Sorry, We'll Miss You
Little moments can be very telling. Ken Loach is ten minutes late for our interview at the film company’s offices in That London. On arriving he warmly greets the PR folk and apologises profusely to The Crack for being late. He had been out getting a coffee. Given they chuck coffee at you at these press things, fetching his own beverage speaks to the venerable director’s lack of sense of entitlement. Then he complains about the price of the coffee: ‘£7! But there was a pastry option.' - righteous anger tempered with a dose of magnanimity right there.
There’s a lot of both in the eighty-seven-old director’s latest and apparently last film, ‘The Old Oak’, the third part of his North-East trilogy following ‘I, Daniel Blake’ and ‘Sorry We Missed You’, which tackles the arrival of a group of Syrian refugees in a small Durham town and the reaction of the locals. Some are resentful and aggressive, but some, like the manager of the titular bar TJ (played by ex-fireman Dave Turner) are accommodating and empathetic.
It’s a typically stirring testament to solidarity between marginalised people. Why did Loach consider the North East the best place to tell this story? ‘Prior to doing these three films, it was an area that I knew, but I’d never done a feature in’ he explains ‘We had done a BBC series called ‘Days of Hope’ back in the 70s and we did one of the episodes there. The areas that are attractive to work for us are ones where there are a strong working class culture, cities built on struggle and traditional industries.’
‘I’m from the Midlands which is equally fascinating but you don’t have those areas that you think of as being centres of resistance. Liverpool is one, and South Yorkshire, Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle. After ‘I’m Daniel Blake’ and ‘Sorry We Missed You’, the one question left dangling for us was what happens in the old communities where the industries people worked in, whether it was ship building or mines and so on, are gone.
‘The communities in County Durham are the absolute epitomes of communities that have been left with no investment and no support, just left to disintegrate, both by the Tories and by Blair’s New Labour. The images there are so strong and the people are so eloquent and understand so well what happened. There’s the memories of the Miner’s Strike, and the solidarity of miners in general, that idea that your life depends on the man next to you. Also the area has the highest proportion of Syrian refugees per capita than anywhere else in the country. You can buy a house there for £5000, cheaper than a second hand car! It’s a rot that both parties have been allowed to happen.’
The director is equally effusive about the actors he has worked with in the region. ‘After Paul Laverty [Loach’s long-time collaborator/scriptwriter] and I have worked on the script and talked it through, the second biggest decision is who is going to bring it to life. All the people we have worked with in all three films, Dave Johns and Hayley Squires, Chris Hitchen and Debbie Honeywood and all the group have been magnificent. The joy of working with people like Dave Turner and Chris McGlade and Trevor Fox [Fox and McGlade play Old Oak regulars]; they’re absolutely true, they make their emotions and their experience available, there’s no hiding anything. There’s a kind of rawness on screen about what they do, a woman like Clare Rodgerson [who plays local community organiser Heather], a lovely true committed individual passionate in her beliefs, and to reveal that – what a gift!’
As TJ, Turner is disarmingly real and raw in this. ‘He’s a strong man’, says Loach, ‘and very generous, there’s no guile about him. We all have these reservoirs of emotions and experiences and he shared them. Film is always artifice but this is as true as can be. You see he is a working class man in the best sense of the word, it’s not patronising, it’s an accolade [chuckles], he is plainly who he claims to be, he’s not pretending. So many performances you say ‘’Well it’s a good performance but he’s a film star’’, Dave to all intents and purposes is that man.
Ken and the North-East have also been in the news recently when an event he co-hosted with North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll was cited as the reason by the increasingly authoritarian Labour Party why Driscoll will be prevented from running as the official Labour candidate at the next mayoral elections (Driscoll has since announced he is running as an independent and his campaign is deservedly going great guns). ‘Well, this has all been a fraud to undermine the left, like what happened with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership’ says Loach, ‘for the ideas he [Corbyn] stood for, public investment, Green economy, and universal human rights, and that includes right of all people which includes Palestinians, hence the campaign against him.’
‘Jamie stands on principle. He defended me on ‘Newsnight’ when they were saying all sorts of rubbish about me – we had never spoken about this and I hadn’t armed him with anything to say, and he defended me.’ Asked if he may be lured back to direct a Driscoll campaign video and the director laughs – ‘I’m not very good at campaign videos, there’s better people than me at that.’
