There are few British filmmakers that come with the reputation and pedigree than that of Ken Loach. In the approach of the release of his politically-minded documentary The Spirit of ’45 we were fortunate enough to sit down and speak with the notorious director.
Sitting in a rather quaint office at Loach’s production company Sixteen Films in Soho, we discussed his own memories of 1945, and how he feels Britain is today in comparison to the rather jubilant era. We also speak about those interviewed in the feature, his decision to make this as a feature film, and – given the director’s strong political allegiances, we also get into a rather fascinating, if somewhat disheartening conversation…
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1945 was such a pivotal year, do you think there has been a more defining year in Modern British politics?
It was one of those moments when people took control or thought they were taking control of their future and thought they were building something that would last, that would be permanent, so when they established the health service they thought they were doing it for good, in both senses of the word, forever and to benefit everybody. It did benefit everybody, but sadly we’ve allowed it to be brought to the edge of destruction, and it will be destroyed, it’s being destroyed, along with the sense of caring for each other. I think the mood was that we are our brother’s and our sister’s keepers, which is a very generous idea and now we have a very mean spirited ideology, as we struggle against each other, we don’t work together.
Given the current talk of the privatisation of the NHS, this film’s release is rather pertinent timing, did you deliberately seek to release it now?
Well it is very pertinent, I haven’t made a documentary for a long time and the chance presented itself and it is a significant moment, because the privatisation began in the 80s and is now finally being completed by the Tories and the Liberals, which is devastating. If you look around Europe there is unemployment everywhere, the new kind of poverty, people with no sense of future, no sense of being able to buy a house, that feeling of collapse is so palpable and it seems a very important time to remember when we did it better.
You have always been very politically minded, was that something that you got from your parents back in 1945? Were they in favour of the reform?
No it was a non-political house. The Daily Express used to come through the door which was pretty right wing. I remember the street parties but I didn’t remember the politics of the 40’s. Although I benefited hugely, we benefited from the health service, we benefited from the education reforms, you know, I went to University on a grant, no tuition fees obviously. Everybody had a job when they left school, we all benefited hugely from what the Labour Government had done.
Can you remember much from 1945 then? You wouldn’t have been too old of course…
No, I was nine! I remember the street parties and I remember the war and getting bombed out of the war and having a collection of shrapnel, which every little boy had if you were under the air raids. But I remember the street parties, yes.
Have you planning this documentary for a while?
Quite a time really, it had been in the back of my mind. Then I just got the opportunity to make it, but it wasn’t part of a strategic plan. It’s not a grand project, it’s like all history; people’s memories and then what happened to them.
Do you feel more pressure on yourself making a documentary, as you’re without that poetic licence as you would do with a fictional narrative?
No, I don’t agree with poetic licence. I think whether it’s fictional or fact, you’ve got to be as accurate and as tight and as honest with the material that you can be. You’ve got to respect your research and that’s true whether you’re doing fiction or documentary.
Where do you think it’s easier to get a political point across more effectively, in a documentary or a fictional film?
I don’t really see it in terms of getting a point across, you just try and say ‘look, this happened’ or ‘this was a conflict’ or ‘this is representative of the times’ or ‘here are some characters you might be interested in’ or ‘here’s a story worth telling’. I feel that if it’s too aggressive in hammering what you want to say then it loses its depth.
Although this is a documentary this does feel like your typical Ken Loach film, it has your mood to it. I was wondering if that’s difficult to implement given this was pretty much all made in the editing room, there wasn’t the chance to be out there filming new footage.
I don’t know about that, I can’t comment on that. I think it’s partly how you set the camera and how you talk to people and the mood you start generating in the filmmaking. The rhythm of the editing too is very important too. Respecting the people who are talking. There is quite a fashion now for things to be cut very quickly, going back and forth, and I think if you do that too much you don’t pay attention to what people are saying as you’re constantly being diverted by another cut or another angle, so I think you have to have an editing style that patience with the characters and maybe that it’s the same both in fiction and documentary.
You were able to obtain a vast amount of footage from the time, was it difficult to get your hands on so much material? Or was it quite accessible to you?
We had a good film archivist in Jim Anderson and he found lots and lots of stuff, and we looked for hours and hours and you gradually catalogue what you’ve got, select it into sequences, so it’s just work, it’s editing. Good fun.
