Agent of Challenge and Defiance. – Review – book review
The Films of Ken Loach Edited by George McKnight. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997. $24.95 paper; $59.95 cloth.
This collection of essays is aptly titled. It examines one of the most neglected but enduring talents in British cinema and television, who has heroically criticized his national social system in both fair weather and foul. Ken Loach has been active for a 30-year period that encompasses the “swinging 60s,” Old Labour Party stagnation, vicious Thatcherite reaction, and contemporary New Labour right-wing revisionism. However, despite changing visual fashions, his style maintains a stubborn fidelity to a movement many dismiss as old-fashioned and irrelevant to a supposedly postmodern era–naturalism.
Disdainful of the contemporary market-orientated box office strategies now ruthlessly dominating both Hollywood and British cinema, Loach has often struggled to present an alternative vision of the losers within reactionary periods past and present. It is a vision never contaminated by false optimism but always cognizant of the personal and political obstacles people face in their everyday lives. Often collaborating with diverse figures such as producer Tony Garnett and Trotskyist playwright Jim Allen, Loach has demonstrated his “challenge and defiance” from the now defunct Golden Age of British television (associated with other talents such as Nell Dunn, David Mercer, Dennis Potter, and Jeremy Sandford, whose work would be banned by the BBC today) to the 1990s. Although his work suffered from the critical onslaughts and misunderstandings of the once powerful and now dethroned 70s screen theory, it has proven more resilient and relevant than ever before. This collection of essays provides a stimulating introduction to a talent who deserves to be better known than other fashionable figures, such as Mike Leigh, a contemporary purveyor of that Ealing Studios quaint-character eccentricity so beloved by (and harmless to) to American audiences.
George McKnight’s introductory essay respectfully promotes the relevance of Loach’s work over the past 30 years in terms of its exploration of class, gender, and ideologically governed family structures in British society. Although Loach’s British films appear to concentrate on “apparently unexceptional everyday situations” (5), they are never removed from economic and social issues which, especially in the 90s, generate desperate and hopeless feelings that often erupt into violence. Loach’s work mainly concentrates upon the marginalized and neglected figures he is most familiar with. It never generates false illusions and optimism but scrupulously documents the betrayal of people’s everyday lives by both the forces of reaction and those bodies such as the Labour Party and trade unions who are supposedly on the side of the oppressed. For example, Loach and Garnett’s 1975 epic four-part television series, Days of Hope, documents an era of British social history from World War One to the 1926 General Strike and reveals that Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative Party broke the latter movement by using plans drawn up by the former Labour Government. (This series is suspiciously unavailable from BBC Video at present, unlike those numerous Jane Austen adaptations!)
Loach often stresses the factor of betrayal by one’s own side. His past work uncannily foreshadows the present politics practiced by Rupert Murdoch and Margaret Thatcher’s favorite lapdog, Tony Blair. Stuart Levy provides an informative context concerning the development and reception of Loach’s work from the 50s to the present day, while Julian Petley studies his fusion of drama and documentary in both film and television. However, the most wide-ranging essay in the collection is Deborah Knight’s “Naturalism, Narration and Critical Perspective: Ken Loach and the Experimental Method.” Despite naturalism’s fashionable neglect and maltreatment by mundane interpretations in British television drama, Knight relates Loach’s naturalistic practices to more dynamic and exploratory patterns found in the work of Emile Zola. As she notes, “Protagonists in the tradition of British naturalism are quite unlike protagonists in non-naturalistic genres. They are unheroic or anti-heroic protagonists caught up in what is obviously a difficult struggle to make a better lot for themselves…. The protagonists of naturalistic narratives are seldom able to break free from their constraints of their socio-cultural environments” (67). It is a good observation, but one that needs more focus on Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series of novels and the author’s grim (but realistic) observations about the necessity of realizing the powerful nature of antagonistic forces and of avoiding any false hopes and illusions, no matter how comforting they may be in the short term.
The other essays in this collection provide interesting perspectives concerning Loach’s battles with British censorship, his continuing attempts to find links between politics and aesthetics in films such as Fatherland, Hidden Agenda, and Riff-Raff, and the international aspects of works such as Fatherland, Land and Freedom (and Carla’s Song, which appeared after this collection went to press).
The book concludes with an informative interview with Loach by John Hill, McKnight’s detailed filmography (which also contains references to Loach’s early television work), and a selected bibliography. It is a valuable collection of special relevance to any serious study of contemporary British film and television that deals with a figure in danger of historical neglect or trivialization. In an era when British film and television are now characterized by demeaning examples such as The Full Monty and Spiceworld, as well as historical class fantasies such as Mrs. Brown, Elizabeth, and Shakespeare in Love, McKnight’s collection is a warning note to those conscious of the neglect of an crucially important and relevant mode of artistic interpretation.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
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