health Service, which all remained firmly in place until Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979.
Loach, of course, has long been an avowed critic of Thatcher and her policies and many of his films have been banned. His 1985 documentary, Which Side Are You On?, about the songs and poems of the UK miners' strike, had been commissioned by ITV's The South Bank Show, but then withdrawn from transmission. The film was eventually screened on Channel 4, only after it won a major prize at the 1985 Berlin Film Festival, where The Spirit of '45 world premiered this year.
Shot in black-and-white, Loach's new film includes archival footage from the 1940s and 1950s and interviews with labour union officials, nurses, coal miners, economists, doctors, dockworkers and retired politicians. The task of bringing together all these different elements was surprisingly easy, Loach says.
“There's so much footage available that we could have made several films. There are also a lot of people with vivid memories of the times. Obviously, we narrowed it down so you get to know some of them, but there were still 30 people or more. They were easy to find. The best bit of archive footage that we enjoyed finding was the bit of Churchill being shouted at by the people. He presents himself as this great war hero and, of course, before the war he was a very right wing politician. He was an imperialist; he sent the army into discipline the mineworkers. So to find the time when people were shouting at him to get up and go away was brilliant.”
Loach, who turned 77 yesterday, was only 9 when the Second World War finished. “I don't remember a huge amount. I remember the euphoria and I certainly remember the benefits of the free health service and the schooling and the free university and all that. Then in the '60s, you grow up and look back and see what's happened politically. But we wanted to make a film that was about the voices of ordinary people because they are very credible. We liked the little details, like the woman who remembers when the health service began and they were given cakes to celebrate. There weren't many cakes around then because everything was rationed, so she remembers the day with the cake! And the doctor who could treat the sick child because the mother didn't have to pay. Ordinary people can be very articulate and very eloquent.”
Loach doesn't remember the cakes, though he remembers street parties. “My family wasn't political so I wasn't hearing political discussions,” he notes. “My father worked in a factory and as a child it felt very secure. It felt very secure because everybody had work, the schools were free, so there was a security of knowing that the war had finished and families would come together again. People would come back from the war, you'd try on a soldier's uniform and you'd be a child with sleeves hanging down over your hands etc. I remember those sorts of things. I don't remember the politics but I do remember the sense of security and the lack of pressure. I think we were allowed to be children without being expected to be adults, without being given too many choices. You just followed the path and life was simple.”
During the Thatcher years, Loach used his television documentaries to express his rebellion and says “there are good young filmmakers out there with the ideas, but they can't get the commissions. It's just a shortage of opportunity to make the films, really.” He admits he started his career in better times. “We were lucky to work in television, at the BBC, when television was much freer.”
While now young filmmakers are turning to the showing their movies over the internet, cyberspace is an unexplored world for Loach, even if some of his old movies are on YouTube. “Some of them, I couldn't put the ones that were banned on because I don't own them. But I think the new media, insofar as I understand, are very useful. It's just that I can barely work my phone, so I don't know.”
Did he see Phyllida Lloyd's film The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep in her Oscar-winning role as Margaret Thatcher? The mild-mannered director suddenly becomes animated.
“I didn't see something like that!”
What did he think of the Oscar?
“It's disgraceful, and then the critics say it's not a political film. But, of course, it's a deeply political film because it pretends she was just a woman fighting against men for her place, and then how sad that she is as an old lady.”
A feminist hero? “Yeah, we'll put the flags out, guns, when she kicks the bucket. But again, these are bourgeois critics with a kind of bourgeois mentality and they don't see that it crosses deeply into the political to present her as anyone other than a kind of rapacious, aggressive exponent for capital. It's the same with these American films now about Iraq or Osama Bin Laden or Iran or whatever. They are films in which the white American guys are the heroes and everyone else are the villains and we have to keep the villains alive so that we have a common aim. They are deeply political, deeply reactionary, I think.”
The Spirit of '45 screened at the 2013 Sydney Film Festival and be released in Australian cinemas sometime later in the year.