There are some wonderful interviews with people in this. How did they come to be involved? Did you have to place ads up?
Contacts lead to contacts and again we had a good researcher Izzy Charman and she found people and I got a number of contacts to begin with, and one leads to another. We may have put out the odd bit of advertising, but not a huge amount.
You seem to be very well versed in this area, I was wondering if you were learning a lot along the way?
Well yes. The main planks of it you know, but it’s the details you pick up on, the details of people’s memories are absorbing.
Do you think what you’ve learnt from people’s memories will put you in good stead and help you in future projects when crafting a character?
I think they excite you, whatever subject you’ve got to start from the bottom and research it from the bottom, but certainly the optimism that people still have is extraordinary, given what has happened over the years – the destruction of the hopes of ’45 by Thatcher and the people who followed her.
So how do you see contemporary society compared to the Thatcher years?
I think it’s a shifting consciousness, I mean in ’45 there was a sense of, we’ve won the war together, we can win the peace together. That’s decayed really over the succeeding decades, but Thatcher was the change in consciousness, from the common good to individual good and the individual good being, doing the toughest deal and getting one over your neighbour instead of working with your neighbour, that individualism is celebrated now in television programmes like The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den and all this stuff, where you talk about being an entrepreneur and all of that, making money. That was the shift, and I think the state now is that people are very cynical, they see all politicians as arguing over tiny spectrums of ideas, when in fact the big ideas are outside the political debate, the kids know they have no secure future, they fear them. For the majority it’s not a question of finding a job that will lead to a career that will buy you a house and buy you security, that’s not on the agenda. So that leads to cynicism and alienation and it’s a far cry from being your brother’s keeper, or being your sister’s keeper, which is a much more humane way to live.
Have you noticed a quite dramatic change in the past few years, particularly since the Tories regained power?
I think it’s a continuum. The big change was ’79 and I think we’ve been on a continuum ever since. It just get’s worse, it feeds on itself until now where you’ve got a major party now saying “kick the immigrants out” basically. That’s finding a scapegoat. You know, we had mass unemployment in the 30’s and there were no Eastern Europeans here then, no Asians, and no people from the Afro-Caribbean communities. So I think we’re on a continuum from ’79 and it’s all downhill.
How do you see the immediate future? Do you think things may get better or worse?
Who knows? I mean, it could well be that – there is just a chance – the current attacks will galvanise people in to resisting and organising and resisting. There is just a chance. But there is another chance that won’t happen and we shall keep moving to the right and however far to the right the politicians go, there will always be a party to the right of that, so the danger is fascism. I mean, that’s what happened in the last great depression, so that is a real possibility and that’s worrying. I mean history is dynamic isn’t it? There is a possibility of an advance towards good things, but it’s a hell of a struggle to get there.
Going back to the interviews you obtained, how important do you think it is to capture these people now, and have their words on tape for posterity? Because – not to sound too harsh – but we aren’t too far away from losing this generation.
Yes, well we felt that if were going to make a film about these few years then we needed to record them now, and they’re mid to late 80’s, some in their nineties and nobody is around forever, and that is very important to remember.
Sam Watts was my favourite of those you spoke to – he was just fantastic. It’s almost a shame that you’ve met this guy so late on, as he is so inspiring.
Yes, well Sam is an extraordinary man. 88 I think he is now, and from a very poor background. He read the book ‘The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists’ when he was in his 20’s and that made him political. He is a great with extraordinary stories, and the passion still. I think there were more people like that than we think.
So tell us about the decision to make the film entirely in black and white?
Well most of the archive footage is black and white, and to constantly be cutting from black and white to colour and back within the present day interviews just seemed to me very clumsy, and I think monochrome can have a great beauty. It also unifies it, the only colour is right at the end where some of the old archive which was in colour – the celebration – we show in colour. I hope it makes the 40’s contemporary.
And why did you decide to make this a feature film? Was it always the intention to do as a theatrical release, or did you ever think about making it for television?
I thought it would be better as an hour and a half in the cinema, it’s stronger. I mean, I much prefer the cinema to television because television is fragmented – you pause it, you get up and make a cup of tea, the image isn’t as strong – so I’d much rather do it for the cinema. Of course people will eventually see it on a television set.
So what’s next? Anything lined up?
I’m scratching around, maybe doing – if I can find the energy to go around the course again – maybe do one more. I don’t know yet.