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Veteran filmmaker Ken Loach: “Boris Johnson is a lout and a bully”

Loach's powerful new film Sorry We Missed You looks at the plight of the UK's low-paid workers and those on zero-hour contracts. We spoke to him about austerity measures, the General Election and more than five decades of fighting for social justice

“It’s remorseless,” Ken Loach says with a weary sigh, as talks about the poverty besieging the UK that he and Paul Laverty, his long-term writing partner, witnessed whilst researching his latest film. Sorry We Missed You is the follow-up to 2016’s I, Daniel Blake, and sees the veteran director return to Newcastle-upon-Tyne to document the plight of low-paid workers on zero-hour contracts. What he and Laverty discovered, he says, rivalled the shocking conditions he first documented 53 years ago in the game-changing Cathy Come Home.

“We went to the foodbanks and it was astonishing how many people were in full-time work and yet still couldn’t feed their families,” Loach sighs, his gentle demeanour and softly spoken voice at odds with the stark, enraging situation. “The one statistic that really hits home is that you’ve got four million children living in poverty in the UK and three out of every four of those have got a working parent.” Loach’s knowledge is extensive and he fires off dozens of similarly shocking facts. “The scale of it is extraordinary and the fact is, people are working and still can’t survive.” It’s even more “bewildering”, Loach says, because Britain is the fifth biggest economy in the world. 

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Loach’s 27th film, Sorry We Missed You focusses on Ricky Turner – a delivery driver on a zero-hours contract – and his wife Abby, a care worker. Tyrannical Big Brother bosses and ‘tracker’ technology monitor their every move to ensure they’re working around-the-clock. Holidays and worker benefits are few and compassion is absent: here, asking for time off to see a doctor will result in you losing your job – maybe even your life. Loach based the characters on the low-paid workers Laverty spent months interviewing. His voice cracks when he recalls what Laverty told him on his return, his sense of social justice as powerful as ever. 

Ken Loach
Ken Loach with long-term writing partner Paul Laverty

“The drivers were very reluctant and scared to speak to him,” Loach says, recounting the surveillance pressures workers were under. “He ended up going out on deliveries with some of them and I think that’s when he really saw the harsh reality of their daily lives. He brought sandwiches for one driver and they were still in the packet by the end of the day because he hadn’t had the time to actually eat them. They have to drive every single minute of the day and they have to piss in a bottle because there’s no time to go to the toilet. It’s horrible.”

Loach places the blame squarely at the door of the Conservative party and their “brutal” austerity measures. “He’s very, very, dangerous,” Loach says of Boris Johnson, who is currently battling to remain Prime Minister. “He’s completely untrustworthy and he’ll say anything regardless of what he’ll actually do. I just hope people wake up because the next five weeks will probably define the future for a lot of people, for the NHS, for our most vital services.” 

Cathy Come Home
Loach’s film ‘Cathy Come Home’ led to the founding of homeless charity, ‘Shelter’

His contempt for Johnson comes from a place of experience. Loach met the current Conservative party leader years ago when he appeared on a programme he was working on. He doesn’t hold back on the impression Johnson left. “He’s a lout and a public-school bully. I had absolutely no time for the man at all. What kind of a man won’t admit to telling you how many children he has? He’s a total fraud.” Whilst Loach’s relationship with the Labour party been tumultuous over the years, Jeremy Corbyn’s appointment brought Loach back to the party with a renewed sense of optimism. In 2017, Loach even made their campaign videos. But does he still think he’s the right person for the job? 

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“I think he is,” Loach says, but also acknowledges issues. “I’m not saying that Jeremy and John McDonnell [Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer] and the others have not made mistakes, I think they have. But the abuse they get from the right wing press is staggering. When you meet Jeremy, he really reaches out to people. When you meet Johnson, he’s a fraud.” Loach won’t be drawn on what he sees as Labour’s mistakes – but there is mention of Brexit, a subject where Loach’s views are complex.

