Ken Loach is polite, softly spoken and looks like a geography teacher. But for 50 years this firestarter in elbow patches has been shaking up the British film industry. With family and key collaborators, the Nuneaton-born director, now 80, looks back at his career: a prodigious back catalogue of social realism (Cathy Come Home, Ladybird Ladybird), political agitation (Hidden Agenda) and a championing of working-class lives (evergreen, ever-heartbreaking Kes).
While fellow directors Alan Parker, Ridley Scott and Richard Attenborough were lured away to Hollywood, Loach stayed put, with one subject rearing its head repeatedly. “If you make films about people’s lives,” Loach says, “politics is essential. It is the essence of drama – the essence of conflict.”
Highlighting his unquenchable drive and battles with broadcasters, the documentary also offers surprising glimpses of a cricket lover who enjoys musicals (“The more camp and the more glossy they are, the better,” says daughter Emma).
There is darkness and doubt, too, touching briefly on the terrible car accident that killed his son and his wife’s grandmother (“Before that you know what a kind of happiness is and after that you never do”).
Versus is a measured profile, but not a hagiography. We see how Loach’s apparently inflexible principles bent enough to make commercials in the 1980s, including one for McDonald’s. And his quest for naturalism crossed a line for the moment in Kes in which schoolboys were caned on the hands.
Loach has attracted poisonous headlines over the years, but critics of “Red Ken” as a troublemaker tend to miss the point. As Gabriel Byrne puts it, “What they call intractable, what they call unchanging, is what makes him that powerful.”
Beyond the essential humanity of his projects, Loach also gives voice to those without hope or prospects. Recalling the scene in Kes in which downtrodden schoolboy Billy Casper (David Bradley) excitedly tells his class how he trained a kestrel, Loach says, “I didn’t want him to learn it too word-for-word because the point of the scene is for a boy who can never string two words together to become articulate.”
The story of Ken Loach is in many ways the story of Britain, bookended by Wilson’s 60s and Cameron’s tenties. It also comes full circle: half a century separates Cathy Come Home and Loach’s latest film, I, Daniel Blake, but the blight of homelessness is horribly undiminished.
But whatever your leanings, Versus is a compelling portrait of a fierce intellect.
Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach is on tonight at 9:10pm on BBC2