It’s hard to believe that this slight, middle-aged man with a kindly smile, talking in a voice just above whisper level, could be the scourge of the British Establishment.
Yet filmmaker Ken Loach has occupied that role for the best part of 25 years, with a series of films (some for TV) strongly critical of social conditions in Britain, and all made from a radical viewpoint.
Loach, now 54, has been relatively quiet during the 1980s--Margaret Thatcher’s era--but this year, he has returned to prominence in spectacular fashion.
His latest movie, “Hidden Agenda,” deals with the shooting of an American civil rights activist visiting strife-torn Belfast as part of a commission hearing allegations of ill-treatment by British security forces. The civil rights lawyer (Brad Dourif) is being driven to meet a mysterious man who has damaging evidence about British activities in Ireland; he and his driver are killed.
A senior British policeman (Brian Cox) flies in to investigate the murders, but his efforts are frustrated by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police force in Northern Ireland. The murders turn out to have been ordered by security forces, but RUC top brass insist that the incident was a justified shooting of suspected terrorists. Meanwhile the mystery man, an ex-British intelligence officer, contacts the lawyer’s fiancee (Frances McDormand), whom he wants to break his story.
The theme of “Hidden Agenda” is hugely controversial in Britain, whose army maintains an armed presence in Northern Ireland in an attempt to protect its status as part of the United Kingdom, and to limit the terrorist activities of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which seeks a united Ireland.
But “Hidden Agenda” was chosen as Britain’s entry at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it eventually won the special jury prize. Around this time, all hell broke loose.
First, lawmaker Ivor Stanbrook, a member of Thatcher’s Conservative Party, was moved to describe the film as “not a British entry, but an IRA entry.” That made big headlines in Britain. “Of course,” says Ken Loach mildly, “he’d never actually seen the film.”
In Cannes, a press conference for “Hidden Agenda” ended in uproar. Alexander Walker, film critic of the London Evening Standard, stood up and launched a blistering attack on the film, casting doubt on the truth of the events depicted.
“Then,” recalls an amused Loach, “when we tried to answer Walker, we were shouted down by a group of (British) journalists. Then they in turn were shouted down by members of the international press.
“One of them accused Walker of representing the most reactionary elements in the British press. As someone said at the time, there’s a lot of competition.”
Finally, a group of journalists from Britain’s tabloid press, not including Walker, formed a deputation to Cannes Festival director Gilles Jacob, demanding that “Hidden Agenda” be withdrawn. “He took great delight in laughing them from the room,” says Loach, his eyes twinkling.
The low-key Loach, who is recounting all this from an editing room above London’s busy Oxford Street, seems an unlikely firebrand. With his gentle delivery and his thoughtful manner he seems more like a benign schoolmaster, in tweed jacket and corduroy pants. “It was really quite a fuss,” he says, understatedly.
But what about the charge that this is a pro-IRA film? Loach draws a distinction between the IRA’s terrorist activities and what he sees as the justness of the Irish republican cause.
“Nothing justifies shootings,” he says, “but in order to understand why there are killings now, one must understand it’s the latest chapter in a long saga of terrorism. In Ireland, the terrorists have been the British over the centuries.”
Loach admits that he and screenwriter Jim Allen, who are longtime collaborators, started the film “from the premise that there will be no peace in Ireland till the British pull out, and the Irish people have to determine their own future.
“In maintaining the border the army and security forces have behaved in a way that is quite unacceptable in what is supposed to be a parliamentary democracy. They have shot people rather than brought them to trial, sanctioned high-level programs of disinformation, treated detainees inhumanely. Many of the normal processes of justice have been abandoned. All this has gone on in a part of the United Kingdom, in our name.”
These are strong allegations, but Loach and Allen have taken their source material from real life. An investigation into the RUC’s alleged “shoot to kill” policy by a senior English policeman called John Stalker was aborted when Stalker was recalled to the mainland. Published work by former British army intelligence officers was the basis for a strand in the plot about disinformation about the IRA and about elected British politicians reluctant to take a hard line against republican groups in Ireland.