Ken Loach
Ken Loach on the set of ‘Sorry We Missed You’

Whilst Sorry We Missed You blames the current government for the mess Ricky and Abby are in, the free market also comes under fire. “When we talk about worker’s rights now, this is all happening while we’re inside the EU,” Loach says. “They’re not protecting workers in a gig economy. We’ve got to get higher standards because if bloody Boris gets in, they’ll cut even these low standards that exist.” Whilst Loach voted to remain “with a heavy heart,” as he revealed last year, he thinks a deal under Labour would be better.

“I think people have this very strong sense of this being our democratic decision and that it should be followed. I would like to accept that decision but do it in a way that we really improve society rather than allowing it to get worse as it will do under Boris.” Loach pauses. “The prospect of it happening under Johnson is really atrocious… If Johnson gets in, I’d vote to Remain; if it’s a Labour deal, I’d probably vote to Leave,” says Loach, aware that many of his fans may find that difficult to hear. His reasoning is grounded in extensive research, he says, research which drove him to make his latest film, which he calls a “companion piece” to I, Daniel Blake, as the issues were too vast for just one.

The impact of I, Daniel Blake was far-reaching. In the House of Commons, Theresa May was told to watch the film to truly understand the impact of her austerity cuts. After a report revealed that 1600 sick and disabled people had died after their claims for benefit were rejected, MPs compared it to the situation of Daniel Blake. Now, there are already signs Sorry We Missed You is also leaving a similarly lasting impression. After watching the film at a public screening a woman called Ruth Lane revealed that her husband, Don, died aged 53 whilst working through illness as a courier driver last year. “You gave Don a voice,” she told Loach. The story soon went viral. 

Alongside Mike Leigh and Shane Meadows, Loach is one of only a handful of directors whose films truly document the lives of the British working class. Loach explains there’s a lot of the reluctance from directors to take on their stories because backers still won’t fund “voices from the regions.” He reveals that “Channel 4 backed off [from] I, Daniel Blake,” adding: “I think there’s a prejudice against films where there’s any kind of really raw experiences of people [conveyed]. For many, the idea that it’s only entertaining if it’s got an American accent in it, or if it is about something royal.”

His is a type of cinema, he says, that will rarely be seen at the local multiplex. “At the moment, cinemas are programmed by fast food experts,” he swipes. “I think people can be really engaged in the drama of the everyday reflecting life back at you. It makes you reflect on your own circumstances and change can come that way. The problem is who owns the cinemas and who programmes the films… I think they should have some sort of public ownership so that the listings are programmed by people who actually enjoy films. Cinema is a wonderful, powerful medium. It’s just such a pity that it’s being reduced to something so narrow.”

In recent years, Loach has worked tirelessly to get his films into the community via low-cost, public screenings. “Cinema should be for all,” Loach says, as he excitedly recounts an initiative which saw I, Daniel Blake shown in football stadiums, community centres and libraries for as little as £2. Similar screenings are planned for Sorry We Missed You

Part of the enjoyment of the community viewings, Loach says, also came from people seeing characters similar to themselves on screen, “a rarity in today’s multiplex,” he argues. To ensure the film is as realistic as possible, Loach still hires actors who’ve had similar experiences to the characters he depicts – a technique he’s used since the 1960s. “If you see an actor who you know from another film, it takes away from the sense of watching something authentic. It’s also good to hear the regions,” Loach says, echoing his BAFTA acceptance speech for I, Daniel Blake where he took aim at the fact there were few regional accents or working-class voices in the winning films.

Loach’s passion for cinema and social equality is as strong as ever. So too is his belief in the power of film to bring about change. “I hope people care what happens to the family in Sorry We Missed You and I hope they think about how it reflects on them [and] their own family,” he reasons. But that’s not the film’s only mission. “I also want people to ask questions: what can we do about it? Is it acceptable? The film isn’t a polemic, not a pamphlet, but it should always leave questions, and some of these will be difficult.”

Sorry We Missed You is in cinemas now

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