Loach has been a pugnacious political commentator, but does this constant traducing ever get to him? ‘It comes from political hostility’ he says, ‘from people who will say whatever they think they will damage you and their attack is designed to cause you as much damage as they can. It’s done behind your back, it’s unprincipled and those that do the accusing never confront the serious issues that they purport to be dealing with.’
‘Of course it’s distressing, and it’s distressing for family and this is what they want. But they won’t silence people because in the end the truth will out. Leaving the Labour party was like ending an abusive relationship, suddenly you can breathe clean air again instead of listening to Starmer’s crude abuse and feeling implicated.’
‘The Old Oak’ is billed as his last film. Is this truly it? ‘I can’t see going around the course again’ he says. ‘It’s a huge emotional commitment, and the focus and the concentration for long periods is something you struggle with when you get older. It’s always tempting to try another one, but realistically a film like I’ve just done would be too much.’
Was Loach aware when he started this film that is was your last one? ‘Pretty aware (laughs) yeah, and you always think it’s going to be easier than it is, then once you start to explore you realise what you don’t know and what sensitivities you need to develop, and I made mistakes. Listening to the Syrian families and just seeing the depth of the horror they experience and taking care not to tread on their sensitivities was not easy. That’s was my responsibility and I had to be careful. You might set something up and that wasn’t what they’d do in those circumstances. Wonderful people though, brave people.’
As well as their horrific experiences in Syria, did Loach also talk to them extensively about their experiences in Durham as refugees, and did they encounter the sense of solidarity with locals depicted in the film? ‘Yes, I most of them or all of them were very at pains to say thank you for the fact that they were here. I mean of course we took fewer than anywhere else in Europe, so nothing to be proud of, but the individual people who welcomed them did wonderfully well. Some politicians let us down, but the people were brilliant; there’s kind of an innate hospitality amongst ordinary people to people who they see as in trouble, so that was very strong. And the council were great: it was dropped on their toes and they had to work out how to deal with the refugees but there was great support. Durham County Council have people there simply to deal with the problems that the Syrians face and to make them welcome.’
Given the Syrians experiences were seemingly positive, was there a need to spice up the drama a little? ‘No’ insists Loach. ‘The sense of it was there was an absolute split. It was difficult to get the balance right; you don’t want to pretend that the hostility wasn’t there and a lot of them had experienced things that they didn’t want to talk about, because they wanted to make things good. But many of them had clearly faced hostility, the kids in school and stuff. And obviously we know that the far right has been in the area.’
‘What we did want to explore was people who are not racist, but know they’ve been cheated. They know that they’ve been left with communities falling apart, industries that are dissolving and they are asked to share what little they have got with people who’ve been in a war. And they think ‘’we have nothing against the people in the war but why us?’’ We know why the refugees are put there, because accommodation is cheap, no one will notice they’re there, never mind that there’s no work or no infrastructure or very little. Put them there and they’re out of sight. People aren’t stupid, they see what’s going on and it makes them angry. And it only needs one or two to say ‘’we don’t want them here’’ and that translates to ‘’we don’t like foreigners’’, and before you know it you’ve taken the steps towards racism. We wanted to trace these roots of racism, rather than, as the press do, say ‘Oh they’re all racists.’ They’re not. But the conditions in which racism can thrive are there. It’s a danger that the far right capitalise on people’s alienation and anger. The left has got to try and rise to the challenge.’
With ‘The Old Oak’ done and dusted and the film finally out, can we consider Ken retired? ‘You can’t retire from something like this’ the director sighs, ‘there’s no point at which you say I’m closing the book, because it’s the stuff of life, isn’t it? It’s what gets you up in the morning. There are so many things to do connected with the ideas we’ve tried to express… you can’t retire from life. You can maybe get a bit longer to cut the grass, but in the end you’re in the middle of a battle. You can’t walk away from it because they’re going to keep coming for you. As some guy said during the 1984 strike, ‘They stop chasing when we stop running.’
The Old Oak is out now
Follow David on Twitter @DWill_Crackfilm