The Spirit of ‘The Spirit of ’45’: Ken Loach and the Working Classes

In 1966 a BBC Wednesday Play called Cathy Come Home was aired. It told the story of Cathy and Reg and their children Steven, Sean and Miley. Scene by scene the family disintegrates under the strain of unemployment and ensuing homelessness. Reg appears to abandon Cathy and the children are taken into care. It was written, directed and produced by Ken Loach and Tony Garnett. The exposition of the welfare state and its casualties ‘passed about like so much litter’ had a remarkable impact. Homelessness charity Shelter was founded and overhaul of housing laws in 1977 demonstrated the existing ignorance of the middle classes who are shown as idealistic and unrealistic, blaming those at the bottom for being at the bottom ‘we’ve got the welfare state…you can’t come to no real harm.’ It was believed that the system worked so well there was no way to be left behind. In reality the inflexibility of the system and ignorance of those most often at its mercy meant that you could, you were and you still can be. Although the direct results of Cathy Come Home have been played down by its makers to the point of suggesting its clearest impact was in making the middle classes feel good about feeling bad, it remains very powerful viewing.

Garnett has described fictional stories as closer to the truth than those purporting to show it, ‘they (news and current affairs) observe the facts and tell lies; we invent fictions and tell the truth.’ The interspersing of scripted material and direct lifts from people interviewed allows a depth of understanding to Cathy Come Home that demands attention. Not least because of the density of some of the dialogue. Reg and Cathy are by no means the best or the worst of people, but they are very real. Carol White plays Cathy and it is her own children playing Sean and Stevie. An unplanned shoot in a train station captures the real reactions from passers by as child services seize the children. Everything in it had occurred in Britain that year, although it is a constructed narrative it is not fictional.

Loach’s films consistently feature working class figures and address subjects including homelessness, crime and poverty. Subjects that pose the potential for skewed and softened viewing have been delivered as eloquent depictions of lives rarely examined. Eloquence does not mean easy viewing but rather truthful viewing. The Brechtian like intent to present characters and stories to encourage critical thinking and self-reflective reactions in an audience is tempered by very raw moments of emotion. Leaving the loose-ends in, unpolished and overlapping dialogue allows for a sparsely embellished scene to be richer than a set dripping with details. Whether or not the contrast of simple scenes and a humane treatment of difficulties would work focusing on a middle class concern is a debate for another day, but the characters on screen are human and believable. Two seemingly simple traits that very often escape filmmakers.

In 1969 Hollywood was offering up Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider, Hello Dolly! and Fellini presented a lustful and lavish fantastical Rome in Satyricon. At the same time Kes came to the cinema and became one of Loach’s biggest commercial successes in the UK. Based on the novel A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines who also wrote the screenplay, the story of a boy and his kestrel set against life on a ‘scum’ estate and the inevitability of working life in the pits was unglamorous and in stark contrast to its contemporaries. However, it proved to be a brilliant setting for a sometimes brutal and touching story. Long shots of identikit houses stacked together sit in contrast to close centre set scenes. The setting also proved to be problematic in terms of wider viewing, it has been suggested that the greyness on screen and thick accents ensured it would not succeed in the States. Opening on Billy sharing a small bed with his aggressive and disinterested brother Judd, the dark and muffled movement of the boys struggling over a blanket instantly communicates the cold of the room and the problematic relationship. The trailer suggests three reasons for seeing Kes, one of which is real people playing real people. Members of the crew and locals from Burnley can be scene throughout the film and Billy’s abusive classmates were taken from a local school. David Bradley who played Billy was led to believe that the dead bird in the final scenes was Kes, with whom he had become close over the course of filming.

Perceived grimness is not necessarily a component to every Loach film, The Angel’s Share written with Paul Laverty is smileworthy due both to the slightly ludicrous whisky heist plot and ingenious conversations between the principle characters. Similarly the excellent Looking For Eric maintains the reality of life as a single dad to three boys, it’s just that Eric Cantona is there to play the trumpet, inspire and help deal with public humiliation in social media.

Following its debut at the Berlin Film Festival Loach’s first documentary since 1998 The Spirit of ’45, has already received praise for its use of original archive footage and interviews of miners, nurses and others working in ‘45 to illustrate the unprecedented community spirit of the time. As Loach himself says ‘we were a collective and we were stronger together than as individuals’. The 1942 Beveridge report outlined a system of social support that would cover any British citizen, regardless of income and background. The landslide Labour victory of 1945 was built on a promise to implement the support of the state and strengthen the battered spirits of Britain. The austerity of the war had left people struggling and wary of a return to economic depression that had preceded it. The beginning of mandatory secondary education for those over eleven, free healthcare through the NHS and labour laws were a revolution.

Promotional material for Loach's upcoming documentary 'Spirit Of '45'

Promotional material for Loach’s upcoming documentary ‘Spirit Of ’45’

Some seventy years later the increasingly privatised welfare state is discussed with a sneering aside. Whether it is the distaste for Big Brother or the belief that the benefits system is wilfully supporting skivers, reports of seemingly disproportionate handouts or straight up fraud can be found almost gleefully emblazoned on headlines. Finger pointing and scapegoating overshadows the thousands slipping further into poverty with no way out. Low employment levels and a inflexible benefits system means that those who would be expected to find employment are instead finding themselves at the receiving end of ‘sorry, not today’ responses and nowhere to turn. Such expectations are not from naïve graduates who think that a degree equals employment but it comes from all sides, the jobseekers and those becoming resistant to supporting them. It is not simply enough to fill in a job diary, send out 50 applications a week. It’s your fault. You must be doing something wrong.  Even when you’re not, after a certain period of time people tend to shrug and walk away. And now the welfare bill is ‘spiralling out of control’, at an estimated £200 billion per year.

It is not a coincidence then that The Spirit of  ’45 is released on the 15th of March. The current economic climate is not that of war austerity and the Great Depression, but the seemingly systematic dismantling of the welfare state marks a fundamental difference in attitude towards the great unwashed. Early viewings suggest that rather than a history lesson the piece is the story of those who were there and the need for communication between the generations. When asked why he chose to present a documentary Loach cites the testimonies of those involved. Regardless of editing and analysis the words of the interviewees cannot be changed. As the film is not intended to be a discussion or even an impartial viewing of events, as with all of Loach’s films the words and reality of human experience comes to the fore.

Naomi Walmsley

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