Ever since Billy Casper and his kestrel embedded themselves in the national consciousness in 1969 in Kes, Ken Loach’s films have been simultaneously embraced as paradigms of social realism and dismissed as socialist propaganda.
To the left, he is a tireless defender of the working classes and, at 77, something of a grandee. To the right, he’s a dour hypocrite who’d do best to hang up his clapper board.
No one in British cinema divides political opinion like Ken Loach. But perhaps, as I discover interviewing the director and his longtime collaborator Paul Laverty a day before the release of what is rumoured to be his final feature film, that is because no one in British cinema is quite so politically opinionated.
Jimmy’s Hall tells the story of communist firebrand Jimmy Gralton who, in 1933, became (and remains) the only Irishman to be deported from Ireland in the wake of the red scare that gripped the country after the War of Independence.
His main crime, according to Loach's film, was to build and run a dance hall in a remote field in Effrinagh, County Leitrim, where he and his sympathizers taught local teenagers about poetry, boxing and – most scandalous of all – the jazz music he’d discovered travelling through the United States. Gralton was the scourge of the Catholic Church, which was at the peak of its powers at the time.
To Loach and Laverty, Gralton is another example of an articulate and charming working class leader, first persecuted and then expunged from history by a self-interested ruling class.
“Jimmy had lots of sides to his personality,” Loach says.
“He left school very young, travelled the world in ordinary working class jobs – as a miner, a dock worker, on the ships. He was a man of great humanity and worth, politically active but he also understood the need for enjoyment, for fun, for dancing.”
“I think it would be interesting for today’s activists to see the Jimmy Gralton story,” adds Laverty, the former human rights lawyer who wrote the script for some of Loach’s biggest hits, including The Wind That Shakes The Barley which won the Paime d’Or at Cannes in 2006.
“He’s been hidden from history. The National Archives had all the papers relating to Jimmy, and they disappeared. Not only did they want to destroy Jimmy at the time, they wanted to destroy his memory, and his story of hope.”
Jimmy’s Hall, which became a record 12th film of Loach’s to be screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a direct attempt to rectify that.
As a film, it showcases both the best and worst of Loach. It’s sincere and funny in the way his detractors often deny his films are, and at times hopelessly didactic in that way his fans pretend not to notice.
Gralton emerges as an oddly blank revolutionary, whitewashed by virtue – Laverty expresses a reluctance to ‘fill in the gaps’ in his personal life, a noble aim that sadly robs the character of depth – while his antagonist, a parish priest played by Jim Norton, is more nuanced, questioning his motives as he sets about destroying all Jimmy has built. As is often the case with Loach’s films, it is the superb support cast, notably Gralton’s mother played by first-time actress Eileen Henry, who give the film its heart. All in all it’s an effective but rather thin drama, leaving first-time viewers of Loach in no doubt whose side he is on.
Given Loach's political sympathies, I wonder what he makes of Ukip and the so-called ‘rise of right’ that has gripped Britain over the course of the recent European elections? His answer is text book anti-capitalism.
“The right is on the march, there is no doubt. And it comes out of people’s fear that they can’t change anything, because that’s what we’re told: there is no alternative, this is the only system that will work,” he says.
“On a daily basis the popular press is telling us stories about ‘immigrant scroungers’, ‘immigrant benefit cheats’ and ‘benefit tourism’… Even the mainstream politicians are using this language. The press shovels the manure into the soil, and Farage and his ilk grow in that stench – it’s no surprise.”
Nor does he have much faith in the mainstream left.
“Forget Miliband and his ilk. He’s in the line of Blair, Brown, Kinnock and the rest of the disastrous bunch, who see capitalism as the system they have to work with and mitigate slightly.
“‘Responsible capitalism’ – that’s his slogan isn’t it? The intellectual dishonesty of that means you have to discount the Labour leadership. The only way the left is going to work here is if you strike out on your own.”
There is a touch of the Tony Benn about Loach in person, the ability to use strong political rhetoric without sounding remotely worked up about it: revolutionary ideas offered like a biscuit beside a cup of tea.
Laverty – a lean Scotsman of 57 who, by offering to awkwardly hold my dictaphone throughout our chat to ensure it survives the noisy roadworks outside, is one of the friendliest people I’ve ever interviewed – is of a similar temperament, describing Farage as a “tosser” and George Osbourne and Gordon Brown as “preaching the politics of fear over Scottish independence” without so much as a raised octave.
You can see why they work so well together, a two-way partnership where writing and directing duties are almost shared, that Laverty says is based on “football, politics, fun and taking the piss,” before adding “maybe it’s best not to analyse it too much.” As a fellow Northerner (Laverty is the first person I meet in London for six years to place my Northumbrian accent), I recognise this as code for: ‘I love the bloke. Now shut up about it’.
The lingering question is whether Jimmy’s Hall will mark the end of their partnership. Loach has said he is going to take some time over the summer to watch the World Cup and mull over the idea of retirement.
Jimmy’s Hall would be a respectable enough note to bow out on, but talking to them, you get a sense there is more in tank from Loach and Laverty, more stories they want to tell, more wrongs they want to right. Whether you hope that’s true or not is likely to be a matter of strong opinion.
Jimmy's Hall is out in cinemas today.