Moving Pictures

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Review of 'Which Side Are You On? Ken Loach and his Films', Anthony Hayward, Bloomsbury £20

This book is an account of Ken Loach's working life based on interviews with him and others. It is long on detail and a bit short on interpretation, but it works because Loach's record speaks for itself. After working for a while as a theatre actor - 'I was the worst actor in the world,' he says - Loach joined the BBC as a trainee director in 1963. He found himself surrounded by an influx of new talent as the BBC tried to adapt to the new radical cultural trends of the 1960s.

Loach, and colleagues like Peter Watkins and John McGrath, were committed and critical about their role as broadcasters in a way that puts most current hacks to shame. Here is Loach on one of his first BBC directing jobs, The Wednesday Play: 'The aim was to make drama that was as much part of contemporary life as the news and was seen in the same way... We were a continuation of it and The Wednesday Play usually followed it... everything we did was about questioning the establishment view of the world. That developed into a political analysis.'

Up to the early 1960s TV was all light entertainment and polite drama, and this kind of realism and experiment was a culture shock. But the viewers loved The Wednesday Play, and 10 million regularly tuned in. Buoyed by success, Loach developed the belief that his work should aim to help change the world, a view he has stuck with stubbornly ever since. He had an extraordinary success with his 1966 play Cathy Come Home, which exposed the plight of the London homeless, led to a massive public outcry about government housing policy, and helped launch the homeless charity Shelter.

Hayward gives a taste of some of the theoretical debates that helped shape Loach's early work. Strongly influenced by French experimental film and the ideas of Bertolt Brecht, Loach experimented in his early plays with jumpcuts, news-type voiceovers and shaky, handheld camerawork. He fought to get away from the clunky theatricality of the TV studio and onto the streets, and once there he developed a drama-style bordering on documentary. Where possible he used writers and actors with working class backgrounds and some real experience of the matters in hand. He used natural light where he could and, after using handheld camera techniques for a while, he started to pull the camera crew right back from the action to allow the actors the space to get properly involved in their characters and predicaments.

Loach has built on these techniques ever since to produce work that has expressed working class hopes and fears like no other. His technical innovations all served his most important intuition - that to explore working class reality you have to take sides. His famous early feature Kes set the tone for a long list of films in which actors are encouraged to improvise to explore everyday working class life. But this biography reminds us there is another, overtly political, strand of drama in Loach's work that has conveniently been half forgotten.

In 1968 Loach and his producer Tony Garnett teamed up with writer activist Jim Allen to make a documentary-style drama called The Big Flame about a dock workers' occupation. Right wing producers tried to shelve it, using the feeble and now familiar argument that it wasn't clear if the film was fiction or documentary. Garnett's crisp reply was that as it was set in the future it couldn't be a documentary. The fact that workers' occupations spread across Britain a few years later showed that it was certainly prescient.

In 1972 Loach made a four-part drama about the 1926 General Strike called Days of Hope that, like the later Land and Freedom, looked at an episode of working class history from a critical, revolutionary perspective. Once again right wing critics were apoplectic.

It is a measure of his impact that Loach's work was pretty much barred from film and TV screens in Britain during the 1980s. And it is ironic that when he did get round to making a documentary the powers that be tried to ban it. There's a fascinating chapter in the book describing exactly how the establishment conspired to bury most of Loach's documentary series Question of Leadership, about the treachery of right wing trade union bureaucrats.

It's a tribute to the man's tenacity and principle that he came back from all this in the 1990s to make a string of feature films that have found a huge new audience and helped rekindle the spirit of resistance around the globe. This book should be required reading for radicals in the media.