Legendary film director Ken Loach’s Q&A: We could have told the story of the film I,Daniel Blake anywhere and everywhere – including Hitchin

Ken Loach audience applause. Credit Kasia Burke

Ken Loach audience applause. Credit Kasia Burke - Credit: Archant

Award winning director Ken Loach – whose critically-acclaimed BAFTA-winning movie I, Daniel Blake has won plaudits if not Oscar nominations – visited Hitchin this month where he spoke about his latest film. The Comet’s Layth Yousif caught up with him at the sold-out event for an exclusive chat.

Ken Loach audience. Credit Kasia Burke

Ken Loach audience. Credit Kasia Burke - Credit: Archant

The legendary film director Ken Loach – often applauded for his socially-aware films with socialist ideals and intelligent treatment of issues such as poverty and homelessness – made an eagerly awaited trip to Hitchin in connection with a screening of his latest movie.

The event at the Queen Mother Theatre in Walsworth Road, which was organised by the anti-austerity group North Herts People’s Assembly, in association with Hitchin Films, saw the moviemaker also give an absorbing question and answer session to an enthralled audience.

I, Daniel Blake portrays a 59-year-old carpenter in Newcastle fighting to collect his employment and support allowance after falling ill. Waiting to sign on at his job centre, Daniel befriends Katie, a young single mother who is also suffering through the Kafkaesque vagaries of the benefits system.

Veteran filmmaker Loach has directed powerful cinema which has stood the test of time throughout his career – including works such as his 1966 masterpiece, Cathy Come Home, Kes (1969), My name is Joe (1998), The Navigators (2001) and many more.

Ken Loach with Layth Yousif. Picture credit: Kasia Burke

Ken Loach with Layth Yousif. Picture credit: Kasia Burke - Credit: Archant

His latest gritty work made headlines earlier this month when it picked up a prestigious BAFTA with Mr Loach’s acceptance speech being widely shared on social media. But just days before he attended the glitzy show at the Royal Albert Hall the veteran director gave an exclusive interview to the Comet.

LY: How important is it to raise awareness of the government’s ‘conscious cruelty’.

Ken Loach with audience. Credit Kasia Burke

Ken Loach with audience. Credit Kasia Burke - Credit: Archant

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Ken Loach: It’s essential. What’s extraordinary is the idea underlining it. They know exactly what they’re doing when they sanction people whose lives are in chaos. Many are right on the edge of being sustainable. They’ve no money for food. Their phones run out of batteries. Their lives are about to fall apart. The government have made thousands of people suffer. Of course no-one condones cheating the system. But it’s only a tiny proportion of people who cheat. The idea beneath is to frighten others into doing exactly what they’re told. It’s to show people poverty is their fault.

If you haven’t got a job then you are to blame – not the system. And it’s a lie of course.

LY: You’ve been quoted as saying genuine regional accents are important for authenticity in your films – do you think you’ll ever do something on, say, homelessness in the home counties?

KL: We could. For a film I look where the local culture is very strong – but you’re right though it’s everywhere really. One of the reasons I find it easier to work away from London and the South East is, when you’re out of London, the crew becomes a little team. You all stay together. When you work in London or nearby everyone goes home at night. It’s disparate. Everyone has a two hour journey to get to work and the same to get home. And it’s much harder work. But you’re right we could have told this story anywhere and everywhere – including Hitchin.

LY: I recall a tremendously powerful scene in one of my favourite films of yours, The Navigators, where hard-working craftsmen were forced to smash up their own equipment in a scene which highlighted the absurdities of privatisation of the railways. I felt there was a poignant nod to the Luddite tradition. How important is understanding the past to inform the present in your films?

KL: It’s very important to look to the past. We did films on the Spanish Civil War and the Irish War of Independence and on Nicaragua. You see what are the common denominators, The same struggle recurs again and again. And if you read the right-wing press, or even the BBC or ITV it’s as if the issues have never happened before. It’s as if no trade union has ever gone on strike. It’s as if a strike is blackmailing the public.

But when you look back people have been forced to take action to defend their jobs, to protect their wages, to avoid poverty and destitution and to protect their livelihoods for more than two centuries.

If you know the past you can understand the present – but if you don’t know the past the present is a mystery.

LY: It’s fitting you’ve come to Hitchin when local Conservative councillors have voted themselves up to 19 per cent pay rises...

KL: Absolutely. Yes, I’ve heard about that. Austerity is for everyone else it’s not for them is it?

If the councillors have so little money they have to go to foodbanks well maybe they should have the same pay rises as the nurses. But until that day comes I don’t think they should have a pay rise. Nurses themselves have had to go to foodbanks to feed themselves and their families. Nurses!

How scandalous is that?

LY: How important are organisations such as North Herts People’s Assembly?

KL: I think they’re more critical than ever. Grassroots organisations like the People’s Assembly are vital. Because we’re faced with the consequences of the austerity programme and of leaving the European Union which will mean lower wages and insecure work.

In Jeremy Corbyn we’ve someone articulating an alternative policy. And the big problem is the majority of Labour MPs are determined to destroy him. They need to realise the surge of new members is because they rejected the Blair/Brown years.

Yet Labour MPs want to go back to them. To me it’s the biggest fight now. To keep the Labour party the party of the people – not one to support old Blairites who think they own it.

LY: Your films are shot through with a social conscience from Cathy Come Home onwards – how important is it to keep sending that message?

KL: You just try and show what’s happening. And tell stories with significance beyond the narrative. They’re not only extraordinary stories they’re the essence of drama. There’s conflict, there’s tragedy, there’s comedy, it’s the drama of everyday – sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s tragic.

LY: I’ve got to ask – what do you think of Donald Trump...?

KL: I think he’s more dangerous than comic really. He’s a grotesque figure. But he’s serious as well and we shouldn’t underestimate him – because what lies behind him is the ‘dark money’. It’s the think-tanks supported by big corporations that are providing him with advisors. There’s big capital standing behind him. He didn’t get elected because he’s a joke, he got elected because he has big money behind him. And that’s dangerous.

See www.thecomet24.co.uk for more this week.

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