True to his documentary-influenced style of filmmaking, Loach wanted “Hidden Agenda” to have a grittily realistic look. He also wanted his actors to feel involved in the Irish problem, and persuaded four of them (McDormand, Dourif, Mai Zettlering and Bernard Bloch) to undertake the work of a human rights commission’s investigating team.
To this end, they met, questioned and took statements from people who in real life said they had been ill-treated by security forces.
“They met about a dozen people altogether,” said Loach. “These were people who’d had their homes wrecked, lost relatives, or been badly injured.
“I thought it would be difficult for the actors if they hadn’t experienced Belfast. Visiting makes quite an impression; the British army on the streets, seeing armed soldiers outside your hotel, being stopped at a roadblock, all the visible signs of an armed political presence.”
Loach had his own difficulties with the film, which largely centered around raising the money (almost $5 million) to make it. “The idea started with David Puttnam when he was studio head at Columbia,” Loach recalls. “He called and said: Do you want to make a film about the Stalker affair?
“But Jim and I didn’t want to re-tell the Stalker story. We felt that everyone in Britain would know it, and that there were other areas of the security forces operation which the Stalker story wouldn’t touch.”
Loach and Allen instead started work on the story that would become “Hidden Agenda.” “We were in the process of writing the script” when Puttnam left Columbia, recalls Loach, “so then we had to find another producer.”
This was not easy, because of the film’s subject matter. “We tried everywhere, and though some of the (British) TV stations were interested, one couldn’t raise the cash and another backed out. In the end, the only one prepared to put himself on the line was John Daly at Hemdale.”
“Hidden Agenda” follows a number of controversial movies made by Hemdale. “Salvador” questioned U.S. foreign policy in that country, and the Oscar-winning “Platoon” painted a bleak picture of the Vietnam War.
“John has been a very supportive producer,” says Loach. “He didn’t want us to back off from the subject at all. And he was responsible for all the finance.”
Over the years, Loach has become accustomed to seeing his projects falter because of the uncompromising nature of their themes. His “Questions of Leadership,” a documentary abut the 1980 British steel strike, was judged too biased for TV and shelved. And “Which Side Are You On?,” a film for the TV arts series “The South Bank Show,” was not shown because of its footage of British bobbies beating up striking miners.
In the 1960s, Loach was part of a group of radical filmmakers working for the BBC. He first achieved prominence through his TV film “Cathy Come Home,” about a single homeless mother whose children are finally taken from her by social workers. It was a national TV event; the subsequent outrage at the heartfelt story helped frame new legislation in Parliament.
Two of his feature films, “Poor Cow” (1968) and “Kes” (1969), were warmly received, as was his brilliant TV series “Days of Hoe,” about the changing political complexion of Britain between World War I and the 1926 general strike.
But Loach has not prospered in the Thatcher era. He agrees it has been hard to remain a radical, dissenting voice. “There was a 10-year period when no producers got in touch,” he says. “Anything I wanted to do, I had to start myself.
“I also ran up colossal debts. Not only was I making documentaries which didn’t get shown, I was trying to get other films set up, and I spent a lot of money just running around.”
Times got so tough that a couple of years back, he was reduced to making beer commercials for TV. The savage irony was that his employers were Saatchi & Saatchi, best known to the general public as the ad agency that helped establish and refine Margaret Thatcher’s image.
“Oddly enough, after I did those commercials, people started taking me seriously in the business again,” says Loach dryly. “They think you’re not some lunatic. If you can do commercials, it shows a certain kind of professionalism.”
That might seem odd for a filmmaker who has just won a major prize at Cannes. But now Loach is concentrating on how “Hidden Agenda” will be received.
Agreeing that it has the same appeal as a superior thriller, he says: “I hope people enjoy it as a story. It’s an entertainment, I hope, as well as a thoughtful piece of work.”
But he resisted a temptation to film “Hidden Agenda” as a thriller. “We decided to tell the story as straight as possible, without souped-up music or fancy camera angles.
“I felt if we used thriller technique, it would invalidate the sense of truth. We might get more people on the edge of their seats, but they might not believe it. I thought it more important for people to say, yes, this could be true.”